This is the year when someone will be able to pry the Stanley Cup from the grip of Jonathan Toews and the Blackhawks (and the Kings, for that matter).
This is the year. This is the spring when someone other than the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings wins the Stanley Cup, ending a run of five titles in six years to either the Windy City (2010, 2013, 2015) or the City of Angels (2012, 2014).
And the NHL’s playoff bracket promises to sizzle from April through June.
Exhilarating star power paces top contenders, from Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Washington’s Alex Ovechkin in the East to Chicago’s Patrick Kane, L.A.’s Anze Kopitar and Dallas’ Jamie Benn out West.
Veterans defy age, expectations, logic and circumstances, from the 44-year-old Jaromir Jagr and goalie Roberto Luongo in Florida to San Jose’s Joe Thornton to St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock.
Youngsters are dazzling, including Calder Trophy candidates Shayne Gostisbehere (Philadelphia) and Artemi Panarin (Chicago) and budding stars Evgeny Kuznetsov (Washington) and Tomas Hertl (San Jose).
The action will be furious, the rivalries intense, and at the end, there will be a new champion.
Ken Hitchcock might need to take the Blues deep into the postseason to secure his job for next year.
FIRST THING’S FIRST: KEEP YOUR EYES ON THE BLUE LINE
Every NHL arena will have two cameras at each blue line in the playoffs to aid officials when coaches challenge for off-sides. The league experimented with this in February’s Stadium Series games in Minneapolis and Denver and at January’s All-Star Game in Nashville. The Rangers’ Alain Vigneault was 4-for-10 (40%) on challenges in the first season that NHL coaches could challenge goals for off-sides or goaltender interference. The playoff cameras add a new wrinkle, hopefully without the unintended consequence of slowing down games. The solution to consistency on goalie interference calls, on the other hand, may involve rolling a pair of dice inside the blue paint. Snake-eyes disallow the goal.
CENTRAL DIVISION BRACKET: HITCHIN’ A RIDE
Ken Hitchcock, coaching on a one-year contract, doesn’t look like someone who is going to lose his job. The 1999 Stanley Cup-winning coach of the Dallas Stars, though, probably has to back up the Blues’ consistent regular season success with a long-awaited deep playoff run if he wants to stay. And this will be the year for a Blues team so big, heavy and smothering that the Rangers’ Chris Kreider once said of a dominant St. Louis first period: “It felt like there were eight of them out there on the ice.” Second seed St. Louis eliminates the defending champ Blackhawks in the first round (a Corey Crawford stand-on-his-head series is the only thing that can save a less complete Chicago roster). Then the Blues counter the run-and-gun, top-seed Stars with their brutal style and special teams, after Dallas has knocked out the Minnesota Wild-cards early on.
Kris Letang has emerged as a Norris Trophy contender for the Penguins.
METRO DIVISION BRACKET: SID VS. OVIE, ROUND TWO
Sorry, Rangers fans, but the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Capitals and the white-hot Penguins appear destined to clash in a must-see second round showdown that would mark just the second-ever Crosby vs. Ovechkin series. The fourth-overall Penguins upset the second-overall Caps in a seven-game, 2009 second-round series on Crosby’s path to his only Stanley Cup. Crosby had eight goals and 13 points. Ovechkin had eight goals and 14 points … This year, the Caps scoot by the nevertheless impressive wild-card Philadelphia Flyers, while the second-seed Penguins’ speed, momentum and star power including Norris Trophy candidate Kris Letang is too much for the third-seed Rangers, especially with captain Ryan McDonagh sidelined to start and not 100% even if he returns. Pittsburgh is 7-for-8 all-time in playoff series against Washington. I’m still not sold on Braden Holtby. But I’ll take Barry Trotz’s coaching over Mike Sullivan’s as the difference for the Caps.
Joe Thornton had a turn-back-the-clock season in 2015-16.
PACIFIC DIVISION BRACKET: A CUP O’ JOSE
Watching the Sharks devour the Rangers at The Tank in person may have skewed impressions of this Western Conference club coached by ex-New Jersey Devils boss Pete DeBoer, but there is no denying that Joe Thornton, 36, is having a turn-back-the-clock season and that the Sharks will be no easy out. I like Roman Polak’s physical addition to a back end that already could skate. So this is the year that Thornton, Brent Burns and the third-seed Sharks redeem themselves from that 2014 first-round collapse from a 3-0 series advantage and toppled the second-seed Kings. Former L.A. backup Martin Jones, now San Jose’s starter, beats Jonathan Quick and then wins another all-California series over the top-seed Anaheim Ducks, after Bruce Boudreau’s club thrashes the wild-card Nashville Predators.
Jaromir Jagr has been an ageless wonder for the Panthers this season.
ATLANTIC DIVISION BRACKET: CATS AND RATS
This is the only bracket in which I believe any of the four teams can advance to the conference finals. Top-seed Florida has both speed and stinginess. The wild-card Islanders are hungry and skilled. The second-seed Lightning are injury-ravaged but dangerous, and the third-seed Detroit Red Wings are always a pain in their 25th straight playoff appearance and counting. But I’ll ride the wave of some fun in the sun for Jagr’s group with both reliable veterans like Willie Mitchell and Jussi Jokinen and exciting youngsters such as Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Aaron Ekblad. It will be “The Year of the Rat” once again in Florida, which hasn’t won a playoff series since 1996. Fans throw plastic rats onto the ice in an odd tradition that dates to 1995, when Panthers forward Scott Mellanby scored two goals with the same stick that he’d used to kill a rat that day in the locker room — dubbed a “rat trick” by goalie John Vanbiesbrouck.
Sure, Alex Ovechkin is the Capitals’ big name, but Justin Williams (c.) could be the one to come up with big goals in the postseason.
YOUR STANLEY CUP WINNER: WASHINGTON OVER SAN JOSE IN SEVEN
I picked a Capitals-Ducks Final in the preseason, and I’m amending it only slightly. The Caps will win their franchise’s first-ever Stanley Cup thanks to Ovechkin’s star power, a well-rounded lineup, timely saves, good coaching, a strong power play and, somewhere along the way, a clutch Justin Williams goal or three.