Nearly halfway through the season, the holidays are always a good time to assess the season so far and prognosticate about what should happen in the coming months.
Being in a playoff spot now, however, guarantees nothing. On the contrary, being on the outside looking in at this time of year is by no means a death sentence.
At this time last year, the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens were atop the Atlantic Division. Neither would make the playoffs.
Also, the Pittsburgh Penguins were not in a playoff spot on Christmas Day in 2015. Less than six months later, they were hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup.
If the past is any indicator, plenty will change between now and the end of the regular season. Who are the contenders and who are the pretenders? Find out here.
- Montreal Canadiens
- Tampa Bay Lightning
- Toronto Maple Leafs
- Ottawa Senators
- Boston Bruins
- Florida Panthers
- Buffalo Sabres
- Detroit Red Wings
Like last year, Montreal started out on a torrid pace. Unlike last year, the Habs will not suffer a historic collapse. They are too deep to fall out of the top three in a weak division this season and Carey Price is still healthy.
Tampa Bay has struggled this year and will have to go a lengthy period without either Steven Stamkos or Ben Bishop, but the Lightning still have depth all around and will take advantage of a weak division. Also of note: the Bolts would not have made the playoffs had they started on Christmas last year. Instead, Tampa was a win away from going to a second-consecutive Stanley Cup Final.
Yes, Toronto will make the playoffs. The young talent has already opened eyes across the hockey world and the youngsters will continue to gel. In any other division, the Leafs would be buried, but the Atlantic presents them with an opportunity to play spring hockey.
Ottawa and Boston will battle with Toronto for the final spot in the top three, but a lack of offense will be the Achilles for both teams.
Florida, Buffalo and Detroit could go in any order. There is nothing impressive about the Panthers, Buffalo is improving but has already dug itself into a huge hole and Detroit’s anemic offense and powerplay along with a lack of hockey sense and game flow will spell the end for its historic playoff streak.
- Pittsburgh Penguins
- Washington Capitals
- Columbus Blue Jackets
- New York Rangers*
- Philadelphia Flyers*
- Carolina Hurricanes
- New York Islanders
- New Jersey Devils
The top five teams in this division are five of the best teams in all of hockey. They all can score, and they all can play defense.
Pittsburgh gets the edge and wins the President’s Trophy. Even if Sidney Crosby’s ridiculous scoring pace slows down (it will), this team meshes together perfectly and has a tremendous blend of chemistry and talent.
Washington is flying under the radar this season, thanks in part to it being cloaked by its four elite division opponents rather than pulling away from the pack. The Caps are still a legitimate Stanley Cup threat.
The red-hot Blue Jackets are for real, but will drop to third as they are bound to hit a few snags. They will edge out the Rangers and Flyers, who will still make the playoffs as Wild Card teams.
Carolina seems pretty locked into the sixth spot. The Canes will not move ahead of any of the top five, but they are in a slightly better tier than the Islanders or Devils below them.
- Chicago Blackhawks
- Minnesota Wild
- St. Louis Blues
- Nashville Predators*
- Dallas Stars
- Winnipeg Jets
- Colorado Avalanche
This division’s standings may be the same at the end of the season as they are today.
The advanced stats gurus claim that Chicago is due for a collapse. With their talent, experience and knack for winning, don’t buy what the hockey nerds are saying. Chicago is damn good.
As is Minnesota. The Wild have won 10 in a row and excel in most facets of the game. Zach Parise isn’t near an elite player anymore, but he can still play an important role in a team with incredible depth at all positions and an elite goalie in Devan Dubnyk.
St. Louis, Nashville and Dallas all have some kinks to work out. The Blues inconsistencies should subside a little as the season goes on and Nashville should find its identity. The Stars’ goal-preventing issue, however, may harm them down the line.
- San Jose Sharks
- Calgary Flames
- Los Angeles Kings
- Anaheim Ducks*
- Edmonton Oilers
- Arizona Coyotes
- Vancouver Canucks
The goals will come for San Jose, who will take the best record in the Western Conference behind an air-tight defense.
Calgary will be a major surprise in the second half of the season. The Flames have a heavy amount of talent and skill up front and on the blue line. Chad Johnson’s consistency in goal could come into question, but expect Brian Elliott to step back up if Johnson falters.
The Kings are a good team, but will struggle to sew up a playoff spot without Jonathan Quick for most of the season. When he comes back, though, the Kings could be a legitimate threat to win the Stanley Cup.
Anaheim is a playoff contender, but perhaps the Ducks aren’t the team they used to be. Issues in goal and the beginning of the Getzlaf-Perry decline could plague them down the stretch.
Edmonton has shown vast improvement this season, but it’s still going to take one more year for things to come together enough to crack the top eight. Next year, I promise.
Atlantic Division Semifinals
A1. Montreal Canadiens vs. WC1 New York Rangers
A2. Tampa Bay Lightning vs. A3. Toronto Maple Leafs
Carey Price vs. Henrik Lundqvist (or Antti Raanta at this pace). How cool is that? Montreal has the goaltending edge, but New York has the scoring edge. It should be a close series, but expect Shea Weber to be a thorn in New York’s side.
Canadiens in 7
Toronto is back in the playoffs for the first time since its epic 2013 collapse against Boston in Game 7, but Tampa will kick it into gear in the playoffs, just like always
Lightning in 6
Metropolitan Division Semifinals
M1. Pittsburgh Penguins vs. WC2. Philadelphia Flyers
M2. Washington Capitals vs. M3. Columbus Blue Jackets
Pittsburgh and Philadelphia again. A hockey fan’s dream. The Penguins will have to make a choice in goal: expect Matt Murray to duplicate his magical 2016 postseason or lean on veteran Marc-Andre Fleury, who has had his fair share of struggles in playoffs past. Still, the experience is on Pittsburgh’s side, and the Penguins are smarter than they were in 2012 when it comes to letting teams get under their skin.
Penguins in 6
Columbus has a legitimate chance to win its first-ever playoff series, but the Jackets will have to out-duel Alexander Ovechkin and Braden Holtby. Washington’s top line can out-match any Columbus line, but the Jackets have depth where Washington does not. The Blue Jackets get the job done.
Blue Jackets in 7
Central Division Semifinals
C1. Chicago Blackhawks vs. WC1. Nashville Predators
C2. Minnesota Wild vs. C3. St. Louis Blues
Nashville showed some great fight in last year’s playoffs against Anaheim and San Jose, but the Blackhawks are too tough to go out this early.
Blackhawks in 6
It’s always a battle when the Blues and Wild face off, and we’ll get at least four games more of this hard-hitting midwest rivalry this spring. However, this series will come down to the mismatch in net.
Wild in 6
Pacific Division Semifinals
P1. San Jose Sharks vs. WC2. Anaheim Ducks
P2. Calgary Flames vs. P3. Los Angeles Kings
Sharks vs. Ducks will be a rough, physical series, but the Sharks will have no trouble putting Anaheim away in a short series.
Sharks in 5
The young Flames will need to get a little taste of what playoff hockey is all about before they can think of winning a series against the seasoned Kings.
Kings in 6
Eastern Conference Semifinals
A1. Montreal Canadiens vs. A2. Tampa Bay Lightning
M1. Pittsburgh Penguins vs. M3. Columbus Blue Jackets
Tampa Bay’s high-powered offense is stifled just enough by Montreal’s defense and goaltending, and the Canadiens head to the Conference Final in a tightly-contested series. Expect Shea Weber and Andrew Shaw to tangle with Brian Boyle a few times.
Canadiens in 6
The Penguins have been on a war path since Mike Sullivan was hired as coach. Last December, Pittsburgh was out of a playoff spot. Since then, they soared into the postseason, won a Stanley Cup and (according to these predictions) capped off the 2016-17 season with a President’s Trophy. At some point, they’re going to run out of gas. This is when it will happen. Columbus channels its inner-2014/2015 Kansas City Royals devil magic and pulls out the upset.
Blue Jackets in 7
Western Conference Semifinals
C1. Chicago Blackhawks vs. C2. Minnesota Wild
P1. San Jose Sharks vs. P3. Los Angeles Kings
The Blackhawks knocked the Wild out of the playoffs in 2013, 2014 and 2015 before taking a brief hiatus from each other last spring. Now, the Wild will exorcise its demons, using its youth, depth and uncanny resemblance to last year’s Blues team to finally defeat the hated Blackhawks
Wild in 6
Speaking of revenge, the Kings will look to get some on the Sharks, who eliminated Los Angeles in five games in last year’s first round. It won’t happen, as the Sharks will use home ice to their advantage and win Game 7 at the Shark Tank.
Sharks in 7
Eastern Conference Final
A1. Montreal Canadiens vs. M3. Columbus Blue Jackets
The devil magic stops here for Columbus. A good run finally comes to an end as Columbus’s young forwards can’t solve Carey Price & Co.
Canadiens in 6
Western Conference Final
P1. San Jose Sharks vs. C2. Minnesota Wild
Home ice won’t make a difference this time for the Sharks. After taking a 3-2 series lead, Minnesota pulls off the comeback and clinches the Western Conference crown on San Jose’s home ice.
Wild in 7
2017 Stanley Cup Final
Minnesota Wild vs. Montreal Canadiens
This would be a fun Final: Club du Hockey vs. The State of Hockey. Both teams are pretty equal in terms of experience, depth and goaltending. How fitting would it be for the NHL’s most storied franchise to win its 25th Stanley Cup in the league’s 100th year? Too fitting. Bruce Boudreau out-coaches Michel Therrien and the Wild bring the Stanley Cup to Minnesota.
Wild in 6