Nothing beats playoff hockey! Certainly not Olympic hockey. The best players divided up by their country of origin, who even cares about that? Sure, the Olympics have Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid playing on the same team, but the Stanley Cup playoffs have Dwight King and Chris Neil. Nothing can beat that!
For those who will miss the best-on-best format that only the Olympics could offer, at least enjoy that there are a few parallels to be drawn between Olympic hockey and this year’s playoff field.
For example, the Chicago Blackhawks represent those damn Canadians: always a title favorite, and everyone is sick of them. The Washington Capitals are a perfect Russia: an incredible collection of talent that can never put it all together when it counts. The San Jose Sharks are clearly Finland: a lovable collection of characters that is always the bridesmaid. The Edmonton Oilers are a Switzerland-type: they’re new to this whole “being good” thing and no one really knows what to expect from them.
And I know what you’re thinking; no I didn’t forget about them. Obviously the United States is… Columbus.
What? They’re a “sandpaper” team coached by John Tortorella and they’re almost certainly not going to win. It’s a perfect analogy. Even the colors match.
But after the team comparisons, that’s where the similarities stop. Unlike the quick, open-ice Olympic game, the NHL playoffs are a war of attrition. Often times, the most skilled teams don’t advance; the toughest ones do. That’s why your Chris Neils and your Dwight Kings have value over a seven-game series. Their annoying, punchable faces will just gnaw at opponents the longer the playoffs go.
If there’s one constant theme with Stanley Cup-winning teams, it’s that they’re deep, and are usually riding a hot goaltender. While you can’t predict which goalies might go off in a given series, the teams that best match that criteria will populate the top of the odds board. So with less than a week until the playoffs, and almost the entire field set, let’s look at probabilities of each remaining team lifting the Stanley Cup.
Odds to win 2016-17 Stanley Cup
- Washington Capitals: 5/1
- Chicago Blackhawks: 11/2
- Pittsburgh Penguins: 7/1
- Columbus Blue Jackets: 9/1
- San Jose Sharks: 10/1
- New York Rangers: 12/1
- Edmonton Oilers: 14/1
- Minnesota Wild: 16/1
- Montreal Canadiens: 16/1
- Anaheim Ducks: 20/1
- Boston Bruins: 25/1
- Nashville Predators: 25/1
- Calgary Flames: 30/1
- St. Louis Blues: 30/1
- Ottawa Senators: 35/1
- Toronto Maple Leafs: 35/1
- Tampa Bay Lightning: 80/1
- New York Islanders: 150/1
Things have never looked better for those perennially disappointing Capitals. They’ve clinched the Presidents Trophy and a first-round matchup with the East’s weakest playoff team, while the Pittsburgh Penguins — their biggest obstacle in the conference — are going to be without top defenseman Kris Letang for the entire postseason. Whoever emerges from that Pittsburgh-Columbus series is going to be worn down, and a rested Washington should be waiting to pounce in the second round.
But here’s the problem with trying to reason out how Washington’s playoffs will go: all reason goes out the window with this team come April. In eight previous appearances in the Alex Ovechkin era, the Caps have never advanced past the second round, losing to a lower-seeded team six times. So, despite having the best goal differential in hockey again, as well as a potential Vezina- winning goalie in net, the Caps still have the odor of a team you can’t trust.
San Jose had a similar reputation before finally making a run to the Cup finals last year. Now, they’re one of the more proven teams in the West. Obviously, Chicago is the favorite, having won three titles in the last seven seasons, while dominating their potential early-round foes in the Central Division. The Predators, Wild and Blues are a combined 1-6 in the playoffs against this era of the Blackhawks, and none of them should be feeling particularly great about their chances this year.
On the other side of the bracket, the Pacific Division is far less predictable. The Oilers and Flames are the young guns who don’t know any better, while Anaheim and San Jose are loaded with playoff veterans. However, the once dominant Sharks have faced a ton of injuries near the end of the season and are really backing into the playoffs, so anyone of these teams could conceivably make a run to the conference finals. Don’t just automatically side with the “experienced” teams either. They may have made deep runs before, but neither has experience stopping a talent like McDavid in a seven-game series.
As for other surprises, the winner of the Canadiens-Rangers first-round series could possibly make a run to the finals. Montreal doesn’t have a ton of of scoring depth, and the Rangers are weak on defense, but both have goalies who can carry a less-than-stellar team pretty far. But overall, I would be pretty shocked if the Eastern Conference representative wasn’t Pittsburgh or Washington this year.
Photo credit: Michael Miller (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons