Get your minds right folks.
A few items to address before we get into the series…
1. New Playoff Format: There is no more reseeding: The bracket is the bracket from here on out. While the structure is different than it has been in years past that doesn’t make it worse. As you can see there are some fantastic first round matchups and some potential blockbusters coming in the later rounds. This also means you can fill out a bracket and everyone enjoys doing that. (Yes I picked the Bruins to win it all and no I did not enjoy doing so.)
2. Reminder it is the Stanley Cup Playoffs not NHL playoffs: There is a difference
3. Chaos vs Order: The fun and yet frustrating part about the Stanley Cup playoffs is that anyone can win. So while it appears we might get some epic 2nd round matchups never forget that an upset can hit at anytime. Two years ago the Vegas favorites Canucks and Pens were bounced in the first round and the 8 seed Kings beat the 6 seed Devils to win the Cup. Where as last year the final four was the last four cup winners. We never know what type of postseason we are going to get.
4. Injuries and playing injured: Some teams are getting healthy (Wings, Pens, Hawks) while others seem to have hit the injury bug (Blues). Just a reminder that the deeper we get into the playoffs the more and more players will get hurt and they will only be classified as either “upper” or “lower” body injuries. Just once I would like to hear it described as an “entire” body injury.
5. “Goaltending is the great equalizer”: You will hear this once or twice and it is true. I am just hoping Goalie Bob doesn’t get hot.
6. #Fancystats: The advanced stats in hockey have hit the mainstream with the Toronto Maple Leafs being a live social experiment for the two sides. For the stat heads their downfall was a major victory and I will bring up who the statheads will be rooting for in each matchup.
Quick primer for those that don’t know but Corsi/Fenwick measure puck possession and shots for and against. The basic premise here is the more you have the puck and the more you outshoot your opponent the better chance of success for your team. (Shocking I know)
The main chart I will be referring to is on Extra Skater and is very helpful. The higher the % the better puck possession team is. I truly enjoy the fancy stats but they clearly aren’t the be all end all. The Leafs stayed afloat due to above average goaltending and a hot first line meanwhile the Devils once again were in the top 5 but missed the playoffs because they gave Marty nearly 40 starts and couldn’t win a shootout. There are only so many things Corsi and Fenwick can measure. (As an organization though I would keep close track of this when making the big decisions. For example the front office of the Devils probably doesn’t need to make sweeping changes whereas the Leafs are by bringing in Brendan Shanahan.)
7. TV Schedule: Right here
8. Other places for series previews: ESPN, SB Nation and Puck Daddy’s awesome Tinder previews
The Four Series you will watch…
Central Division: 2) St Louis Blues vs 3) Chicago Blackhawks
Lowdown: As of two weeks ago the Blues were looking like a lock as Central Division champs and would have a favorable first round matchup. Well they ended up losing six games to end the season and now draw the defending champs in the first round. The Blues have gotten hit with injuries down the stretchmeanwhile the Hawks get Kane and Toews back. Add in that these two teams hate each other and you really can’t ask for anything else in a first round series.
Goalie Matchup: Ryan Miller vs Corey Crawford. A really interesting matchup with Miller being the big addition at the deadline but there isn’t much he can do with all of the injuries at forward the Blues have. Crawford is who he is, pretty decent but not great. Just has to make the big save when the time comes.
Injuries: The only thing potentially holding this series back from being an epic 7 game series is the injuries. The Hawks hope to be healthy meanwhile there are a lot of unknowns about the Blues health right now.
#Fancystats: Both teams are well liked in the stats community with the Blackhawks being one of the model franches for puck possession. Hopefully both teams are healthy because it is an epic matchup on paper.
Hate Level: 10
Other things to note: Doc Emrick will be calling the games so just another reason to watch and make bets on when he will make a Pittsburgh Pirates reference since he will be in two NL Central cities. I put it at the 2nd period of Game 1.
Meaningless Prediction: Hawks in 6. I would have picked the Blues at any other point in the year but after watching the Blues on Sunday they look ripe to be taken down. Never a bad choice to pick the Blackhawks.
Pacific Division: 2) San Jose Sharks vs 3) Los Angeles Kings
Lowdown: The Sharks failed to catch the Ducks in the Pacific Division and are now faced with the Kings in what will be an epic first round matchup. These two teams met last year in the 2nd round with the Kings taking it in a close fought seven game series in which the home team won every game. Good news for the Sharks is they have home ice this year, the bad news is they still have to face Jonathan Quick.
Goalie Matchup: Antti Niemi vs Jonathan Quick. I feel as if Niemi is one of the more forgotten good goalies in the league but he has struggled enough down the stretch that his coach has said he isn’t for sure the starter. Meanwhile Quick has taken his strong showing in Sochi and ran with it. The Kings have rebounded and gave up the least amount of goals in the NHL this year.
Injuries: Both teams are healthy and the good news is Sharks rookie Tomas Hertl is back since being out with a knee injury from a hit from Dustin Brown. Reminder about Hertl…
#Fancystats: This is a dream matchup for the stat community with each of these teams finishing in the top three.
Hate Level: 10
Other things to note: The Sharks took out the Kings in 2011 and the Kings returned the favor last year.
Meaningless Prediction: Kings in 7. I can’t pick against Jonathan Quick. Sorry Woody.
Atlantic Division: 1) Boston Bruins vs 4) Detroit Red Wings
Lowdown: The Bruins went on a tear to end the season that saw them win 15 out of 16 at one point in March. They finished with 117 points and won the President’s Trophy. Meanwhile the Red Wings are in bizarro world where they are the young and up and coming team that will try and upset the President’s Trophy winners. The Wings have lost over 400 man games to injury this season but recently got Datsyuk back and hope to get Zetterberg back at some point during the series.
Goalie Matchup: Tuukka Rask vs Jimmy Howard. This is a beauty of a matchup with the presumed Vezina favorite versus Howard who has 40 plus playoff starts. Neither has been the starter for a Cup but has seen someone else do it from the bench.
Injuries: The Wings will be without D Jonathan Ericcson amongst other but hope to get Zetterberg back. The Bruins are without D Dennis Seidenberg.
#Fancystats: The Bruins are in the top 5 so they will be the favorite in the stat community and should. Their most recent meeting is the best indicator for how the Wings can win. They will get outshot and Howard will need to play excellent and then Nyquist will need to do something like this…
Hate Level: 3. Not much hate here yet but there is potential moving forward since they are in the same division now.
Other things of note: Despite being Original Six teams these two haven’t met in 57 years in the playoffs. That is clearly due to being on opposite conferences until this year but still surprising given their success as franchises.
Meaningless Prediction: Bruins in 6: As much as I would love to pick the Wings I just can’t see it. The Bruins are too deep and can match the Wings with Rask in goal. Should set up potential rivalry moving forward though.
Metrosexual Division: 2) NY Rangers vs 3) Philadelphia Flyers
Lowdown: Each of these teams struggled out of the gate but luckily they were in the worst division in hockey so it didn’t matter much. The Rangers have really found their game in the 2nd half of the season and if Marty St Louis gets going they have as much talent as anybody in the East not named Boston or Pittsburgh. The Flyers meanwhile have a lethal power play and seven 20 goal scorers. Offense isn’t the problem for them but as usual goaltending will be an issue.
Goalie Matchup: Henrik Lundqvist vs Steve Mason/Ray Emery. This is a clear mismatch and one the Flyers can overcome if their forwards show up.
Injuries: We should be good here for the most part. Steve Mason sounds like a go for the Flyers and Ryan McDonagh will be good to go for the Rangers. NYR will hope to get Chris Kreider back at some point.
#Fancystats: The Rangers have improved dramatically under new coach Alain Vigneault as the season went along. Meanwhile the Flyers have struggled in the puck possession department and the stats community will be rooting hard to NYR.
Hate Level: 9. Its not quite Pens/Flyers but its New York and Philly. The two cities clearly hate each other. (Sidenote I went to a Mets/Phillies game at Citi one year and saw multiple fights in the stands. Naturally.)
Other items of note: Longtime Flyer Dan Carcillo is now on the Rangers. I am hoping he and Scott Hartnell fight and knock each other out Step Brothers style.
Meaningless Prediction: Rangers in 7: This will be one of those games where the home team wins every game. Luckily for NYR they have home ice. And also Henrik Lundqvist.
The Other Four Series
Atlantic Division: 2) Tampa Bay Lightning vs 3) Montreal Canadiens
Lowdown: Maybe I am alone here but I think this series is going to be pretty damn good. The Lighting are a young and talented group who will get valuable playoff experience meanwhile the Habs are Canada’s only hope of winning a cup. The big question mark will be the health of Bolts goalie Ben Bishop who got hurt last week and his availability is in question.
Goalie Matchup: Ben Bishop/Anders Linback vs Carey Price. Bishop was the Lightning MVP earlier in the season when Stamkos went down with a broken leg and kept them afloat. With him out the Lighting will have to go international with either Linback or Gudlevskis. Meanwhile Carey Price is the pride of Canada after his Olympic performance and on of his best regular seasons to date. He will need to do well for the Habs to make it anywhere this postseason.
Injuries: Bishop is already noted but the Habs will be without one of their best young forwards in Alex Galchenyuk. Nothing too major now that Stamkos is back.
#Fancystats: Tampa is a top 10 team while the Habs are in the bottom 10. Pretty easy to see who the stat community will be pulling for.
Hate Level: 2. Not sure there is any hate here. Not yet anyway.
Other items of note: Under the old playoff format the Lightning would be playing the Flyers and the Rangers would be playing the Habs. Check the box for the new format.
Meaningless Prediction: Habs in 7: I really have no idea which is why I find this series so intriguing. If Bishop were for sure healthy I would go Bolts but I will take the Gold Medal winning goalie here. Sorry Boyle.
Pacific Division: 1) Anaheim Ducks vs 4) Dallas Stars
Lowdown: The Stars aren’t actually in the Pacific Division so that is the only confusing part of this new playoff format. Either way the Ducks bested the Sharks/Kings to avoid having to play one of them and set up a good matchup with the up and coming Dallas Stars. The Stars are led by Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn and their new GM Jim Nill is a Red Wing disciple so we can tell the foundation is being laid for puck possession in Dallas.
Goalie Matchup: Jonas Hiller/John Gibson vs Kahari Lehtonen. The most intriguing position battle in the whole playoffs for me is the goalie situation in Anaheim. Earlier in the year Hiller was on fire as the Ducks surged to the top of the standings. Since coming back from Sochi Hiller has regressed immensely and rookie John Gibson got three starts to end the year and won all three. Gibson is considered the next great American goalie and led the Junior team to gold last year and is the reason the Ducks will let Hiller walk at the end of the year. I wonder if the Ducks turn to him sooner.
Injuries: Rich Peverly
#Fancystats: This is the most intriguing game in terms of Corsi because the Ducks are the top seed in the West but the fancy stats tell you otherwise. In fact the Stars finished ahead of the Ducks in this department. Expect many a narrative to be formed from this series.
Hate Level: 1. Teemu is in this series so I almost put the hate level at 0. No one would be mad if they lost to Teemu.
Other items of note: Tim Thomas hates big government.
Meaningless Prediction: Ducks in 7: I want to keep the idea of a Pens vs Ducks final alive. If only in my dreams.
Central Division: 1) Colorado Avalanche vs 4) Minnesota Wild
Lowdown: The Avs capped their fantastic regular season by catching the Blues and winning the Division. Patrick Roy has reignited a franchise that has elite talent up front and a Vezina contender in Semyon Varlamov. Meanwhile the Wild made the playoffs again. Nothing particularly flashy about them other than they added some decent pieces at the deadline in Matt Moulson and Illya Bryzgalov.
Goalie Matchup: Semyon Varlamov vs Illya Bryzgalov. Two castaways from former Pens rivals have reappeared in the Western Conference. Varlamov is having the best season of his career by far and led the NHL this season in wins. Meanwhile Bryz has returned after starting the season in Edmonton and came over at the deadline and has been fantastic and is still hilarious.
Injuries: The Avs best forward Matt Duchene is out but that hasn’t stopped them at all from finishing the season on a hot streak. They have the forwards up front to beat the Wild without him but will need him for a potential matchup with the Blues or Hawks.
#Fancystats: The stats community will hate this one with both teams in the bottom 10. The Avs are clearly riding a hot goalie which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Hate Level: 2. Division rival with the potential for more hate. Seems to be the theme of the last four matchups.
Other items of note: Patrick Roy will be named coach of the year and while there are other good candidates (Mike Babcock and Jon Cooper) I think Roy should win. I understand he has a great young stable of forwards but he has also turned Varlamov into a legit goalie and has taken a defensive corps that was last in the league in scoring a year ago to top 5. That is some legit coaching. Plus he is a good villain. Sports are better with good villains in them.
Meaningless Prediction: Avs in 6. I believe in Patrick Roy, what can I say?
Metrosexual Division: 1) Pittsburgh Penguins vs 4) Columbus Blue Jackets
Lowdown: The Pens got out to a huge lead in a horrible division and never looked back. That wasn’t without many, many, many injuries. The Pens had over 500 man games lost and basically rode Sidney Crosby’s MVP season, their special teams and MAF. Meanwhile #Lumbus used their last season late season push and their move to the East as an advantage and are in the playoffs for only the 2nd time in their history. Since the two cities are only two and half hours apart this is a chance for CBJ to gain a real rival. The Pens already have about eight so what is another one more?
Goalie Matchup: Marc Andre Fleury vs Sergi Bobrovsky. It is April which means its time for everyone in Pittsburgh to panic over MAF. After the previous two postseason meltdowns no one here is confident except for MAF and the Pens himself. He has had a good season and realizes with his contract up next year his future as a Penguin is dependent on the next 2 months. Meanwhile Bob is the Blue Jackets best hope to victory against the Pens. The Vezina winning goalie hasn’t had as good of a year in 2014 but it still a quality goaltender who can win a series.
Injuries: I am not going to bore you with the long list that plagued the Pens in the regular season because a lot of those guys have come back. Malkin, Martin and Letang will all start game 1 and should boost the Pens chances. Meanwhile CBJ have some injury issues up front most notably Nathan Horton who will miss the series with a shoulder injury. They will miss him not only because of his skill but also he is one of the few guys with playoff experience. (The Pens have over 1,000 games of experience while CBJ has a little over 200.)
#Fancystats: The Penguins are an interesting possession team. Their top six is fantastic while their bottom six is a tire fire. Add in the injuries to Letang and Martin and their possession numbers have dropped considerably all year. Meanwhile CBJ is pretty good but not great. Sums up a team that finished 4th in a bad division.
Hate Level: 2. The Pens went 5-0 against Columbus this year so there is no real animosity from the Pittsburgh side yet. That can change though in the playoffs. Add in the fact that the Red school is located in their city and we have the makings of a potential rivalry.
My thoughts: The Pens got a great draw, plain and simple. CBJ is not an up and down team like the Flyers and Islanders were the two previous years and add in Columbus’s injury and the Pens should win. Emphasis is on should. I don’t make any guarantees after the previous few postseasons.
Meaningless Prediction: Pens in 6: I am building in two losses here. One for a meltdown and one for a home win by Bob to give the CBJ fans something to get excited about.
Good luck to your teams and good luck keeping your sanity because this time of year pushes that to the limit every time.