I love the NHL but honestly don't watch much hockey during the regular season. But I would argue that the Stanley Cup playoffs are the best postseason of any major American sport, and the pucks drops on them starting Wednesday.
Certainly the top storyline has to involve the Chicago Blackhawks, the team of the decade. Chicago has won three Stanley Cups in the past six seasons but has yet to repeat. The last team to go back-to-back was the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 & '98. These Hawks don't look as good as last year's club, but if any team knows how to flip a switch, it's this one. Patrick Kane finished with an NHL-high and career-best 106 points to become the first American-born player to win the Art Ross Trophy as top scorer. Kane, who had 27 multipoint games, has to be the NHL MVP, which will be announced later this summer. And the Hawks should have the Calder Trophy winner as Rookie of the Year in Kane's linemate Artemi Panarin, who led all rookies with 77 points. The last Hawk to win that award? Kane in 2007-08.
Chicago is +450 at Bovada to win the Western Conference and +750 to win the Cup. The Hawks open at St. Louis on Wednesday night. A reminder that Chicago will be without top defenseman Duncan Keith, the reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner as playoff MVP, for that game as he finishes a suspension. The Hawks and Blues are both -110 on the series line.
St. Louis will get back captain David Backes after he missed the final week or so with an injury. The Blues won three of the five regular-season meetings, with three of the five games decided after regulation. The Blues took a 2-0 lead in the first round of the playoffs two years ago against Chicago and then proceeded to lose the next four games. This franchise hasn't won a playoff series since the 2011-12 season, and I highly doubt Coach Ken Hitchcock is brought back if it happens again.
The other main story is that of the Presidents' Cup-winning Washington Capitals. Alex Ovechkin won yet another Rocket Richard Trophy as the NHL's top goal-scorer with 50. It's the fourth straight season and sixth time overall he has done that. But Ovechkin's teams have flamed out in the postseason, failing to reach the conference finals with him. The Capitals have not played past the second round since they reached the Stanley Cup Finals in 1998.
The Caps are +400 favorites to win the Cup and +150 to win the East. It's actually pretty rare for a team to win the Presidents' Trophy and Stanley Cup in the same season, doing so just eight times. Chicago was the last in 2012-13. Washington opens against Philadelphia, a team I didn't think would make the playoffs and which has a negative goals differential (minus-4). Washington is -265 on the series line with Philadelphia at +225. The teams split four regular-season meetings.
Probably the marquee playoff matchup is Pittsburgh against the New York Rangers. The Pens won three of the four meetings and are -155 series favorites. Back in 2014, the Penguins won Game 4 of the conference semifinals against the Blueshirts at Madison Square Garden to take a commanding 3-1 series lead. However, the Rangers won the next three and also ousted Pittsburgh last year in five games.
Both teams have injury questions. New York captain Ryan McDonagh is dealing with an upper-body injury, reportedly a broken hand, and won't start Game 1. It's not clear if he will play at all. Fellow defenseman Dan Girardi is questionable, as is center Eric Staal, who was acquired from the Carolina Hurricanes in a trade on Feb. 28.
Pittsburgh remains without Evgeni Malkin, who has been sidelined since March 11 due to a suspected wrist/hand injury. He's not likely to play in the opener at least. Who will be in net for the Pens? Marc-Andre Fleury hasn't played since March 31 due to a concussion but was at practice on Monday. Youngster Matt Murray was great in Fleury's place but he was injured on Saturday -- a possible concussion -- and being called day-to-day. Why was he playing in a meaningless game?
The other significant injury to watch around the league is to the Stars' Tyler Seguin. He has been out since March 17 with an Achilles injury but was at practice on Monday. Coach Lindy Ruff wouldn't say if Seguin could play in Game 1 against Minnesota on Thursday. Seguin had 33 goals and 40 assists in 72 games for the NHL's highest-scoring team. The Stars probably don't need him to beat Minnesota, which enters the playoffs on a five-game losing streak. Dallas, the West's top seed, is -175 on the series line.
My Western Conference picks to advance are: Dallas, Chicago, Los Angeles (over San Jose) and Anaheim (over Nashville), so chalk there. In the East: Washington, NY Rangers, NY Islanders (over Florida) and Detroit (over Steven Stamkos-less Tampa Bay).
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Read more articles by Alan Matthews
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