By Natalie Fiorilli and Joseph Sykes | The Duquesne Duke
Western Conference – Joseph Sykes
The Central boasts some of the most talented teams in the NHL, which makes for an amazing storyline to follow year in and year out. The Dallas Stars, Colorado Avalanche and Minnesota Wild are always dark horses to win the division, however the other three teams will be much more dangerous.
After winning their third Stanley Cup in six years, the Chicago Blackhawks are easily the favorite to win the Central this time around. However this offseason was devastating to the team’s high-powered offense after both Patrick Sharp and Brandon Saad – two fan-favorite goal scorers – were traded away due to salary cap restraints. Because of this, don’t be surprised to see other teams jump ahead of Chicago early in the season.
The Nashville Predators, the Blackhawks’ first victim en route to last year’s championship run, has one of the deepest lineups in their 19-year history. Led by their rugged captain, Shea Weber, the Predators boast a talented group of offensive weapons such as winger James Neal and 2014-15-breakout center Filip Forsberg. The team is backstopped by Finnish goaltender Pekka Rinne, a netminder on the brink of becoming one of the league’s elite. They’ll be looking to exact revenge on the Blackhawks right out of the gate.
The St. Louis Blues, another rival of Chicago’s, have struggled in recent years when it comes to postseason play. But once again, experts continue to believe that this year is the year for the Blue & Yellow to snag that coveted trip to the Stanley Cup Final. The team has one of the more talented up-and-coming forwards in Vladimir Tarasenko, who will once again continue to dazzle fans and opponents alike with his quick hands and menacing shot.
For the past few years or so, California dominated the NHL, especially the Pacific division. The Anaheim Ducks, San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings were always battling for the top slot by season’s end. However, only one of those teams remains at the division’s center stage.
The Ducks had three opportunities to put the Blackhawks away in the Western Conference Final last season, but each time they were unable to close. Fans out in Southern California shouldn’t be too hung up on the loss, though. With superstars like Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler returning, the Ducks will easily return to the Western Conference Final with not much push back from the Pacific’s other teams.
The Calgary Flames made the playoffs for the first time since 2009 and that came as a shock to many, including the team’s own fans. It was perceived that the club was in full rebuild-mode after losing many of its key veteran players. Somehow, the Flames found themselves in the second round of the playoffs back in April before getting knocked out by the Ducks. If they can build off their momentum from last year, the team could get another chance to make an even deeper run.
While the Blackhawks still have the weapons to make another deep push for the conference title, they are running out of gas. They have played in the past three Western Conference Finals, which means they have played more hockey games over the past three years than any other team in the NHL. Come April, it will be Anaheim’s time to take over the reigns and represent their conference in the Cup Final.
Eastern Conference – Natalie Fiorilli
During last year’s regular season, the Montreal Canadiens and the Tampa Bay Lightning dominated the Atlantic Division, breaking 100 points and surpassing the trailing teams by at least eight points.
This season Tampa Bay should be the team to watch in the East, and will most likely be the conference champs. The Lightning made it to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, and after being snubbed by the Blackhawks in Game 6, they will be especially hungry to win it all this season.
The Lightning have relatively the same roster and have kept goalie Ben Bishop, who carried the team during their playoff run. The only factor to consider is that a team that makes it to the Final is not as well rested as the majority of the league.
The Habs could very likely take second in the Atlantic Division, behind the Lightning. After finishing first in the division last season, they topped the Senators in Game 6 of the quarterfinals, and then fell to Tampa Bay in another Game 6 of the semifinals. Despite their lack of strength offensively, they are stacked on the defensive end with goalie Carey Price and a first line of Andrei Markov and P.K. Subban.
Trailing the Lightning and the Canadians will likely be the Ottawa Senators in third, and the Florida Panthers in fourth.
The Sens have a young team with a lot of talent invested in their rookies like Mike Hoffman and Mark Stone, the only thing in question is whether their goalie, Andrew Hammond, will be able to hold up in the cage.
The Florida Panthers should surpass the remaining teams contending for a playoff spot, considering their talent in net, Roberto Luongo, and an offensive line consisting of Jussi Jokinen, Jaromir Jagr and Alexander Barkov.
As for the Metropolitan Division, expect the Islanders to place first. If not them, the Rangers will take their place.
In recent history, the Islanders have been inching just a bit closer to a good run at the Cup, and this year with a new arena, they will be determined to decorate the Barclays Center with another banner.
The Rangers are great all around — and specialize on the penalty kill. They are backed up with one of the best goalies in the league, Henrik Lundqvist. There is no reason they won’t be good contenders within the division, if not the conference.
Taking the remaining two spots in the division will be the Pens in third and the Caps in fourth.
The Pens have especially fresh legs in newly recovered players like Olli Maatta, Kris Letang and Pascal Dupuis. Just as well, adding Phil Kessel to the first line wing with Sidney Crosby should create explosive changes to the Penguins offense.
While the Caps may not have success in the postseason, they could easily win a Cup if they played as well in the playoffs as they do during the regular season. An offensive line of Alex Ovechkin, Nikolas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie could be unstoppable, and it will be just as hard to get past their defense with guys like Karl Alzner and John Carlson.
Washington’s infamous inability to make it far in the playoffs and Montreal’s lack of offensive depth will be each of their downfalls.
Expect a Pens vs. Lightning matchup in the Conference Finals with Tampa Bay taking it down to the wire in seven games.