2017 NHL Playoff Preview
The biggest story throughout the 2016-17 NHL season has been the dominance of some of the younger players in the game.
These young stars have lifted teams to contenders and are only starting their careers yet they are becoming key members to the league and to their teams.
Two teams that will make their way to the playoffs this year have young stars to thank for the end of some long droughts.
In 2004 the Toronto Maple Leafs made the playoffs in one of their last consistent appearances in the postseason.
They made the playoffs again in 2013 but were eliminated after an epic Game 7 collapse against Boston.
Although it was still an appearance it was a big surprise and nobody expected them to continue to fight for the playoffs into the next few years.
It was a brief blip in what has been a rough time for the Leafs who never really committed to their rebuild until a few years ago.
That is when they hired Mike Babcock and focused on adding young talent to the team including a generational player in Auston Matthews last year.
What nobody thought was that they would be a playoff team this soon but the young stars on the teams like Matthews and Mitch Marner helped them get back to the playoffs this year.
The Edmonton Oilers know the feeling of a rebuild as theirs took a few more turns after spending many of the past seasons at the bottom of the league.
They added plenty of young superstars to the team and every year it seemed like they got that important step closer to making the playoffs for the first time since 2005.
They continued to stay at the bottom of the league until they finally added Connor McDavid to the mix two years ago.
He had an impact last season but an injury kept him out for most of the year and this year his impact truly showed.
The Oilers found their way to the playoffs for the first time in over a decade thanks to the performance of McDavid as well as some of the additions that came around because of McDavid.
Both the Leafs and Oilers are headed to the playoffs and it has a lot to do with the youth movement in both cities.
These two teams have suffered for a while now but they are finally getting to where they could be competitors again.
The question when the 2017 playoffs begin is just how far these youth movements can take a team in one of the toughest parts of any season in any league.
In the big four sports in North America, the NHL playoffs are a unique set of games that require a different level.
The NHL season already runs 82 games of one of the toughest and most physical sports out there.
The ice almost seems to shrink in the playoffs and the freedom of the most skilled players to move around the ice goes away.
Every goal is a battle and every game only gets more physical and tight as the playoffs move on.
That leaves the inexperienced at a disadvantage as they have never felt the pressure or the level of intensity of the NHL playoffs.
Many have had a lot of success at every level and have also experienced playing at a high level internationally but the NHL playoffs are different.
Every player who has ever had the chance at the Stanley Cup will echo the same thing as the level of physical and mental strength needed is much more at this level.
So these two teams will have a true test of their makeup as the young players on Edmonton and Toronto enter their first NHL playoffs.
Standing in their way are a number of teams with plenty of experience in the playoffs and players that have to take it all the way to the Stanley Cup.
These teams are sure to bring that experience into their games against the young teams and trying to prove that in the playoffs youth is not necessarily the best option.
Instead, they will try to show that experience wins out and they have a lot of evidence to back them up.
It will still be a fun thing to watch though as the Leafs and Oilers lead a charge of youth that involves a few other teams against a wealth of experience.
It is going to take another level to get there but in the end, one team will come out on top and be crowned Stanley Cup Champions.
It was a four-year drought that was on the line last year as the Eastern Conference had not taken home the Stanley Cup for a long time. That all ended with the Pittsburgh Penguins through, as one of the most dominant teams in recent memory stepped up once again. That is the story heading into the Eastern Conference playoffs as there are some dominant teams all vying for their chance to sit on top. The defending champions are back and with Sidney Crosby leading them, it is hard to say that they don’t have a chance. The Penguins are still a team with a lot of talent and after winning the title last year despite injuries they can get back to the title this year. Standing in their way is their divisional rival in Washington who once again enters the playoffs as the best team in the league. The two-time President’s Trophy winners are poised for a deep run if they can get over whatever the blockage is in advancing to the Stanley Cup. The Caps have been a team that constantly underperforms in the playoffs after putting together great regular seasons. This might be the year they finally break through or they might just continue to fall short of expectations when it matters most. They are far from the only dominant team though as the Montreal Canadiens are back in the playoffs after missing out in 2016. Despite that season they walked away with the Atlantic division this year and remain a dangerous team. Any team with the likes of Carey Price in net has a chance depending on whether or not the team around him can step up. The Atlantic side of the playoffs has some familiar faces in New York and Boston who haven’t necessarily been dominant teams over the last few years but are always a part of the mix. The Rangers will try to take a Stanley Cup before the window for Henrik Lundqvist closes as they have been another team that always gets close but can never seem to finish the job. The Bruins come into the playoffs after an inconsistent end of the year and they are a bit more of a mystery heading into these playoffs as they have the pieces they need but have to put it all together. There are also some newcomers looking to make an impression as Toronto rides their young core into their second playoff appearance in over a decade. The Ottawa Senators have quietly risen to second in the Atlantic behind an inspirational performance from Craig Anderson. The most surprising team might be the Columbus Blue Jackets though as they went from one of the worst teams in the league to a playoff team. When John Tortorella took over the team they changed entirely and now are one of the top teams in the league as they head into the playoffs with an experienced coach. The Eastern Conference is an interesting battle this year as some underachieving teams are hoping to finally step up, dominant teams hope to stay dominant and new arrivals hope to make some unexpected noise. It could end like many expect or might see some massive surprises but only the strongest team will be able to come out on top.
The Western Conference is a lot like the Eastern except for the fact that there are a lot more familiar faces headed to the playoffs. The best teams from a year ago are all back to take their shot at the Stanley Cup, and there is plenty of experience among these teams to take it to the finals. Of course, there are teams without much experience as Alberta is leading the youth movement in the playoffs. In Calgary, the rebuild has not been too immediate as they have gradually become consistent playoff contenders. They enter another playoff run but haven’t seen this point in the season since 2015 and are still riding a youth movement into this year. They lack major experience and although they are talented, there are a lot tougher teams out there with more depth. Their long-time rivals from down the road will also look to make an impact as the Edmonton Oilers are finally back in the playoffs. The City of Champions finally has a competitive team but like a few other teams them they don’t have a lot of experience. Connor McDavid is a different player but he has yet to experience the NHL playoffs and without him, there are serious questions about this team. The biggest questions for both of these teams though is how well they can fare against some consistent playoff teams. In the Pacific, the Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks are back at it again. Both teams are constantly in the playoffs and always contenders with little changing this year. They both remained at the top of the league throughout the year and as they head into another playoff run either veteran-laden team could make a deep run. In the Central, it is all familiar faces although a few haven’t looked as steady as in the past. The Nashville Predators are becoming a fixture in the playoffs but this year they didn’t have the same exciting type of play that they had in years past. They are a good team but might not be good enough which might be the same as the St. Louis Blues. The Blues have been a part of the playoffs plenty in the last few years and they are back but once again there are questions about how far they can go. If they can continue their hot play into the playoffs they could challenge for the title but they have a tough road to get there. The two favourites on that side of the bracket have been great teams throughout the year battling the entire time. The Minnesota Wild might not be the team that a lot think about right away as a favourite but they are a strong team. They have been one of the deepest and best teams throughout the year and if they can continue it they are going to be a tough out. The only team tougher will be the Chicago Blackhawks who have the deep talent and the knowledge of what it takes to win. They are a team on a mission once again and their young talent mixed with their experienced veterans make them a very strong team. The western division is full of experienced and deep teams that will put together a very tough path to the Stanley Cup.
2017 Stanley Cup Finals:
The Stanley Cup will feature two of the teams with the most talent in the league but only one has seen success while the other has been snakebitten. That will finally come to an end as the Blackhawks will fall just short of continuing their great run in the 2010s. They have been one of the best teams since they won the 2010 Stanley Cup, adding two more titles since that season. The Capitals are a great team though and they have been the best team in the past two years and beyond that have been one of the best teams in the league. They just haven’t translated that into the playoffs but they are playing at such a consistently great level that it will be hard to beat them. The Caps will take the title and it will go down as a great series that ends another long championship drought.