There’s nothing quite like the NHL playoffs. Baseball’s are at the end of a marathon and by the time they come, it’s turning cold and most everyone just wants to go home. Basketball is fun, but centered around too many superstars. Football is also great at playoff time, but it doesn’t take on the same cultural significance that hockey does to certain parts of the US and Canada. It’s one thing hearing a football stadium go nuts, but it’s another altogether to see 16,000 people in an enclosed arena going nuts while wearing all-white.
The best thing to say about the NHL playoffs is that they’re so awesome that even the NHL can’t screw them up.
To the NHL’s credit, they did their best to bring about a sense of rivalry with the move back to a divisional format, and this year’s playoffs comes with some ready-made hatred, particularly with the Canadian teams. This is a secondary subplot to the fact that the setups themselves are goofy when considering preseason predictions; both the defending champion Kings and defending President’s Trophy winning Bruins are out of the playoffs entirely. The first round is looking to be good; here, I’ll break them down and try to guess how they’ll play out.*
* – It’s important to note that I have *NO IDEA* what’s going to happen. This is going to be the equivalent of a monkey playing darts. The season was goofy, we have two teams carried in solely on the backs of their mediocre goaltenders getting white hot, and of the sixteen teams in the playoffs, there are about seven or eight legitimate contenders, of which five come from the same division. This season was bat shit. DO NOT make bets based on these predictions, because I have almost zero confidence on most of them.
1A: MONTREAL CANADIENS VS. 4W: OTTAWA SENATORS Fans who like pretty numbers on the scoreboard might be a little bit disappointed in this series if things hold up the way they have in the season. On one side is Carey Price, who is almost surely going to win the Hart Trophy as the league’s overall MVP, let alone the Vezina. On the other is Andrew Hammond, the “Hamburglar” who got lit up in the minors, got called up to the NHL because Ottawa was literally running out of goaltenders, and then instantly became Ken Dryden in single-handedly carrying the Senators to the playoffs. Assuming he doesn’t become a pumpkin, the scoring will be low. Even better, these teams hate each other, and the last time they played, the series became a tire fire.
Ultimately, the Canadiens have a little bit too much for the young, relatively untested Senators. I don’t think Hammond will revert back to what he is – yet – but this is a bad matchup for Ottawa considering their strengths are the same as Montreal’s, and Montreal is better.
PREDICTION: CANADIENS IN 6
2A: TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING VS. 3A: DETROIT RED WINGS The Red Wings might be the weakest team in the playoffs other than the Flames, on paper. Normally, that would carry water, but if this was about roster strength the Kings would be in the playoffs and the Jets would be home. Furthermore, the Red Wings are still the Red Wings; they keep winning, as they have for two decades.
I think this is the final nail in the Red Wings’ coffin, though. They’re just not that good, and I’m surprised they made the playoffs. Detroit’s defence is solid, but their goaltending’s spotty, and Tampa can light up anyone in the tournament.
Congratulations to 20 plus years of success, Detroit. Take your curtain call and begin your rebuild in earnest.
PREDICTION: LIGHTNING IN 5
2M: WASHINGTON CAPITALS VS. 3M: NEW YORK ISLANDERS
It’s great to see the Islanders in the playoffs for their final season at the Nassau Coliseum, reliving memories of the 80s, before most of their roster was born.
Unfortunately, the Islanders have an atrocious penalty kill, and Washington has one of the best power plays in the league. I don’t trust Ovechkin in the playoffs because he can’t shake the additional attention, and I surely don’t trust Braydon Holtby, but I think the Caps have enough to take out the Islanders for good, ironically closing out Nassau with a home team loss. As nice as it would be for the Islanders to take on the Rangers in the playoffs, I don’t see it happening.
PREDICTION: CAPITALS IN 6
1M: NEW YORK RANGERS VS. 4W: PITTSBURGH PENGUINS
The Rangers are flying, having won the Presidents Trophy despite the lengthy absence of all-world goaltender Henrik Lundqvist; if anything, backup Cam Talbot solidified a solid contract from another team. Furthermore, they’re deep, and their younger players like JT Miller and Kevin Hayes have fit in well with established veterans like St. Louis. And the defence, while lacking in top-flight, Drew Doughty superstars, is deep from one to six, from Ryan McDonagh down to the criminally underrated Kevin Klein.
Pittsburgh has superstars, for sure, but their defence is beat up, their goaltending is inferior, and I just don’t see a lot of direction from this team. If they’re going to advance, their goaltender will have to steal some games, and Crosby is going to have to take over, something that’s really not in his DNA; he’s a facilitator, not a cheerleader. And even cheerleaders can’t do much when they’re picking the puck out of their net all the time. It won’t be a sweep, but it won’t be close.
PREDICTION: RANGERS IN 6
1P: ANAHEIM DUCKS VS. 4W: WINNIPEG JETS For anyone who wasn’t alive for the last time the cit y of Winnipeg saw playoff hockey – a non-remote possibility considering it was 19 years ago – let me just say that the city goes absolutely batshit. They might not have invented the whole “dress the fans in one colour” tradition – that’s Calgary’s “C of Red” – but they’ve surely perfected it, and the Winnipeg White Out will be rocking once Game 3 hits. By the way, the team is also a blast; they can score, and if the two headed goaltending monster of Ondrej Pavelic and Michael Hutchinson can hold up, this is a very winnable series, because Anaheim has holes.
The Ducks’ first line is far superior to that of Winnipeg, for sure. But they’re not that deep, and their goaltending has been flaky all season. Josh Gibson is the goaltender of the future, but he’s been iffy all year. If there’s a major upset candidate in the West, this is it.
PREDICTION: JETS IN 7
2P: VANCOUVER CANUCKS VS. 3P: CALGARY FLAMES
There’s two ways of looking at this series. The first is that neither of these teams should be here. Vancouver’s old, slow, and unsettled in goal. Calgary was considered a frontrunner in the race for Connor McDavid, and their stats indicate they should be much worse than their record indicates. Basically, they’re this year’s Avalanche.
But on the other, it’s still the Canucks vs. the Flames, in the playoffs. Neither team cares that they’re not supposed to be here, and frankly, neither do the fans. This is going to be a bloodbath. These teams hate each other, their fans hate each other, and there’s a legitimate question as to how much is going to be left in the tank of whoever wins.
Vancouver’s goaltending situation is kind of silly – in one corner is Ryan Miller from Not!2010, in the other is Eddie “I’m The Better Goaltender” Lack – but it won’t matter in this series. Calgary is simply overmatched.
PREDICTION: CANUCKS IN 6
1C: ST. LOUIS BLUES VS. 4W: MINNESOTA WILD Wait, this is the 1 v. 4 matchup!? These are two of the best teams in the NHL! Holy crap, the Central was brutal.
This is basically St. Louis’s punishment for not winning the Western Conference outright. Minnesota has been a completely and totally different team since acquiring Devan Dubnyk, who would be getting more attention if he had a fast food related nickname of his own. Dubnyk went from likely being exiled to Europe after being let go by the three different teams – two of whom were the 2nd and 3rd worst in the entire league – to potentially playing on a Cup contender. As for the Blues, they have an incredibly deep roster and solid goaltending. Now, it’s time to make them realize it; goaltending controversies have marked the past few seasons in St. Louis, when the answer should be clear-cut (hint: the answer is “ride Brian Elliott until he drops”).
Because of the uncertainty in net – one bad goal could see Jake Allen in net – I have to give the edge to Minnesota.
PREDICTION: WILD IN 7
2C: NASHVILLE PREDATORS VS. 3C: CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS Have I mentioned that the Central division is unreal? Because man alive.
Nashville was another team, not unlike Calgary, that was predicted to be near the bottom of the standings when the season started. But unlike the Flames, who have largely been opportunistic and lucky, the Predators have actually been good. They got the 2nd seed in the best division in hockey despite a below par season from Pekka Rinne, and are solid first to last.
But they’re not the Blackhawks. The Blackhawks are basically the Spurs of the NHL at this point, where the season is secondary to the playoffs, knowing they can turn it on. They’re stocked, they’re stronger than Nashville, Corey Crawford is tremendously underrated even with a ring, and they should be able to handle Nashville.
PREDICTION: BLACKHAWKS IN 6