With the most exciting sports tournament set to start today, we stock up on beer and fill out our brackets. We start with the best division in hockey, the Metropolitan:
(1) Washington Capitals vs. (WC2) Toronto Maple Leafs
The Capitals roster has been constructed for the playoffs. Holtby has been terrific, again, but is well rested, having played in only 63 games in 16-17. His year was outstanding, and much has been written about it, deservedly so, as he vies to become the first back-to-back Vezina winner since Brodeur won his fourth in 2008. Scoring depth was huge; Beagle centered a fourth line that combined for 74 points. The Capitals won the trade deadline by acquiring the best puck mover on the market, who meshed nicely, scoring 14 points in 19 games along with 2 game winners. Washington can roll four lines and three defensive pairs that can compete with anyone in the league. This is a great squad. Meanwhile, the Leafs are a work in progress. Matthews centered one of the league's most exciting lines, and built a strong case for the Calder Trophy, having finished tied for second in the league in goals and leading an upstart team to their first playoff matchup in several years. This will be a great team, perhaps sooner than previously expected, but experience beats youth in this duel. Get out the brooms.
Prediction: Washington in 4
(2) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (3) Columbus Blue Jackets
Sidney Crosby had another banner year, leading the league in goals for the second time in his career, while finishing tied second with Patrick Kane in points (89). This was achieved largely on the back of him posting the second highest shooting percent of his career, which indicates his continued success finding shooting lanes. However, with the injuries to this Penguins squad, they are not built for a playoff run deep into June. Pittsburgh lost 278 man-games to injury (7th most), resulting in the 4th most minutes of injured players being lost, due to the importance of the players who missed significant time. Columbus, on the other hand, has had great health, and won a comeback on the road against Toronto to close out the year on a strong note in spite of their late season slide. Bobrovsky should win his second Vezina, Werenski might be the most underrated player in the league, and Tortorella is thriving in a town without much hockey press. Columbus has quietly put together a hell of a squad, and they match up favorably against every team in the league.
Prediction: Columbus in 7
The Atlantic has this season's dark horse:
(1) Montreal Canadiens vs. (WC1) New York Rangers
The Canadiens made the biggest splash of the offseason by trading darling P.K. Subban for legendary defenseman Shea Weber. Weber has been the most consistent and prolific goal scorer from the blue line since he entered the league, having scored more than anyone else during any five-year span of his career. However, with his best years behind him, this was a power move to make a deep playoff run. Firing Therrien was the right move, bringing back Claude Julien re-energized the team, and the Habs finished strong, winning the division comfortably. The Rangers struggled with injuries throughout the year - notably missing Lundqvist for a significant stretch - but even when he was healthy he was subpar, posting the worst numbers of his career. There is allegedly bad blood between the two teams, but with the turnover in today's game coupled with Vignault's signature women's college hockey style of coaching, expect no fireworks.
Prediction: Montreal in 6
(2) Ottawa Senators vs. (3) Boston Bruins
The Senators have been inconsistent throughout the year, having posted three losing streaks of four or more games, including two such streaks in March. Erik Karlsson posted yet another phenomenal season, but with injury concerns, the Senators perfect record against the Bruins may not be enough to overcome the red-hot Bruins since Cassidy took over. After firing long time head coach Claude Julien, with whom the Bruins won a Stanley Cup and lost another, former Capitals head coach Bruce Cassidy took over and led the Bruins to an 18-8-1 to close out the year. Having earned 37 of a possible 54 points, Boston paced ahead of everyone but the Capitals since the coaching change. Much has been written about the fall of Tuukka Rask, but if the Bruins can keep controlling the puck like they have been all season, and Rask performs even to league average standards, the Bruins will roll over Ottawa.
Prediction: Boston in 5