It's the most wonderful time of the year!
Yes, every year -- coincidentally close to my birthday -- the NHL regular season concludes so that professional hockey can actually get properly started, and every year I make half-successful and ultimately misguided attempts to predict how each series will unfold. So why should this year be any different? Let's do some prognosticating!
(1) Washington Capitals vs. (8) Montreal Canadiens
Okay. Yes. Washington had the whole season to whoop on a weak division in a really, really weak conference -- perhaps the weakest Eastern Conference in the modern era, perhaps the weakest ever -- and the President's Trophy race wasn't even close as a result. (And how often do we take the President's Trophy seriously? Besides the four of the last ten seasons that the winner took the Cup, I mean.) But they did still win fifteen more games this year than Montreal did, and it's not like victories over Florida are less impressive than victories over Toronto.
Yes, it's fun to pretend every year that Montreal is going to accomplish something, but let's not kid ourselves here. The team is made up of mostly tiny, mostly unspectacular, mostly interchangeable l'il guys -- they don't even have a captain -- and rolling four average lines is probably not going to go so well against the best offense in the league and one of the top three players in the entire world. Plus they cut Georges Laraque while he was fundraising for Haiti, so the hell with this team.
This is definitely Washington's series to lose, and that would only really happen if they committed themselves to making a huge mistake. But what are the chances of that, right? Psssh.
What I'd Want: Washington in six, so Montreal can at least have some home game revenue.
What I'll Guess: Washington in five, and the real fun will be the fallout over which Montreal goalie wins the one game.
(2) New Jersey Devils vs. (7) Philadelphia Flyers
I know I've said this before, but I really do hate the New Jersey Devils. And I'll grant right now that I was thrilled to see the Flyers make the playoffs, not out of any particular affection for its players (save of course their awesome but injured goaltender), but to see what kind of life-affirmingly awesome slogan they might come up with for this year.
I'm not particularly impressed by the current Philly squad -- I don't think anybody really is -- but I've always loved the ethos of the Flyers, you know? Besides a sweet timeless logo (and orange being my favourite colour), the Flyers spirit has always represented a sincere and genuine belief that you can accomplish anything you set your mind to if you just resolve to be a complete snarling monster dickhead about it. Make the world fear you! And if something is in your way, punch it until it isn't. The Flyers were Courage Wolf nearly forty years before Courage Wolf existed. And they employ an enforcer from Winnipeg who looks like a face drawn on a thumb, which I think should totally be worth bonus points.
The New Jersey Devils ethos, historically, is to stand around on a line and turn the entire sport of hockey into less interesting Red Rover. The league had to take a whole (cancelled) season just to try and clean out the gunk this franchise inflicted on the game. And they've only missed the playoffs once in the last twenty years, because it turns out hockey is a stupid game after all.
So there's your convenient history lesson, and for our present concerns here's everything you need to know about this season. New Jersey is in the playoffs because they have one of the most decorated goaltenders in the history of hockey, they employ a consistently successful
boring judicious playstyle, and they won their division over the reigning Stanley Cup Champions. Philadelphia, sliding backwards for several weeks now, is only in the playoffs because they beat the Rangers in a shootout. This will end in tears.
What I'd Want: Philadelphia in four. In fact, if we could figure out a way to have New Jersey lose in three, I would totally endorse it.
What I'll Guess: New Jersey in five, including Chris Pronger doing something completely stupid and costing his team everything.
(3) Buffalo Sabres vs. (6) Boston Bruins
The Sabres have my extended goodwill for giving Teppo Numminen a long and respectable run to end his career, but damn if all of their logos after the first one haven't been continually awful. (They're rectifying this for next season, a decision I am entirely pleased with.)
Outside of having one of the best goalies in the entire world (who just happened to become a household name in America a couple months back), Buffalo is a really tricky team to define. They aren't particularly strong offensively, not particularly impressive defensively, not really a speed team, not really a checking team, certainly not a big grit team -- okay, remember Ice Hockey on the NES? How you had the fat guys who were slow but strong, and the skinny guys who were quick but weak, and then you could ignore all that and just have a team of four medium guys with medium speed and medium strength? The Buffalo Sabres are like a four-medium-guys team in NES Ice Hockey, especially because the most important thing in that game after all of that was just making sure your invincible goalie could keep everything out.
So with no real overpowering strengths and no real obvious weaknesses, the Buffalo
Ryus Sabres are surprisingly solid but can be overwhelmed if the opposing team is demonstrably strong in a particular area. So there could have been some serious upset consideration here if Buffalo had drawn anybody else, but somehow they lucked out like bandits and got the one team that's basically Buffalo but worse.
No lie, Tuukka Rask is impressive -- Tuukka Rask is very impressive -- but he's going to have to let in fewer goals than a guy who nearly made off with Olympic Gold almost singlehandedly. And the Bruins, amazingly, somehow, have less offense than the Sabres do; Boston's top scorer had twenty-two goals, their top point-producer had fifty-two points all year, and their most promising player finished the year with a grade two concussion. Plus they've been stone dead in the water since their complete failure to get revenge on Pittsburgh, and aside from a bizarre league record for shorthanded goals on one penalty they've done pretty much nothing since then to justify their continued survival.
But damn, son, look at the first-round draft pick Boston gets next year. I'm sure they'll get over it.
What I'd Want: Buffalo in four.
What I'll Guess: Buffalo in six, because I've followed this team long enough to know that -- when in doubt -- they'll always find a way to be surprisingly underwhelming. (And I kind of suspect that at least half of these games will be boring as all hell.)
(4) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (5) Ottawa Senators
This has the potential to be one of the more interesting series this round, especially since it'll be the rubber match in a 1-1 lifetime tie; in the combined histories of the two teams they've only met up in the playoffs twice, the Senators embarrasing the Penguins in 2007 and the Penguins super-embarrassing the Senators in 2008. But, the usual boundless national optimism aside, there's very little doubt about this one: this is going to be less of a "will the Senators lose" interesting and more of a "how long will the Senators last before they inevitably lose" interesting.
You would think I'm kidding, but no: right now, even as we speak, Senators fans are furiously blaming the referees and the league for their first-round series exit. And the series doesn't start until tomorrow. I want to write some observational humour about this, but I can't come up with anything more ludicrous than this premise itself.
Anyway. Volchenkov is only going to be able to do so much against the offensive depth of the Stanley Cup Champions, and Ottawa's otherwise productive offense might be in tough against the surprisingly effective Playoff Fleury -- so unless Brian Elliott busts out an amazing noob-cannon run, this is probably going to end swiftly and altogether badly for the Sens. Look on the bright side, Ottawa; you're better than Toronto!
What I'd Want: Ottawa in seven, for the entertainment value of the games themselves and the joy of messing with people's heads.
What I'll Guess: Pittsburgh in five.
(1) San Jose Sharks vs. (8) Colorado Avalanche
Ha ha ha, oh Jesus, the San Jose Sharks. Every season for the San Jose Sharks is like the music video for Faith No More's "Epic", where it starts with lots of lightning and yelling and thumping and fury but inevitably ends with sad piano music and the flopping around of a dying fish. They're like an entire team made of Marty Turco. That's how bad the San Jose Sharks are at playoff hockey.
With that said, it's really, really tempting to declare that their season ends here, but I can't quite bring myself to do it. Not when they're against the Avalanche, who have really been a pretty mangy franchise since the end of the lockout. (Or since the Steve Moore incident; take your pick.) Maybe I'm still caught in a bit of fog over how terrible this team was last year, but assuming that San Jose's defense can keep it together through one round -- and I'll grant that it is a pretty big assumption -- I'm not convinced that Colorado has the depth to squeak out the upset. (And neither are Colorado fans, for what it's worth.)
What I'd Want: Colorado in seven. Come on, who doesn't love a good underdog story? Old Man Foote and some crazy young'ns, causin' a ruckus. You know you'd enjoy it.
What I'll Guess: San Jose in six. Oh, they'll still choke, but they won't choke this early. And heaven help 'em if they draw Detroit next round, like I suspect they might.
(2) Chicago Blackhawks vs. (7) Nashville Predators
It would be really, really, really funny to see Nashville go deep into the playoffs. Wouldn't it? A bunch of scrappy, hard-nosed nobodies enthusiastically grinding their way up the ladder and ruining the television ratings for the whole year? I mean, it's not going to happen, but it's funny to consider.
No, I suspect this is going to be the start of Chicago finally living up to their potential; the only big glaring weakness for the Blackhawks is their rickety goaltending -- Huet? Really? -- but Nashville is a team full of dudes who just don't score goals very well, so the Blackhawks' mystique should be safe until the second round when they run into a team with players that people have heard of.
What I'd Want: Chicago in seven, just so Nashville seems like a better team than Phoenix.
What I'll Guess: Chicago in five.
(3) Vancouver Canucks vs. (6) Los Angeles Kings
You know what? Five years from now we're going to look at the current Kings lineup and we're all going to go, damn, that team was stacked. Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, Jack Johnson, Dustin Brown, Oscar Moller, Jonathan Quick, Wayne Simmonds, Scott Parse, Matt Greene -- what the hell.
But, that'll be five years from now. That's once their mind-boggling crop of young players has matured, and long after the salary cap has basically eaten the team alive. For now, they're a collection of plucky but unproven upstarts, and they'll surprise everybody but ultimately come up short against a Vancouver team that -- suddenly and mysteriously -- got a lot scarier than they were when we started last year's playoffs. When the Art Ross (and potential Hart) Trophy Winner is playing on the same team as the reigning Olympic Gold Medalist goaltender and three other guys over +30 on the year (!), it's considerably difficult to envision them losing at the first opportunity to a ragtag team of kids. (Not impossible. Just... difficult.)
What I'd Want: Vancouver in seven.
What I'll Guess: Vancouver in five.
(4) Phoenix Coyotes vs. (5) Detroit Red Wings
Pfffffffft. This is going to be the least surprising upset in the history of unsurprising upsets.
Oh oh oh oh but we have to take the Coyotes seriously now, that's right, I forgot. Boy, we the hockey world sure do care as hard as we can about the on-ice performance of the Phoenix Coyotes! This'll be the year for sure that they take home that Cup, reward all their, y'know, die-hard fans and everything.
Really, when the season was winding down, I think it's safe to say that none of the other teams in the West were hoping to draw Detroit as their first round matchup. And what an unflattering matchup it is!
The Coyotes are almost completely devoid of playoff experience, their lineup is almost pillowy soft, and their top player (not coincidentally their last Winnipeg Jet) had a total of fifty-five points this year. Detroit is made of grit and fire and battle scars and discipline and everything that ruins playoff newcomers, and I hope Phoenix gets Blue Jacketed straight out of the playoffs like they deserve.
You all know I normally root for the historically unsuccessful underdogs, and you all know I predominantly root against the Red Wings (because, god damn, am I tired of seeing the Red Wings in the playoffs), but all bets are off when I see as much unmitigated potential for sheer shadenfreude as I do here. I love seeing the Coyotes suffer, and I make no claims otherwise; I love seeing them fall, I love seeing them fail, I love the court drama and the Gretzky flameout and the anguish on Gary Bettman's face every time he appears, and I positively adore that the franchise has lost more money in Phoenix in the past fourteen years than most of the other teams in the league are actually worth. So either the Coyotes lose this series, and the sunbelt experiment continues to flounder -- or they somehow actually claw into the second round, appearing just successful enough that Glendale and a new ownership group extend their stay and they continue bleeding money into the sand forever.
History Will Be Made!
What I'd Want: Detroit in four, ruining the franchise forever.
What I'll Guess: Detroit in six. Bryzgalov will steal a couple, but the Wings will turn out to be the same frustratingly solid playoff team they've been since I was, like, six years old.
Playoff time, baby! Whoo!