The NHL regular season is officially a wrap and the playoff matchups are set. Is this the year the Sharks finally win the Stanley Cup?
San Jose will open against the Los Angeles Kings in round one. Both teams missed the playoffs last year but faced one another in each of the previous two playoffs.
Los Angeles won both those series in seven games, the most recent of which in devastating fashion for the Sharks. San Jose held a 3-0 series lead before the Kings won four straight to advance on en route to their second Stanley Cup in three seasons.
Eastern Conference Round 1
But enough about the past, let's break down the future. Before we get to the Sharks and Kings matchup this time around, let's start of in the Eastern Conference. The first round series are as follows: Capitals vs Flyers, Islanders vs Panthers, Penguins vs Rangers and Red Wings vs Lightning.
The Flyers are a great story battling back to make the postseason led by rookie defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere. However, the President's Trophy winning Washington Capitals will be too much for them to handle. Capitals in 6.
Florida is the popular choice to make some noise with the ageless wonder Jaromir Jagr, great goaltending from Roberto Luongo and a nice young core featuring guys like Aaron Ekblad, Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau. However, I'm going to go the other way here and take the Islanders. Their core stars are bit more experienced come playoff time. This series is a toss up, but when it comes down to a big moment in a Game 7, I'll take John Tavares to put the Islanders on his back. Islanders in 7.
The other New York team, the Rangers have had to rely far too much on Henrik Lundqvist between the pipes this year. Even after the addition of Eric Staal at the trade deadline, New York just doesn't possess the puck enough. Top defenseman Ryan McDonagh is a bit banged up and that doesn't help matters. On the flip side the Penguins are also with star center Evgeni Malkin, but the Penguins haven't seemed to miss a beat. Pittsburgh rolls into the playoffs as one of the hottest teams and their overall speed will be too much for the Rangers. Penguins in 6.
Speaking of injuries, the Tampa Bay Lightning are without their best player Steven Stamkos and second-best defenseman Anton Stralman. Top defenseman Victor Hedman is also day-to-day, as are a number of other key forwards. These injuries are simply too much for them to overcome. Detroit has a good mix of veterans and young guns. Red Wings in 6.
East Round 2
Islanders will be too much for the Red Wings. Islanders in 7.
Capitals and Penguins, a rematch between Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin. One of the best individual rivalries in team sports. This time around Ovechkin's Capitals will get the best of the Penguins. Capitals in 7.
Tavares will have had two great series coming into the conference final but the Capitals are too deep and too structured. Ovechkin and company will finally break through and get to the final. Capitals in 6.
Western Conference Round 1
Most hockey fans agree that there is only one first round matchup that is a "relatively" easy call. Any team can beat any team but the Minnesota Wild limped into the playoffs. They take on the Dallas Stars in the first round. Dallas has been a dominant scoring team all season even without Tyler Seguin down the stretch. Jamie Benn, Patrick Sharp, John Klingberg and company will easily dispatch the Wild. Stars in 4.
The Western Conference opens with two great rivalry series. St. Louis faces their long time nemisis in the Chicago Blackhawks. Can the Blues get over the hump? This is the year I believe they do just that. Brian Elliott has posted the best goaltending numbers in the league this season. St. Louis needs this series far more than the Blackhawks. Blues in 7.
Anaheim started out the season unable to score goals and yet wound up winning the Pacific Division. They are taking on the much more well-balanced Predators than in years past. Nashville has always been tough defensively, but a mid-season trade to acquire top-line center Ryan Johansen has helped turn things around offensively. This will be a much tougher series for the Ducks than many might think. They get it done, but barely. Ducks in 7.
And finally, the series you care about most. The Kings were a juggernaut possession team this year, but the Sharks were right up there with them in the second half. Joe Thornton looks like he is a man possessed right now and the Sharks have the better depth at all three positions. San Jose has been amazing on the road this season, give me Sharks in 6.
West Round 2
Dallas can score at will, but the scoring is going to run dry when it runs into Elliott and the defensively stout Blues. Blues in six.
It may not be a popular opinion, but the Ducks will be more beat up from the Predators series than the Sharks will be from the Kings series. Anaheim will have had to travel back and forth to Tennessee. San Jose will be fresher and that little difference will pay off. Sharks in 7.
In what is bound to be a tight, hard fought, low-scoring series, the Sharks will finally advance to their first ever Stanley Cup final. The Blues simply have never had an answer to Joe Thornton. While they beat the Sharks in round one back in 2011-12, this years Sharks squad is far deeper, with far better goaltending. Sharks in 6.
Stanley Cup Final
The Sharks and Capitals will play a much more exciting brand of hockey in the final than the Sharks' previous series against the Blues. What will be the difference you ask? San Jose was the best road team in the NHL this season, they win Game 7 on the road in Washington. Sharks in 7.
Now while some may simply disregard this prediction as homerish, the fact of the matter is that of all the great teams the Sharks have had over the Joe Thornton era, this is by far the deepest and most well-balanced squad of them all. You could also make the case for it being the most talented. The Sharks have the firepower, goaltending and top-four defense on par with any of their potential playoff opponents and they are relatively healthy compared to most other playoff teams. This is the best year of Joe Thornton's career despite being 36. This is the year Team Teal finally gets it done.