Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Second round predictions: Eastern Conference

The results of my first round predictions were grim: I only correctly picked the Capitals to advance in the East, and the Oilers and Ducks in the West.  This is the nature of playoff hockey, and why we love it so much.  The unpredictability keeps us glued to the couch for two (often disappointing) months.

Still, 3/8 is not so bad, considering no one in the world had the Predators sweeping a still very good Blackhawks team. But I am a Capitals fan, so falling short of expectations is the name of the game.  No harm, no foul.

As we move on to the second round tomorrow evening, with oddly both Western series beginning on the same day, we take a breath, restock the fridge, and prepare for disappointment.

(1) Washington Capitals vs. (2) Pittsburgh Penguins

Much has been written of this playoff matchup between the top two teams in the regular season.  Mostly, the public response has been negative.  While not perfect, the current format, based on that of 1981-82, allows for teams to play year after year when it matters most, whereas the previous format would see the division champions ranked as the two top seeds with the remaining slots filled by the next six teams in the conference, making repeated playoff matchups far less frequent. 

However, instead of fretting over the format, we should focus on the likelihood that the winner of this series will go on to win the Stanley Cup, as it did last year and twice in the early '90s. 

The Capitals have never been more motivated to play hard than they are now - after a surprisingly tough battle with the Maple Leafs over a six game series which saw every game decided by a single goal, they now face their nemesis, their greatest rival, the biggest bump on the road to success, a team they have not beaten in a playoff series since 1994.  The x-factor in this series is health.  The Capitals have a question mark on defense with Alzner missing games for the first time in several years, but having acquired depth in Shattenkirk, they have seven NHL defensemen on the roster. 

The Penguins, having lost Letang for the duration of the playoffs, with Kunitz and Hagelin remaining as big question marks, are depleted of much of the scoring depth that helped propel them past the Capitals last season.  The Capitals are a heavy team, perhaps the heaviest in the Eastern Conference, and rely on dumping the puck into the zone and maintaining long possessions to score goals.  Letang counters that by getting the puck first and moving it out of the zone quickly to the Penguins fast forwards.  His loss will be the difference maker.  Hagelin of course led the team against the Capitals, scoring three goals including a game winner, and assisting on Bonino's OT winner which ended the series.  Forming one third of the best line in the playoffs last year, if he is unable to gear up, Hagelin's skating ability will badly be missed against a team that often looked bad in transition against a high-flying Maple Leafs roster.  Kunitz, having lost a step, is still effective on the forecheck, is tenacious in front of the net, and scored as many goals and assists in last year's matchup as Malkin and Crosby combined.  Depth scoring matters in the playoffs, and with the potential loss of these two, the Penguins will have their work cut out for them. 

Prediction: Washington in 6

(2) Ottawa Senators vs. (WC1) New York Rangers

Four years removed from posting the best save percentage in NHL history, and two years removed from the Hamburglar's incredible run, Craig Anderson is back where he belongs: backstopping an upstart Senators team in the playoffs.  Following an up-and-down season with an unprecedented amount of stress due to his wife's health issues, Anderson is seated firmly atop the goaltender depth chart.  Establishing consistency late in the year helped drive the Senators ahead of a team that showed flashes of brilliance, Anderson, having won 7 of his previous 9 starts, bested the hottest team outside of DC in dramatic fashion.  Driven by a dominating series at the hands of Erik Karlsson, the Senators took advantage of a stupid penalty - in overtime, off the puck - to put the Bruins away. 

This series may be partially overshadowed by the Zibanejad/Brassard trade, but the Rangers are playing for much more.  No team has played more post-season games since 2012 since the Rangers, who are leaning heavily on an aging and now often hurt Henrik Lundqvist.  After another amazing series against a top flight goaltender, it is clear that he still has a lot left to give.  The question is whether or not the team will give him another chance. 

New York was the best team on the road, and they will need to steal a game from Ottawa to have a chance. 

Prediction: New York in 7

Monday, April 17, 2017

Another year, another meltdown

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

First round predictions: Western Conference

With the most exciting sports tournament set to start today, we stock up on beer and fill out our brackets.  We move on to the Central:

(1) Chicago Blackhawks vs. (WC2) Nashville Predators

Chicago backed into the #1 seed in the West by finishing the regular season with four straight losses, but prior to that streak the Hawks had pieced together a 20-4-2 record since the start of February.  Led by a core group of three time Cup winners, the Hawks earned more points on the road than everyone except the Rangers.  Patrick Kane had another fantastic year, the goaltending was solid, and with the exception of Roszival, the roster is healthy.  The only real question is whether they can make up for their dreadful faceoff percentage; amongst playoff teams, only Edmonton was worse.  Nashville was the beneficiary of the Subban deal, and the skating advantage P.K. provides over Weber will be critical in this matchup.  Rinne turned in another solid season, but if the Predators hope to outmatch a solid veteran squad, he will have to exceed his career playoff averages.

Prediction: Chicago in 6

(2) Minnesota Wild vs. (3) St. Louis Blues

Ordinarily when a team sets franchise marks in wins and points, they garner heaps of praise.  Not so for this Minnesota squad, who suffered an awful 1-9 stretch which took them from tops in the West to hosting an unfavorable matchup against the always competitive Blues.  Behind captain Mikko Koivu, the Wild iced a solid two-way team; their +58 goal differential was second to only Washington.  Can Bruce Boudreau take his third team to the next level?  To do so, he will have to lead his Wild past his predecessor in Minnesota: Mike Yeo.  Yeo took over on February 1st for living legend Ken Hitchcock, and led the Blues on a rampage, taking 22 of the final 32 games to push ahead of Nashville.  After letting David Backes and Troy Brouwer walk in the off-season, the Blues, in somewhat of a rebuild, refused to let Kevin Shattenkirk leave without just compensation.  The trade with the Capitals brought in highly touted prospect Zach Sanford, whose big body and nose for the net fits the Blues offensive scheme.  Without much scoring depth, however, the Blues are outmatched.

Prediction: Minnesota in 6

For what promises to be the most physical division to win, we move to the West:

(1) Anaheim Ducks vs. (WC1) Calgary Flames

These teams hate each other.  The last time out, captain of the Flames, Mark Giordano, took out defenseman Cam Fowler with a knee collision.  Anaheim has quietly built a team full of pests and agitators, headlined by Corey Perry, and this feistiness should be expected to make its mark on the series.  The Flames, while much improved over their last dance in the playoffs, are too young and inexperienced to matchup well in a long, physical series.  This one figures to go seven games, and will be as close to old time hockey as we will get these days.

Prediction: Anaheim in 7

(2) Edmonton Oilers vs. (3) San Jose Sharks

Much has been written about Edmonton's prolonged playoff absence, and their triumphant return has been made possible by none other than the dynamic, future Hall of Famer, Connor McDavid.  This writer had the pleasure of seeing McDavid play his first career game in Verizon Center, albeit from the worst seats in the building, and it was worth every penny.  Connor skates like a young Bobby Orr, and handles the puck with the best of them.  Guarded by the muscle of Milan Lucic, Darnell Nurse, Zack Kassian, and Pat Maroon, the Oilers young talent has plenty of space to make plays.  Their dreadful faceoff percentage (47.03%) will be their biggest drawback, but luckily for Oiltown, the Sharks do not fare much better (48.13%).  The defending Western Conference champions have their work cut out for them, and with Joe Thornton beginning to show signs of age, this will be a steep obstacle to overcome.  Brent Burns posted another unreal season, and his continued dominance from the blue line is the last hope for big Joe to raise the Cup.  Unfortunately for Sharks fans, that will not be this season.

Prediction: Edmonton in 5

First round predictions: Eastern Conference

With the most exciting sports tournament set to start today, we stock up on beer and fill out our brackets.  We start with the best division in hockey, the Metropolitan:

(1) Washington Capitals vs. (WC2) Toronto Maple Leafs

The Capitals roster has been constructed for the playoffs.  Holtby has been terrific, again, but is well rested, having played in only 63 games in 16-17.  His year was outstanding, and much has been written about it, deservedly so, as he vies to become the first back-to-back Vezina winner since Brodeur won his fourth in 2008.  Scoring depth was huge; Beagle centered a fourth line that combined for 74 points.  The Capitals won the trade deadline by acquiring the best puck mover on the market, who meshed nicely, scoring 14 points in 19 games along with 2 game winners.  Washington can roll four lines and three defensive pairs that can compete with anyone in the league.  This is a great squad.  Meanwhile, the Leafs are a work in progress.  Matthews centered one of the league's most exciting lines, and built a strong case for the Calder Trophy, having finished tied for second in the league in goals and leading an upstart team to their first playoff matchup in several years.  This will be a great team, perhaps sooner than previously expected, but experience beats youth in this duel.  Get out the brooms.

Prediction: Washington in 4

(2) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (3) Columbus Blue Jackets

Sidney Crosby had another banner year, leading the league in goals for the second time in his career, while finishing tied second with Patrick Kane in points (89).  This was achieved largely on the back of him posting the second highest shooting percent of his career, which indicates his continued success finding shooting lanes.  However, with the injuries to this Penguins squad, they are not built for a playoff run deep into June.  Pittsburgh lost 278 man-games to injury (7th most), resulting in the 4th most minutes of injured players being lost, due to the importance of the players who missed significant time.  Columbus, on the other hand, has had great health, and won a comeback on the road against Toronto to close out the year on a strong note in spite of their late season slide.  Bobrovsky should win his second Vezina, Werenski might be the most underrated player in the league, and Tortorella is thriving in a town without much hockey press.  Columbus has quietly put together a hell of a squad, and they match up favorably against every team in the league.

Prediction: Columbus in 7

The Atlantic has this season's dark horse:

(1) Montreal Canadiens vs. (WC1) New York Rangers

The Canadiens made the biggest splash of the offseason by trading darling P.K. Subban for legendary defenseman Shea Weber.  Weber has been the most consistent and prolific goal scorer from the blue line since he entered the league, having scored more than anyone else during any five-year span of his career.  However, with his best years behind him, this was a power move to make a deep playoff run.  Firing Therrien was the right move, bringing back Claude Julien re-energized the team, and the Habs finished strong, winning the division comfortably.  The Rangers struggled with injuries throughout the year - notably missing Lundqvist for a significant stretch - but even when he was healthy he was subpar, posting the worst numbers of his career.  There is allegedly bad blood between the two teams, but with the turnover in today's game coupled with Vignault's signature women's college hockey style of coaching, expect no fireworks. 

Prediction: Montreal in 6

(2) Ottawa Senators vs. (3) Boston Bruins

The Senators have been inconsistent throughout the year, having posted three losing streaks of four or more games, including two such streaks in March.  Erik Karlsson posted yet another phenomenal season, but with injury concerns, the Senators perfect record against the Bruins may not be enough to overcome the red-hot Bruins since Cassidy took over.  After firing long time head coach Claude Julien, with whom the Bruins won a Stanley Cup and lost another, former Capitals head coach Bruce Cassidy took over and led the Bruins to an 18-8-1 to close out the year.  Having earned 37 of a possible 54 points, Boston paced ahead of everyone but the Capitals since the coaching change.  Much has been written about the fall of Tuukka Rask, but if the Bruins can keep controlling the puck like they have been all season, and Rask performs even to league average standards, the Bruins will roll over Ottawa.

Prediction: Boston in 5