The Race for the Cup

After a long and grueling 82 game season, the NHL playoffs are underway. Sixteen teams will battle over the next two months for the right to hoist Lord Stanley’s famous Cup. Some new changes to the playoff format and many intriguing matchups should make for another exciting edition of hockey’s postseason. Here is a crash course of five questions heading into the race for the cup:

What is up with this new format?

This past season the NHL switched its overall alignment to two conferences, the East and West, which have two divisions each. With that change, the playoff format changed as well, with the top three teams from each division qualifying for the post-season, as well as two wildcard teams from each conference. The first two rounds of the playoffs will be inter-division with the exception of the wildcard teams. The teams will not be reseeded as in years past; the bracket is set regardless of the results. The conference finals and the Stanley Cup Finals will essentially be the same as before. This format is not actually as new as it may feel, as it has some similar elements to the NHL playoff format used in the 80s and early 90s.

Which conference is the strongest this year?

In terms of depth, it is easily the Western Conference. There are at least six teams that could make a run for the Cup in the West and it wouldn’t be a major surprise. In the East, the Boston Bruins and the Pittsburgh Penguins look to be on a collision course to make it to the Eastern Conference Finals, as any other result would be at least a moderate upset. Of course anything can and does happen in hockey, like when the Los Angeles Kings won the Cup in 2012 as an eight seed. It is also important to note that conference depth has nothing to do with which conference will take home Lord Stanley’s Cup, as the Finals matchup will be between two strong and tested teams.

Which team has the most pressure to win?

Boston enters this year’s playoffs as the winners of the President’s trophy, awarded to the team with the most points in the regular season. The winner of the President’s Trophy usually has high expectations as they are also a No. 1 seed, but Boston is a heavy favorite in a relatively weak East (see previous) and they had a heartbreaking loss in last year’s Stanley Cup Finals contributing to the high expectations in Beantown this year. Of the 27 teams to win the President’s Trophy (first awarded in 1986), eight have gone on to win the Stanley Cup.

What is the best matchup of the first round?

It has to be the St. Louis Blues vs. the Chicago Blackhawks in a Central Division matchup. These teams have been two popular favorites all season to win it all, and one of them won’t even make it out of the first round. St. Louis is in an incredible slump after losing six games in a row to finish the year, handing the Colorado Avalanche the division title after being the best team through the first 76 games. Chicago is the defending champ and boast a strong and experienced team more than capable of defending last year’s title. The fact that these two teams are in close proximity and have formed a strong rivalry makes this series all the more intriguing.

What are Canada’s chances this year?

Despite having seven teams in the NHL, a Canadian team has not hoisted the cup since the Montreal Canadiens did it in 1993. Unfortunately for our neighbors to the north that doesn’t look to change this year, as Montreal was the only team to qualify for the playoffs this year. Not to say that Montreal can’t make a run, it is definitely possible, but the fact they are the only team who qualified makes it unlikely that the country that invented the sport will be able to bring the Cup back to the Great White North.