The Stanley Cup Playoffs might be the best playoffs of them all. They’re certainly the most gruelling of the major sports leagues in North America. Even the best clubs in the NHL disintegrate once they get thrown into the postseason meat grinder. Since 2002, only two teams have won the Cup after finishing first in the league standings. It’s the Presidents’ Trophy Curse.

And it’s a bad omen for the Washington Capitals. They were the cream of the crop during the 2016-17 regular season, posting five more wins than anyone else at 55-19-8. At press time, the Capitals are also the favourites to represent the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Final – but they’re not terribly chalky favourites at +200 on the NHL futures market. They’re not even the top pick to win the Cup when all is said and done.

First Things First

That honour goes to the Chicago Blackhawks. After a late-season surge that saw them vault to the top of the Western Conference standings at 50-23-9, the Blackhawks are +180 favorites to win the West, and +425 to win their fourth Stanley Cup in eight years. Washington is a step behind at +450. Has the betting market already priced in the dreaded curse?

It might have more to do with Washington’s larger failures. The Caps have never won the Stanley Cup. They did claim seven division titles (the Southeast, then the Metropolitan) over the past decade, but they didn’t even reach the Eastern finals during that span. That includes two Presidents’ Trophy-winning seasons, in 2009-10 and again last year.

America’s Got Tallon

Chicago’s reputation used to be even worse. Before Joel Quenneville took over as head coach in 2008, the Blackhawks had gone 47 years without winning the Cup – and had reached the playoffs just once over the previous 10 seasons. Things have changed. The Hawks have thrived under Quenneville, although much of the credit goes to former GM Dale Tallon, who assembled their 2009-10 championship team before palace intrigue cost him his job.

The key pieces from that team are still in place. Patrick Kane (34 goals, 55 assists) and Jonathan Toews (21 goals, 37 assists) remain up front, while Duncan Keith (six goals, 47 assists) and Brian Campbell (plus-12) continue to patrol the blueline – Campbell returning to the Windy City after following Tallon to the Florida Panthers in 2011. But this team isn’t nearly as strong as it was back in the day, 50 wins notwithstanding.

Washington, on the other hand, is even stronger this season. The Caps have improved their goal differential from plus-59 to plus-81, while the Hawks (plus-26 to plus-31) have enjoyed a more modest improvement over last year’s performance. And that doesn’t fully account for the trade-deadline arrival of Kevin Shattenkirk (14 points in 19 games) to the DC defense corps. Both teams are healthy going into the playoffs; if they do meet in the Final, Washington will have home-ice advantage, and the best shot they’ve ever had at winning the Cup


*Odds as of April 13, 2017