Physically and psychologically exhausted, long-serving Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby contentedly skated off the ice after game six of the 2017 Stanley Cup Finals, knowing his team had done what they set out to do at the beginning of the season. Riding on the back of the Canadian’s leadership and playoff-high 19 assists, according to NHL.com, the Pennsylvania-based hockey club had become the first team to lift Lord Stanley’s coveted cup in back-to-back seasons since Scotty Bowman’s 1996-97 and 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings squads. Discontented by the Penguins’ dominance, several NHL teams, including last season’s second-best Nashville Predators, are primed to dethrone the back-to-back reigning champions in the 2017-18 season.
After the controversial trade of beloved captain Shea Weber for the P.K. Subban in June 2016, the Predators were somewhat of an unknown quantity heading into last season. Employing middling penalty kill and powerplay units, ranked 15th and 16th in the league, respectively, the Predators were far from a regular season juggernaut this past year, according to NHL.com. Unconvincingly sliding into the playoffs after losing eight of their last 11 games and finishing the regular season with the most goals (224) against among Western Conference playoff teams, the pieces of the Preds’ puzzle suddenly fit together as soon as the playoffs rolled around.
Managing a playoff win percentage 13.6 percent higher than that of the regular season, along with allowing .5 fewer goals per game played and killing 8.2 percent more power plays than in their first eighty-two games thanks to the improved performances of Subban and three-time Vezina Trophy (awarded to the league’s top goaltender) finalist Pekka Rinne, the Predators preyed on their opponents throughout the playoffs, sweeping the top-seeded Chicago Blackhawks along the way, symbolizing a changing of the guard in the Western conference (NHL.com).
However, the young but talented Edmonton Oilers are ready to continue their incredible ascension of the standings and the hockey world, hoping to assert their claim to the Western Conference and ultimately the entire NHL this coming season. Entering the league with lofty comparisons to the aforementioned Crosby and the Oilers great Wayne Gretzky, the reigning Hart Trophy (awarded to the league’s most valuable player) recipient Connor McDavid has met and arguably exceeded the expectations thrust upon him thus far. Becoming the youngest player in NHL history to don the ‘C’ on his chest and serve as team captain, the nineteen year old is a remarkably poised leader for his age, with playmaking and scoring abilities to match.
Finishing last season in the top ten in the NHL in plus-minus (the number of goals a team scores when a given player is on the ice minus the number of goals conceded by the team when the same skater is on the ice), along with a league-high 100 points (goals scored plus assists made), the impact of McDavid should not be minimized; that said, the quality of the Oilers as a whole should not be undermined either (NHL.com). Supplemented by star-in-the-making Leon Draisaitl, who finished last season eighth place in the league in points scored, along with established veteran Milan Lucic, new acquisition Jussi Jokinen and flourishing goaltender Cam Talbot, who started all eighty-six of the Edmonton squad’s games in both the regular season and playoffs a season ago, the Oilers were top ten in the league in goal differential, goals against and goals for, while finishing top in the league in faceoff win percentage on the heels of McDavid, Draisaitl and 2011 first overall draft pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (NHL.com).
The Washington Capitals won the President’s Trophy (presented to the team that accumulates the most points) for the second consecutive year, after finishing the regular season with the most points (118) and wins (55), along with a goal differential of +81, 40 goals higher than Stanley Cup champion winning Penguins and 23 more than the team with the second highest differential, the Minnesota Wild, according to NHL.com. Notorious for their recent playoff failures, however, the Capitals were eliminated from the postseason in the second round by the lower-seeded Penguins in both years.
On the shoulders of eight-time All-Star left winger and current captain Alexander Ovechkin, the Capitals have all the tools needed to succeed in the postseason. Between the posts, they have sure-handed Braden Holtby to count on. Finishing the 2016-17 season with a league-high 42 wins and nine shutouts and top-five finishes in goals against average, save percentage, the Vezina Trophy runner-up is an elite netminder that is a key cog in the Capitals’ Stanley Cup aspirations (NHL.com). The Washington attack is headlined by Ovechkin and the American T.J. Oshie, who both earned top twenty finishes in the Maurice Richard Trophy (awarded to the top goal scorer each season) race with 33 goals apiece, as made clear by trends on the National Hockey League website. These vital players are supplied with the puck by the reliable Niklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov, the former of whom finished second in the NHL with 63 assists, trailing only McDavid’s 70, according to the league’s statistics database.
With the 2017-18 National Hockey League underway, each of the 32 teams in the league will surely be optimistic that they can challenge for the Stanley Cup; however, few teams are truly ready to take on the Penguins’ reign of supremacy over the league. Hungrily anticipating the moment the puck drops and their respective seasons get under way, the Nashville Predators, Edmonton Oilers, and Washington Capitals will be eager to prove themselves, dreaming of the early summer night on which their Stanley Cup dreams come true. Now, only one question remains: Who will rise to the occasion?