1st Round Playoff Picks

Alright. Before making any picks, I’m going back to the well: history! Here are my picks from last year’s 1st round (in bold):

(1) Washington vs. (8) Montreal – Oops. Well not many saw that coming. Yes, Halak played out of his mind, but Gill, Gorges and others also blocked half the shots Washington threw at the net.

 (2) NJ vs. (7) Philly – Wrong again. Though at least I qualified it by saying the following:

“Chance of upset: Pretty good if Boucher can play 4 good games. (doubtful)”

Apparently not doubtful…(Remember, goaltending is fickle)

(3) Buffalo vs. (6) Boston – Boston underperformed during the season, and Buffalo won the division because they were the best of a sub-par group. These teams were evenly matched, and Boston played just a little bit better

(4) Pittsburgh vs. (5) Ottawa – No surprises there

(1) San Jose vs. (2) Colorado – Colorado got an early lead with Anderson playing ridiculously, but San Jose overcame the early deficit

(2) Chicago vs. (7) Nashville – Chicago got a scare when Nashville nearly won game 5 to take a 3-2 lead, but they came back in that game and won in 6

(3) Vancouver vs. (6) Los Angeles – a tight series (2-2 after 4 games) but Vancouver pulled away late

(4) Phoenix vs. (5) Detroit – Close series which went to game 7, but the final game was a blowout

The mistake people often make when making playoff picks lies in the scale of standings. Since teams are ranked on an ordinal scale (from 1 to 8), the implicit assumption we make is that the further apart those teams are, the greater the difference in talent. (Looking at the gap in points would provide some insight, but even that has problems, as mentioned below). However, in some cases, performance diverges significantly from talent. Last year, Philadelphia was loaded with talent for a 7th seed; Similarly, the ’09 Ducks were an incredibly dangerous 8th seed when they beat San Jose in round 1.

Even when the points gap between opponents is wide, that doesn’t necessarily indicate a huge disparity in talent. Washington has won several divisional crowns of late (three in a row now), yet their performance is partially explained by the weak division they play in. (There are 6 games/year between divisional foes; only 4 between conference rivals). Conversely, the New York Rangers play 6 times a year against great teams in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, (as well as New Jersey, who while awful in the first half, was lights out in the second half). While the Canucks are undoubtedly a great team, they scored a lot of easy points this year off Edmonton and Colorado (bottom-2 in the league), and to a lesser extent off Calgary and Minnesota (decent teams that missed the playoffs).

There’s also an interesting dynamic involving consistency. Until this year, the New Jersey Devils were a lock for the playoffs, if not the division. But a close examination of their stats showed that they were consistently able to take points from the lesser-lights while losing the majority of their games to the very top teams. (This may help explain why they haven’t been past the first round since 2007). In general, this tendency to feast on the bottom-feeders is typical of defensive-minded teams like Nashville, Phoenix, New Jersey, etc, as they are generally well-coached and give a reliable effort every night. They aren’t overly talented, but make the most of what they have to beat teams of equal or lesser talent. However, the vast majority of great teams possess high powered offences, and when these ‘bottom-beaters’ match-up against other smart, hard-working teams with a greater supply of skill, they aren’t able to compete. That isn’t to say that they can’t upset a better team in a 7 game series, (or even a few teams, as Montreal did last year), but they’re never able to go all the way. (The ’03 Ducks were the closest, getting to game 7 of the finals in the ‘dead puck era’, before losing to an equally defensive Devils team that had more skill).

All things equal (i.e assuming the team has no glaring weaknesses), it seems that a good offence will usually overwhelm a good defence, perhaps in part because a good offensive team doesn’t spend as much time playing in their own zone. Among last year’s 1st round winners, Montreal was the only team with a clearly inferior offence which pulled off a victory. Here’s a brief summary of some clear 1st round upsets in the post-lockout era:

’09

#6 Carolina over #3 New Jersey (Cam Ward+Eric Staal show)

#8 Anaheim over #1 San Jose (though not a huge upset when you look at Anaheim’s roster)

’07 and ’08 – No upsets (all #1 and #2 seeds intact); though some #3 seeds were beaten – Atlanta (’07), Minnesota (’08) and Washington (’08); however, those teams were misplaced, as the #6 seed was even money, and in some cases favoured

’06

#8 Edmonton over #1 Detroit (Roloson+Pronger’s doing; plus Edmonton was underrated during the season because they played 60 games with essentially 2 backup goalies in Conklin and Markkanen till they acquired Roloson)

#7 Colorado over #2 Dallas (better offensive team won)

With all this in mind, and without further ado, here are my playoff predictions:

WEST

(1) Vancouver vs. (8) Chicago

(2) San Jose vs. (7) LA

(3) Detroit vs. (6) Phoenix

(4) Anaheim vs. (5) Nashville

EAST

(1) Washington vs. (8) New York

(2) Philadelphia vs. (7) Buffalo

(3) Boston vs. (6) Montreal

(4) Pittsburgh vs. (5) Tampa Bay

Yes, I feel bad that I didn’t pick any upsets. However, I decided that it’s more important to try to get them right rather than simply trying to look smart by picking an interesting upset. Furthermore, I think the real challenge lies not just in predicting the winner, (or the number of games), but describing the reasons why a team will win, and on the flip side of the coin, why a team may lose.

WEST

 Van vs. Chi

Season Series: Canucks 2-1-1

Despite losing to the Hawks last year in 6 games, Vancouver did have two dominant victories. Last off-season the teams went in opposite directions as Chicago was forced to dismantle their team due to salary cap constraints. Vancouver meanwhile went out and added a few solid defencemen in Hamhuis and Ballard. Vancouver has been the best team all year long, and while Chicago should push them, I don’t see an upset. The Sedins will control the play whenever they have the puck (which seeming is all the time). The improved Canucks defence only has to stop 2 lines this year rather than three. Furthermore, Dave Bolland – one of Chicago best players from last year’s run –  is out with a concussion. Patrick Sharp is also less than 100%, coming off a leg injury. Dustin Byfuglien won’t be in Luongo’s face this year. Andrew Ladd won’t be grinding in the corners. Versteeg won’t be around to put a dagger in the Canucks hopes. It won’t be easy, but Sedin^2, Kesler, Edler, Erhoff, Luongo and co. will make it through.

Sjs vs. Lak

Season Series: Sharks 3-1-2

In terms of team strengths, these opponents are like opposite ends of the same coin. The Sharks have a really strong group of forwards. Aside from Heatley-Thornton-Marleau, they have great complementary scoring from Pavelski, Clowe, Couture, and Setoguchi. Their defence and goaltending are just average for a playoff time, though Niemi should be solid enough. Meanwhile, LA’s forward group is hurting after losing their top forward Anze Kopitar. However their defence and goaltending are well above average, with Doughty, Johnson, Scuderi, Greene, and Mitchell providing a nice mix of size, skill, experience, intelligence and grit. While unproven, Jonathan Quick is a very good goaltender who could steal a few games, just like Craig Anderson did to Colorado last year. It wouldn’t surprise me to see LA take this as far as game 7, but the smart money is on San Jose.

Det vs. Phx

Season Series: Tied 2 all

In a rematch of last year’s first round, the teams haven’t changed all that much. Detroit still has an incredibly deep cast of offensive forwards. Phoenix still has an excellent defence. Phoenix still lacks some scoring punch, while Detroit still lacks a big-time goaltender. Phoenix does seem slightly more dangerous than last year though, with defenceman Keith Yandle emerging as a star, and young 2-way forwards like Martin Hanzal and Lauri Korpikoski providing more and more offence. This series should be just as tight as last year, but I don’t see Phoenix having an answer to Datsyuk, Franzen, Zetterberg, and co.

Ana vs. Nas

Season Series: Predators 3-1

If there is an upset in the West, it could be Nashville over Anaheim. Nashville has great defence, goaltending, coaching, work ethic, and overall depth. Shea Weber is a Norris trophy candidate, Pekka Rinne may be a Vezina candidate, and they have some quality 2-way forwards like Fisher, and Legwand to complement fairly talented players in Hornqvist and Erat. With Nashville, the achilles heal is that they don’t have much offence, but you never know, a few guys might get hot. (Hornqvist, Erat, and Dumont are pretty streaky). Furthermore, Anaheim’s Jonas Hiller is out with vertigo, and defacto starting goalie Dan Ellis doesn’t inspire much confidence. That being said, Anaheim might have the best forward line in hockey with Ryan, Getzlaf and Perry, and the 2nd line with Selanne and Koivu isn’t bad either. As good as Nashville is defensively, I don’t think anyone can stop that 1st line, so if Nashville can’t score 3+ goals per game, they’re in trouble.

EAST

I’m as unconfident in the East as I am confident in the West. All of the favoured teams face absolutely elite goalies who could flick a switch and steal the series.

Was vs. Nyr

Season Series: Rangers 3-1

This was the one big upset that I really mulled over. New York is a better team than their 8th place finish indicates, as they were +35 on the year in goal differential. Lundqvist is probably the most consistent elite goalie since the lockout. I also don’t have much confidence in ’88 born goalies Michal Neuvirth and Semeon Varalamov. What swayed me to pick Washington is the return of defenceman Mike Green, who missed the last several weeks with a concussion. Along with the emergence of young defencemen Karl Alzner, John Carlson, and Jeff Schultz, and veteran Scott Hannan, the caps have a pretty solid group. (If Tom Poti and Dennis Wideman were healthy, their defence would be a juggernaut). Also, Ovechkin’s poor regular season has me thinking he might explode in playoffs. I think Lundqvist will keep it close, but Washington will prevail.

Phi vs. Buf

Season Series: Tied 2-2

Though their goaltending is probably the worst of any playoff team, Philadelphia has the best group of skaters of any team in the league. Richards, Giroux, Carter, Briere, Hartnell, Leino, Versteeg, and Van Riemsdyk give the Flyers unparalleled scoring depth. Timonen, Coburn,Meszaros, and Carle are a solid top-4, and can take care of business if Pronger misses a few games. On the Sabres side, a very average defence is missing two important players in Jordan Leopold and Andrei Sekera. But more than anything, the diminished Ryan Miller factor has me confident in Philadelphia. Miller hasn’t played a full game since March, so I have my doubts that he can get back into series-stealing form. That being said, Buffalo does have a pretty impressive forward group with Vanek, Boyes, Stafford, Ennis, and the glass man (Connolly). They could really use Derek Roy’s offence right now too, but he’s on the shelf with a torn quadriceps.

Bos vs. Mtl

Season Series: Montreal 4-2

Have you heard the expression ‘anything you can do I can do better’? Boston has as much or more offence than Montreal. They have likely Vezina winner Tim Thomas. They have likely Norris candidate Zdeno Chara. They play a big, physical brand of hockey, yet they also have good speed. Montreal can’t beat Boston the way they beat Washington. Caps shooters threw 75 shots per game at Halak (many of which were blocked or missed the net), and got incredibly frustrated. The Bruins will cycle the puck and drive the net relentlessly. Montreal definitely has a shot, with Price having a great year, and Plekanec, Cammalleri, and Gionta always dangerous. But despite losing the season series 4-2, Boston is a more talented and well-rounded team.

Pit vs. Tby

Season Series: Tied 2-2

If there’s one series that’s impossible to predict, it’s this one. Similar to San Jose vs. Los Angeles, these teams are absolute polar opposites. With Crosby and Malkin out, Pittsburgh has no top end forwards but does boast a number of good, character players who get the job done. Inversely, Tampa has crazy top-end forwards, but very little depth after the top two lines. Pittsburgh has a fantastic group of top-4 defencemen with Letang, Orpik, Michalek and Martin, while Tampa Bay’s defence has been porous all year long, with former quality players like Pavel Kubina and Mattias Ohlund showing their age. In goal, Marc-Andre Fleury is a proven commodity for Pittsburgh, and will give his team a chance every night. Meanwhile, despite being 41, Dwayne Roloson is still pretty solid. Many people are taking Tampa, but I’ve been incredibly impressed with how well Pittsburgh has responded to the adversity they’ve faced down the stretch. However, In the end, I think Tampa’s fine forwards will win the day. Martin St. Louis is having an MVP-type season, and Vinnie Lecavalier and Simon Gagne are both playing well of late. If Stamkos can recover some of his early season form, Tampa should score just enough to win. I won’t be the least bit surprised if Pittsburgh wins the series though, as they are an incredibly disciplined team that really pays attention to the little details. They would be an absolute force if they had either of Malkin or Crosby, never mind both.

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