The playoffs begin on Wednesday and the stage is set. The pairings have been determined and from where I’m sitting there are a couple of easy first round matches.

There are many who are saying it is the year of the Capitals with the roster they have and the deadline deal to acquire Kevin Shattenkirk. On the other side of the league how can anybody deny the way the Chicago Blackhawks have played recently and they know Cups; three in the last seven years. We can’t forget the defending Cup champs the Pittsburgh Penguins, but only if they get some of the many injured blue liners back from the disabled list.

Western Conference

What makes the West so intriguing is we have the old standbys who know how to get it done, and on the other side we have the young up and coming teams like the Oilers and the Flames looking to make a name for themselves.

What’s old is new and the Chicago Blackhawks appear to be laying their cards down in the right order. They look like a team that is peaking at the right time and we all know that they have done it before. The nucleus of this team has carved their names on Lord Stanley’s Cup in 2010, 2013, and 2015. Is 2017 in the cards? Only time will tell, and I don’t envy Nashville.

Their core hasn’t changed since their first Cup in 2010. Toews, Kane, Seabrook, Keith, Hossa, Hjalmarson, and their bench boss Joel Quenneville have been keeping this team at the top.

The vets teach the new youngsters that are injected into the line-up how to win until they become too good and require a pay raise. At that point they get traded or end up going elsewhere in free agency. This team is built for the playoffs and they like the view from the perch they are sitting on atop the Western conference. Chicago will enjoy the home ice advantage until the Cup finals and will lose it only if they face Washington.

As for a team that could possibly knock them off perhaps the young up and coming Edmonton Oilers with the sensational Connor McDavid are candidates. They are exciting and fun to watch, they have been getting the goaltending they need from Cam Talbot, and Head Coach Todd McLellan is one of the best and has plenty of playoff experience. The problem there may be that he is one of the few who has any playoff experience, and the kids who they rely on to get the job done don’t.

The Blues knocked off Chicago last year and are another team who are peaking at the right time. This team may be ready to make the jump to the next level after going down in the conference finals last year.

On paper the Calgary Flames are a team, who could knock anybody out with a few bounces and some momentum, but the Flames have drawn the Ducks in the first round which means that they will have to win at least one game at the pond, and they haven’t done that in the last 25 attempts. They are a young squad who have shown plenty of promise down the stretch and will be a team that makes noise for many years to come; I believe they are in need of some playoff experience before Lord Stanley enters their peripheral.

San Jose represented the West last year and was lucky to take the finals to six games. The team speed that Pittsburgh displayed was just too much for them to handle. The guys who got them there aren’t spring chickens and unlike pretty much every other team going into the post-season they are flailing at the wrong time.

Thornton skated today for the first time since last Tuesday with what looked like a knee injury. Logan Couture also hit the ice today for the first time in a while. He is a great player, but has been sidelined long enough to have some rust to shake off; I believe that he is the rudder for that Sharks team and parts the waters. I don’t believe it is any coincidence that San Jose had a difficult time down the stretch while he was out of the lineup.

Eastern Conference

The East is more interesting from where I sit with the Capitals as the favourite; the Penguins are the defending champs and shouldn’t be counted out, especially if they get some of the key contributors from their decimated injury list back. The Blue Jackets and Rangers play a playoff style of hockey and have had the luxury of resting players for the last few games.

Washington has gone about their business differently this year. The team captain Alexander Ovechkin’s minutes are down and he hasn’t put as much focus on his own personal stats as in the past. His goal total is down, but I get the feeling that this team is quietly preparing for a long run this spring.

These guys won their second consecutive President’s trophy and they aren’t the talk of the league. This has to be one of the quietest top teams in the NHL in a long time. The pieces are in place and if the Caps don’t at least win the East it will be considered a disappointment and the character of this team will be questioned.

In truth any team from the Metropolitan Division could represent. They have been playing each other all year long, what better way for a team to prepare for tough competition in a best of 7 series than play some of the best teams in the league. The Metropolitan finished the season with four teams in the top five in the NHL.

Montreal has played better hockey recently, but Carey Price won’t be able to do it on his own and when it comes down to it I don’t believe the Habs depth on the third and fourth lines as well as the defense have what it takes to go all the way.

In the East every team other than the Ottawa Senators are trending in the right direction which will make for exciting first round action, however they have their heart and soul back and I’m certain that the rest did Erik Karllson some good after playing in 325 consecutive games for Ottawa.

In my mind the only series for certain in the first round is Washington over Toronto. The Caps handled the youngsters with ease last week and showed the difference between an experienced team versus youth and exuberance.

Not far behind that series has to be Chicago against Nashville. The Blackhawks have been playing with a great sense of calm and ease down the stretch which should strike fear into every other team in the playoffs, especially the Predators.

Picking the playoffs is a different beast than the regular season, but we’ll do our best and hopefully will come out of this much like the Blackhawks… on a roll.

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Keep your sticks on the ice,

Cam Gore