It’s that time of year again! We will preview this year’s NHL playoff matchups with Grand Poohbah Emeritus of American Literachoor, the best player received by the Flames in the Doug Gilmour trade, and most importantly author of the splendid new book Life As Jamie Knows It Michael Berube. I will start with the west, where I have the…pleasure? of an intense rooting interest in multiple series. And as deplorable as Edmonton and Toronto being in the postseason is, at least it will spare us more WILL A CANDADIAN TEAM EVER BE GOOD AGAIN EVER? thinkpieces. The number given with my picks is the score-and-event-adjusted Corsi (via Puck on Net.)
CHICAGO (52.45, #5) v. NASHVILLE (51.35 #11) This should be a hell of a series. To make the comparison many others have, the Blackhawks are the closest the NHL have to the Patriots (granting that you have to have a consistent core of more than one player): master coach with the very rare ability to avoid the diminishing returns of either high or low pressure, consistent stars, and the remarkable ability to to identify quality supporting talent in a cap league (while not getting attached to non-essential veterans.) Nashville are certainly a live dog, and when looking for an upset a formidable top defensive pair (which the Preds certainly have in Subban/Josi) is something to look for. But I think Chicago has at least one deep run in them (although they won’t have the advantage of Dan Quinn and Kyle Shanahan pulling the goalie with a 2-goal lead in game 7.) BLACKHAWKS IN 6.
MINNESOTA (51.63, #9) v. ST. LOUIS (50.55, #14) Minnesota looked great in the first half, stumbled considerably and righted the ship at the end. The Blues had roughly the opposite trajectory. Normally, I don’t think these trends are important. However, I suspect that the Blues might be benefitting from a Billy Martin/Bob Lemon effect: Hitchcock is a great coach but the kind of high-pressure hardass who tends to have a fairly short shelf life even when he’s successful, and replacing that kind of coach can lead to short-term improvements. My gut leans towards an upset here, although if Dubnyk plays as well as he’s capable of the Wild will probably sneak through. BLUES IN 7.
ANAHEIM (50. 45, #15) v. CALGARY (50.19, #16) My team is back in, only this time as a legitmate playoff team (although not yet a legitimate top contender) with two excellent forward lines and three elite defensemen, and since Brian Elliot started playing like the top-10 goalie he usually is rather than the sub-replacement-level goalie he played like in his first two months or so in Calgary they’ve been among the better players in the league. As even most casual fans will know by now, they’ll be facing a team that they have beaten on the road once since the Clinton administration despite playing in at least the same conference. Despite that, this is a fairly even matchup — Anaheim’s aging forward core is still awfully good, and they have a little more depth. In the end, I think home ice will decide this — not because of the streak itself, who cares, but because the Flames’ third defensive pairing has gotten absolutely brutalized and Gulutzan will have a limited ability to shelter them in Anaheim. I think that will be the difference. DUCKS IN 7.
EDMONTON (51.00, #12) v. SAN JOSE (52.21, #6) Congratulation to the Oilers for finally parlaying 73 top-3 draft picks into a somewhat above-average team. There is a debate about whether Edmonton has put together a legitimately excellent ream or a mediocre-at-best team that fell ass-backwards into the best prospect of the decade. I’m firmly in the latter camp — basically, I think the Oilers are the Colts if Andrew Luck had been Peyton Manning. If Thornton and Couture were healthy, I would pick San Jose without hesitation. But…they’re not. Everything will come down to how close to 100% they are, but I’m concerned enough to say OILERS IN 7. Prove me wrong, San Jose. PROVE ME WRONG.
And now, over to Michael:
Washington (Metropolitan 1) – Toronto (Wild Card 2). Although it’s nice to see that professional hockey has returned to the Air Canada Centre (this is only Toronto’s second playoff appearance since the lockout!), these exciting young Leafs are badly overmatched here. And though I know I may very well regret saying this a month from now, I really do believe that this is the year the Caps somehow fail to fold. Then again, I thought that last year, too. CAPITALS IN 5.
Pittsburgh (Metropolitan 2) – Columbus (Metropolitan 3). Two words: Kris Letang. If he were still in the Pens’ lineup, I would be drawing up a nice little Certificate of Achievement for the Blue Jackets, saying it’s so nice for you that you won 50 games and tallied 108 points. We’re sorry you have to leave after one round, but we can offer you a 10 percent discount on early May tee times. But without Letang, these Penguins are vulnerable– and on the other side, is there anything Sergei Bobrovsky can’t stop? We’ll find out! BLUE JACKETS IN 6.
Ottawa (Atlantic 2) – Boston (Atlantic 3). Meh. I can’t even dredge up any Billy Joel lyrics to express how meh I feel about this series. One of these teams will beat the other and then disappear in round two. If that makes some people in one of these fan bases happy, yay for them. BRUINS IN 6.
Montreal (Atlantic 1) – New York (Wild Card 1). Oh, how this one is going to hurt. I picked the Rangers over the Penguins in the first round last year out of sheer dogged loyalty, knowing full well that the Pens were the hottest team in the league (but still believing they would lose in 7 to the Caps in round two). I can’t do it again. Perhaps I’m haunted by the 4-1 drubbing I saw Montreal administer in early March, about which Chris Robinson said, “I’m so sorry you had to pay money to see that dog of a game.” (Ten dollars would have been about right.) Or perhaps it’s just my sense that this year, the Rangers’ destiny was to become the best fourth-place team in league history. Whatever. I feel most for Lundqvist, who for many years dragged this team single-handedly into the playoffs until the Almost Glory Years of 2012-15, when the Rangers were serious Cup contenders. I don’t know how many more chances he will have. I will content myself by replaying game 2 of the 2014 Cup finals until the Rangers win (as they should have). Meanwhile, Montreal will be moving on. CANADIENS IN 7.
[SL]FTR, I would go chalk in the East, picking Pittsburgh over Columbus and otherwise agreeing. I’ll be rooting for my gritty undergraduate heroes, Guy Boucher and Marty Raymond — who have done a terrific job in Ottawa — to pull of the upset, but the Bruins look just too solid to me.