Woo-hoo! The NHL playoffs have begun! Someone find my blood pressure medicine and hide my tequila!
I kid. My blood pressure issues are completely untreated, and even if you hid my tequila, I have plenty of whiskey. Whatever your drink of choice, you probably needed it last night if you were a fan of any of the Western teams that played.
Before we dive into the playoff brackets, though, a few words on a recently-fired tank commander.
Before We Begin…
…I’d like to take a moment to recognize the thankless work of Ted Nolan, who was fired as the coach of the Buffalo Sabres this past week. I’m ambivalent about the Sabres as a team, and I don’t know if Nolan was the coach who would have taken them to the next level, but he still did a yeoman’s work.
What I do know is that Ted Nolan coached through circumstances that most HR professionals would tell you to run away from. Far, far away, and with the utmost alacrity. But Nolan stuck with it, and was then summarily canned when circumstances were finally on the verge of improving.
Here’s the thing. While the other 29 NHL coaches were given a lump of clay and told to make pottery, Nolan was given a pile of excrement and told to do the same. Or at least make something that looked pottery-ish and didn’t reek too much of a bovine’s posterior. Sure, some of the other 29 coaches were given dried-out clay, and some had raw material taken away halfway through the process — but they all got clay. Ted Nolan got shit, and his pottery was almost as good as some other coaches’ whose front offices actually wanted pottery at the start of the season.
And now, when Nolan would finally get the prize for sticking through this hellish season of spinning excrement, when he could look forward to coaching a team with Tyler Ennis, Evander Kane, Sam Reinhart, and either Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel… That’s when the Sabres fire him.
The guy has my respect, and I hope to see him behind the bench for a team next season.
And now for something completely different:
The Inexpert Playoff Non-Bracket of the Fifth Line
The NHL has been trying to ride the idea of “bracketology” since they changed the playoff format last year. I lost count how many times my NHL Network app would buzz my phone to remind me: “Hey, you only have 3.5 hours to fill out your bracket!” “Look, the guys from NHL Live filled out their brackets, why haven’t you?!” “Why do you hate our bracket? What did the bracket ever do to you to deserve your undying apathy?!”
Anyway, here’s my thoughts on the first round of the playoffs. No, it is not a full bracket. You can’t make me fill one out, NHL.
This conference, man. This conference. On the Central side, we have four teams who all chalked up 100+ points in the standings. The division was so good, it’s fifth-best team even made into the Pacific side of the bracket. As for the Pacific Division… you’re welcome, Anaheim. You have the easiest path to the conference finals of any NHL team. It’s the Ducks plus three wild-card-talent teams. There is literally no excuse for an early exit, Anaheim.
Anyway, onto the matchups:
St. Louis Blues | 0 – 0 | Minnesota Wild
Might as well tackle the difficult one first, right? I have no idea who’ll win this one, but I have a lot of prejudices, so those will probably decide for me.
St. Louis is always a tough draw, but they’re more like a level boss in a video game than a Stanley Cup champion. They play heavy, they suppress shots, and they usually can score just enough to win. They upgraded this season by actually having top-level scorers, which is a scary thought. If I were a Blues fan, though, I would be scared of their goaltending. Game 1 will see a rookie with league-average numbers in net for the Blues.
In the other net will be Devan Dubnyk, the savior of the Twin Cities. The Wild was a great team that only needed a decent goalie, and it found a decent goalie who’s playing like a legend. Can he keep his numbers up for a seven-game series, though?
In the end, analysis doesn’t matter, because I really dislike the Blues and my editor is wild for the Wild. I’m picking Minnesota in the upset.
Nashville Predators | 0 – 1 | Chicago Blackhawks
I’m horribly biased in regards to this series, so you already know who I pick to win it. Patrick Kane is back on the ice for Chicago, Teuvo is making some slick plays, and their forward depth is ridiculous. Chicago’s goaltending was so good that it won the Jennings Trophy alongside Carey Price and the Canadiens. You know, goalie-so-good-he-should-win-MVP Carey Price?
Then again, the Blackhawks also keep giving Michal Rozsival an irresponsible amount of ice time. Rozsival’s role as a turnstile who gives away pucks was put into sharp relief with Nashville’s first goal in game 1. The Preds are a fast, dangerous team with a top-notch defense and game-stealing goalie. Their young players (Forsberg, Jones, Jarnkrok) cause so many problems for opponents.
Still, the Blackhawks can disappear for an entire period and still win a game. I’m expecting them to face whoever emerges from the Blues/Wild fracas.
Anaheim Ducks | 0 – 0 | Winnipeg Jets
The Anaheim Ducks took the top seed in the Western Conference, which earned them zero consideration. This is Anaheim, coached by Bruce Boudreau. Neither has a stellar playoff track record. While the NHL Network hosts collectively picked the Ducks to emerge victorious from the West, everyone else is giving Anaheim the Rodney Dangerfield treatment.
Facing off against the Ducks are the Jets, a veteran team that has finally brought playoff hockey back to Winnipeg. For years, analysts have said that Winnipeg was a good team that just needed decent goaltending to succeed. This year, they’ve received decent goaltending from Ondrej Pavelec and Michael Hutchinson, and made the playoffs. Hell, they’re even a popular upset pick. And yet…
As much as I’d like to see the Jets move on, and as much as I’d enjoy the schadenfreude of Anaheim and Boudreau going home early (again), I don’t think it’ll happen. Winnipeg isn’t the only team that was “a decent goalie away from success,” but they’ve not succeeded as well as that other team. Plus, winning the series would require Pavelec to not revert to his career norm, which is a huge ask.
They’re also facing a physical Ducks team with a veteran scoring duo — and Anaheim is an annoying team to play (hello, Ryan Kesler, Corey Perry, et al.). Against a Winnipeg team notorious for taking too many penalties, I like the Ducks’ chances.
Vancouver Canucks | 0 – 1 | Calgary Flames
The Flames are this year’s Avalanche, a team that spends time running around without the puck and relying on luck and late-game heroics. They also have one of the top lines composed of a possible rookie of the year with a savvy veteran. The difference is that last year’s Avalanche team had so far to fall, and did so against a Wild team that’s now in the discussion as a dark horse Stanley Cup candidate.
Thing is, I don’t know if the Canucks are the team that will benefit from the course correction that’s due in Calgary. The Canucks are a good team, but they’re still on the bottom half of the league in terms of possession. They score a lot, but their goaltending is, y’know, okay. They’re the supper club beer of the NHL: not bad.
Even though Calgary escaped game 1 with a last-minute game-winning-goal (because OF COURSE THEY DID), I still side with the Canucks. Maybe. Probably? I don’t know. It feels like Calgary’s luck will run out soon, that no team can spend that much time without the puck and still win. But it hasn’t happened yet.
Out east, the brackets are a little more balanced. The New York Rangers, winners of the President’s Trophy, have the easier path to the finals — though nowhere near as easy as Anaheim’s. All the matchups are interesting, even if they are a little more imbalanced than the West.
Montreal Canadiens | 1 – 0 | Ottawa Senators
I want the Senators to win this so badly. The Andrew Hammond story is so damn charming, I want to see him lead them to the second round.
But then I watch the Senators play, and I can’t bring myself to pick them over the Canadiens. Look at game 1: the Senators scored 3 goals, all of which gifted by Montreal. They got 2 goals on the power play, and the other goal was an own goal from a Canadien skater who literally tapped the puck between his goalie’s legs. I noticed this at the end of the regular season, too — Ottawa had trouble scoring when they didn’t have some sort of distinct advantage.
While it is utterly tempting to pick Ottawa, and while game 1 was a dramatic high-scoring duel (with a lot of weird occurrences), they don’t have the consistency to beat Montreal in a series. Even if PK Subban gets suspended, the Canadiens move on.
Tampa Bay Lightning | 0 – 0 | Detroit Red Wings
The Lightning are too good, too healthy, and too explosive to lose this series. While Detroit is nearly as good as Tampa in terms as possession, they don’t even come close to the Lightning’s goal-scoring ability. Detroit has issues in net, and its two best players are starting to show their age.
This season’s Atlantic Division was a two-way race for first, and it’s hard to see anyone but the Canadiens and Lightning from facing off in the second round.
New York Rangers | 0 -0 | Pittsburgh Penguins
What is it with Pittsburgh and their cavalcade of injuries every season? They always dominated the season no matter who was on injured reserve, but after the Penguins won the Cup, they’ve always seemed to limp into the playoffs. They usually had the depth to make it interesting, until last year. This year’s team seems just as shallow, but with more injuries.
New York, meanwhile, is on cruise control. Everything is clicking, and I still stay that Alain Vigneault should be the presumptive Jack Adams winner. For Pittsburgh to beat the Rangers, they’ll need a Rankin/Bass-level miracle. There needs to be some magic in that old top hat Crosby finds, otherwise Pittsburgh is going to get stomped.
Washington Capitals | 0 – 1 | New York Islanders
We end where we began: I have no idea. The Islanders were the demonstrably better team most of the year, but they are not that team right now. Both have potent scorers, decent goaltending, reliable secondary scoring, and good coaches. But the Isles might be without Travis Hamonic, who gave them the kind of blue line corps that can take a team deep into the playoffs.
But even with him, they were disjointed. Washington, on the other hand, has looked good. Or they did until last night’s game 1, in which they looked old and slow (and that’s from their own coach). I like the Islanders as a team, but I like the Capitals’ coaching staff and system. I would like to see New York vs. New York in the second round, but I’d also like to see Ovie vs. King Henrik.
There you go. Eight capsules that you should totally not use if you wager money in Vegas. The second half of game 1s are tonight, and one can hope they continue with the drama displayed last night.