Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs Begin Tonight

Augh, okay, I'm here, I'm late, I know, I just got home, I need to get this wrapped up, nobody tell me the scores, I'm going to do this right--

Ahem. Beg pardon. I've been a bit discombobulated, today. Let me start over.

Hey, it's playoff time! The beginning of the NHL postseason is an annual rite, heralding both the arrival of spring and a rare few weeks' worth of television that I actually want to watch. So, just as I do every year, I'll make guesses between rounds on how each series will play out; I'm usually, oh, half right? Let's go with half.

Since everyone in the city is more familiar with the East this year, for some entirely unknown reason, let's just go ahead and start there:

Eastern Conference

(1) New York Rangers vs. (8) Ottawa Senators

I have a suspicion that the Rangers' year will end immediately once they've burnt Lundqvist out -- you know, like every year -- but it ain't going to happen in round one, not here. They should have more than enough depth and sticktoitiveness to handle a team like the Senators, who are really only here -- if we're being entirely honest -- because seven other teams in the Conference managed to be worse than them for longer stretches. Congratulations, you're marginally better than the sadsack Sabres and only slightly worse than the hilariously inconsistent Capitals, enjoy your two games' worth of playoff revenue. (On the bright side: they're not the Leafs! Ha ha ha ha, ahhhhh, perspective.)

What I'd Want: Winnipeg Buffalo dammit New York in five.
What I'll Guess: New York in five.

(2) Boston Bruins vs. (7) Washington Capitals

The Capitals came alive at the right time under their new coach, and they've salvaged a playoff appearance out of a season that very nearly ended as the impetus for a total team overhaul, but even with the resurgence I can't plausibly picture them upending the defending champions. The Bruins are as big and mean as they were last year, but more importantly they have the line balance and depth that allows for a greater consistency than Washington's loose confederation of individuals trying to carry the team. Plus, to put it as simply as I can, right now the Bruins have two NHL goalies and the Capitals have none.

Y'know what I really want to see, though, for entertainment's sake? I'm hoping that Boston starts Thomas for game three and the Washington crowds chant "Obama" at him. That'd be fun, wouldn't it? I guarantee you, if Winnipeg had lucked into the Playoffs, you'd have been hearing "O-BA-MA, O-BA-MA" for the better part of the entire game.

What I'd Want: Boston in seven, full of back and forth run-and-gun for entertainment's sake. Remember when Ovechkin was a threat to score goals by himself? Ah, those were the days.
What I'll Guess: Boston in five.

(3) Florida Panthers vs. (6) New Jersey Devils


This is a real thing, isn't it. All right, I guess this is happening, let's make the best of it. The current system of automatic high seeds for division winners is a point of contention every year, but I honestly can't remember the last time we had an example of its failings as flagrant as Florida this year.

The Panthers managed, to borrow the Adam Wazny approach, 38 wins in 82 games; if it weren't for the current system's other contentious quirk, the extra overtime or shootout point, the Panthers would be somewhere way down deep in rebuild hell right now. Florida had eighteen points from overtime or shootout losses this year, won fewer than half of the season's games, and had a -24 goal differential on the year. Minus twenty-four. That's ghastly.

In short: the Panthers are the least playoff-worthy playoff team in potentially ever, and of course the benefactors are a team that I cannot possibly bring myself to enjoy or care about. Ugh, the Devils. I don't actively hate them, since they aren't ruining everything for everybody the way they used to, but their current incarnation still isn't anything that I'd actually want to watch. You know? They don't even have any real discernable team identity, now, aside from Martin Brodeur being twelve thousand years old.

The outcome is just going to seem like a travesty either way, so let's go whole hog with it and say that Florida will clog up the whole series and win by one goal somehow.

What I'd Want: Both of them to lose somehow, if we're being honest, but let's saaaaaaaay New Jersey in seven. Just to wear 'em out, not because the games are going to be any good.
What I'll Guess: Florida in six, to keep the discussion topic on the board, and then they'll get quite deservedly scraped by whoever draws them for round two.

(4) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (5) Philadelphia Flyers

See, this, by contrast, this is going to be a whole lot of fun. If you were writing this as fiction, readers would reject it because it's completely implausible to have this perfect a pairing and this many subplots at once in one first-round series. All this about Jagr, and Talbot, and longstanding inter-state rivalries, and coaches snarking about opposing players, and -- all of it, the whole lot, just a gloriously overstuffed situation. Very likely the most entertaining series of the first round, for what little that may be saying.

This series is also going to be exactly what the League wanted in the "New NHL", because, oh my god, so many goals. All the goals. Look at the starting goalies that these two teams are fielding, it'll be a minor miracle if any game stays below six goals. I think they're actually lucky to be drawing each other here, these two teams, because if either of them had drawn New York or Boston they'd be hitting the links by the end of next week.

Philly is missing a couple of integral pieces from last year's run, and Pittsburgh got the best player in the world (albeit one whose head is currently filled with soup) back just in time for the postseason, but I've got a gut feeling that the Flyers' toughness (and/or the magic of the Incredible Disappearing Fleury Goaltending) is going to earn Philadelphia the eventual nod.

What I'd Want: Philly in five, because screw it, why not. I dig Philly.
What I'll Guess: Philly in seven.

Western Conference

(1) Vancouver Canucks vs. (8) Los Angeles Kings

I always like the idea of the Kings, although it's never actually based on seeing them play; up here in Canada we get to see, maybe, maybe, two Kings games a year. But I dig Anze Kopitar, I have a soft spot for team composition around power forwards, and I'm pretty sure I'd like Quick a lot if I ever got to see him play.

And, uh... and my Grandpa had a copy of the VHS tape Super Dooper Hockey Bloopers when I was growing up, so I spent a surprisingly large chunk of my formulative years watching this:

Yeah, what, get at me. I ain't ashamed! I am what I am.

Anyway, no, the Kings aren't winning this. The Canucks will drop a game or two, and look just shaky enough to have everybody questioning Luongo's fortitude for future rounds, but I expect Vancouver will still seal it relatively painlessly.

What I'd Want: I'd probably still take Vancouver, in six, but I wouldn't be angry about an upset. Yo, remind me to try and teach myself "Forgive My Misconduct" the next time I bust out my poor neglected acoustic guitar, though.
What I'll Guess: Vancouver in six.

(2) St. Louis Blues vs. (7) San Jose Sharks

So, hey, who here predicted the Blues finishing the year at second in the West with 49 wins and 109 points? You did? Hey, me too! pffffff ha ha ha ha, no, we didn't, we're both liars. What on earth is this.

It turns out -- much to everyone's surprise, I'm sure -- that the secret to securing a strong playoff spot is hiring Ken Hitchcock as coach and handing him a team with two really solid goaltenders. But I think this series is going to be more fun than people are expecting; the Sharks strike me as being seeded deceptively low, this year, having missed third place by a single point and bringing a veritable onslaught of playoff experience. Not great playoff experience, mind you, but boy if they don't have a lot of guys who have historically done well in the first round. (The problem is, uh... everything else.)

The Sharks will open well -- I'm going to hazard the guess and say they'll be up 2-1 after three games -- but the Blues are going to grind them down in Hitchcockian fashion, the seeming eternity of bubbling playoff pressure will catch up to them, and the Blues will ultimately eke it out to round two.

What I'd Want: St. Louis in four, just to finally trigger the detonation that San Jose flirts with every year and get it over with. (Interestingly, a 4-0 record for the Blues would exactly match their season series with the Sharks this past year. Huh! Go know.)
What I'll Guess: St. Louis in seven.

(3) Phoenix Coyotes vs. (6) Chicago Blackhawks

I'd mentioned above that San Jose missed third by one point; Phoenix had one fewer win but three more overtime losses, and pulled a 7-1-2 run in the last ten games (with five straight wins at the end, even), so at the very least they're more legit than Florida seems. And it clinched them their first division title in the team's 33-year history, giving them hope to snap the team's other longstanding franchise failure. So will this be the year that the long-suffering Phoenix-nee-Winnipeg franchise finally, finally wins a playoff series?

looooooooool, nope

Chicago is currently expected to get its captain and biggest star back from injury for the start of game one -- a boost to their morale, if nothing else, although after the way Crosby's been playing I don't know what to think any more about how players return from concussions. Toews or no, and even with Phoenix's solid defensive strengths this year, Chicago's forward lines and secondary scoring should see them through. I should also disclose that I'm a longtime Ray Emery fan, so I am willing to believe that Chicago will hold the fort down well enough even if their first choice collapses on them.

Although, with my having said that, watch now as Oduya coughs up the worst possible defensive cross-ice turnover and gets Chicago eliminated. Eee-yep, I can feel it coming from here, now that I've envisioned it. Dammit, Oduya.

What I'd Want: Chicago in four.
What I'll Guess: Chicago in six.

(4) Detroit Red Wings vs. (5) Nashville Predators

As I'd said with Los Angeles above, I like the idea of Nashville; I dig Trotz, I dig Tootoo, I liked the Kostitsyns back when I could see either of them play more than once or twice a year, and Shea Weber grows the kind of beard we should all aspire to. Plus Pekka Rinne is currently developing into an elite goaltender the same way that Roberto Luongo did in Florida, which is to say he faces something like fifty-five shots a game and stops fifty-four of them.

On the other hand, I don't particularly like Detroit -- which is not to say I hate them, either, so much as I'm just tired of them being good for the entirety of my lifetime. I don't like the Wings, necessarily, but I definitely respect them; unlike New Jersey above, and even when you're actively rooting against them, the Red Wings are a team that are always rewarding to watch. I mean, a player like Datsyuk busts out some ridiculous elite-level once-in-a-generation play, you can't even be mad mad at him. At that point it's just, augh, fine, you win, that was amazing. Well done. Dammit.

So this is a toss-up, this series; I'm rooting for Nashville to put it all together for a great run -- although, come to think of it, I'm pretty sure I've wished for that every year -- but honestly I think it's more likely that Detroit classes it out and moves along.

What I'd Want: Nashville, in five.
What I'll Guess: Detroit in five, and they'll be super classy about it, and I will paradoxically hate them for being so impossible to hate. GRR. Grrrrrrrrr.

All right, enough writing about hockey! Time to watch hockey. Hockey! Hockey? Hockey hockey. HOCKEY. Hockeyyyyyyyy. (April in Canada, everybody.)

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