COLUMN: Who will hoist Lord Stanley?

Hockey fans rejoice! After the long, grueling grind of an 82-game season, the most wonderful time of the year is upon us. The Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Hockey, maybe more so than any other sport, is one where anything really can happen. A team that gets hot at the right time to sneak in the playoffs can upend a higher-seeded team, and maybe, just maybe, go all the way to hoisting the 35-pound trophy high over their heads come June. Case in point, the 2012 Los Angeles Kings, who won the Cup as a No. 8 seed under the old format.

This season was an incredible one to follow, since it nearly took 100 points to make a wild card spot in the Eastern Conference (Carolina and Columbus got in with 99 and 98 points, respectively). The races were tight all the way, with a lot not determined until the final horns on the regular season on Saturday night. The Tampa Bay Lightning had a record-setting season, and several teams that many wrote off at different points along the way were in the dance when the dust settled.

The Pittsburgh Penguins had an up-and-down season, but picked up the pace after some needed moves by General Manager Jim Rutherford and got the third spot in the Metropolitan Division. The Pens finished as one of the hotter teams down the stretch with points in eight of the last 10 games — despite some key injuries.

Matt Murray finally looked like a workhorse goalie, starting 20 of the last 21 games of the season, going 10-4-6 and posting his second best save percentage for any month during the season in March at .935, only behind his .959 while going 5-0 in December. He has been .910 or better every month since November.

He drew the ire of fans (let’s be honest, many of which are still bitter about losing Marc-Andre Fleury to the expansion draft that would not be happy regardless of what Murray did) early on in the season, but Mike Sullivan turned to him, believed in him, and was rewarded for it.

Sidney Crosby, who, regardless of what anyone else says, is still the best all-around hockey player in the world, had a 100-point season, and Jake Guentzel finished with 40 goals (perhaps none bigger than his 40th to force overtime on Saturday night, saving Pittsburgh from a first-round date with the Washington Capitals).

Nick Bjukstad and Jared McCann both added a lot to the team after coming over from Florida, with 14 and 17 points respectively. Rutherford hit it out of the park with that move.

I feel a lot better about this group than I did the one this time last year, all things considered.

I don’t think many would consider the Pens a favorite, but there is not a team on either side of the bracket I don’t think they can beat.

So, without further ado, enough about the Penguins — it’s prediction time.

FIRST ROUND

EAST

¯ No. 1 (Atlantic) Tampa Bay vs. wild card Columbus: As I mentioned above, the Lightning had a remarkable season, which makes them a heavy favorite to go the distance and win it all. But, do not sleep on the Blue Jackets. After making a ton of big moves around the trade deadline and essentially going all-in on a deep run this year, they struggled a bit and had to sneak in, but they will not be an easy out. Nikita Kucherov, who scored a whopping 128 points this season, and company will be too much in the end, though. Tampa in seven.

¯ No. 1 (Metropolitan) Washington vs. wild card Carolina: The Capitals are defending champions and should win this one. Alex Ovechkin was his usual goal-scoring self, leading the league again. The Hurricanes defied expectations and had a surprise season, and had more fun than anyone else in the process. Carolina won’t make it easy, but Caps in seven.

¯ No. 2 (Atlantic) Boston vs. No. 3 (Atlantic) Toronto: The Bruins are the one team many people think can compete with Tampa in the East. They get their old, familiar foe in the rival Leafs, who have had enormous expectations and pressure on them all season. Bruins in six.

¯ No. 2 (Metropolitan) New York Islanders vs. No. 3 (Metropolitan) Pittsburgh: How about the Islanders? Barry Trotz departed from the Caps after winning the Cup and has the Isles in a great spot. He did it despite not a lot of expectations entering season without John Tavares, who was the franchise’s best player but elected to go home to Toronto in free agency. The season series between these familiar foes was pretty even, both teams with 2-1-1 records, but it all took place before the new year. The difference to me is the Penguins have another gear they can shift to for the playoffs, while the Islanders have been working as hard as they can all season to get here. Pens in six.

WEST

¯ No. 1 (Central) Nashville vs. wild card Dallas: The Predators won a very tight division and have been in contention to win a Cup the past several seasons. Dallas, while it had a great year to get in, won’t have enough to overcome Smashville. Preds in six.

¯ No. 1 (Pacific) Calgary vs. wild card Colorado: The Flames are another team that out-performed my expectations of them and had a great season. Johnny Gaudreau, who I saw play for Boston College in the Three Rivers Classic at PPG Paints Arena a few years back, is the real deal and the Flames are a fun team to watch. The Avalanche are in the playoffs largely because of their ability to get to overtime and collect a point while losing (they did so 14 times). Bad news for them, losing OT gets you nothing but heartache in the playoffs. Flames in five.

¯ No. 2 (Central) Winnipeg vs. No. 3 (Central) St. Louis: How about the Blues? At one point, they were in last place in the entire league and looked completely dead in the water. A coaching change and a new young star in net in Jordan Binnington later, and they still had a chance to win their division on Saturday. Winnipeg is a stellar team, too. This series might be the one I am looking forward to watching most. It’s close, but Blues in seven.

¯ No. 2 (Pacific) San Jose vs. No. 3 (Pacific) Vegas: Neither team is exactly lighting it up of late, each winning just three of the last 10 games. Both teams won twice in four meetings this season. I’ll go with the team that went on a Cinderella run last year. Vegas in six.

SECOND ROUND

EAST

¯ Tampa Bay vs. Boston: The Lightning not reaching the Conference Finals after the season they had would be a big letdown. Many feel the Bruins are a tough matchup for the Bolts, but, in a close one, Tampa in seven.

¯ Washington vs. Pittsburgh: It’s a rematch of last season’s second round when the Caps crushed the dreams of a three-peat. While this time of year what happened during the season does not always mean anything, the Pens were 3-1 against the Caps this season, and only one of those games was after the calendar changed and Pens’ roster got better. Sweet, sweet revenge. Penguins in seven.

WEST

¯ Nashville vs. St. Louis: The Blues went 4-1 against the Preds this season, even getting a win before the impressive turnaround. There is something to be said about being on a roll at the right time. Blues in six.

¯ Calgary vs. Vegas: As much as I think the Flames are a fun team to watch, and as much confidence as I had in them in the opening round, a team needs goaltending to make a deep run. Break down the match up of Calgary’s combo of Mike Smith and David Rittich, both of whom have goals against averages above 2.60, against Fleury, and this is a no-brainer. Vegas in six.

CONFERENCE FINALS

EAST

¯ Tampa Bay vs. Pittsburgh: How many times in recent memory has a team been so dominant all season and actually won it all? Exactly. The Penguins showed on Jan. 30 that they have the ability to beat the Bolts, and convincingly. I was there to see it, and it convinces me to take the upset. Pens in seven.

WEST

¯ Vegas vs. St. Louis: How special would it be for Vegas to make it back-to-back Cup Final appearances? How about for a Blues team to go from last-place to the Finals? Either way, it would be a great story. That said, there is no stopping the Blues. St. Louis in six.

STANLEY CUP FINAL

¯ St. Louis vs. Pittsburgh: My black and gold-bleeding heart says one thing, my impartial intuition says another. The teams split a pair of meetings in the regular season, both winning lopsided games in the other’s barn. The Blues won the most recent meeting, 5-1, in Pittsburgh on March 16. St. Louis has been one of the hottest teams in the league down the stretch to get in, and, to get here, will have went on a remarkable run. It’s hard to go against that. It’s tough, but Blues in seven.

(Grimm can be reached at agrimm@heraldstaronline.com)

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