A year after Canadian teams were shut out of the NHL playoffs, five are poised to battle for the Stanley Cup in 2017.
And while it's unlikely any of them will hoist the trophy, a few might just have enough to get by the first round of the post-season.
Here are CP's picks:
WASHINGTON VS. TORONTO
Pick: Capitals in six.
Why: One team is just trying to gain some playoff experience while the other chases a first Stanley Cup. The Washington Capitals are the latter and while heavy pressure rests on their shoulders, their depth and experience should help them prevail over the young Leafs. About half of Toronto's likely Game 1 lineup will be experiencing playoff hockey for the first time and how exactly they respond is a mystery, even to head coach Mike Babcock. The Leafs have plenty of high-end skill with Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander, but the Caps are deep up front too with Alex Ovechkin, T.J. Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Justin Williams and the always-overlooked Nicklas Backstrom. Washington also has maybe the best all-around group of defenders, excellent special teams and one of the league's three best goalies in Braden Holtby. The status of Leafs No. 1 Frederik Andersen, meanwhile, is in question and the club already has issues on defence. This could be over quick, though the Leafs, with little to lose, could inject some fear into the Caps.
OTTAWA VS. BOSTON
Pick: Senators in seven.
Why: The Sens have defied the odds all season long and while far from a sure thing, they're the pick in a close series that could probably go either way. Ottawa has adapted and somehow succeeded under Guy Boucher's strict defensive posture. Goaltending plays a big part in that and Craig Anderson will need to remain in fine form following a stellar regular season. The Bruins are probably the better team, scoring in bunches under interim coach Bruce Cassidy, while boasting league-best puck possession numbers, a top-ranked penalty kill, and a top-10 power play. Ottawa, conversely, had bottom-10 special teams and finished 22nd in possession. But the Sens won all four meetings this season and they've beaten back projections of doom at every point. The Bruins also have real injury concerns with unheralded rookie Brandon Carlo out for Game 1 and Torey Krug's availability uncertain. The Sens looks like they'll have a full group, meanwhile, after a number of late-season ailments. Depth additions at the trade deadline don't hurt either, nor does the unexpected return of Clarke MacArthur.
MONTREAL vs. NEW YORK
Pick: Canadiens in six.
Why: The Rangers have sputtered into the post-season, are the weakest puck possession squad in the playoffs and have an aging, uncertain option in goal with Henrik Lundqvist. The 35-year-old had his worst NHL season, posting a .910 save percentage in 57 games. He also has awful career numbers against Montreal (.898 save percentage in 35 games) and struggled badly in last year's playoffs. Can he outperform Carey Price at this point in his career? Seems unlikely, especially given how well the 29-year-old has performed in his career against the Rangers (.940 save percentage) and how he finished the season. The Rangers are a bit deeper up front, but the Habs have small, speedy types on their top two lines that could cause problems for New York's aging defence. Montreal won all three meetings in the regular season.
PITTSBURGH VS. COLUMBUS
Pick: Penguins in five.
Why: It's a battle of speed versus big and heavy and the pick here is that the former wins out. The reigning champs were battered by injury all season long and yet finished with more goals than anyone and the second-best record behind Washington. They're starting to get healthy, too, with Evgeni Malkin and Olli Maatta both inching toward returns. Columbus had a terrific regular season — fuelled by goaltending and a scorching power play in the first half — but struggled down the stretch in dropping six of their last seven. Their scariest offensive weapons slowed, too, with breakout star Cam Atkinson mustering only nine points in the last 21. Can he, Brandon Saad, Nick Foligno and the skilled Alexander Wennberg find another gear for the playoffs? Do they have enough to compete with Sidney Crosby, Malkin and the Penguins' deep, high-powered attack? Their bruising style could pose problems for a Penguins defence missing No. 1 defenceman Kris Letang, but the Pens are deep enough (relatively speaking) to get by. One X-factor: Sergei Bobrovsky, the best goalie in the league this season and someone who could certainly steal a series.
CHICAGO VS. NASHVILLE
Pick: Blackhawks in five.
Why: The Hawks lost in the first round last year after winning the Cup in 2015, but they've reloaded and appear ready for another deep run this spring. What makes them so alluring yet again is refreshed depth up front beyond Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and Artemi Panarin. Richard Panik (22 goals), Nick Schmaltz, Ryan Hartman (19 goals) have all blossomed this year in supporting roles and it's that depth advantage that makes Chicago the pick here. Nashville is quick though, has a scary first line — with Ryan Johansen between the Swedish pair of Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson — and a top-four on defence that's as good as anyone. Pekka Rinne also finished well in goal. But the Hawks just have more talent, finished strong in the second half and boast almost unmatched playoff pedigree. This should be a fast, fun series regardless.
MINNESOTA VS. ST. LOUIS
Pick: Wild in six.
Why: The Blues just aren't the same team that went to the Western Conference final last year. They parted with former captain David Backes in the off-season, traded Kevin Shattenkirk at the deadline, lost Robby Fabbri to a season-ending injury, fired Ken Hitchcock mid-season and are currently without Paul Stastny. They did finish strong, boast one of the league's scariest goal-scorers in Vladimir Tarasenko and have Jake Allen playing as well as ever between the pipes. Devan Dubnyk struggled in the second half, but here's betting that he recovers and the Wild depth and quality special teams prove the difference. Minnesota was the third-highest scoring team in hockey during the regular season with 12 players scoring at least 10 goals. They're solid down the middle with Eric Staal, Mikko Koivu and Martin Hanzal, have two sturdy pairs and if Dubnyk finds his form, should have enough to topple a weakened Blues squad.
ANAHEIM VS. CALGARY
Pick: Ducks in six.
Why: Anaheim beat Calgary in five games in the second round of the playoffs two years ago, But these Flames are better now than they were then, from improvements on defence (think Dougie Hamilton), to coach (Glen Gulutzan) to young talent (Matthew Tkachuk) and ever-emerging stars like Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau and Mikael Backlund. The Ducks are still the superior team though, a well-rounded entity with dark-horse Cup potential. Monahan and Gaudreau fared OK in matchups against Ryan Kesler this season, but how will the Backlund-led second unit fare against Getzlaf? And beyond that, against Corey Perry, the rising Rickard Rakell, Jakub Silfverberg, and Patrick Eaves, who set a career-high with 33 goals? The Ducks are deep on the back end too (though Cam Fowler is currently out) and won four of five matchups with the Flames during the regular season. They also enter the post-season on a 14-game point streak. A sneaky source of intrigue in this series? The goaltending. Brian Elliott has had his ups and downs in the post-season and John Gibson was replaced by Frederik Andersen last spring.
EDMONTON VS. SAN JOSE
Pick: Oilers in six.
Why: To some surprise, the Sharks marched to the Stanley Cup final last spring. But this group — mostly the same with a couple tweaks — feels like a little creakier and without the required gas for another deep run. San Jose sputtered into the playoffs, dropping nine of their last 13. Injuries only fuel those concerns. Joe Thornton is hurt (though expected to be ready for Game 1) and coming off his least productive season since 1999, and perhaps of greater importance, Logan Couture is sidelined and uncertain to return anytime soon. San Jose's next wave hasn't yet emerged to ease the strain on Thornton, Couture, Brent Burns, Patrick Marleau (27 goals) and the always productive Joe Pavelski (68 points). The Oilers, by contrast, are young and full of pop. Captain Connor McDavid just finished one of the finer sophomore seasons in league history and Leon Draisaitl is emerging as a viable threat himself at age 21. Without Couture potentially, can the Sharks slow McDavid? Do they have enough left to get by a team that's playing in the post-season for the first time in a decade? How will the Oilers handle their first taste of the playoffs? The betting here is that youth will rise.
Jonas Siegel, The Canadian Press