“There’s always gonna be another mountain
I’m always gonna wanna make it move
Always gonna be an uphill battle
Sometimes I’m gonna have to lose
Ain’t about how fast I get there
Ain’t about what’s waitin’ on the other side
It’s the climb”
– Miley Cyrus
It’s a nice feeling, when you get an idea. And then you look at the stats, and they back your idea up.
I used to get that legitimized giddiness when I’d write essays in university. Typically, you’d just pick a conclusion to come to and then you’d start doing your research – it was truly a great feeling when your work would support the conclusion you prematurely came to. (Haha, prematurely.)
So here’s today, where I’m thinking, ‘I don’t think there’s ever been a year where it’s so even in the NHL’s playoffs from the Presidents’ Trophy winners to the 16th place team.’ And it turns out, historically that’s basically true.
Never once in the past 35 years (which is the modern era, all things considered) has there been such a small point difference between 1st place (the New York Rangers) and 16th (the Calgary Flames). New York finished with 113 points, Calgary with 97. A relatively nonexistent cleft of 16 points.
(Last year, there was a 28-point gulf between the Boston Bruins and the Dallas Stars, for your reference.)
And Calgary’s not the worst team in this playoff bracket, either. Many will throw the Canucks into that bonfire. Others the Pittsburgh Penguins, who only made the postseason because Boston was that much worse. The Flames are favoured by many in their first-round series against Vancouver, while the Winnipeg Jets (only two points better, in the second Wild Card spot) are favoured by many over the 1st-place Anaheim Ducks.
Thank the loser point. Thank the new division format. But playoff hockey is suddenly like a 16-person, best-of-seven game of rock-paper-scissors. Maybe you miss the bureaucracy or the feudal system of old, or maybe you don’t.
New York Rangers – 1st in the Metropolitan, 1st in the NHL (113 points)
Pittsburgh Penguins – 2nd Wild Card, 3-5-2 in their last 10 (98 points)
Maybe this is a good thing for Sidney Crosby and crew. Right?
Maybe they needed a year to munch on the crusts of a humble pie. Maybe they need some perspective, after years of riding in on a beautiful white horse that attracted a lot of praise and a lot of their enemies’ ire. With nearly 100 points but a massive slip from the East’s top half, the Penguins are probably the most doubted team in the National Hockey League right now. Does that mean they’ll do better when expectations are low? Does that mean they’re just waiting to pounce, Venus Fly Trap-style?
Could this really a bonus, that they dropped to the cusp of the Connor McDavid draw?
No. Of course not.
Rangers in 5.
Montreal Canadiens – 1st in the Atlantic, 1st in Canada (110 points)
Ottawa Senators – 1st Wild Card, 2nd to Winnipeg in Canadians’ hearts (99 points)
I’ll be honest: It’s going to be impossible for me to ever see the Habs as the top-seed team they’re trying to convince us they are.
I know Carey Price is the best goalie in the world, at least right now. I know PK Subban’s fun to watch. I know (the injured) Max Pacioretty is probably the most underrated player in the NHL and that Brendan Gallagher is the tallest short guy in the game. I’m aware they deserve all their points and maybe even some more.
But when I look at the Canadiens, I’m always going to see a vulnerable team. I’m going to look at them like the rest of Canada looked at the Canucks a few years ago, as a delicious favourite to feast on. That’s how we’re all looking at Anaheim right now, by the way. (More on that below…)
But somebody tell Ottawa they’re the underdog. Because they have no idea, and I don’t think they’re content with just making the playoffs.
Sens in 6
Tampa Bay Lightning – 2nd in the Atlantic, 1st in total # of Steve Yzermans (108 points)
Detroit Red Wings – 3rd in the Atlantic, 1st in Former Greatness (100 points)
You know I – like you – have very little to say about this series. I just have a feeling of which team is going to win, and I know Steven Stamkos plays in Florida.
But I also know Mike Babcock coaches in Michigan, Pavel Datsyuk isn’t slowing down (7 points in his last 5 games), Henrik Zetterberg’s the best captain in the NHL, Gustav Nyquist is the high-flying X-factor, and some Medusa-like combination of Petr Mrazek and Jimmy Howard could probably be sewn together to stop a puck or two.
But, what the hell… Steven Stamkos.
Bolts in 7
Washington Capitals – 2nd in the Metropolitan, 1st in the greater D.C. area (101 points)
New York Islanders – 3rd in the Metropolitan, 1st on Long Island (101 points)
It’s time for John Tavares to win a playoff series, and it’s time for Alex Ovechkin to play for a Stanley Cup. Or at least, get a little closer to doing so.
Toss in New York’s bulldog Kyle Okposo and Washington’s terminally underrated all-world playmaker Nicklas Backstrom, and you’ve got a pretty good two-headed fight to the finish.
But with guys like Ryan Strome, Anders Lee, Frans Nielsen, and Brock Nelson, plus others, the Isles’ supporting offensive cast is stronger and deeper. And even though they banked off the bumpers like a bowling ball down the lane to the playoffs, it’s not like Washington’s a world-beater either.
Isles in 6
Anaheim Ducks – 1st in the Pacific, 1st in the West, 1st in Bra Size (109 points)
Winnipeg Jets – 2nd Wild Card, on their 5th Wind (99 points)
What does ‘1st in Bra Size‘ mean? It means they’re top-heavy. Everyone loves Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf, and nobody doubts they can win. They already have a Stanley Cup they shared in just their second NHL seasons, and they have two Olympic gold medals. And Ryan Kesler was an excellent addition to a team that looked, only 10 months ago, like it needed just one more piece to get over the hump.
If you told me in September that the Ducks would be the only California team to make the playoffs – that both L.A. and San Jose would have failed and fallen early – I would have first pulled the pipe out of your mouth, and then I would have rolled my eyes and walked away. I also would have told you Anaheim and Chicago would play in the Western Conference Final.
Now, I’m not sure either will. In fact, I’m not sure either will escape the first round.
There’s only a 10-point separation this year between the top team in the West (Anaheim) and their opening round opponent (Jets). Compare that to 2011, when the 8th-seed Hawks took the 1st-place Canucks to Game 7 overtime, and the jump was 20 points. Or last year, where Anaheim escaped in six games over Dallas with a 25-point advantage.
And Winnipeg’s not your average Wild Card. They’re bigger, faster, and stronger than the Ducks. They’re also going to have the loudest, most invested home crowd of any team in the NHL, and they’re playing for that crowd.
The Jets have also bounced back from repeated blows to their lineup this season, overcoming injuries to Evander Kane and Mathieu Perreault early and often, then Dustin Byfuglien and Bryan Little down the stretch, and finally they made the playoffs while Buff was serving a four-game suspension for trying to decapitate J.T. Miller. Winnipeg should have bowed out with grace a long time ago, and they never gave up – they never even leaned on a loss.
It’s going to be the best series of the first round, with an outcome 28 years in the waiting.
Yes, Winnipeg last won a playoff series in 1987. Before I was born.
Jets in 7
St. Louis Blues – 1st in the Central, 1st in a division that contains the Hawks, Wild, and Predators (109 points)
Minnesota Wild – 1st Wild Card, 6th in the Real Standings (100 points)
A loss in their final game meant the Wild dropped back into the bottom half of the West’s playoff picture, but don’t worry Twin Citizens – there’s been no team hotter in the conference, all things considered, since Christmas.
Nobody should want to play the Wild. And they seem to have this deal with winning series under the thumb of other teams – Colorado really should have put them away last year but didn’t, and the Minnesota team of 2004 became the first in NHL history to win two straight series after trailing 3-1 (first Colorado, then Vancouver).
Of course, 2004 has nothing to do with 2015. And St. Louis for once have resisted the feeling that Brian Elliott isn’t good enough for them. The veteran goalie has been excellent this season doing battle with the young Jake Allen, all behind perhaps the deepest team in hockey, forwards-plus-defencemen-wise.
Neither team has a trump card: Zach Parise and Vladdy Tarasenko are the clubs’ most talented forwards, while Alex Pietrangelo and Ryan Suter cancel each other out. Both have ‘no-name brand awesomeness’ in goal.
It’s pretty even. And when it’s even, tie goes to the runner.
Blues in 7
Vancouver Canucks – 2nd in the Pacific, 7th in Canadians’ Hearts (101 points)
Calgary Flames – 3rd in the Pacific, 1st in Red Miles (97 points)
Ah, finally. My zip code.
First, let’s actually give these two clubs their credit: 101 and 97 points, for two teams that were no doubt predicted to miss the playoffs, perhaps by a ton, is an incredible accomplishment. And while both teams are probably seen as the West’s weakest remaining, don’t start thinking either Vancouver or Calgary won these spots by default – they didn’t just Plinko into their spots ahead of L.A., San Jose, and Dallas.
They beat all three of them, and they surged at every moment they were supposed to fall away. Vancouver battled through injuries to everyone but the Sedins and Lack, whereas Calgary overcame a relatively lacklustre roster (supposedly) and a massive injury to Mark Giordano. They also beat Los Angeles with a critical 3-1 win to clinch.
These teams earned their spots.
Second, there seems to be some idea floating around that Calgary’s inexperience will pull them down against Vancouver. Not sure why – experience means nothing in the first round. The Flames don’t have to be Tom Brady to beat the Canucks; all they need to do is score a few timely goals and win four of seven games.
(The funny thing about experience is, one day you have none and the next day you have it all. Brady was a rookie the day before he won his first Super Bowl in 2002, and he was a champion the day after. Or Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, who won their first Stanley Cups in their third years. All Calgary needs to do to beat away their older judgers is beat Vancouver. Crazier things have happened in my bedroom.)
If Monahan-Gaudreau-Hudler outscore Henrik-Daniel-Burrows/Vrbata, Calgary probably wins the series.
So, which one will it be?
Well, experience may not matter for Vancouver, in my opinion, but their roster is still superior. The Canucks are loaded up-top, with the twins and Vrbata. Below that, their depth is really quite astonishing, considering the Canucks finished with just 83 points in 2014. Burrows, Bonino, Higgins, Richardson, Matthias, Horvat, Kenins, and Hansen can all defend and put the puck in the net, and Zack Kassian could be a huge boost if he returns.
Then again, the Flames haven’t known they’re supposed to lose all season, and they certainly don’t now.
And where I mentioned Vancouver’s depth as their trump card, the flip could be proposed from Calgary’s rancher fans – that their team has a Check Mate cancel-out player for every one of the Canucks’. This Calgary team reminds me a lot of the ’04 team, and of Vancouver’s ’94 team, actually. Not saying they’ll go on a run to the Cup – just saying, they’re scary.
Although, they don’t have an Iginla. Or a Kipper. And Bob Hartley’s no Darryl Sutter… and that ’04 series game down to Game 7 overtime.
You know what? I was gonna go with Calgary, legitimately.
But fu*k it, Canucks in 7.
(It’s gotta be won at home.)
Nashville Predators – 2nd in the Central, 1st in Collected Guitar Picks (104 points)
Chicago Blackhawks – 3rd in the Central, 1st in Regrettable Trades for Antoine Vermette (102 points)
Is Vermette Chicago’s Aaron Boone?
The creative, two-way centre was a terrific trade deadline pick-up, it seemed, until he started playing for the Blackhawks. He’s no doubt a very good player, but he just hasn’t found his place in Chicago – like Martin Havlat or Brian Campbell before him. He may even be scratched, and some are ripping Joel Quenneville for how he’s handled a talented, 200-foot, do-anything forward.
Translation: Is Vermette actually failing, or is he being set-up to fail?
Well, nobody really cares, because Patrick Kane’s back.
The league’s most dangerous scorer has missed seven weeks and will be tossed into the tumbling dryer with his team in full swing. The Hawks haven’t missed him – in the standings, at least – and managed to stay ahead of the pack in his absence.
Still, Kane’s comeback will give Chicago the bump in many analysts’ minds, especially since the Blackhawks lost their final four games to finish the season. (That’s only slightly worse than the Predators, of course, who lost their final three games.)
Now, for Nashville…
What’s there to say, really, about a team hardly anyone outside of Tennessee gets to watch?
We know they’re good. Because they’re here. We know they’re built to roll as one, like a Carthage elephant pack. We know they’re good enough to beat Chicago, just maybe not good enough to beat them four times. And we know two names: Shea Weber and Pekka Rinne. The d-man and the goalie are maybe the two best players in this series, on their own – as wonderful as Kane and Jonathan Toews are, or are possible of being. It’s really a battle between 1a, 1b, 1c, and 1d.
Plus, the Preds have home-ice advantage.
This basically comes down to whether you trust in Chicago to make their fourth long playoff run in six years – a pretty damn hard feat in today’s meat-grinding NHL – or whether you trust in the Nashville team that showed up early and often this season.
Myself, I’d wager the Cup on Chicago if I really had to. But I also think Nashville may be the pee-coloured antidote that sucks the Blackhawks depleted magic dry, which would be believable in a year where anything’s happened.
Preds in 7.
Stanley Cup Prediction: Tampa Bay
It’s going to be a weird year, like 2012, where Westeros is left for dead and conquered by a bunch of tribes. All want the throne, and many have the game, but it’s unclear right now which of them could rule, if any.
The Lightning are the only team that brings a game no other team does, and if they get past Montreal they could easily snowball through the East – through whoever wins between Montreal and Ottawa, through a very good but beatable pair of New York teams – and over the last left standing in the West.
I’ll put my chips on Tampa, and on Stamkos.
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