Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs Begin Tonight

You'll recall from the last post that I had promised you all the visions of a brighter future, the beginnings of a light that may finally lead our city out of its perennial darkness and cast forth a shining path to civic success. And that was exactly what I had intended! But then I remembered that I had an Uptown column coming up, so I wrote my idea up for that instead and you'll have to wait until tomorrow to read it.

So, uh... my bad!

I had also been thinking I might liveblog the federal English-language debate, a beloved highlight of any election season, but then some family matters abruptly came up and kiboshed that plan. So... well. My bad again! But, not to worry; as you can tell from the title of this post, I haven't lost track of what's really important!

No, I'm not kidding about that order of priorities; remember that our federal leaders all agreed to move the date of the French-language debate, specifically to ensure that the telecast wouldn't conflict with the Canadiens game. I know you've probably already read about that, but I wanted to link to it for posterity's sake anyway. This is a real thing that actually happened. Grown-ups decided this.

It's something of an annual site tradition, here, my brave but frequently misguided attempts at playoff prognostication -- so let's you and I do some blind squirreling and see how many nuts we end up with. May as well start with the:

Eastern Conference

(1) Washington Capitals vs. (8) New York Rangers

Where's Boogaard? Injured? Dang. I like Boogaard.

The Rangers could have had the clear goaltending advantage in this match, since Washington's netminder team is three punk kids who randomly suck at various times, but then it turns out that the Rangers have ran Henrik Lundqvist for the last twenty-six straight games. Which is just, wow, god damn. You'd think that being the world's handsomest goalie would entitle you to a nap, at least, once in a while. But the rest of the Rangers have been so thoroughly, intensely mediocre for the past couple of months that Lundqvist -- all Lundqvist, all game, every game -- is pretty much the only reason why the Capitals aren't just playing the Hurricanes tonight instead.

So Washington has a trio of dudes who may or may not stay solid, and New York has a goalie whose arms will probably just fall off any second now. That compromises the upset special a bit, particularly since this is supposed to be the Rangers' ace in the hole and they can't really rely on keeping pace offensively. And Callahan's out with a broken foot. I mean, what the hell do they do now? Hope Brian McCabe accidentally puts the puck in the other team's net for a change?

Washington was a pretty good hockey team last year to begin with, walked into the inevitable ambush, and then retooled themselves specifically towards grinding and playing defence like actual playoff teams do. So if you're hoping to see them choke, I think you're going to have to wait another round.

I mean, they will choke, yeah. Just not yet.

What I'd Want: Washington in seven.
What I'll Guess: Washington in six, but not without Sean Avery drawing disproportionate media attention and then contributing virtually nothing.

(2) Philadelphia Flyers vs. (7) Buffalo Sabres

My affection for the Buffalo Sabres is well-established and oft-repeated, the Sabres having been the natural progression from rooting for the Jets as a kid. Their old logo (now also their current logo, thankfully and mercifully) is super swank, they were the team Dale Hawerchuk was traded to, they gave Teppo Numminen a good home for his last half a decade or so, their town is popularly considered an uninhabitable frozen backwater, and they consistently underwhelm when it counts. Feels right at home, doesn't it? Like the Jets never left! God bless those Sabres.

You can imagine how I'm really stoked about their new ownership, and next season their new corporate culture will doubtlessly pay dividends -- but in the meantime, they're still the Sabres, and it's still the playoffs, so they're going to flatline immediately. The Sabres' team captain, who was always invisible this time of year to begin with, is literally invisible now because he got dumped into the minors earlier in the season and then claimed off waivers for pennies on the dollar by another team. I mean, that's funny. The team doesn't even have a captain designated any more, just four alternate captains who I guess try to outdo each other this round and then see who gets promoted next year.

Philadelphia, meanwhile, is the same Stanley Cup Finalist team from last year except with more offense. So this is all going to go pretty much the way you would expect.

What I'd Want: Buffalo in four, because WHY NOT. And a dozen goals out of their wacky mishmash second line, which is two huge guys and then this little tiny guy. They're like NES Ice Hockey come to life, it's really funny.
What I'll Guess: Philadelphia in five, because Miller will steal one game. Let's say Game... eh, Game Three.

(3) Boston Bruins vs. (6) Montreal Canadiens




Original Six teams who loathe each other, and whose players injuring each other nearly sparked an international incident earlier this year, and whose fanbases are notoriously awful to one another, and whose goalies have been playing so uncharacteristically well this season that we almost forget they both historically roll over and die in the postseason? Well, that's some good hockey!

I like both teams pretty well, based largely on individual personalities sprinkled liberally across both rosters, but what I really love is seeing grown men lose their shit and punches flying around. So I'll be pretty pleased with this series no matter what happens, I think.

Prediction-wise, as much as I'd love to see P.K. Subban do another celebratory Mega Man leap and bounce harmlessly off his own goaltender, I expect Boston to grind this one to victory. Montreal is speedy and scrappy, but largely nondescript otherwise -- a team of, to borrow a Kevin Nash Phrase, vanilla midgets. Boston has more depth, more grit, more size, healthy defencemen (boy, there's an idea), and a wacky ol' goalie who's been going Super Saiyan 4 on the whole league all year. So unless the Habs catch a series of miracles on special teams, Carey Price learns how to Shang Tsung morph into a literal brick wall, and Tim Thomas suddenly remembers he's Tim Thomas and collapses like a game of Jenga, I don't see this ending well for Montreal.

What I'd Want: Montreal in seven, including at least ten fights, each anthem being booed at least once, and the most conflicted Don Cherry rambling we've heard in forever.
What I'll Guess: Boston in six; no more, and no fewer, than two cars are torched in Montreal following the series. One car would be an isolated incident, and three cars would just be complete overreaction, so yeah, two sounds about right.

(4) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (5) Tampa Bay Lightning

So Sidney Crosby's injured, maybe you've heard about it. I think it made the news once or twice.

They obviously aren't the team they would be if everybody was healthy, but even without Crosby and Malkin the Penguins have just kept rolling right along at the end of the season. It turns out the Penguins are still just a really good team, even without two of the most recognizable stars in the sport, which would be infuriating if it weren't so impressive. Staal only played for half the season, showed up after Crosby disappeared, and busted out thirty points anyway. I mean, what the hell.

Tampa Bay, from what I've seen of them this year (admittedly not much, because when is Tampa Bay ever on TV), are -- how can I put this -- well, they're not very good at defence. I was going to find a way to sugarcoat that, but no, nothing really came to mind. They're amazing on offense, and almost insultingly good on the power play -- HEY THAT STAMKOS GUY IS AT THE CIRCLE AGAIN, MAYBE SOMEONE SHOULD GO COVER HIM -- but wildly inconsistent at everything else, like they believe the secret to being good like the Red Wings is just to shoot the puck fifty times a game and hope for the best.

Tampa Bay does have a fair bit of combined playoff experience on their roster, although -- Stamkos aside -- they also have a lot of years on 'em, all quietly aging away down in the sunbelt. (Martin St. Louis is thirty-five? When the hell did that happen? Their starting goalie is forty-one?) With that said, the Penguins not only have similar experience but actually still have a whole pile of the same dudes they won the Cup with before -- and a team consistency that their opponents completely lack, including a balance of offense and defence that involves actual defence. Good qualities to have!

What I'd Want: Penguins in six, with Dan Bylsma deciding to wear his hilarious Winter Classic preppie-gangster outfit for playoff luck. NYAWH, YOU MUGS, GET THE PUCK, SEE
What I'll Guess: Penguins in five, at least two of which are totally lopsided. And there'll be a lot of really uncomfortable shots of Crosby sitting around during the telecasts.

Western Conference

(1) Vancouver Canucks vs. (8) Chicago Blackhawks

You know it's playoff time when mullets equal headlines. BUMP THE FEDERAL DEBATE AGAIN, IT'S MULLET TIME

(And I want to reiterate my stance from last year: "Captain Serious" is easily the best nickname in sports today. I will fistfight you in real life over this.)

Of all the potential playoff matchups that could have happened, especially in the goofball standings race we got this year, this is definitely the one match that Canucks fans did not want to see. If Vancouver drops this one, it'll be the third straight time in three years that they came in as the Division winner and got chumped out by a Chicago team they should have had all the tools to beat. This kind of thing is how full-blown mass psychoses begin.

You know what would be fun? Going to Vancouver as a tourist, finding a karaoke bar, and performing a spirited rendition of the Fratellis' "Chelsea Dagger". Just to see what the crowd response would be.

The Canucks' other problem on their minds is that they've lost one of their key depth players, Manny Malhotra, to one of the most gruesome fluke injuries in recent memory -- once again inducing one of the million, zillion Manitoba Moose call-ups this year. I'm sure at this point that guys like Oreskovich just pray for Terry Pratchett's Discworld to become real, so they can dump everything they own into sentient luggage and then that luggage can come track them down in wherever the hell they end up playing tomorrow.

Malhotra was their faceoff ace by a wide margin, so removing him from the equation seems like more of a blow than people might realize. But then, on the other hand -- the last time these two teams met, Chicago was halfway through an expensive gamble on a nightmare's worth of salaries that ended up paying off with a Cup. Since then, out of sheer necessity, the Blackhawks have parted ways with Dustin Byfuglien, Brent Sopel, Andrew Ladd, Ben Eager, Colin Fraser, Kris Versteeg, and Antti Niemi. That's enough of a team by itself that you could probably plunk them somewhere as a new franchise, load the rest of a roster up with random CHL dudes, and still scrape the Islanders ten games out of ten.

So the Blackhawks are still a decent team, but nowhere near what they used to be; Byfuglien alone was enough of a factor that he got his own poem from Roberto Luongo. And now he's in Atlanta, or at least he's there for as long as the team will be. Add this to the knowledge that the Canucks got the added luck of finally getting all six of their top defencemen simultaneously healthy at just the right time, and the stage is set for either a bit of playoff redemption or the most uproariously awful fan anguish possible. If they can't beat 'em now, with the team they had this year, they'll probably never beat them again. But, hey -- no pressure!

What I'd Want: Vancouver in seven, and it would just be the most Western Conference thing you've ever seen. Just hits everywhere and occasional slugfests and a whole bunch of games that end up being 7-6 no matter how good either goalie is. I watch this sport for entertainment, gol-dang it.
What I'll Guess: Vancouver in, hm, six.

(2) San Jose Sharks vs. (7) Los Angeles Kings

I'm sure by now we're all familiar with the Sharks' routine, yes? Win the Pacific Division, cruise through a playoff round or two, and then deflate like old balloons without ever making it out of the Western Conference.

There was that one year they lost in the first round, to the Ducks, but otherwise their recent history is a pretty solid track record of making the first round look reasonably casual. And these Kings ain't no Ducks, especially with the untimely and ridiculously cruel loss of Anze Kopitar to severe injury.

He turned out to be a really good player after all, but -- and I am not above admitting this -- the reason I liked Anze Kopitar when he first showed up is because he kind of looks like a zombie. Oh, c'mon, look at him, he totally does.

So the Kings lost their All-Star leading scorer for the rest of the year, they rarely score goals to begin with, and half their team is so young that I'll be amazed if they can even grow playoff beards. (I maintain that the Kings will be an amazing team in three or four years, if they can keep all of their players together, but that's still three or four years away for these fledglings.) San Jose should be able to coast through this series without too much trouble, and coasting is what San Jose does best.

But will this be the year that the Sharks win it all? Why, this could even be the start of a dynaspfffffft ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha

What I'd Want: Los Angeles in seven, for the chaos of the whole thing.
What I'll Guess: San Jose in five.

(3) Detroit Red Wings vs. (6) Phoenix Coyotes

Oh, man, this series. They could rig the standings so this happens every first round, every year, and it would still make me smile every single time.

The games usually end up being really fun to watch, which is a plus, and the teams hate each other, which is also a plus. The Coyotes franchise bleeding money like a stabbed piggy bank is a reassuring constant in our otherwise unpredictable world, and all things considered, it's a nice (and rare) opportunity to have a valid reason to root for Detroit for a change.

(I've been over this before, but I'm pretty tired of Detroit being really good all the time; they have been an almost unfailingly excellent team for virtually my entire lifetime, and that kind of thing gets quietly annoying after a while.)

Detroit has rarely looked more vulnerable than they did in their series with Phoenix last year, turning in a couple of uncharacteristic stinkers before finally flipping the switch and straight-up humiliating the Coyotes in front of one of Phoenix's famously devoted home crowds. And this year the Red Wings are pretty banged up, even more so than their advanced age usually suggests; Zetterberg in particular might miss the whole series, and he was the Wings' leading scorer this season.

But, with all that said, they are the Red Wings, and they will just find some way to win anyway because that is how the Red Wings work. The team is still toploaded with future Hall of Famers, all evidence indicates that the Wings will flat-out murder the Coyotes on special teams, and once they've wrapped up what should be a decently close series we can all get back to our incredulous laughter every time new ownership twists pop up in Glendale. Oh, those wacky funsters!

What I'd Want: Detroit in four, because that's funny.
What I'll Guess: Detroit in seven.

(4) Anaheim Mighty Ducks vs. (5) Nashville Predators

All right, let's all just be honest: nobody really gives much of a crap about this pairing. (Viewers in the States can't even watch it, at least without throwing money at the NHL's website or stealing a TSN feed.)

I'm not going to lie; I get a kick out of Nashville. Every time they show up, this team of mostly anonymous players who band together to win games with solid defence and completely unnoteworthy offense, I start thinking about how funny it would be if they made it really deep into the playoffs and tanked the television ratings everywhere. Then they do nothing, and they lose, and that is seriously the entire playoff history of the Nashville Predators.

Five times in the last six seasons, they've made the playoffs, made me laugh, and then lost in the first round. This is their schtick; this is what they do. Heck, none of those series ever even made it to seven games -- and none of these games ever even behave like playoff games, the Predators all just floatin' around like it's the beginning of October. So, yes, it would be funny if they won, and I would enjoy it, but I'm not falling for that ol' chestnut again.

Anaheim, meanwhile, has been on fire for pretty well the whole month leading into these playoffs, and their top line has been terrifying all year. Plus I just really like the team, despite itself; I take endless delight in Selanne and Carlyle forming a cranky old man tandem of former Winnipeg Jets, George Parros' mustache cracks me up every time I see it, Ray Emery is one of my absolute favourite players anywhere, and hey -- when all else fails, there's always room for "Flying V" jokes. Am I right? Yeah, you know I'm right. So I like Anaheim alright, and I hope they enjoy what will probably end up being a comparatively easy ride into the second round.

What I'd Want: Anaheim in six, just to throw Nashville a bone with the home game revenue.
What I'll Guess: Anaheim in five. Rinne's good, but he can't sit on leads unless his team can score some first.

It's playoff time! Whoo! I'll be back here reasonably soon with civic discourse, mysterious albums, and other hitherto undisclosed wackiness; watch this space, true believers!

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