NHL Postseason Predictions: Best- and Worst-Case Scenario for Every Playoff Team
The margin between the unfettered joy of winning the Stanley Cup and the pain of losing in the first round can be razor-thin.
Go back to the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs. In the first round, the Boston Bruins and the Montreal Canadiens squared off in classic series between the two rivals.
After the Bruins lost the first two games at home, it seemed the Canadiens would cruise to an easy victory. However, the Bruins responded with two road wins of their own.
The series went the distance, and it was tied in the third period of the seventh game before Chris Kelly gave the Bruins a late lead in front of their adoring home fans. Just as the Bruins were about to celebrate, P.K. Subban blasted home a power-play goal to send the game into overtime.
The series could have gone either way, but when Nathan Horton pumped home the game-winner, the Bruins jumped with joy and advanced.
They ended up winning the Stanley Cup. They could have been sent home in the first round. The difference between the Bruins and the Canadiens was slight, and it could have been the Habs raising the cup if they had gotten a late break in the first round.
With that scenario as the backdrop, here's the best-case and worst-case scenario for each team in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
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Best Case: The Penguins are the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference and are the best, most explosive team on that side of the draw.
If they get Sidney Crosby (broken jaw) back early in the playoffs and the offense is on track early on in the postseason, there is no reason the Penguins can't continue their stellar play.
In the best case, the Penguins cruise through the Eastern Conference playoffs and meet a team like the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Final. They will have a solid chance to lift the Stanley Cup.
Worst Case: There is a huge difference between the Penguins and the rest of the competition in the Eastern Conference.
The Penguins are also a much better team this year than they were a year ago when they lost in the first round to the Philadelphia Flyers.
The Penguins are not going to lose in the first round. If the Penguins lose a bit of their mojo during the playoffs, a team like the Boston Bruins could push them in the second round, and the red-hot Washington Capitals could beat them in the Eastern Conference Final.
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Best Case: The Canadiens struggled down the stretch during the regular season as their goaltending became a serious issue. Nevertheless, they managed to hold up their end and win the Northeast Division title and the second seed.
In the best case, Carey Price finds his game and performs credibly in the postseason. If he does, the Canadiens should cruise by Ottawa in the first round and could survive a second-round series.
However, they don't appear to have the talent to match up with the Pittsburgh Penguins and will not get past the Eastern Conference Final.
Worst Case: Price was embarrassing himself with his performance at the end of the season. If he can't perform adequately, head coach Michel Therrien may have to go with backup Peter Budaj.
Even with substandard play in the net, the Canadiens could outlast the goal-hungry Ottawa Senators, but they could get dumped easily in the second round.
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Best Case: Don't sell the Washington Capitals short. After a miserable start, they are probably the second-best team in the Eastern Conference behind the Penguins.
Alex Ovechkin (league-leading 32 goals) is on fire and filling the back of the net. The defense is large, mobile and hostile. Braden Holtby is capable of playing the role of shutdown goaltender.
Don't be surprised if the Caps cruise through their first two rounds and push the Penguins to the limit in the Eastern Conference Final. However, if the Penguins have Sidney Crosby back, he won't let Ovechkin get the best of him, and that's where the Caps will be stopped.
Worst Case: The Caps have to play their game with confidence. However, they have a tough first-round matchup with the New York Rangers, who are edgy and opportunistic.
If the Rangers can steal a game or two in Washington, it could shake the Caps, and they could be vulnerable to a first-round upset.
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Best Case: The Boston Bruins started the season with a 17-3-3 run. That seems like a long time ago. However, if the Bruins can recapture the form they had early in the season, they could go on a long playoff run.
The Bruins may have gotten a break with their first-round matchup since they have dominated the Toronto Maple Leafs in recent matchups, winning nine of the last 10 games. If they can shake off their late-season malaise and cruise past the Leafs, the Bruins could make it to the Eastern Conference Final if one of the other top four teams suffers a first-round upset.
The Bruins want to avoid playing Pittsburgh as long as possible since they dropped all three games in the season series. The Bruins played like they knew the Penguins were the better team.
Worst Case: The Bruins are probably not going to lose to the Maple Leafs. Still, Toronto could cause problems for them because the Leafs can put the puck in the net and have become a physical team.
If the Bruins need six or seven games to dispose of Toronto, they may not regain their edge. If form holds in the East, they could play the Penguins in the second round. That would almost certainly be the end of their season.
Toronto Maple Leafs
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Best Case: The Toronto Maple Leafs should go into the playoffs feeling good about themselves. They are back in the postseason for the first time since 2004.
If the Maple Leafs bring a clear-headed approach into the playoffs, they could give the Boston Bruins all they could handle. It's difficult to see them beating the Bruins, considering the Bruins have won nine of the last 10 games between the two teams.
Phil Kessel needs to break through against his old team, and goalie James Reimer must hold his own against Boston goalie Tuukka Rask.
In the best case, the Maple Leafs push this series to seven games before losing.
Worst Case: The Bruins are in the Maple Leafs' heads. Even a slumping Boston team seems to have a big edge on Toronto. The biggest advantage is in goal. Rask has the ability to shut down the Leafs, and if the Bruins can get early leads, they can dump the Leafs in four or five games.
New York Rangers
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Best Case: The Rangers were one of the NHL's most disappointing regular-season teams, and they could easily have missed the playoffs if they had not rallied to win seven of their last 10 games. However, now that they have made it, they have every chance to get well.
Under the best of circumstances, they have the edge and grit to get by the Capitals in the first round. Henrik Lundqvist is the defending Vezina Trophy winner and is capable of stealing the series.
A year ago, the Los Angeles Kings rose from eighth place in the Western Conference to become Stanley Cup champions. The Rangers have the same kind of persona to perhaps make a great run in the East.
They may not have the scoring power to do it, but players like Ryan Callahan and Derek Stepan will never give up. They could push the Pittsburgh Penguins hard, and if any team has a chance to upset them, it could be the Rangers.
Worst Case: The Rangers have been dogged by a lack of scoring and inconsistency. In the last couple of weeks, they dropped winnable games to the Philadelphia Flyers and the Florida Panthers. If they can't beat those teams, how are they going to survive against Washington?
In the worst case, the Rangers lose to the Caps in five or six games.
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Best Case: The Senators are not the most talented team in the playoffs, but don't think for a second that they don't belong. No team playing postseason hockey has scored fewer goals than the Senators. That may seem like a liability, but it just gives head coach Paul MacLean a sure road map to follow.
His team must play strong defensive hockey, and goaltenders Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner must continue to shut down opponents.
If the Senators can score an early goal or two, they can steal games and perhaps take their first-round series with the Montreal Canadiens. Montreal has much more scoring talent, but the Canadiens have been betrayed by poor goaltending in recent weeks.
If the Sens can manage a monumental upset against the Canadiens, they could play with the absence of expectations against the top-seeded Penguins. However, they won't win more than a game against Pittsburgh, even under the best of circumstances.
Worst Case: The Senators have gotten a huge lift from the return of Erik Karlsson. He appears to be fully recovered from the partial Achilles tear he suffered earlier this season. However, Karlsson may not have enough offensive support from his teammates.
If the Senators are forced to play come-from-behind hockey, they are almost certainly doomed since they don't have the firepower to win that kind of game.
New York Islanders
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Best Case: The Islanders should be thrilled to be in the playoffs. They were not expected to do anything but bring up the rear in the Atlantic Division, but they finished ahead of the Philadelphia Flyers and the New Jersey Devils and made the playoffs.
The Islanders are led by John Tavares, who has become a legitimate NHL superstar. He can create his own plays and set up his teammates. He also has great intangible characteristics.
As inspiring as the Islanders' story is, they are up against one of the most explosive teams in hockey.
The Pittsburgh Penguins are also one of the most inspired, after getting bounced out of the playoffs in humiliating fashion by the Flyers last year. Even if Sidney Crosby remains sidelined with his broken jaw, the Pens are not going to lose this series. If the Islanders can push it to six games, they should feel very good about themselves.
Worst Case: The Islanders could get overwhelmed in their first playoff appearance since 2007. If the Penguins have Crosby, and they start out by playing sharp hockey, this could be a four-game sweep.
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Best Case: The Blackhawks have enjoyed a stellar season as they got off to a record start and rolled to the Presidents' Trophy. They play a relentless puck possession game that could bring them their second Stanley Cup in the last four seasons.
The Blackhawks simply want to play hockey. If they can stay out of the penalty box and avoid stupid mistakes, they should easily get by Minnesota in the first round. However, the Blackhawks will likely get pushed hard in every round that follows.
The Blackhawks certainly have the talent to survive the gauntlet that is the Western Conference, but it will take something out of them. They will have to be at their best to beat a team like the Penguins in the Stanley Cup Final. It's certainly possible, but it will be a seven-game struggle.
Worst Case: The Blackhawks may have to take on the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings in the second round. If they do, the Kings are not going to allow the Blackhawks to walk past them.
The Kings have great goaltending and timely scoring. They have the ability to beat the Hawks, and if Chicago has any problems with its goaltending, it could lose in the second round.
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Best Case: The Ducks have enjoyed a stellar year, rising from 14th in the Western Conference to second place. Head coach Bruce Boudreau has a big, strong and talented roster that can assert itself.
This is a team that can play physical hockey with anyone in the West, and it also has the goaltending and clutch goal scoring to survive and advance. They could push the Chicago Blackhawks to the limit and possibly beat them in a seven-game series. The Ducks beat the Blackhawks in all three of their meetings this season.
Under the best of circumstances, the Ducks will outlast the competition and get to the Stanley Cup Final for the third time in team history. The Ducks have one Stanley Cup to their credit, but it might be very difficult for them to get past an inspired Pittsburgh Penguins team.
Worst Case: The Ducks have a challenging first-round matchup. They have to play the red-hot Detroit Red Wings, who won four straight games over the final week of the season to earn a playoff spot. The Red Wings also beat the Ducks in two of three games, and they could spring the upset in this series.
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Best Case: The Canucks are a mature team that has seen it all and done it all in the playoffs—with the exception of winning the Stanley Cup. However, they have been steeled by their experience and are unlikely to be thrown off their game.
So, the Canucks can play within themselves and not try to do too much. They have an excellent chance of getting past the first round against the San Jose Sharks.
A second-round series with the Anaheim Ducks should be tight, but they could find a way to survive and advance. A classic Western Conference Final with the Blackhawks could be as good as it gets when it comes to postseason entertainment.
While the Blackhawks would be favored, it's not inconceivable that the Canucks could pull off the upset. A determined Canucks team would certainly have a chance in the Finals, even if they did have to play the explosive Penguins.
Worst Case: The Canucks are facing a desperate San Jose Sharks team. The window of opportunity may be closing on the Sharks, and they could play their best game against the Canucks. If Vancouver is not at its best, and the Sharks get off to an early lead, the Canucks could lose in the first round for the second year in a row.
That would not be good for head coach Alain Vigneault's long-term employment.
St. Louis Blues
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Best Case: The Blues became a big-time factor last year, rising to second place in the Western Conference and winning a first-round playoff matchup. They seemed like a possible contender for the Presidents' Trophy at the start of the season.
The Blues have flashed their talent this year, but they have not played with consistency. They go into the playoffs with some momentum but are going to get challenged hard and pushed by the Los Angeles Kings, the team that eliminated them last season.
The Kings have more firepower and will be a difficult matchup once again, but if the Blues survive, their confidence level should be sky-high.
However, when the Blues have to play the top-ranked Blackhawks, it will almost certainly mean the end of their playoff run. They don't have the consistent scoring to match up with the Blackhawks.
Worst Case: The Blues are going to have their hands filled with the Los Angeles Kings. They could struggle to win more than a game or two in the series. A first-round loss to the Kings seems quite likely.
Los Angeles Kings
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Best Case: The Kings roared to the Stanley Cup last year from the No. 8 seed in the West, and they did it in remarkable fashion. They won the first three games of each of the four series they played and were never seriously challenged on the way to winning their first Stanley Cup.
That's certainly a best-case scenario. The Kings won't be sneaking up on anybody this year.
They are loaded with talent and will face every opponent's best effort. The Kings have goaltending with Jonathan Quick and a solid attack. They could be good enough to repeat their success, but it would likely involve one or two seven-game series, and they will likely face quite a bit of adversity along the way.
Worst Case: The Kings may have an excellent mindset as the playoffs get underway. They can think about last year's success and visualize the same thing happening again. However, what if they lose the opening game of their series against the Blues or split the first two games?
How will they react when they face adversity?
They are facing a talented, hungry team. The Kings could lose in the first round. That's what happened to each of the last two defending Stanley Cup champions.
San Jose Sharks
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Best Case: The Sharks get one more opportunity to show that they are the top dogs in the Western Conference. It seems quite unlikely because the Sharks have never been able to do that in the past and have lacked consistency this season. They get a real chance again this year against the Vancouver Canucks, a team that has plenty of its own scars.
The best case for the Sharks would be to take on a Canucks team that lacks focus and sharpness and come out with the upset. Could they push the Blackhawks in the second round? Perhaps, but it seems unlikely that they could beat them.
Worst Case: The Canucks are still a tough opponent. If they can put past failures behind them and play their best game, they will dispose of the Sharks without any problem.
That means that the rebuilding process will likely begin in the offseason for general manager Doug Wilson.
Detroit Red Wings
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Best Case: The Red Wings are breathing a huge sigh of relief. They very easily could have been shunted aside and forced to watch the Stanley Cup playoffs from the sidelines if they had not won four straight games in the final week of the season.
Head coach Mike Babcock saw his team play its best hockey of the season. They get to take on the Anaheim Ducks, a team that was much more consistent than the Red Wings. However, Detroit won two of three games against Anaheim this season.
Detroit will not be intimidated and could find a way to outlast the Ducks. However, they won't get past their longtime rival, the Chicago Blackhawks, if the two teams meet in the second round.
Worst Case: The Red Wings may have some momentum as the playoffs begin, but they could have little left in the tank. The Ducks have been a solid team this year and have home-ice advantage. They could easily dispose of the Red Wings in six games.
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Best Case: At their best, the Minnesota Wild play fast-paced and exciting hockey. They are dramatically better than they were in previous years as stars like Zach Parise and Ryan Suter have given them more offense.
The Wild limped home and took the eighth seed with a win against Colorado in the regular-season finale. Had they lost that game and missed out on the postseason, head coach Mike Yeo almost certainly would be on his way out.
Now they get to take on hockey's best team in the Blackhawks. In a best-case scenario, the Wild will play close games against Chicago, and they could win one or two. But that's it. They may make the first-round matchup respectable, but there's little chance to win.
Worst Case: The Wild lose their discipline and give the Blackhawks numerous man-advantage opportunities. Chicago will take advantage of them and bounce the Wild in four straight games.