The 2015-2016 regular season has come to a close. With over 1200 games played the field of 30 has been winnowed down to 16, none of which hail from Canada, something that hasn’t happened in 45 years. Despite its lack of Northern exposure, the 2016 playoffs look to be as exciting and unpredictable as ever. The number of wins during the regular season are irrelevant. The points totals are history. None of that matters. It’s all about who can win now. With that in mind let’s take a quick look at the matchups for this year’s first round.
Beginning in the Eastern conference we have this year’s President’s Trophy winners, the Washington Capitals, going up against wild card Philadelphia Flyers. While the Capitals are pretty much accepted as the best team in the league this year that in no way means they’ll glide past the Flyers who surged at season’s end to nab a playoff spot. Expect a bruising match-up with the Capitals coming out on top but perhaps a bit more shaken and tired than expected.
The Florida Panthers set a franchise record for points this year and hope for a deep run in the playoffs. They’re up against the wild card Islanders who have reached the playoffs for the third time in four years. With Nick Bjugstad surging at the end of the season the Panthers seemed poised for the win though Islander defenseman Travis Hamonic’s return from injury could provide a much-needed boost for the team from Brooklyn.
In what may be the most interesting and thrilling match-up of the Eastern Conference, the Pittsburgh Penguins face off against the New York Rangers. Sound familiar? It should because the Rangers have beaten the Penguins 7 out of their last 8 post-season meetings and ousted them each of the last two years. On the Pittsburgh side, expect big things from a resurgent Sidney Crosby who helped fuel the team’s winning streak at the end of the season. The Rangers, on the other hand, are stacked but how much can they expect out of 34 year-old Henrik Lundqvist?
Out of the Atlantic we have the Detroit Red Wings up against the Tampa Bay Lightning. With some injuries hampering their line-up at the end of the regular season, the Lightning seem a little banged up. While they may be favored it wouldn’t surprise anyone that the Red Wings are hard to beat in their 25th straight playoff appearance.
In the Western Conference we start with the Dallas Stars against the Minnesota Wild. The Stars won both the Central Division and the Western Conference for a reason. They can score. After leading the league with 267 goals in the regular season the Stars seem poised to push deep into the playoffs with their first top seed in 12 years. The Wild, on the other hand, have the worst record in the league for a playoff team plus they may have lost forwards Zach Parise and Thomas Vanek for the series. Expect a big win by Dallas.
The Anaheim Ducks face off against the Nashville Predators. The Ducks took the Pacific with a record of 46-25-11 while the Predators went 41-27-14 to clinch the first wild-card spot. The Ducks are expected to play well after leading the league in both power play and penalty kill but the Predators are reaching the playoffs for the 9th time in 12 years. Anaheim goalie, John Gibson, might be the determining factor in this series.
Long time division rivals, St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks, meet in the playoffs once again for what will surely be the most bombastic series in the Western Conference. While the Blues took 3 of their 5 regular season meetings that’s hardly enough to call for an easy win. The Blues enter the off-season with momentum and dazzling displays from their two goalies, Brian Elliot and Jake Allen, but will it be enough to stop the defending Stanley Cup champions? Look for Blackhawk netminder, Corey Crawford, to make a big difference in the outcome of this series.
Finally we come to the Pacific where second place finishers, the LA Kings, meet up with their third place rivals, the San Jose Sharks. The Sharks topped the Kings 3-1-1 in regular season play but the Kings are always better in the playoffs and look to nab that third Stanley Cup in 5 seasons.
No matter which conference or what division, the 2016 lineups look amazing. While who wins what is up in the air, one thing that can be counted on is another heart pounding post-season.