While the New York Islanders are the only one of the three local teams to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs, they’re far from favored to end their 36-year championship drought. Here are the top four teams to watch when the puck drops on the NHL postseason Wednesday night.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Tampa Bay was by far the best team in the league during the regular season. While that doesn’t always translate into playoff success, it did earn a roster loaded with former New York Rangers a fairly easy path to the Eastern Conference final. They get coach John Tortorella’s inconsistent (at best) Columbus Blue Jackets the opening round and will likely face a tired Boston Bruins or Toronto Maple Leafs team (not-so-fresh off what should be a long and competitive series) in conference semifinals.
Hard to pick against the defending champs, even with last year’s coach now guiding the Isles. Washington has the league’s top goal scorer in Alex Ovechkin and plenty of other weapons as well. Plus, now they know what it takes to win the Cup. It also doesn’t hurt that the Metropolitan Division arguably presents them with an easier road to the conference final than the Atlantic.
The Winnipeg Jets were the favorites to come out of the Central Division entering the season, but a disturbing habit of allowing teams back into games late (see: Islanders, March 28) has opened the door for Nashville, whose core group reached the Cup Final two years ago. With a stellar top six on defense (led by Roman Josi) and an elite goaltender in Pekka Rinne, the Preds have what it takes to win it all.
It turns out all Calgary needed was a new voice behind the bench (Bill Peters) to turn things around. The Flames, with a high-flying attack led by “Johnny Hockey” Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, were the best of the West in the regular season. Those young stars will be supported by proven playoff warrior James Neal. The only question surrounding Calgary concerns the all-important goaltending position. Will Mike Smith be up to the task? He’s only been to the postseason twice in his career, and his last appearance was in 2012.
Flames over Lightning