Complete Predictions for the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs
I'm about to predict the winners of all eight NHL first-round playoff series, then the winners of the conference semifinals, the conference finals and the final series, the one that will be for Lord Stanley of Preston's silver punch bowl.
Yeah, there is going to be some stuff written here that almost certainly turns out wrong. But maybe not. Maybe I run the table and go 15-0 in these 2016 NHL playoffs.
It could happen. There's a chance.
There are a couple of first-round predictions I feel really confident about. While I've been known to be a jinx to those I really get behind, not even I'm capable of jinxing the teams I really like in the first round.
The rest, though? Not too confident at all, really.
If there is one thing the NHL is known for now, it's parity. It's an "anything can happen" reality that makes the NHL playoffs really fun to watch, especially in that first round. Time and again, we've seen top seeds dumped in the first round.
To me and many others, the first round is the funnest of any in the entire playoffs.
It's fun to see how excited fans are in each building, to have playoff hockey to watch after such a long regular season. It's fun to see the fans all dressed in their team's colors, creating monochromatic optics that look great on TV. And of course, there is nothing like overtime playoff hockey.
Everybody gets on Twitter to predict the OT goal scorers, and some even get T-shirts from ESPN personality John Buccigross in his #bucciovertimechallenge. I even won one once.
There are great questions right now, some of which can't be answered for another two-plus months:
- Can the Presidents' Trophy-winning Washington Capitals shake off their long history of playoff futility and go all the way this time?
- Can the St. Louis Blues, in the league since 1967 but still looking for their first Cup, do the same?
- Will a Stanley Cup "hangover" get the best of the Chicago Blackhawks and prevent them from becoming the first team since Detroit in 1998 to repeat as champs?
- Can the Los Angeles Kings, winners of two of the last four Cups, make it three in five after missing the playoffs last year?
I'm going to attempt to answer them all with my predictions in the following slideshow. If you disagree or anything else is on your mind, let me hear it.
(1) Capitals vs. (4) Flyers: Capitals in 5
Regular season: The Capitals and Flyers split their four matchups, with two of the games needing more than 60 minutes to determine a winner.
Last 10 games: Capitals 4-3-3; Flyers 6-3-1
Why Washington wins: While there will be natural worry among always nervous Caps fans about their lack of anything much to play for in the final weeks, there is simply too much firepower here for the Flyers to handle over a best-of-seven series.
The Caps scored the most goals in the Eastern Conference and allowed the fewest. They have size, speed and skill up front, led by the league's only 50-goal scorer, Alex Ovechkin. They have the likely Vezina Trophy winner in goalie Braden Holtby. They have a superb coach in Barry Trotz.
They're a top-five team on the power play, while the Flyers finished 11th. Washington also was in the top five in penalty-killing, while the Flyers finished 20th.
Special teams are where the difference between the teams will prove most glaring. The Flyers had a very nice second half, and any team with Claude Giroux and Wayne Simmonds up front, as well as exciting rookie Shayne Gostisbehere on the back end, will be tough.
But the Flyers just don't have enough to compete with a very deep and motivated Caps club.
(2) Penguins vs. (3) Rangers: Penguins in 6
Regular season: The Penguins beat the Rangers in three of four meetings, with one game needing to go beyond 60 minutes.
Last 10 games: Penguins 8-2-0; Rangers 6-3-1
Why Penguins will win: Even without star Evgeni Malkin, the Penguins were red-hot down the stretch and enter the playoffs with huge momentum. Malkin, who has missed the last several weeks with an upper-body injury, isn't likely to play to start the series.
The Penguins are playing so well without him, though, that they shouldn't have too much trouble getting past the Rangers. Though New York did have a 100-plus-point year, there was something of an underwhelming tint to its season.
Sidney Crosby was arguably the best player in the league in the second half of the season, finishing third in overall scoring after a bad start.
Marc-Andre Fleury missed the last few games with a concussion, but head coach Mike Sullivan recently indicated to reporters that he is recovering nicely.
If the Rangers can steal a game early in Pittsburgh, all the better for veteran goalie Henrik Lundqvist. He was 22-6-3 at home this season but only 13-15-4 on the road.
One tough thing the Rangers may have to overcome is the loss of captain Ryan McDonagh. The New York Post's Larry Brooks reported that McDonagh has a broken right hand. He's a left-handed shot, though, and many players have played through pain like that in the playoffs. Maybe they'll get an inspirational return from the captain in this series.
The Penguins have really jelled under Sullivan and just seem to have too much going for them right now for the Rangers to overcome.
(1) Panthers vs. (4) Islanders: Panthers in 6
Regular season: The Panthers beat the Islanders in two of three meetings, with one game needing to go beyond 60 minutes.
Last 10 games: Panthers 7-3-0; Islanders 6-3-1
Why Panthers will win: It's going to be exciting in South Florida again, with the Panthers making the playoffs for only the second time since 1999-2000.
They have one of the game's most compelling players in 44-year-old Jaromir Jagr, along with some very good young players such as Aaron Ekblad, Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau. Plus, they have an experienced goalie in Roberto Luongo.
The Islanders allowed more shots (30.4 per game) than they registered (29.4) this season. They also lost forward Anders Lee to a fractured leg in the final week, which hurts an already hit-or-miss offense.
The Islanders will be led, as ever, by captain John Tavares. But he suffered through a rather pedestrian season by his standards (70 points in 78 games). It just doesn't seem like the Isles wanted it badly enough this year, while the Panthers do—at least enough to get to the next round.
(2) Lightning vs. (3) Red Wings: Red Wings in 6
Regular season: The teams split their four meetings.
Last 10 games: Lightning 5-5-0; Red Wings 5-5-0
Why the Red Wings win: How fortunate are the Detroit Red Wings? First off, they backed into the playoffs, getting in despite losing their final two games and having played mediocre hockey for quite a while now.
The Boston Bruins' total collapse rescued them from missing the playoffs for the first time in 25 seasons.
Now, they get to play a totally injury-ravaged Lightning team missing its best offensive player in Steven Stamkos (blood clot) and one of its top two defensive players in Anton Stralman (fractured leg).
While I want to buy in to the us-against-the-world underdog mentality Lightning coach Jon Cooper is sure to preach before Game 1, you just can't win for long in this league without two of your best players.
You just wonder how the Lightning can win, if not for goalie Ben Bishop standing on his head every night. Bishop is better than either of Detroit's goalies, but the Red Wings have a deep forward group and pretty good offensive support from the back end.
Bishop is capable of stealing a series, but I say the Wings' luck continues for one more series.
(1) Stars vs. (4) Wild: Stars in 5
Regular season: Dallas won four of the five meetings, but three needed to go beyond 60 minutes.
Last 10 games: Dallas 8-2-0; Wild 5-5-0
Why Stars win: Though Minnesota lost its final five games, it backed in to the playoffs anyway. The Wild can be a very dangerous club, but they just don't seem to have the internal commitment needed to win on a consistent basis.
The Stars had a great year, and even better, they played well down the stretch without top center Tyler Seguin, who has been out with an Achilles injury. According to the Dallas Morning News' Mike Heika, Seguin will resume practice Monday, marking the first time since his injury that he can participate in on-ice activities.
The Stars franchise once resided in Minnesota, when it was known as the North Stars, so this should be a fun, lively series.
Dallas was clearly the better team head-to-head in the regular season, and that should continue.
Special teams should be the main factor in the series. Dallas was in the top five on the power play and 10th overall on the PK. Minnesota was 15th on the PP and 27th on the PK. Minnesota just doesn't have the kind of firepower up front that Dallas can put out there most every shift.
(2) Blues vs. (3) Blackhawks: Blues in 7
Regular season: The Blues won three of five meetings, with three games needing to go beyond 60 minutes.
Last 10 games: Blues 8-2-0; Blackhawks 5-2-3
Why the Blues win: St. Louis fans probably were reeling after Saturday's results, which meant the Blues would have to face the defending champion Blackhawks again. Despite excellent regular seasons, St. Louis has lost in the first round in the past three years, including to Chicago two years ago.
But something tells me this is the year when the Blues finally get over on the Blackhawks.
Chicago will be without top defenseman Duncan Keith for the first game (serving the last game of a six-game suspension). While St. Louis had some late-season injuries, including to captain David Backes, it should be reasonably healthy for Game 1.
Chicago has the likely Hart Trophy winner in Patrick Kane, along with the kind of swagger that comes from winning the Stanley Cup three times since 2009.
But the Blues were a very resilient team in the regular season. That gives them more internal toughness than they've had in recent years. Their defensive system is better, and they have just enough firepower up front to outlast Chicago in what should be a great series.
(1) Ducks vs. (4) Predators: Ducks in 6
Regular season: Nashville won two of three meetings.
Last 10 games: Ducks 6-2-2; Predators 5-4-1
Why the Ducks win: The Ducks have been playing some great hockey since around Christmas, overcoming a horrible start to win the Pacific Division on the final day of the regular season. They had to travel across the country to lock up the division against the Capitals after facing Colorado a day earlier.
The Predators had a good season and clearly benefited from the big trade with Columbus right before the All-Star break, getting Ryan Johansen in exchange for Seth Jones.
But is there enough offense beyond him and Filip Forsberg? It still seems like the Preds have to work too hard to score goals and have to rely too much on goalie Pekka Rinne and a solid defense.
The Ducks have proven veterans in Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf, and a strong tandem in goal with John Gibson and Frederik Andersen. This will be a close series, but the Ducks should prevail.
(2) Kings vs. (3) Sharks: Kings in 6
Regular season: The Sharks won three of five meetings, with one game going beyond 60 minutes.
Last 10 games: Kings 4-5-1; Sharks 5-5-0
Why the Kings win: Just whom the San Jose Sharks did not want to face.
Sure, they'll say all the right things. It's a new year, the past doesn't matter, etc. But it has to be in the back of veteran Sharks players' minds that this is the team that has eliminated them the previous two times they've made the postseason.
Both series went to seven games, including a 2014 first-round series in which the Sharks blew a 3-0 lead.
On the surface, not much has changed with the two teams.
While the Sharks do have a new coach in Pete DeBoer, they still have the same veteran core led by Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski, Brent Burns and Logan Couture. The Kings still have leaders such as Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick.
The Kings will have home-ice advantage, and they are very tough at Staples Center (26-12-3). The Sharks, though, were 28-10-3 on the road.
You want to believe the Sharks have what it takes to get some revenge on L.A., but those two Stanley Cup rings in the last four years—along with the Sharks' well-documented history of playoff failure—tell you otherwise.
2nd Round: (1) Capitals vs. (2) Penguins; Capitals in 7
Regular season: Pittsburgh won three of five meetings, with one game going beyond 60 minutes.
Why the Capitals win: Alex Ovechkin lost his only previous playoff series against Sidney Crosby and the Penguins, but that changes this year. It should be a great series, possibly the best of the playoffs.
The Penguins might get Malkin back by this series, if not sooner. The Pens will have been on a great roll by the start of this series. The Caps' history of playoff futility is well known. So why pick them?
Because they've got the better team. Holtby is going to be the difference in a close, long series. Holtby is still young but has some proven playoff history. He enters the playoffs with a career .936 save percentage and 1.92 goals-against average in the postseason.
Holtby is 5-7-1 in his career against the Penguins. He'll find a way to win four out of seven, however, and Ovechkin will finally get some measure of revenge against career nemesis Crosby.
2nd Round: (1) Panthers vs. (3) Red Wings; Panthers in 6
Regular season: The teams split four meetings, with one game going beyond 60 minutes.
Why the Panthers win: The Red Wings will manage to get by one Florida team, but not two. Luongo will be the difference. Yeah, the 37-year-old's getting on up there in years, but he has taken a team to a Stanley Cup Final before (2011 with Vancouver).
Meanwhile, Petr Mrazek and Jimmy Howard were both shaky down the stretch. Before the All-Star break, Mrazek's goals-against average was 2.03, in 33 games played. After the break, in 21 games, it was 2.86. His GAA slipped from .932 to .899 in the same span.
.The Red Wings have more depth up front than Florida, but in a tough playoff series, I like Florida to continue its surprising season.
How much fun will it be seeing Jagr vs. Pavel Datsyuk too? As Datsyuk told the Detroit Free Press' Mitch Albom over the weekend, this is likely to be his final year in the NHL. Jagr wants to keep playing forever, per Sportsnet's Kristina Rutherford.
2nd Round: (1) Stars vs. (2) Blues; Blues in 6
Regular season: The Blues won four of five meetings, though three needed to go beyond 60 minutes.
Why the Blues win: The Stars may have won the Western Conference title, but the Blues did expose their soft underbelly in the regular season. The Stars' puck-possession numbers in the regular season were probably better than you thought. They finished with the third-best Corsi percentage in the league at 52.6.
But they still were prone to giving up goals in bunches. The Blues allowed 201 goals compared to the Stars' 230.
St. Louis may not have a Jamie Benn or Tyler Seguin up front, but it does have a pretty darn good scorer in Vladimir Tarasenko and lots of guys who can chip in.
Paul Stastny will be a key in this series. The former Colorado center had a very good final third of the season and will allow the Blues to match up better against a Stars team with Seguin and Jason Spezza in the middle.
Seguin, though, may still be rusty by the start of this series. An Achilles injury is not anything minor. It all adds up to the Blues' having a slight advantage in what should be a good series.
2nd Round: (1) Ducks vs. (2) Kings; Kings in 7
Regular season: The Ducks won three of five meetings.
Why the Kings win: This will be the series everyone stays up late to see.
These teams hate each other, with most every game in the regular season having a WWE feel to it at some point. How fun will it be to see Perry and Milan Lucic go at it or Dustin Brown trade body checks with Ryan Getzlaf?
The Ducks will have home-ice advantage by virtue of a win in the last regular-season game of the year Sunday. But as the Kings have shown in the past, the Honda Center does not intimidate them much.
Anaheim's 2013-14 season ended at home in a second-round Game 7 loss to the Kings. This Ducks team will be very hungry not to let that happen again, but the Kings have won two Stanley Cups in the last four years for a reason.
Anaheim still doesn't have anyone as good as Kopitar or Doughty, and Jonathan Quick is money the later a series goes. This series could be a classic, but in the end, the Kings win again by a nose.
Eastern Conference Final: (1) Capitals vs. (1) Panthers; Capitals in 6
Regular season: The Panthers won two of three meetings, with Washington's one win needing to go beyond 60 minutes.
Why the Capitals win: This will finally be the end of the line to an otherwise storybook season for the Panthers.
Can Jagr handle the playoff grind to this point? We all love him, but recent history suggests it will be tough. Entering this postseason, Jagr has only one goal in his last 33 playoff games (with Boston and Philadelphia). Jagr played a bigger part in Florida's success this season than with the Bruins and Flyers, leading the team with 66 points in 79 games.
It would be wonderful to see him keep putting up points, but it's going to be too tough against a good Caps defense with Holtby in net.
For the Capitals, it will be their second Eastern Conference title. The other came in 1998, when they were then swept in the Stanley Cup Final against Detroit.
Western Conference Final: (2) Blues vs. (2) Kings; Kings in 7
Regular season: The Blues won two of three meetings but needed to go beyond 60 minutes both times to do it.
Why the Kings win: The Blues lost in the playoffs to the Kings in 2012 (second round) and 2013 (first round). This time, it will happen in the third round.
You really want to believe the Blues can climb to the highest mountain for the first time in franchise history. But the problem is they still don't have a Jonathan Quick in goal or an Anze Kopitar up the middle.
The Kings have a reputation for playing defense-first hockey, and they are certainly no slouches there, allowing only 195 goals in the regular season. But they scored 225 too, one more than the Blues. Granted, the Blues had some key injuries, but so did the Kings, with Marian Gaborik among them.
The Kings had five guys with 50-plus points, while the Blues had only two.
That little extra offensive depth, along with Quick in goal, gives the Kings the slight edge over St. Louis again.
Stanley Cup Final: (1) Capitals vs. (2) Kings; Kings in 7
Regular season: The teams split their two meetings, but the Kings needed overtime to beat the Caps in the last matchup at Staples Center on March 9.
Why the Kings win: Quick knows what it's like to win it all. He's done it twice, with teams that arguably weren't as good as this one. The goalie of the Kings seems to get better the more he plays, and by this point, he'll have played a lot.
The Kings quietly exceeded 100 points on the season. They have top talent at the three places you need it most: in goal (Quick), at No. 1 center (Kopitar) and at No. 1 defense (Doughty). Head coach Darryl Sutter gets his teams to play an even more unselfish defensive system in the postseason.
The Kings were the top puck-possession team (56.4 Corsi percentage) in the league during the regular season, while the Capitals finished 14th in that category (51.0 percent).
That edge in puck possession will come to matter in a seven-game series for all the marbles.
Advanced statistics courtesy of Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com.