The best part about the new playoff format? The bracket.
The NCAA has March Madness. Now that NHL has gone to divisional playoffs, the league will have April Insanity and May Mayhem before the Stanley Cup final in June. You can print out your own bracket, trace the path for your favorite team and make your picks.
Yahoo Sports isn’t offering a billion dollars if you fill out a perfect NHL bracket, like we did during the NCAA tournament. But go ahead. Try. It’s a good bet you’ll go bust. There won’t be upsets by seventh or eighth seeds anymore, because there aren’t seventh or eighth seeds anymore. Still, there is sure to be a surprise somewhere.
[Related: Ranking the NHL's eight first-round playoff series]
So here we go, and here are our Sweet 16 power rankings. Teams are listed in order of how we view their current situation and Stanley Cup potential, not necessarily where they finished in the standings. We’ll recalibrate before the Elite Eight and the Final Four. Good luck.
The Bruins won the Cup in 2011, went back to the final last year and should be the favorites this year. They can score. They can defend. They can roll four lines and three defense pairings, and they have elite players at each level – Patrice Bergeron up front, Zdeno Chara on the blue line, Tuukka Rask in net. In theory, because they play in the East, they should have an easier road to the final than the Western powers. The biggest concerns: sorting out roles on defense and staying focused. Locked in, they are a machine. Laid-back, they are vulnerable.
Is this the year when the Sharks finally break through and come out of the West? They have many of the same faces – Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Dan Boyle. But they’re faster than the Sharks of old, and Joe Pavelski and Marc-Edouard Vlasic have reached new levels. It will help if Tomas Hertl can add offense and Raffi Torres can add speed and sandpaper. Hertl is back from a serious knee injury; Torres might be ready to play. This team controls the puck and puts a ton of shots on net. The problem is in goal: Antti Niemi, who has won a Cup and been a Vezina finalist, struggled down the stretch.
Last year, the Blackhawks became the first team to win two Cups in the salary-cap era. This year, they have a chance to go back-to-back and win the Cup for the third time in five years, the closest thing to a dynasty in today’s NHL. They were better than they looked in the regular season. They struggled in overtime and shootouts – and there won’t be 4-on-4 OT or shootouts in the playoffs. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane will return from injuries for Game 1. If healthy and humming, this team is every bit as good as the two that won it all.
It’s a shame the Sharks and Kings must meet in the first round. One will be gone. The other might be weakened the way the Kings were last year, when they beat the Sharks in a seven-game second-round series and had little left for the conference final. The Kings won the Cup in 2012 and were the best possession and defensive team this season. Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick are outstanding. But once again the question is offense. Mike Richards and Dustin Brown have had disappointing seasons. Can trade-deadline acquisition Marian Gaborik make a difference?
5. St. Louis Blues
The same can be said for the Blackhawks and Blues. One will be gone after the first round? The Blues can be a deep, structured, hard-to-play-against monster in the mold of Boston or L.A. They added goaltender Ryan Miller and agitator Steve Ott at the deadline, hoping Miller would make that extra save and Ott would push the envelope a little further. But Miller didn’t have an easy adjustment to facing fewer shots than he’s used to, and injuries struck. The Blues lost their final six games in the regular season. So much depends on the health of David Backes, Patrik Berglund, Brenden Morrow, T.J. Oshie, Vladimir Sobotka and Vladimir Tarasenko. Offense has been an issue in the playoffs in the past.
Sidney Crosby enters the playoffs healthy for the first time since 2010. The Penguins, depleted by injuries and illnesses this season, have Paul Martin and Kris Letang back and should have Evgeni Malkin back, too. But is the bottom six strong enough, the defense stout enough, the goaltending solid enough? Marc-Andre Fleury cannot afford to follow another good regular season with another awful playoff, which is why he started seeing a sports psychologist last summer and started working with a new goalie coach this season. There is no one to rescue him now. Backup Jeff Zatkoff has no playoff experience. Veteran Tomas Vokoun, who stepped in and led the Pens to the Eastern Conference final last year, just returned after missing the season because of a blood clot.
Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry are two of the best players in the NHL, and the Ducks were the top team in the West, the stronger conference. Still, they have a lot to prove. Getzlaf and Perry were part of the Anaheim team that won the 2007 Cup, but they weren’t the leaders of that group and haven’t led the Ducks deep in the playoffs yet. They were outplayed last year by Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg when the Ducks were upset by the Detroit Red Wings in the first round. Coach Bruce Boudreau won titles at lower levels and doesn’t get enough credit for what he has done in the NHL, but he hasn’t been past the second round.
We know goaltender Henrik Lundqvist is capable of winning 1-0 games in the playoffs. But the Rangers hope they won’t have to win as many squeakers now that they have replaced John Tortorella with Alain Vigneault. After a slow start, the Rangers adjusted to Vigneault’s style. They take more advantage of their speed and skill, but they haven’t lost all of their grit, even after trading captain Ryan Callahan. Martin St-Louis needs to get going, however. He was the one who demanded the trade to New York, and he had only one goal and eight points in 19 games. If he starts producing, the Rangers will become that much more dangerous.
Landing Thomas Vanek at the trade deadline was a huge coup for the Canadiens. Not only can he score, but he can pass at an elite level. He has been productive on a line with David Desharnais and Max Pacioretty, and that has slotted the rest of the forwards more effectively. The Habs have two excellent offensive defensemen in P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov, and they have one of the best goaltenders in the league in Carey Price. If any team in the East can beat Boston, it’s Montreal, given their history, and they could meet in the second round.
The Avs finished second in the West over 82 games. So why are they ranked so low? Leading scorer Matt Duchene is likely out for the first round with a knee injury. The Avs are weak on the blue line and were one of the worst possession teams in the regular season. Goaltender Semyon Varlamov was such a major part of the Avs’ success that he should win the Vezina and be a finalist for the Hart. For the Avs to come out of the West, let alone win the Cup, he will have to play well enough to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP.
Craig Berube did a hell of a job after taking over for coach Peter Laviolette early in the season, making the Flyers skate more and play better without the puck. Claude Giroux rebounded from an awful start and might be a Hart finalist. If the Flyers get past the Rangers and face the Penguins in the second round, look out. Still, this is a team that doesn’t possess the puck enough and still has holes defensively. The Flyers finished 20th in goals against in the regular season, worst among the playoff teams. Although Steve Mason has claimed the No. 1 job, can he outduel Henrik Lundqvist in goal over a seven-game series?
12. Detroit Red Wings
Beware the Wings. They won their final four games to make the playoffs last season, then upset the Ducks in the first round and almost upset the Blackhawks in the second. A strong stretch drive put them in the tournament this time. Young players like Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar carried them instead of veterans like Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, and that will have to continue in the playoffs. Datsyuk will play but on a bad knee. Zetterberg will miss the first round with a bad back.
The Wild relied too much on too few players in a five-game, first-round loss to the Blackhawks last season. Ryan Suter is still going to play a zillion minutes. Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu and Jason Pominville will still be important. But this team is deeper now thanks to the emergence of Mikael Granlund and Jared Spurgeon and the additions of Matt Moulson, Matt Cooke, Nino Niederreiter and Cody McCormick. Ilya Bryzgalov, of all people, calmed the goaltending situation down the stretch after being acquired at the trade deadline. One glaring weakness: special teams, especially penalty killing. The Wild was third-worst on the PK in the regular season; its first-round opponent, Colorado, was fifth-best on the power play.
The Bolts have been a great story. Steven Stamkos went down with a broken leg, but rookies Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson emerged as excellent two-way players. Martin St-Louis demanded a trade, but Ryan Callahan came back in the deal and Stamkos came back to the lineup at the same time. Victor Hedman developed into a top defenseman. Coach Jon Cooper improved the system. But Stamkos is playing through the after-effects of his injury, managing to produce without his top gear, and now goaltender Ben Bishop, a Vezina and Hart candidate, is hurt. He will miss Game 1. At least. Ryan Malone’s arrest doesn't help, either.
15. Dallas Stars
Tyler Seguin had one goal and eight points in 22 playoff games for the Bruins last year, and he was traded to the Stars amid talk of too little professionalism and too much partying. He went from a role player on an established team to a leading man on an up-and-coming team, and he finished fourth in the league in scoring this season with 37 goals and 84 points. With Seguin at center, Jamie Benn went back to the wing, his natural position, and produced 34 goals and 79 points himself. Can Seguin take what he learned in Boston and translate it to the playoffs? Can he and Benn continue to be as dynamic at this time of year? Can the Stars, in the playoffs for the first time since 2008, pull off an upset?
16. Columbus Blue Jackets
The Jackets didn’t win a game in their only previous playoff appearance, in 2009. You wonder if they will win a game this time. They went 0-5 this season against their first-round opponent, the Penguins, and scorer Nathan Horton, who once starred in the playoffs for the Bruins, is out after having abdominal surgery. The positives? They have nothing to lose. They have budding star Ryan Johansen, who has earned comparisons to Ryan Getzlaf. They have a solid system. And of course they have goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, who won the Vezina last year, played well this season and appeared in only one of those five losses to Pittsburgh.
MORE NHL COVERAGE ON YAHOO SPORTS:
- Sports & Recreation
- Ice Hockey
- Ryan Getzlaf
- Henrik Zetterberg
- Ryan Miller