Last time I wrote that the third round is the nadir of the playoffs. I wrote that with the year 2013 in mind, when I noted that I was out and about not watching hockey games, neglecting to remember last year, which featured a legendary series between Chicago and Los Angeles, and a controversy-filled battle between New York and Montréal. This year featured similarly styled series — Chicago versus Southern California again; New York versus the team who revenged upon the Canadiens’ sweep, the ex-Ranger-laden Lightning. I would wager that the third round has become the pinnacle of the playoffs. While the chaos, unpredictability, and sheer possibility of the first is undeniably exciting, watching the very best teams duke it out for their respective conference championships is the best hockey of the playoffs. Why not the Cup Final? Two reasons: rivalry and fatigue. Inter-conference games are inherently lacking in rivalry, save for the rare Cup Final rematch. In addition, the grind of the playoffs, both teams already having played upwards of 12 extra games on top of 82, bearing undisclosed injuries and giving their all every night, has the fourth round being heavily affected by attrition. That’s not to preclude the Final from being exciting and legendary in its own rite. I would consider the 2013 Final to be one of the very best playoff series of the entire cap era. Hopefully this one can compare positively.
With the Ducks’ loss, this bracket is cooked for points after the second round, clinching last place in my family bracket challenge league. Way to go, universe. My other bracket? I picked 6 of 7 series’ winners in the East correctly, additionally nailing three of four series lengths in the first round. Pretty good, right? Nope — I picked the West 100% wrong (not counting lengths since they don’t matter if you pick the wrong team), which doomed me to clinch second-last in my family bracket challenge league. Here it is, for reference. It, too, is cooked.
Welp, there’s always next year.
Rangers vs. Lightning: What happened here? The Presidents’ Trophy winners, as I predicted, fall short of the ultimate prize. Hell, they didn’t even get the penultimate prize in the Prince of Wales Trophy. Henrik Lundqvist looked good, until Tampa Bay shellacked him for 12 goals in two games. Ben Bishop meanwhile, the more-or-less unproven prior to these playoffs netminder for the Lightning stood on his head, until New York pumped in 10 of their own goals in two games, adding another seven in Game Six. The rest of the series was a clinic. A disastrous third period in Six for the Lightning, leading to a forced Game Seven was bookended by shutouts from Bishop, including a poised, surgical performance in Seven. For all the talk of the high-powered offense of Tampa, they scored just as many goals in the series as New York’s apparently underperforming attackers. The most curious result might just be the dominance of the Lightning at Madison Square Garden, including the only Game Seven defeat in that building, ever. The Triplets did their thing as expected, Lundqvist stole a few — everything turned out exactly as I thought it might, save for the length of the series. And I’m happy it did. As I watched the Game Seven clock tick away, something occurred to me. The reason I’m most happy that the Lightning have reached the Stanley Cup Final is that the rising Sabres, a team with an incredibly deep prospect pool, a foundational star borne from a (basically) first overall pick, and young players finding their way out of a few seasons of misery, are a star goaltender, stud defenseman, and a few years away from being this very team. That excites me greatly. If this team finishes the job, it will be the model of success for the next year(s) to come.
Ducks vs. Blackhawks: This didn’t go the way I thought it might. It was awesome. What is it with the Western Conference Finals these days? Is it the recurrence of the Blackhawks dynasty? Is it Southern California? Is it both?? What a fight this one was. The Ducks continued their regulation reign of terror, dominating the Hawks in Game One. When the script flipped for the first of many times in Two, the Ducks clawed back from a two-goal deficit to eventually lead to overtime. And second and third overtimes. The Hawks, no stranger to extended overtimes in this playoff ended the match on a garbage goal after nearly six periods had elapsed. Three was a solid, close, exciting hockey game. ’nuff said. Now Game Four is where things got a little more nutty than usual. Tied at one after two, the Hawks jumped out to a 3-1 lead after the first TV timeout. What happened next was insane — the Ducks scored three goals in 37 seconds to take a 4-3 lead. I was putzing around my apartment, watering my plants and taking care of a new one while all of this went down. From the other room I thought I heard “scores!” a few times, but there was no way those weren’t just replays. The crowd in Chicago was stunned, the Ducks rallied again in the third period for the millionth time this season. And then not five minutes later, it was tied again and headed to overtime. Again. Andrew Shaw scored a brilliant goal off his noggin in the first OT, a play which apparently nobody knew wasn’t legal. The Hawks, of course, won in 2OT on another garbage goal. The Ducks, still undefeated in regulation, fell to 2-3 in overtime, which is absurd. Game Five is where the series pushed legendary status, however falling short of last year’s insanity. In Anaheim, the Ducks sprinted out to a 3-0 lead, eventually pushing it up to 4-2 as the last quarter of the third period ticked away. Then Jonathan Toews happened. The man is the current definition of “clutch.” Two goals in the final two minutes by himself to send to overtime, where the Hawks have been dominant. I was excitedly looking forward to another classic Chicago/SoCal track meet of an extra period. What I got was less than a minute of free hockey — a juicy rebound on a two-on-one and the Ducks were headed back to Chicago up 3-2 in the series, their overtime record evened at three a-piece. Then what? The Ducks forgot how to hockey. The Blackhawks turned on the turbo, inexplicably having some left in the tank, potting ten goals in the final two games against the lifeless Anaheim squad. Call it destiny, from the opening moments of Game Seven, there was really no doubt who deserved to move on. I’m unhappy with the Blackhawks making the Cup Final for the third time in six years, however there’s one saving grace for parity: the salary cap. The demise of the Blackhawks has long been rumored, having to detonate their core given new high priced contracts for their stars and continued success, as happened to the supporting cast after 2010. If the Hawks win the Cup, I feel this demise will be accelerated with depth characters requiring more substantial of a raise, than if they bowed out in the Conference Final. So that’s good — dynasties are fun for a little bit, but they get stale after a while. Chicago, win or lose, your time is up.
M2. Tampa Bay Lightning vs. C3. Chicago Blackhawks: Through three series, the Tampa Bay Lightning have defeated three
Original Arbitrary Six teams in Detroit, Montréal, and New York — now they have a date with a fourth, the Chicago Blackhawks, the most successful team of the salary cap era. The Lightning won their only Stanley Cup on the last game of the previous era, before the lockout of 2004-05; the Blackhawks won their last Stanley Cup at the conclusion of the 2013 season, which was shortened by the lockout of 2012. As usual, this match-up is basically a toss-up in my eyes. Tampa Bay has the leg up on goaltending; I’d pick Bishop over Crawford any day of the week, Cup ring be damned. The Hawks have a more proven defensive group, but their wounded depth and Duncan Keith’s continued run of nearly 30 minutes a game cannot continue (right?). The Lightning’s forward core is solid, with the Triplets and Stamkos, along with Killorn and Filppula, creating the bulk of the offensive prowess of this gunship team. Meanwhile, Chicago has the core of Toews and Kane, surrounded by a supporting cast of such names as Hossa, Saad, Sharp, Richards, and Shaw, players who’ve demonstrated their worth in playoffs past and present. The leadership of Toews is irrefutable, whereas Stamkos is entering virgin territory in the Final. I don’t want this to happen (or maybe I do, see above) but: the Blackhawks are going to win their third Cup in six years. They will win the series in seven games. The Hawks will win wearing their white jerseys, in a state that I will not be in at the time for the first time in four years. This will happen. Am I trying too hard to jinx it? Nope. Everything I said will come true — guaranteed.
And then the Blackhawks’ core (or at the very least, the mantle) will be exploded. The end.
2014-11-11; TBL 2, CHI 3 S/O
2015-02-27; CHI 0, TBL 4
TBL: 1-0-1 — CHI: 1-1-0
This is it, only four to seven games left before what amounts to be the biggest summer in recent memory. I’ll have more to say on that in my final playoff post, I’m sure.
I find it amusing that, having colored the conference spaces to match their respective logos, the schemes of the teams in the Final are reversed. What does it mean? You know, I kinda wish both teams would just wear their home jerseys every game. That would be wonderful, wouldn’t it?