The Anaheim Ducks got a road win over the Washington Capitals to end the 2015-16 NHL season Sunday, April 10. In so doing, they won their fourth straight Pacific Division title—something only done previously by the San Jose Sharks from 2008 through 2011—and completed the Stanley Cup playoff picture.
The photo list checks in with each series and predicts winners in order from most to least certain, with subsequent rounds examined later in the week. Some of the better first-round stories are examined in further detail below, starting in Southern California with the Ducks.
While perhaps meant to butter up a rival, all three California teams said winning the Pacific Division was important so they would not have to face both of the others. Does anyone seriously think playing the Sharks just over an hour away is better than playing the Nashville Predators two time zones away?
Both teams have been playing well down the stretch and neither has gotten close to a Stanley Cup before. The Predators finished two points lower and had five fewer regulation/overtime wins (ROW), but did so in a Central Division that finished with 59 more points in the final 2015-16 NHL season standings than the Pacific Division.
It will be interesting to see how tough that series is, and it sets up the single most intriguing matchup of the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs. Three consecutive San Jose seasons were ended with losses to the Los Angeles Kings (the 2014-15 NHL season finale and two prior postseasons), both teams were uncharacteristically absent last spring and 2012 was the only time in the last six postseasons either was in without playing the other.
Of course, we all remember what happened the last time they played—The Choke. The Sharks jumped out to a 3-0 series lead in the 2014 Pacific Division semifinals with a scoring margin better than any of the five teams to ever blow such a lead and the Kings won the next four games by as large a scoring margin as any of them.
San Jose did go 3-1-1 head-to-head during the 2015-16 NHL season with all three wins in regulation, will not have the pressure as the clear underdog and once again appear more resilient than past teams. Los Angeles is not as deep as during the past two postseason meetings and is not playing as well down the stretch as its opponent.
The Kings have been unable to win on the road of late but are good at home. The Sharks have won just 37 of 84 games at home since those first two games of that 2014 Stanley Cup opening round but finished this season as the best road team.
California has not cornered the market on good stories for the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs and Anaheim was not the only team to play Sunday to set the field. The New York Islanders provided at minimum a storyline by the way they lost to a bad team Saturday and were blown out by the Philadelphia Flyers.
The Islanders may have simultaneously surrendered a mental edge to the Capitals should they meet in the Western Conference final and given the Florida Panthers the Rodney Dangerfield rallying cry in the first round. Of course, having the weakest goalie unit in the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs thanks to injuries is a bigger problem.
Meanwhile, the Flyers are happy to play the President’s Trophy winners. They went 25-12-7 to reach the Stanley Cup playoffs after seemingly throwing in the towel on the 2015-16 NHL season by trading away Vincent Lecavalier and Luke Schenn for Jordan Weal and a third-round pick.
The St. Louis Blues have had similar postseason struggles to San Jose’s and will also have to face a winner of multiple Stanley Cups in the first round. Despite having home ice, they will be going in as underdogs but still have the pressure of potentially having jobs riding on a first-round win over the Chicago Blackhawks.
Other interesting stories for this postseason: Steve Yzerman is a general manager for the team playing the one he was the ultimate captain of, the State of Hockey will see its new team take on its old one and the declining four-year mainstays in the Eastern Conference finals are taking on a red-hot team that looks like it may finally live up to the expectations it built during consecutive Stanley Cup finals in 2008 and 2009.