So it’s that time of year again. The time when beards are grown, money is wagered, and legends are made. It’s the NHL Playoffs. If there’s a more exciting event in sports, I haven’t experienced it. Nothing else compares to the pace, drama, ferocity, and suspense which the Stanley Cup Playoffs provide us year after year. Perhaps fans of other sports would beg to disagree, but if so, I’d beg them to watch a better sport.
Since about 2004, I’ve been making NHL playoff brackets. The goal – nay, the dream – is to have a perfect bracket. It’s never happened for me to date, and the odds of it ever happening are slim. And every year it makes me try harder.
This year, I’ve gone to new lengths – almost laughable lengths – in my efforts to be right. I know from past experience that more information does not mean better decisions, and yet something compelled me to strive onward. So I have some information which, if nothing else, should be neat to look at. (Is 15 hours really worth “neat to look at?”) For now, I’m just going to lay out each series and make some picks, but I’ll be posting my crazy methodology once the playoffs are underway.
(1) Pittsburgh versus (8) New York Islanders
It may not be a tight series, but it should be fun to watch. John Tavares has emerged as one of the top-5 forwards in the NHL, and has pulled the Islanders along with him. The only knock on Tavares on draft day was his skating, which was considered average at best. But in the past four years, Tavares’ Crosby-like work-ethic has turned that weakness into a strength. Shutting him down in a 7-game series is not possible.
But what’s truly different about the Islanders is the supporting cast. It’s no longer just Matt Moulson riding shot-gun to Tavares, but 2nd line guys like Nielsen, Bailey, and Okposo who are bringing it for New York, and providing the kind of balanced attack which saw them score 139 goals, good for 8th in the NHL. Veteran puck moving d-men like Lubomir Visnovsky and Mark Streit are also a big part of that turnaround.
But…it’s Pittsburgh. On paper, the Pens might be the best NHL team in over a decade. If you knew prior to the season that they’d have Crosby, Malkin, Iginla, Neal, Morrow, and Kunitz up front, you’d need a very good reason to pick anyone else to win it all. It just looks frightening. I didn’t even list Pascal Dupuis, since he isn’t a name that sticks out to most people, and yet he scored 20 goals. And then there’s Kris Letang, who would have been the odds-on favourite to win the Norris Trophy this year had he not missed a quarter of the season with various lower-body ailments.
In fact, the Pens won more games in overtime and regulation than any other team in the league – including Chicago – 33 in all. They beat the Islanders in 4 of 5 meetings this year, and swept one of the other Eastern Conference favourites – the Boston Bruins – 3-0. In fact, the Penguins only have a losing record against one team in East: the New Jersey Devils. And with the Devils ready to hit the golf course, it’s hard to find a team that has an obvious advantage over Crosby and Co.
If there is a weakness on this team, it’s the injury bug. Crosby probably won’t be ready for game 1 of the series due to the broken jaw he suffered on March 30th, and Malkin, Letang, and Neal have all returned just recently from their own injuries. But unless they lose all those players again, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where the Islanders can overcome that juggernaut.
(2) Montreal versus (7) Ottawa
Folks, this is a tight one. In a series like this, it’s hard to resist shaking your head and simply picking the favourite. But here’s how I see it shaking down.
The Habs exceeded expectations all year with strong early-season play from Carey Price and a great powerplay, led by the return of prodigal son, Andrei Markov. After several injury-plagued seasons, Markov regained his health, playing in every game this year – the first time he’s done so since ’07-’08. P.K Subban put up career numbers with 38 points in only 42 games, and the Canadians got balanced contributions from Pacioretty, Plekanec, Gionta, Ryder, Desharnais, Eller, Galchenyuk, and Gallagher.
The Sens are more or less the opposite story. With early-season injuries to their elite offensive talents – Jason Spezza, and Erik Karlsson – the Sens had to do it the hard way, grinding out 2-1 games, and picking up OT points by keeping games close. They gave up only 104 goals all season, the lowest total in the high-scoring Eastern Conference. They only allowed 20 while short-handed, and I have a feeling that the Habs, who relied heavily on their #2 ranked powerplay (42 goals on the year), will have trouble piercing their defensive front.
And then there’s Erik Karlsson. The surprising return of last year’s Norris Trophy winner wasn’t expected anytime this season after Matt Cooke’s skate severed 70% of his achilles tendon. But he returned Thursday in Washington, and posted 2 points in 27 minutes of action. He is easily the most talented offensive defenceman of his generation, with an unparalleled combination of skating, passing, shooting, and above all, vision. His return cannot be overstated for a Senators team which finished last among all playoff teams with 116 goals.
And then there’s Craig Anderson. If not for a high ankle sprain which came him out for several weeks, Anderson probably would have won the Vezina Trophy for best goaltender. His numbers are almost unfathomable: a 1.69 goals against average, and a .941 save %. He plays an aggressive game, similar to 2011 Vezina and Conn Smythe Winner Tim Thomas, minus the extreme political leanings. And with a solid and versatile group of defenders in front of him, including shut-down men like Methot, Cowen, and Phillips, who prevent high-quality chances, and puck movers in Karlsson, Gonchar, and Wiercioch, who lead the transition game from their own zone, the Senators are tough to bottle in their own zone.
Of course, if Price can regain his early-season form, then Montreal will be able to win some close games and carry the day, but if I’m betting on a goalie in this series, it’s Craig Anderson.
(3) Washington versus (6) New York Rangers
This is one of the most interesting series in the 1st round because there’s so many ways to look at it. The Rangers have Lundqvist in goal, so they should be favoured. The Caps have Ovechkin in MVP form, so they’re the favourite. The Rangers have size and grit, with Nash, Callahan, Clowe, Boyle, and Kreider, but the Caps have the skill, with Backstrom, Ribeiro, Green, Erat, and the aforementioned Ovie. Both teams were hot down the stretch.
What’s the difference maker? I don’t think it’s Washington being “hot”, because I don’t think they are. I think they’re just good. While it’s easy to point to Ovechkin’s dominance as the reason for the Caps’ turnaround – and it is a huge reason – but I think the health and play of Mike Green is just as important. Green is making people remember how we forget he’s a defenceman, and I mean that in a good way. The man has scored 10 goals in the last 18 games, as a defenceman. That’s ridiculous. With his re-emergence, their powerplay is once again deadly – they have the shooters – Ovie & Green; they have the set-up men – Backstrom and Ribeiro; and they have the net presence – Brouwer. Since they generate a lot of chances with a solid three-line attack, they draw a lot of penalties. And if you take too many penalties, your odds of winning are dismal.
In last year’s 2nd round, the Caps took the Rangers to a 7th game. The Rangers finished 1st in the East last year, while the Caps finished 7th. New York was a grinding team, and the Caps didn’t have the firepower to overcome them. But if I’m a Rangers fan, what scares me isn’t just the Caps’ offensive renaissance, but the fact that their best defensive defenceman – Marc Staal – remains sidelined with a fairly severe eye injury. Staal has resumed skating, but his vision is still blurry after taking a shot to the eye on March 5th. Girardi and McDonagh are a good defensive pairing, but the drop-off to the 2nd pairing of Del Zotto and Stralman is a huge concern.
All that being said, Nash and Stepan have been very impressive this year for the Rangers, and Richards and Callahan have picked up their play of late, so it’s not like New York can’t win this series. But I think Washington’s “hot streak” isn’t a result of a team playing above its long-term capability, but rather a sign of a team that’s found its way.
(4) Boston versus (5) Toronto
This is a strange one. If you looked at this series a month ago, it would have been a nice match-up. The Bruins are just two years removed from their Stanley Cup winning performance, and boast a solid, deep team at all positions, particularly up front. Meanwhile the Leafs were on the rise, with strong offensive performances from Kessel, Kadri, and Lupul (when healthy), and the surprising play of goaltender James Reimer.
But both teams have sputtered of late. The Bruins had a few injuries, first with Bergeron and Marchand, and more recently with Nate Horton and Jaromir Jagr. Zdeno Chara only scored 7 goals this year, and 19 points, and was on pace for his worst offensive season in over a decade. David Krejci’s offence also dryed up down the stretch, and Milan Lucic found himself a healthy scratch at one point last week.
But the Leafs’ play was on another level of bad. They averaged about 19 shots per game in their last three, and lost 4 of 6 to end the season. They probably would have lost all 6 if not for the heroic play of Reimer, who allowed just one goal in those two wins.
All things considered, it’s hard not to pick take Boston. The Bruins won three of the four match-ups this season, and with neither team playing well, it’s hard to point to a reason why the favourite won’t win. Sorry Leafs fans, but I don’t pick Boston to win, as much as I expect Toronto to lose.
(1) Chicago versus (8) Minnesota
There isn’t too much to say about this one. Minnesota limped into the playoffs, dropping their last home game against Edmonton, when they had the opportunity to clinch a playoff spot. It was an unimpressive performance in a long string of underwhelming play which started around the trade deadline on April 3rd. The Wild have a pretty good group of forwards, led by Mikko Koivu and Zach Parise, but their defence begins and ends with Ryan Suter – though rookie Jonas Brodin has a very bright future.
Chicago’s speed and skill will overwhelm Minnesota. Toews, Kane, Sharp, and Hossa are as deadly a quartet as you’ll find in the NHL, and the Hawks have developed a nice supporting cast behind them, with Bickell, Kruger, Stalberg, and rookie Brandon Saad supplying a nice dose of secondary scoring. Corey Crawford and Ray Emery have been solid all year – in fact, Emery is 17-1-0 on the season. (I haven’t checked, but that must be a record). Minnesota will play hard, but I just can’t see them keeping the puck out of their net.
(2) Anaheim versus (7) Detroit
Although this isn’t like me, I just “have a feeling” about this series. Detroit won two of the three meetings this season, and lost the other game without the services of Pavel Datsyuk and Johan Franzen. Not only will those two be playing in this series, but they, along with Henrik Zetterberg, seem to have found their old form in the last 10 games. By contrast, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry were their old selves in the first half of this season, but after they all but clinched a playoff spot, and pocketed some rather large contract extensions, each of them have come back down to earth. Getzlaf has also missed a few games with unspecified injuries, which is not unusual given his history in the past several years.
Overall, I’ll still give the edge on offence to Anaheim, as Getzlaf, Perry, and Ryan have more finishing ability than their counterparts in Detroit, and don’t need as many chances to find the back of the net. But what I can’t get past is the indescribable play of Anaheim’s back-end, where their make-shift group of Souray, Lydman, Allen, Fowler, Lovejoy, and Sbisa, has only one high-quality NHL defenceman – Francois Beauchemin. Sbisa is probably the next-best, and is currently out of the lineup. Souray, Lydman, and Allen all lack foot seed, and Fowler isn’t known for his defensive play at this stage of his young career. I see Detroit holding the puck in the Anaheim end for long periods of play, and Anaheim running around desperately trying to get it back.
You might suggest that Detroit’s defence isn’t much better. And I don’t completely disagree. Losing Brad Stuart and Nick Lidstrom was a huge double-blow, not to mention Brian Rafalski the previous off-season. But the Wings also suffered countless injuries to the players who were supposed to fill those gaps – Smith, Quincey, and Colaiacovo all missed chunks of time. Finally, everyone on the back-end is healthy, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Wings’ play has improved of late. I also give a slight edge in goal to Detroit, as Jimmy Howard has performed well in the playoffs in the each of the past four years.
(3) Vancouver versus (6) San Jose
A rematch of the 2011 Conference Final, which the Canucks won in 5 games. While each team has declined, they still possess most of the pieces that made up those squads just two years ago. Sedin x2, Kesler, Burrows, Edler, Hamhuis, Bieksa on the one end; Thornton, Marleau, Pavelski, Couture, Boyle, Vlasic, and Niemi on the other.
What’s interesting is that most people don’t see either of these teams going too far in these playoffs. I disagree. I think San Jose is underrated, and will give Vancouver all they can handle. Niemi is having a career year, and will be a finalist for the Vezina Trophy. Meanwhile, Schneider had a very good year as well, so assuming he’s healthy, (he missed a game on the weekend), the goaltending should be tight in this series.
San Jose also went on a huge run after trading Clowe and Murray around the deadline- apparently no one told them that being a seller meant they couldn’t go 12-5-1 down the stretch. But Vancouver added Derek Roy at the deadline – just the injection of tenacious, offensive talent they needed – and finally, finally may have a healthy Ryan Kesler. With those two in the fold, and Mason Raymond having a good year, the Canucks have the offensive depth they lacked most of the last year, which was especially apparent in last year’s 1st round, when Daniel Sedin missed the first three games against LA (all losses). Jannik Hansen is also having a career year, and Chris Higgins has rejuvenated his career in Vancouver, establishing himself as an excellent third-liner.
While the Canucks still aren’t what they were in 2011, they still have an excellent group of top-4 defencemen, with Edler, Hamhuis, Bieksa, and Garrison all possessing some measure of of size, skating, and offensive ability. So while overall, they don’t possess the elite offensive skill of teams like Pittsburgh and Chicago, they also don’t have any significant holes to speak of. I think they will sneak by San Jose, and could make a serious run in the West.
(4) St. Louis versus (5) Los Angeles
A re-match of last year’s 2nd round match-up, which the Kings swept in 4. But don’t expect this year’s series to be so short-lived.
The Blues are more or less the same team which finished 2nd in the Western Conference last year – only they might be better. Adding Jay Bouwmeester from Calgary was huge, as it solidified their top pairing, giving Alex Pietrangelo a stable, veteran presence who can help him defend against the other team’s top players. Adding Jordan Leopold also gave them more depth on the back-end. Up front, they still don’t score as much as you’d expect, but between Perron, Oshie, Backes, Steen, McDonald, Stewart, Tarasenko, and Berglund, the talent is there. The one concern for the Blues is in goal, where de facto starter Jaro Halak has missed some time with injuries, and his back-up, Brian Elliot, has been wildly inconsistent (though quite good of late).
For their part, the Kings are also more or less the same team, but different. They’ve had great goaltending, except it’s been more Bernier than Quick. And apart from Jeff Carter, they still aren’t scoring as much as it looks like they should based on the abundance of talent they have in Kopitar, Richards, Williams, Brown, and Doughty. They’ve also missed their key shut-down tandem of Matt Greene and Willie Mitchell terribly, though Greene is almost 100% now, and Robyn Regehr – acquired from Buffalo – is almost a dead wringer for Mitchell.
The deciding factor for me is the Kings’ recent success against St. Louis. Not only did they sweep them in the playoffs last year, but they took all three games this season. It’s a case of two teams who play a very similar style – defence-first – and LA has the edge in star power both in goal, and up front. St. Louis has tons of depth, but when you’re looking at David Backes as your best forward, I’ll raise you Kopitar, Carter, and Richards, before I get to Dustin Brown, who is basically LA’s version of Backes. I think St. Louis will make this a really tough series, but if I’m putting down money, it’s on LA.
(1) Pit over (8) Nyi
(7) Ott over (2) Mtl
(3) Wsh over (6) Nyr
(4) Bos over (5) Tor
(1) Chi over (8) Min
(7) Det over (2) Ana
(3) Van over (6) Sjs
(5) Lak over (4) Stl