NHL Column: 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs


FILE – In this March 31, 2018, file photo, Vegas Golden Knights players celebrate after center William Karlsson (71) scored against the San Jose Sharks during the third period of an NHL hockey game in Las Vegas. The NHL-expansion Golden Knights carry the buzz entering the Western Conference playoffs, which have the potential of resembling nothing from the past. (AP Photo/John Locher, File

They’re finally here! The Stanley Cup Playoffs begin today, marking the beginning of the long summer journey toward sports’ most famous trophy.

There are the favorites, the underdogs, the surprises and the superstars, but regardless of all that, the fun of playoff hockey comes from knowing that anything can happen. Just because your favorite team squeaked in as the final wild card and matches up against the best team in the conference does not mean they are necessarily going to lose. Looking back to last year, the Nashville Predators swept the top seeded Chicago Blackhawks in the playoffs’ opening round, kicking off their run to the Cup Final. Anything can happen.

Over the past 15 years, the winner of the President’s Trophy, awarded to the team that finishes the regular season with the most points, has only twice gone on to win the Stanley Cup. The Detroit Red Wings in 2008 and Chicago Blackhawks in 2013 were the only teams that accomplished this.

The Washington Capitals know this tale too well, having won the President’s Trophy multiple times, including their past two seasons. They have still failed to win the Cup, showing that dominating the regular season means nothing when it comes to the postseason.

The start of the playoffs signifies the beginning of a whole new season where the regular season can be entirely forgotten. Hockey in the playoffs is a completely different game than the one played during the 82-game schedule that leads up to it.

This year, the Pittsburgh Penguins enter looking to become the first three-peat champions since the New York Islanders won four straight from 1980-83. Led by proven winners in Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel, they are as dangerous as any other team they will meet. They are the perfect example of a team that understands how to win during the playoffs. They finished in the middle of the pack during the regular seasons prior to each of their last two Cup runs. Pittsburgh will face their Pennsylvania rivals, the Philadelphia Flyers, who missed the 2017 playoffs.

The Washington Capitals are once again hoping they will have more playoff luck this season after already squandering countless chances at the Cup over the past decade. They won the Metropolitan Division again but are not as deep as they have been lately. Alexander Ovechkin carried them all year, leading the league in goals. He will need to continue to stand far above the other players on the ice for Washington to contend. They will meet the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round. Led by fiery coach John Tortorella, the Blue Jackets played their best hockey in March and April and should threaten the Capitals. Tortorella has led teams on many deep Cup runs.

The Tampa Bay Lightning finished atop the Eastern Conference but struggled defensively down the stretch, barely beating out the Boston Bruins for this spot. Despite their slow finish, they are one of the favorites to win it all with their endless firepower on offense, headlined by Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov. They will need to shutdown Taylor Hall and the New Jersey Devils in the first round if they want to make a run. The Devils finished the season as the hottest team in the league. After receiving the first overall pick in the entry draft last year, New Jersey returns to the playoffs for the first time since 2012.

Boston, meanwhile, settles for the Toronto Maples Leafs. They made a strong run at the Atlantic Division crown but slowed down too much at the end of the year to finish in first place. Nonetheless, Boston has the perfect mix of veterans who have won the Cup before and rookies having breakout seasons. This arrangement might be perfect for going after the championship. But after getting a taste of the postseason last year, the Maple Leafs hope to take the next step this time around and move beyond the first round. They have loads of talent with youngsters like Auston Matthews and William Nylander but may lack the experience and depth to take down Boston.

In the Western Conference, the script has flipped for the Predators, who have transformed from exciting underdogs just one year ago to Cup favorites as the President’s Trophy winners this year. Nashville showed their playoff prowess in their run last year and have returned looking to finish what they started. They may be the most well rounded team in the NHL but are anchored by a backend of P.K Subban and Roman Josi. Nashville also proved to be one of the toughest cities to play in during last season’s run. The bottom seeded Colorado Avalanche will be no easy opponent though, as they are coming fresh off an energizing win in the season’s final game to push them into the tournament. Nathan Mackinnon is tough to smother, and if they cannot keep him off the scoreboard, the Predators will be in trouble.

The Winnipeg Jets are almost as equally deadly as Nashville and will take on the Minnesota Wild in the first round. The Jets finally emerged as a contender this year as Patrik Laine followed his rookie campaign with a sophomore season where he emerged as one of the most prolific goal scorers in the league. They will face the Minnesota Wild, who have struggled to find any playoff success in past years. Without their best defensemen Ryan Suter, who is out with an injury, this will be a extremely difficult matchup for the Wild.

The Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks picked up steam in the second half of the season and are each poised to make noise in the playoffs. While neither are favorites, they are both teams that will be able to compete with anybody over a long series.

The Las Vegas Golden Knights are the biggest story heading into the postseason, winning the Pacific Division as an expansion team in their inaugural season. While they do not have a superstar on their roster, they have a slew of talented players with chips on their shoulders after being dumped for the expansion draft. Fans everywhere will be compelled to see the first ever playoff game in Las Vegas tonight. The Golden Knights will take on the Los Angeles Kings, who feature the game’s most balanced forward in Anze Kopitar.

Dylan Barrett is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus.  He can be reached via email at dylan.barrett@uconn.edu.

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