The NHL Playoffs are set to get underway Wednesday night after the regular season wrapped up this past Sunday. While the perennial favorites like Chicago, Pittsburgh, New York and Washington have once again qualified, a bevy of teams known for underperforming in recent years have also broken their droughts.
Last season, the San Jose Sharks, known for qualifying for the postseason only to fall in heartbreaking — and often embarrassing — fashion, finally broke through the Western Conference, making it to the Stanley Cup Finals. And while the Sharks fell to the Penguins in the final round, they gave inspiration that the best trophy in sports can be won by a team other than the recurring powers.
So who could it be this season? What team has the prowess to make a Cinderella run to hoisting Lord Stanley? Even last year’s winners were a surprise story, after firing their coach midway through the season and catching fire at the end of the season.
Let’s start with the Western Conference. While the Blackhawks are again back in the driver’s seat as the top overall seed, almost every other team in the conference would be cause for hope if they were to make the Cup finals.
Despite Anaheim being a top seed in their section of the bracket, the Ducks making it out of the conference would be well-deserved because of their repeated appearances. The Ducks, much like the Sharks a year ago, are often in the playoffs, but cannot seem to break through against the top teams despite repeated tries.
The Minnesota Wild and the Nashville Predators often suffer the same fate. Minnesota’s demises often come against Chicago, as do the St. Louis Blues and the Eastern Conference’s Montreal Canadiens.
The Sharks’ returning to the Cup finals would prove that last year was not a fluke. It would also provide some of the game’s oldest veterans in Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton just their second, and maybe last, chance to win the Cup.
And then there are the Edmonton Oilers and the Calgary Flames. Both Alberta-based squads have not frequented the playoffs often in recent memory. For the Flames, the trip is just the second in eight years for a Calgary team that qualified for five straight seasons between 2004 and 2009.
The Oilers drought has spanned a decade, as their last appearance in the postseason resulted in a loss to the Carolina Hurricanes in the Stanley Cup Finals of 2006. Since, Edmonton has occupied the bottom of the league, never finishing higher than third in their division. Four times the Oilers won the top overall pick after coming in dead last in the NHL.
Now, the Connor McDavid-led team from Edmonton has a chance to reclaim the former glory of the 1980s, when Wayne Gretzky and company led the Oilers to four titles and five finals appearances in six seasons. Edmonton also won the Cup two years after Gretzky’s 1988 departure.
An Edmonton Cup victory would affirm the team’s ability to succeed through the draft. It would also give hope to those like the Colorado Avalanche and the Arizona Coyotes, who have been cellar-dwellers for the past few seasons.
The same goes for the Toronto Maple Leafs, who are back in the playoffs for the second time since 2004. Finishing near the bottom of the league since their last postseason appearance in 2013, the Leafs have been rewarded for their suffering. Auston Matthews arrived on the scene with high expectations as the top selection in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft.
One 40-goal season later, Matthews and the Leafs have grabbed the last wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference and are looking to ride their momentum to a first-round win over the Washington Capitals, who are winners of the President’s Trophy. Making the playoffs has already marked a success for Matthews, Mitchell Marner and company; a series win over the best team in the regular season would mean the Original Six squad has returned to the forefront of the hockey world.
Finally, we have teams that are no strangers to the playoffs, but who have taken a short hiatus in recent years. The Boston Bruins and Columbus Blue Jackets have both been to the playoffs numerous times in the past decade, but are making a return to the postseason. The Ottawa Senators did not qualify last season, but are back in the playoffs this season.
A deep run from any of these three squads would be the most beneficial for the higher-ups in the NHL office. Their victories would show that teams do not need to tank for high draft picks in order to regain success.
The Bruins have just missed the playoffs the past two seasons while the Blue Jackets have floundered. With both teams returning to the postseason, they have a chance to show that building through the late lottery is a stark possibility. Ottawa’s success would yield the same result.
With the playoffs on our doorstep, the likelihood of a team like the Blackhawks, the Rangers and the Penguins hoisting the Cup are likely. However, the prospect of a Cinderella team like the Oilers or the Maple Leafs winning makes this NHL postseason a must-watch.