By Jeremy Perrigo ’18
Christmas has befallen the National Hockey League, as the 2018 playoffs have officially arrived. For those who follow the NHL with any sort of consistency, April marks the beginning of two and a half months of pure joy and entertainment, as 16 of the league’s best teams embark on a grueling journey in a quest for the crowned jewel of the hockey world: The Stanley Cup.
Part of the great allure of the NHL playoffs is the fact that every series is played in the best-of-seven format, where teams can play no fewer than four games per round. The physical endurance required for this style of competition makes the on ice performance of its participants that much more impressive.
While other sports, such as basketball, conduct their postseasons in a similar seven-game format, the unpredictable nature of hockey allows for more variance in the results of each series. Therefore, it is not incredibly uncommon for an “underdog” team to beat an opponent that is heavily favored.
In 2012, the Los Angeles Kings, who entered the tournament as the eighth and final seed in the Western Conference, famously defeated first place Vancouver Canucks in round one, the second place St. Louis Blues in round two, and the third place Phoenix (now Arizona) Coyotes in round three. This was all before the Kings went on to defeat the New Jersey Devils in the final and claimed their first Stanley Cup in franchise history.
Just last season, the Nashville Predators, the 16th out of 16 teams to qualify for the playoffs, swept the Western Conference Champion Chicago Blackhawks in four games. Nashville would continue their run through St. Louis and Anaheim, where they would eventually fall to the Pittsburgh Penguins, two wins short of the Stanley Cup.
Nashville has returned with a vengeance this season, claiming the league’s Presidents Trophy for the team with the most points in the regular season at 117. This marks a dramatic turnaround for the Predators from a year ago, where they went from never having the opportunity for home ice advantage in the playoffs, to being guaranteed that privilege all the way through to the final, should they return again this year.
While the club from Music City is a favorite for many to win the Stanley Cup this season, formidable opponents such as the Tampa Bay Lightning, Boston Bruins, and the divisional rival Winnipeg Jets may stand in their way.
While Tampa and Boston are both in the Eastern Conference and only have the potential of encountering Nashville in the final, a team like Winnipeg could present a roadblock as soon as the second round.
The Colorado Avalanche and Minnesota Wild are the first round opponents for Nashville and Winnipeg, respectively. While both the Avalanche and Wild have had strong seasons in their own right, there are few that see either roster as capable of eliminating the Central Division powerhouses that have been their demise throughout the regular season. If these two matchups go the route of the statistician, a second round clash between the Predators and Jets is all but a lock.
Other notable series include the Kings and the new addition Vegas Golden Knights, who sarcastically tout themselves “proud member of the league’s original 31” teams. Vegas and L.A. have sized up well this season, each team winning two of four meetings, with an overtime victory each way.
Some doubt the Knight’s ability to hang with some of the NHL’s best (even after they clinched the Pacific Division title). Others see this uncertainty as just another opportunity to prove the hockey world wrong, as the team was widely expected to take up residence in the cellar of the NHL standings heading into its inaugural season.
Local interest will likely be focused on the Bruins and the Toronto Maple Leafs, who last met up in the postseason back in 2013, where Boston memorably mounted a comeback in the third period of game seven, erasing a 4-1 deficit and winning the series off a shot from Patrice Bergeron in overtime. However, the Maple Leafs facing the Bruins this time around is a much newer and faster model than the version remembered from five years ago, and Boston is sure to have their hands full.
For fans, any first round series you decide to watch has a high chance of being worth the time spent, as the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs are shaping up to be one of the most exciting displays of athletic prowess that hockey has to offer.