Rob Carr/Getty Images
April 11, 2017
With the 2016-17 NHL regular season in the books, the drive toward the Stanley Cup officially begins this week, as the league’s top 16 teams will battle it out in the first round of the playoffs.
There wasn’t much drama in the closing days of the regular season, which speaks to how many top-level teams enter the playoffs with a legitimate chance to go all the way. Even so, there are undoubtedly a few that stand out above the rest of the field.
Prior to the commencement of playoff hockey, here is a look at the full first-round schedule along with a breakdown of the teams with the best chance to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup.
|2017 NHL Playoff 1st-Round Schedule|
|Toronto Maple Leafs at Washington Capitals||1||Thursday, April 13||7 p.m.||USA|
|Toronto Maple Leafs at Washington Capitals||2||Saturday April 15||7 p.m.||NBCSN|
|Washington Capitals at Toronto Maple Leafs||3||Monday, April 17||7 p.m.||NBCSN|
|Washington Capitals at Toronto Maple Leafs||4||Wednesday, April 19||7 p.m.||NBCSN|
|Toronto Maple Leafs at Washington Capitals||5*||Friday, April 21||TBD||TBD|
|Washington Capitals at Toronto Maple Leafs||6*||Sunday, April 23||TBD||TBD|
|Toronto Maple Leafs at Washington Capitals||7*||Tuesday, April 25||TBD||TBD|
|Columbus Blue Jackets at Pittsburgh Penguins||1||Wednesday, April 12||7:30 p.m.||USA|
|Columbus Blue Jackets at Pittsburgh Penguins||2||Friday, April 14||7 p.m.||NHL Network|
|Pittsburgh Penguins at Columbus Blue Jackets||3||Sunday, April 16||6 p.m.||CNBC|
|Pittsburgh Penguins at Columbus Blue Jackets||4||Tuesday, April 18||7:30 p.m.||CNBC|
|Columbus Blue Jackets at Pittsburgh Penguins||5*||Thursday, April 20||TBD||TBD|
|Pittsburgh Penguins at Columbus Blue Jackets||6*||Sunday, April 23||TBD||TBD|
|Columbus Blue Jackets at Pittsburgh Penguins||7*||Tuesday, April 25||TBD||TBD|
|New York Rangers at Montreal Canadiens||1||Wednesday, April 12||7 p.m.||NBCSN|
|New York Rangers at Montreal Canadiens||2||Friday, April 14||7 p.m.||USA|
|Montreal Canadiens at New York Rangers||3||Sunday, April 16||7 p.m.||NBCSN|
|Montreal Canadiens at New York Rangers||4||Tuesday, April 18||7 p.m.||NBCSN|
|New York Rangers at Montreal Canadiens||5*||Thursday, April 20||TBD||TBD|
|Montreal Canadiens at New York Rangers||6*||Saturday, April 22||TBD||TBD|
|New York Rangers at Montreal Canadiens||7*||Monday, April 24||TBD||TBD|
|Boston Bruins at Ottawa Senators||1||Wednesday, April 12||7 p.m.||NHL Network|
|Boston Bruins at Ottawa Senators||2||Saturday, April 15||3 p.m.||NBC|
|Ottawa Senators at Boston Bruins||3||Monday, April 17||7 p.m.||CNBC|
|Ottawa Senators at Boston Bruins||4||Wednesday, April 19||7:30 p.m.||USA|
|Boston Bruins at Ottawa Senators||5*||Friday, April 21||TBD||TBD|
|Ottawa Senators at Boston Bruins||6*||Sunday, April 23||TBD||TBD|
|Boston Bruins at Ottawa Senators||7*||Wednesday, April 26||TBD||TBD|
|Nashville Predators at Chicago Blackhawks||1||Thursday, April 13||8 p.m.||NBCSN|
|Nashville Predators at Chicago Blackhawks||2||Saturday, April 15||8 p.m.||NBC|
|Chicago Blackhawks at Nashville Predators||3||Monday, April 17||9:30 p.m.||CNBC|
|Chicago Blackhawks at Nashville Predators||4||Thursday, April 20||TBD||TBD|
|Nashville Predators at Chicago Blackhawks||5*||Saturday, April 22||TBD||TBD|
|Chicago Blackhawks at Nashville Predators||6*||Monday, April 24||TBD||TBD|
|Nashville Predators at Chicago Blackhawks||7*||Wednesday, April 26||TBD||TBD|
|St. Louis Blues at Minnesota Wild||1||Wednesday, April 12||9:30 p.m.||NBCSN|
|St. Louis Blues at Minnesota Wild||2||Friday, April 14||8 p.m.||NBCSN|
|Minnesota Wild at St. Louis Blues||3||Sunday, April 16||3 p.m.||NBC|
|Minnesota Wild at St. Louis Blues||4||Wednesday, April 19||9:30 p.m.||NBCSN|
|St. Louis Blues at Minnesota Wild||5*||Saturday, April 22||TBD||TBD|
|Minnesota Wild at St. Louis Blues||6*||Monday, April 24||TBD||TBD|
|St. Louis Blues at Minnesota Wild||7*||Wednesday, April 26||TBD||TBD|
|Calgary Flames at Anaheim Ducks||1||Thursday, April 13||10:30 p.m.||NBCSN|
|Calgary Flames at Anaheim Ducks||2||Saturday, April 15||10:30 p.m.||NBCSN|
|Anaheim Ducks at Calgary Flames||3||Monday, April 17||10 p.m.||NBCSN|
|Anaheim Ducks at Calgary Flames||4||Wednesday, April 19||10 p.m.||USA|
|Calgary Flames at Anaheim Ducks||5*||Friday April 21||TBD||TBD|
|Anaheim Ducks at Calgary Flames||6*||Sunday, April 23||TBD||TBD|
|Calgary Flames at Anaheim Ducks||7*||Tuesday, April 25||TBD||TBD|
|San Jose Sharks at Edmonton Oilers||1||Wednesday, April 12||10 p.m.||USA|
|San Jose Sharks at Edmonton Oilers||2||Friday, April 14||10:30 p.m.||NBCSN|
|Edmonton Oilers at San Jose Sharks||3||Sunday, April 16||10 p.m.||NBCSN|
|Edmonton Oilers at San Jose Sharks||4||Tuesday, April 18||10 p.m.||NBCSN|
|San Jose Sharks at Edmonton Oilers||5*||Thursday, April 20||TBD||TBD|
|Edmonton Oilers at San Jose Sharks||6*||Saturday, April 22||TBD||TBD|
|San Jose Sharks at Edmonton Oilers||7*||Monday, April 24||TBD||TBD|
|Source: NHL.com (* if necessary)|
Ranking Top Stanley Cup Contenders
1. Washington Capitals
The Capitals are seemingly in the mix every single year but their playoff struggles are well-documented, and they have yet to even reach the Eastern Conference Final during the Alex Ovechkin era.
Washington easily won the Presidents’ Trophy as the NHL’s best team during the regular season, though, and it appears to have the pieces in place needed to finally make a deep run and win the Stanley Cup for the first time in franchise history.
As pointed out by NBCSN’s Keith Jones (h/t Dan Steinberg of the Washington Post), the Caps have the depth necessary to be true Cup contenders:
Everything is lined up perfectly for Washington. There are no holes. You’d be nuts not to pick the Washington Capitals to come out of the Eastern Conference. … [Ovechkin] doesn’t have to win the Conn Smythe Trophy for the [Capitals] to win the Stanley Cup. That’s probably the most refreshing thing for Alex Ovechkin. There are other players in that lineup. There are other stars. … The team around him is better. They are in a perfect position. You look around the league; there are holes, there are injuries, and the Capitals have none of that.
In addition to Ovechkin, the Caps have a strong forward corps with Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Marcus Johansson, T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams all scoring at least 19 goals and 48 points.
Washington also has arguably the NHL’s best goalie in Braden Holtby and a strong blue line from top to bottom. The Capitals were by far the NHL’s best defensive team in addition to being third in scoring during the regular season.
If that weren’t enough, the current of the sports world over the past year appears to be moving in the ideal direction for the Caps in terms of unlikely champions prevailing, according to NBC Sports researcher Stephen Lorenzo:
If Sergio Garcia wins #themasters just go ahead and just give the Capitals the Cup. #Cubs #Cavs #Clemson
Washington has some playoff demons to conquer, and it must also get past the obstacle that the Pittsburgh Penguins provide on a yearly basis.
None of that is guaranteed, but this Capitals team is far better equipped than any previous one to go all the way.
2. Chicago Blackhawks
The Blackhawks have been the NHL’s dominant team in terms of Stanley Cup wins since 2010, and they unsurprisingly enter the 2017 playoffs as heavy favorites to represent the Western Conference in the Cup Final.
Chicago posted the best record in the West, boasting seven 19-goal scorers and an excellent defense corps that continues to be led by the combination of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook.
Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun is of the belief that the Blackhawks have the ideal mix needed to win their fourth Stanley Cup since 2010:
I don’t think there’s a team in the West that can beat the Blackhawks in a seven game series. A fourth Stanley Cup for this group is likely.
Reigning Hart Trophy winner Patrick Kane had another huge regular season for Chicago, but he is far from alone from a production standpoint with Artemi Panarin and Jonathan Toews both posting big years in addition to Marian Hossa bouncing back with a 26-goal campaign.
According to Greg Beacham of the Associated Press (h/t Fox 32 Chicago), Toews believes the Blackhawks are primed and ready to do some damage in the playoffs:
I think that energy, that ambition and motivation is back. We have that feeling again, that every single moment and every single game matters. It’s a lot of fun to play at this time of the year. It’s why we work all year to get to this point, and as we have said in the past, the real season begins. Obviously, we want to see what we are made of, and I think we are all pretty confident what we are able to do.
It’s easy to overlook the defensive capabilities of a team with as much offensive talent as the Blackhawks, but that could be the biggest difference-maker in them winning another Stanley Cup.
The goaltending duo of Corey Crawford and Scott Darling had a quietly strong year, and if one of them can get in the zone throughout the postseason, Chicago may be impossible to beat.
3. Pittsburgh Penguins
The Penguins are a targeted team after winning the Stanley Cup last season, but all the pieces are in place for a potential repeat.
No team in the NHL can match the elite-level production Pittsburgh gets from its top forwards, as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel all topped 70 points during the regular season.
Pittsburgh enjoyed great success splitting them up and spreading them out across three different lines during last year’s playoffs, and a similar strategy could pay dividends once again.
Despite finishing second in the NHL with 111 points during the regular season, Penguins forward Chris Kunitz thinks there is still room for improvement, per Eric Duhatschek of the Globe and Mail:
I don’t know if our game’s been all that great for most of the season. I think we’ve found ways to win. We’ve got some special players on our team, who—through their individual efforts—can force our team into a win. Or have a goaltender that plays unbelievable for a few nights. So through a combination of things, we have found ways to win, but we’re not satisfied with the way we’re playing. We know we have a level we can get to and once we get to that level, we have a better than 50-50 chance of winning games.
The Pens are largely unchanged from the team that won the Stanley Cup last year, and that experience as a team could go a long way toward another run.
Getting to the Stanley Cup Final could be an even bigger challenge this time around, however, with an improved Capitals team standing in their way.
Pittsburgh also has a difficult first-round matchup on tap against the Columbus Blue Jackets, who were near the top of the NHL all season long.
Goalie Matt Murray is perhaps the biggest X-factor in whether the Penguins repeat, but they have a legitimate chance to win every game they play provided Crosby, Malkin and Kessel remain healthy.