Stanley Cup 2014, I: So It Begins Again

 I  II  III  IV  V

Standings-2014Here we go, again.  After a long, incredibly eventful six months, the 2014 NHL Playoffs are here!  This past season wasn’t the best for my Buffalo Sabres.  In fact, it was basically the worst ever.  And they didn’t even get the first overall pick for their trouble.  Thanks, draft lottery!

Oh well.  As a now third-year Bay Area resident, Sharks fandom has slowly been creeping into my blood, despite being a follower of two other Pacific division teams.  Sometimes I’m conflicted, but I just love the sport too much.  I get out to a few games a year at the Shark Tank and this year was no different.  It’s starting to feel more and more like home.  Nowhere near as much as First Niagara Center, obviously, but it’s a firm second.

Anyway, like last year I’m setting out to chronicle the long war that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs.  Once again I’ve created myself a bracket for the NHL Bracket Challenge.  Last year I picked the correct champion and finished in 28,200th place.  Not bad, eh?  This year’s a bit trickier, so for the last few days I’ve been delving into head-to-head records, injury status, player transactions, and most importantly, advanced statistics to make a more informed decision.  After all, the fancy stats basically predicted the Kings’ 2012 run despite their low position.  Let’s hope I know how to use them!

nhl_bracket_2014_r1I had a lot of trouble with this bracket.  The first round match-ups, described below, make sense to me.  It’s the later rounds I grappled with.  And no, I’m not picking the Sharks because they’re my hometown team, that’s just how my bracket shakes out.  Not that I won’t be rooting for them.  Hopefully I’m not terribly far off.

Time to break down the match-ups, one by one.  Starting this time in the east!

Usually there aren’t any teams I really want to come out of the east.  As a Sabres fan, I strongly dislike everyone in the former Northeast Division and most of the Metropolitan.  I will admit  Tampa Bay is a team I can get behind, but the best story out here is the newly-realigned Columbus Blue Jackets.  I’ve been rooting for them for years, just because they’ve sucked for so long and I feel a strong franchise in Columbus would be good for the game.  Well here we are, they finally made it after a long five years on the outside.  Here’s hoping they win a game this time around!  And that brings us to the matchups:

Boston Bruins  Detroit Red Wings

A1. Boston Bruins vs A4. Detroit Red Wings:  Thanks, realignment!  Detroit has launched into a wild-card playoff spot in the east and play the powerhouse conference champion Boston Bruins.  This will be a hell of a series if Detroit can continue the roll they started in March, especially if their stars come back to health.  The Bruins have been so dominant all season, it’s hard to pick against them.  They’re just too damn good.  However, if there’s one team in the east that can pull an upset off, it’s Detroit.  No question. And you know what, I cannot bring myself to root for Boston, even if they’re the “easy” choice.  Red Wings in seven.  The Wings have the season series and we’ve seen how they kick into another gear for the post-season.  This is also the first time these two teams have met in the playoffs in 57 (!) years.  Here’s wishing for a complete mutual-destruction, with the Red Wings somehow surviving.

Season Series:
2013-10-05; DET 1, BOS 4
2013-10-14; DET 3, BOS 2
2013-11-27; BOS 1, DET 6
2014-04-02; BOS 2, DET 3
BOS: 1-3-0 — DET: 3-1-0

Who I like:
BOS:  Jarome Iginla, Paille
DET:  Datsyuk, Nyquist

Who I don’t:
BOS:  EVERYONNNNEEEEEE! (else, especially Marchand and Lucic.)
DET:  Everyone else.  24/7 didn’t help much.

Tampa Bay Lightning  Montreal Canadiens

A2. Tampa Bay Lightning vs A3. Montréal Canadiens:  Welcome back to the playoffs, Tampa Bay!  Last time they were here, I was still in college and they wore black.  Montréal is Canada’s only offering this year, for the first time since 1973 when there was only them, the ‘Nucks, and the Leafs.  Now that the divisonal system is back for the seeding, this A2/A3 slot will always be a Sabres rival, so I’m hoping they somehow implode too.  However, as I mentioned before, Tampa Bay is kind of a likeable team and the rivalry is barely existent yet.  I’m hoping they pull this one off despite their relative inexperience.  Montréal is always a fun setting for a playoff series, especially when things get testy.  Let’s see some unrest!  I’ve got the Lightning advancing in six.  A healthy Stamkos is far better than a Vanek who’s on his third team of the season, though Price will give Tampa’s guns a run for their money.  With Bishop out, the Bolts will need some help on the back end.  I have a feeling their 8th place offense will help them out of that problem.

Season Series:
2013-11-12; TBL 2, MON 1 S/O
2013-12-28; MON 2, TBL 1 S/O
2014-02-01; TBL 2, MON 1 OT
2014-04-01; MON 1, TBL 3
TBL: 3-0-1 — MON: 1-1-2

Who I like:
TBL:  Stamkos, Callahan, Bishop
MON:  Price, Subban, Vanek, Pacioretty, Prust, Briére?

Who I don’t:
TBL:  I dunno.
MON:  Murray?

Pittsburgh Penguins  Columbus Blue Jackets

M1. Pittsburgh Penguins vs M4. Columbus Blue Jackets:  Again with the realignment, Columbus’s also here out east.  They quietly sneaked into a spot, and now, as the first wild-card, will play the (inhales) Metropolitan Division Champion Pittsburgh Penguins.  That’s quite a mouthful…  Oh man, out of all of the possible first-round match-ups, this might be my favorite.  The Blue Jackets play their closest division rival, a rivalry that’s been on hold for years thanks to the conference alignment.  Well, here we are.  The Penguins have actually not been very good lately, and with Columbus having momentum toward the end of the season for their playoff push, this series is far from a foregone conclusion.  Bobrovsky can be rock solid and Fleury is a total question mark.  I think just due to their experience and star power I’m going to pick the Penguins in six, however I wouldn’t put it past Columbus to give them a scare like the Islanders did last year.  I kinda hope they do.  Upsets are the best, aren’t they?

Season Series:
2013-11-01; CBJ 2, PIT 4
2013-11-02; PIT 3, CBJ 0
2013-12-09; CBJ 1, PIT 2
2013-12-29; PIT 5, CBJ 3
2014-03-28; PIT 2, CBJ 1
PIT: 5-0-0 — CBJ: 0-5-0

Who I like:
PIT:  Crosby, Orpik, Dupuis, Scuderi, Stempniak
CBJ:  BOBROVSKY!  Johansen, Dubinsky, Tropp, Foligno

Who I don’t:
PIT:  James Neal.  Ugh.
CBJ:  Not sure, really.

New York Rangers  Philadelphia Flyers

M2. New York Rangers vs M3. Philadelphia Flyers:  Let’s just cut to the chase, it’s kind of a toss up.  Rangers in six.  I don’t like the Flyers, I don’t really care for the Rangers.  Philadelphia has a solid top line, while the Rangers have a solid team, plus goaltending.  Can’t they both lose?  At the very least, make it like the 2012 Pens/Flyers series.  That was a ton of fun.

Season Series:
2013-10-24; NYR 1, PHI 2
2014-01-12; PHI 1, NYR 4
2014-03-01; NYR 2, PHI 4
2014-03-26; PHI 1, NYR 3
NYR: 2-2-0 — PHI: 2-2-0

Who I like:
NYR:  Girardi, Lundqvist, Moore, St. Louis, RYAN HAGGERTY (from RPI!…who won’t be playing but is on the roster)
PHI:  I have no strong positive feelings toward anyone on this roster.

Who I don’t:
NYR:  Carcillo
PHI:  Downie, Emery

I can see it already, Columbus Blue Jackets, Eastern Conference Champions!…..someday.

To the west!

Colorado Avalanche  Minnesota Wild

C1. Colorado Avalanche vs C4. Minnesota Wild:  It’s a former Northwest Division match-up, a rematch from 2008, and the only pair in the west whose names include states! (until the Arizona Coyotes come along, that is.)  Like so many others, I predicted the Avs to miss the playoffs this year.  What a pleasant surprise they’ve been!  The games I’ve seen of theirs, they’ve been absolutely dominant, fast and tough.  The youth are incredible, though Duchene is out for a few weeks yet.  Their goaltending has also been a bit too good.  And the advanced stats agree.  Minnesota, though, they’re a bit streaky, having nearly played themselves out of contention a few weeks ago.  I have plenty of love for the Wild roster, but I’m just not sold on them in the playoffs yet.  Bryzgalov’s been terrific lately; on the flip-side, as a Coyotes fan, I’ve seen him crumple in the post-season.  While Minnesota will be playing against a team with a 27th ranked Fenwick percentage, they’re not much higher at 21st.  Avalanche in five.  They’re just too good not to move on. *knocks on wood*

Season Series:
2013-11-29; COL 3, MIN 1
2013-11-30; MIN 2, COL 3 S/O
2013-12-14; MIN 2, COL 1 S/O
2014-01-11; COL 4, MIN 2
2014-01-30; MIN 4, COL 5
COL: 4-0-1 — MIN: 1-3-1

Who I like:
COL:  Duchene, Landeskog, MacKinnon.  It’s the kids!  Also Stastny and Giguere.
MIN:  Pominville, Moulson, Koivu, HARDING.

Who I don’t:
COL:  Nothing here.
MIN:  Heatley.  Bryzgalov bothers me.  He’s adorable and quirky, obviously, but he’s kind of a locker room cancer.

St. Louis Blues  Chicago Blackhawks

C2. St. Louis Blues vs C3. Chicago Blackhawks This is why the divisional playoff format was created.  What a battle this will be.  At least I hope.  St. Louis has been, for the last two weeks or so, hot garbage.  They were my Cup pick at the deadline, but injuries have ruined their chemistry.  I like Ryan Miller in the playoffs.  I also like the Blackhawks in the playoffs.  They’ll be getting their injured stars back just in time for a deep run while basically St. Louis’ entire top forward lines are day-to-day and questionable.  This Chicago team isn’t all that different from last year’s champions and there’s no reason to believe they won’t have continued success.  If the Blues can figure it out with what they’ve got, it will be a fantastic series.  If they don’t, well… Blackhawks in five.

Season Series:
2013-10-09; CHI 2, STL 3
2013-10-17; STL 3, CHI 2 S/O
2013-12-28; CHI 5, STL 6 S/O
2014-03-19; STL 0, CHI 4
2014-04-06; STL 2, CHI 4
STL: 3-2-0 — CHI: 2-1-2

Who I like:
STL:  Backes, Pietrangelo, Leopold, Oshie, Steen, Ott, MILLLLERRRRRRRR!
CHI:  Toews, Sharp

Who I don’t:
STL:  Brenden Morrow.
CHI:  I still don’t like Andrew Shaw.

Anaheim Ducks  Dallas Stars

P1. Anaheim Ducks vs C5. Dallas Stars:  Another former division match-up, this time for the previous iteration of the Pacific.  Thanks a lot, realignment.  Dallas eked into the playoffs over Phoenix, and therefore grab the second wild-card despite being in the 5th spot in their division. They’re a great story, and really, the total re-brand helped me a lot to get over the crushing defeat of the Sabres in the 1999 Stanley Cup Final.  I wouldn’t hate it if they succeeded.  I think it’s the green.  Their uniforms look so damn good.  Also, Lindy Ruff!  Dallas is a scrappy club who play a very entertaining game.  They’re happy to be here, sure, but they just might be able to give the Ducks some trouble.  In fact, they’ve been one of the better teams in general against California.  The Ducks are damn good, but they’re kind of a one-line team and like last year, their PDO is well over 103%, implying coming regression.  Does a Boudreau-coached team ever succeed in the playoffs?  It’s hard to say.  I think I have to pick the Stars in seven.  The playoffs are another animal; the Ducks’ experience may be the deciding factor.  However, I’m following the numbers and nearly everything else is pointing toward Dallas moving on.

Season Series:
2013-10-20; DAL 3, ANA 6
2013-11-26; ANA 3, DAL 6
2014-02-01; DAL 2, ANA 0
ANA: 1-2-0 — DAL: 2-1-0

Who I like:
ANA:  SELANNE, Palmieri
DAL:  Ray “The Wizard” Whitney, Jamie Benn, Chiasson, Fiddler, can’t forget Rich Peverley.

Who I don’t:
ANA:  Corey Perry.
DAL:  Tim Thomas

San Jose Sharks  Los Angeles Kings

P2. San Jose Sharks vs P3. Los Angeles Kings:  The best for last.  I’ll be keeping a close eye on this series.  Both teams play a rough, tough style and whomever wins might be too exhausted to continue.  Mutually-assured annihilation.  California hockey has been outstanding this year, Ducks included, and I have no doubt this will be an awesome, possibly historically so, series.  As for the result?  Well I have no f*cking clue.  Flip a coin?  Sharks it is.  How many games?  Well that’s easy.  Sharks in seven.  If this doesn’t go the distance, I’ll be surprised.  And for the first time ever, GO SHARKS!

Season Series:
2013-10-30; SJS 3, LAK 4 OT
2013-11-27; LAK 2, SJS 3 S/O
2013-12-19; SJS 1, LAK 4
2014-01-27; LAK 1, SJS 0
2014-04-03; LAK 1, SJS 2
SJS: 2-2-1 — LAK: 3-1-1

Who I like:
LAK:  Regehr, Kopitar, Quick

Who I don’t:
SJS:  Mike Brown.
LAK:  Richards, Carter, Dustin Brown.  In fact, let’s just put a blanket disapproval on all Browns.  I’m looking at you too, Brown University!

Finally, here’s everything in original bracket form.  The update of the playoff format called for minor changes to my graphic, and here and there are aesthetic tweaks from the previous iteration.  I’ve done so little I feel like I might be converging toward something more-or-less permanent here.  Ha, when have I said that before?

playoffs-2014-1The puck drops tonight.  And as always, anything can happen in the playoffs.  Get pumped!

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