Skating on Black Ice: An NHL Playoff Q&A

By: Chris Dagonas

The NHL’s playoffs start Wednesday night and we here at the Same Page are both: a) Canadian, and b) sports fans. In addition to the melting snow and short glimpses of summer weather, this is an exciting time of year for us.

Even without the perennially disappointing Maple Leafs, this year’s playoffs offer plenty of interesting questions.

WHAT IS THIS NEW PLAYOFF FORMAT? 

So, the NHL went to two divisions in each conference this year. In the Eastern Conference, we have the Metropolitan division and the Atlantic division. In the West, we have the Pacific and the Central.

Each division sends at least three teams to the playoffs, and they all end up in the same bracket. The fourth spot in each bracket is a wild-card team, which could come from either division, depending on points.

There is no more 1-vs-8, 2-vs-7, etc. Instead, there are two brackets of 1-vs-4 and 2-vs-3. In theory, this should lead to more interesting first-round series.

This year, as it happens, the Eastern Conference did not have any crossover teams, as four teams from each division qualified. In the West, however, we have five teams from the Central division, while only three from the Pacific qualified. So that means that the Dallas Stars, despite being a central team, are in the Pacific bracket against the top-seeded Anaheim Ducks.

Last season's champion Blackhawks will be tough to beat again this spring

Last season’s champion Blackhawks will be tough to beat again this spring

WHICH FAVOURITE WILL MAKE AN EARLY EXIT?

It happens every season: a highly-seeded team falls in the first or second round to some upstart with a hot goalie. With the new playoff format, and based on recent history vis-a-vis Western Conference dominance, the team most likely to fall early will be coming from the West, and most likely the Central division. Chicago, St.Louis and Colorado all have more than 105 regular-season points, and one of those three will have to be knocked out in the first round. The Blues and Blackhawks will meet in Round 1, and with the returns of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, the Hawks will be at full strength with a more talented team. Sorry, St. Louis, but you’ll be, ahem, singing the Blues after round one.

In the East, I see a lot of hope for the favourites. The only series where I might be convinced of a lower seed going through is Montreal-Tampa Bay, where the Canadiens hold the upper-hand in goaltending, defense, and secondary scoring. Of course, the Lightning feature the world’s second-best player in Steven Stamkos, so you can never really count them out entirely. Ryan Malone may not be at his best, though. Here’s why.

WHAT IS SOMETHING I DON’T REALIZE THAT I SHOULD REALIZE?

The Los Angeles Kings are the best puck-possession team in the league. They have also given up the fewest goals of any team. You should realize that the Los Angeles Kings are a very well-run hockey team, and I will not be surprised if they make another long run toward the Cup.

The St. Louis Blues have lost six games in a row entering the post-season. That should qualify as foreshadowing, about as dreary as Sigur Ros in a Game Of Thrones episode.

You should realize that the Boston Bruins are really, very good. They stayed healthy all season, and finished with the most wins in the East, as well as the fewest goals allowed. Patrice Bergeron exploded to become one of the league’s best centres, and their goal difference was +84, twice as high as the second-ranked team in that category. As good as the Blackhawks were during their Cup run last season, the Bruins have been almost that good this year.

Jonathan Quick and the Kings will make life difficult for opposing forwards

Jonathan Quick and the Kings will make life difficult for opposing forwards

WHICH SERIES ARE YOU MOST EXCITED FOR?

Great question. Watchability is a huge factor in making the playoffs interesting, especially when your team is already on the golf course. (I’ll always love you, Toronto Maple Leafs, but my gawd that was an atrocious March/April.)

In the West, the opening round series I’m most excited about is the San Jose Sharks vs. the Los Angeles Kings. I’ve already written glowingly about the Kings, but the Sharks have been getting shit done out in California for almost a decade now. But they have hit major bumps in the playoffs, and time is running out on the Thornton-Marleau incarnation of these Sharks. They’re still a very talented team, though, and if I can stay up late enough, I’d love to watch as many of these games as I can.

Chicago-St. Louis could also be a classic, but I just don’t have a lot of confidence in St.Louis right now. Meanwhile, Chicago will be flying high with the returns of Kane and Toews. This will more likely go down as a sweep, or almost-sweep, for the Blackhawks. I hope I’m wrong on that, though.

On the East coast, I’m jazzed to see the Bruins and Red Wings do battle in the kind of old-school, rough-and-tumble style that Don Cherry and people of his ilk love, except without all the ridiculous fighting. Because fighting in hockey is pointless and stupid. Great players, big hits, and battles for the puck. That’s good ol’ playoff hockey! (Picture me with a Black Ice in my hand as I say that, obviously.)

Is this the toughest image you could find?

Is this the toughest image you could find?

That’s not to mention the Rangers and Flyers, who have hated each other since the 1970’s, and will continue to do so as this series goes on. Claude Giroux has been on a tear for most of the season, and will be looking to make up for lost time after missing out on the playoffs entirely last year. The Rangers are lead by breakout star Mats Zuccarello and Derek Stepan, as well as veterans Brad Richards and Rick Nash, and have three reliable scoring lines. I predict a high-scoring series, and one that seems destined for seven games.

HOW ABOUT A BRACKET SHOWING YOUR PICKS, YOU COWARD?

Sure thing:

The West breaks down thusly

The West breaks down thusly, in my humble opinion.

Remember, I’m the guy who picked Michigan State to win the NCAA basketball tournament, so, you know, grain of salt and all that.

I take no responsibility for my picks. Any money lost is your own fault.

I take no responsibility for my picks. Any money lost is your own fault.

As the playoffs progress, I will return periodically with my thoughts, observations, and apologies for bad predictions. I also reserve the right to tinker with the above brackets as needed for the Conference finals.

Beer me a Black Ice. Pass me the Triscuits. Shut the hell up.

It’s playoff season.

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