WOW! I can’t believe it. For the first time since 2011, a team that’s not the Chicago Blackhawks or Los Angeles Kings will win the Stanley Cup. Hell, most of the teams that have been to the last few Cup Finals aren’t even in it anymore. And what a way to get here: with both St. Louis and San Jose facing their respective tormentors and triumphing in dramatic fashion. It’s a new day, and I’m feeling good.
I’ve never been so happy to have my bracket busted. Honestly, I can only hope for it to continue. Pens over Caps? I can live with that result. My Western Conference Final being borked in favor of a potential St. Louis and San Jose battle? Yes, please!
Panthers vs. Islanders: Poor kitty cats. I had such high hopes for them, I put them all the way in the Conference Finals. They started relatively strong, I thought, even though they lost Game One. Somewhere, though, scoring dried up and the Islanders, led by the stellar John Tavares and the improbable goaltending of Thomas Greiss, outlasted them, winning three overtime games including two in double-OT. For such a youthful team, the Panthers looked tired out there. It doesn’t help that their leading scorer is 44 years old. The Islanders are heading into unknown territory now, bursting with momentum and possibility. They played a better series than I’d expected they would, almost to a scary degree. Florida’s got a bright future — it was just wasn’t their time now.
Lightning vs. Red Wings: The Yzerman Cup, not so close as we thought it might be, did not go the distance again. For a series that looked like a coin flip on paper, it certainly was incredibly one-sided. Injuries to the Lightning had no effect on their speed or depth, leaving the Red Wings out to dry and in the dust, especially in a Game 2 blowout. A glimmer of hope for Detroit (and my bracket) shone though when the goaltending switch from Howard to Mrazek produced a home shutout win, however it was quickly extinguished by a goalie-misplay-to-series-winning-goal sequence at the end of Game 5. Likely the last time we see Pavel Datsyuk, the Magician, in an NHL game, it was nowhere near the result fitting of such a talented player. It’s the end of an era in Detroit and I wouldn’t be surprised in the least to see their playoff streak end along with Pasha’s career. Meanwhile, the Lightning look surprisingly strong, even without Steven Stamkos. I should have better considered the solid goaltending of Ben Bishop, the sort of which can lead even a battered team far. Do they look like their in position to take round two? Find out below!
Capitals vs. Flyers: I don’t know what took the Capitals so long to finish the Flyers here. Up 3-0 for the first time in franchise history, they let the Flyers wander back into the series, barely holding on for a 1-0 clinching win on the road. For the beginning of the series, the Caps were a meat grinder, one which evidently jammed or clogged or something as it went on. I, along with anyone else who’s followed the Caps for the last decade, had begun to think perhaps they would succumb to old habits and somehow let this lead slip away too. Well, the Flyers aren’t quite a team who can deliver that kind of blow just yet, though their goaltending toward the end was stellar. It’s just a lack of offensive power that kept them from breaking through. 11 shots in Game Five? And a win with that? Won’t get those often. The future’s bright in Philly. The Caps better have their demons locked down next round. On another note, that Game Three in Philadelphia was bonkers. I know not all Philly fans are to blame for the show — next time, those that were, please show more respect. Your city’s reputation will thank you.
Penguins vs. Rangers: Surprise, surprise, a Metro division series that went exactly as I predicted. For someone who doesn’t tend to watch much from these teams, I somehow get my bracket mostly right for them. Obviously the Penguins were going to crush the Rangers and they annihilated them, scoring 21 goals in five games. They’ve been by far the best team in the NHL since they fired their coach. They’ve gelled into what folks expected them to be when the signed Phil Kessel: a goal scoring machine of a team with the best play in the world and a solid, offense-creating blue line. Hell, they almost didn’t even need a goalie here, what with Murray and Zatkoff (who?) in net against King Henrik Lundqvist, arguably one of the best goaltenders in the league. Here’s the thing though — the Rangers aren’t a good team. They haven’t been in years, even though they somehow won the Presidents’ Trophy and have gone deep in the playoffs several times. Their offense is weak and expensive. Their defense is injured so they get a pass. Their coaching should be phenomenal, but as you can see, it just hasn’t worked as well as expected. These Penguins are the team we expected them to be from 2007 until the retirement of Sidney Crosby. The Rangers, meanwhile, should start a rebuild, as soon as possible.
Stars vs. Wild: Oh what a finish. The Minnesota Wild made it interesting, having been counted out by, well, everyone before this series even began. They had no business being here at all, and to take the conference champions to six? Raise your hand if you saw that coming. Now put it down, you filthy liar. The Stars, meanwhile, should have been better. They won Game Two nearly on luck, with that crazy kick bounce review goal being the game winner. Their 1A/1B goaltending was okay, but not great — Lehtonen should have been the clear #1 but was subbed for Niemi after Game Three, who then split the next two. Surrendering four goals in a game that should have been out of reach? Not good. It’s obvious Dallas has a powerhouse offense and Jamie Benn continues to be at the top for points this playoffs, but my confidence in them going forward isn’t great.
Blues vs. Blackhawks: Oh. my. god. This is what it would have felt like if the Sharks didn’t win Game Five. From the first game, these bitter rivals fought and fought and never quit — from double-OT to start the series, to a frantic final period of Game Seven, this was some fantastic hockey. The Blues took a stranglehold lead in the series before coughing up a pair of losses to the resilient Blackhawks, causing me and many others to brace for the worst — a typical Blues collapse. Even in Game Seven, when the Blues went up early again, Chicago came back as they’d done all series long to tie. Brian Elliott was a beast. Patrick Kane was incredible. The young guns of St. Louis did some series damage, from Tarasenko to Fabbri, to Parayko. It will be fun to watch them continue their run, which looks to be pretty deep now that they’ve gotten Goliath out of the way.
Ducks vs. Predators: To be honest, this series didn’t interest me at all. The Ducks were a great story this year, rising from the basement to win the division and the right to avoid the California slaughter of the first round. The Predators are a solid team in an overpowered division. There’s no real narrative here, despite the teams meeting for the second time in the playoffs. The hockey was good, though hardly exciting. There wasn’t much notable that happened either. No real controversy. No line brawls. Just hockey. What is interesting, though, is what happened to the Ducks — because the same thing has happened to them for the last four years. Fall down 0-2 at home, storm back to win three games, then lose the next two, including Game Seven at home where you go down by two goals in the first period. It’s freaky, and it really sucks to have that playoff stigma over you. Out in the first round? After their resurgence, few probably expected that, especially to a wildcard team. The Ducks are in an interesting spot heading into next year. You know, when the already awful looking Kesler contract begins. Oy.
Kings vs. Sharks: …and exhale! Despite my angst, I tuned in for each of the five games of this series, with wide-eyes and a clenched butt. And what a series it was; uncharacteristically short, but perhaps the best hockey of the first round. It ended up being so unexpectedly one-sided it didn’t even really get that feisty — it was just a total war of hockey. The Sharks’ firepower, led by the magnificent scoring of Joe Pavelski, made sure the Sharks trailed by less than 5 minutes for the entire series. The Kings scored their own share of goals, though it felt like many of them were garbage and fluky, including the double-bounce that started their short-lived rally in Game 5. As for the bad, well the Sharks could barely hold a lead. Each game felt like an LA barrage in the last few minutes, onslaughts during which I’m not sure I was breathing. The OT win was disheartening. In previous years (cough 2014 cough) that might have been a turning point, however this Sharks team is different. They went into LA, won all of their games, exorcised their demons, slayed their white whale, and overthrew the king. I have high hopes going forward, both for the success of the Sharks and the potential for a decline in Los Angeles. This rivalry can only remain strong though. It’s easily the best of the last few seasons. Easily.
Now this first round wasn’t without some controversy. In my opinion, the worst thing about this season has been the overuse of coach’s challenges, particularly for missed offside calls. Most of these are about |this| close, and even then, they usually don’t even contribute directly to the goal. It’s ridiculous, especially in games such as Game 3 between Florida and New York where the Panthers had a 3-0 lead denied, only for the Islanders to rally around the momentum shift and tie the game, winning in OT. The challenge was supposed to correct egregious wrongs that the linesmen miss, not a negligible margin nearly invisible to the human eye at the speed of the game. It was supposed to be used for the obvious…
It was a problem from day one when the Sabres had a tying goal called back in their home opener, only to lose in front of 19,070 fans, whose energy and excitement was stolen by an unnoticeable infraction. In the playoffs, these problems are magnified a thousand times. Here’s hoping something is done about this as soon as the season is over.
As usual, there were series I paid more attention to than others. It happens every time. With a definitive rooting interest this year, it’s obvious my attention was focused on San Jose, however I also closely followed the journeys of Florida, St. Louis, and Washington. See where my allegiances lie? With teams that have never won a Cup! Go figure. This next round will be tougher follow, despite the decrease in number of games — I’m going on vacation for a week that will overlap with the second half of round two and/or first half of the Conference Finals, so my recaps and predictions will be even less informed (and potentially late! don’t crucify me), but I’ll do what I can. Sometimes life gets in the way of hockey 🙂
(Disclaimer: I wrote the following Atlantic Division Final preview when the match-up was set, but obviously I am publishing after Game 1 has already been played due to the NHL overlapping the rounds for some weird reason. My prediction still stands despite the Islanders taking Game 1.)
Advanced stats herein are taken from February 29th through the end of the first round, with the rankings being among the eight teams remaining. Power play and penalty kill are for the playoffs only. Wonkiness may be present, again due to round overlap, but the numbers shouldn’t be affected that much.
A2. Tampa Bay Lightning vs M4. New York Islanders: Since the new playoff format began, one wildcard seed has beaten a division champion in each year. Until now, that had only been the Minnesota Wild, twice. For the first time, however, a division crossover wildcard was victorious — thus, we have a ~50% chance of having the Atlantic Divison won by a team in the Metropolitan Division. What fun. I wouldn’t put it past the Islanders to win this series either. This was supposed to be the all-Florida classic until the Isles ruined everything. What’s going to happen this time? Well, the Islanders looked surprisingly good and deep in their three overtime game series with the Cats. The Lightning also looked better than their bruises would indicate, dismantling the Red Wings quickly. Judging purely on lineups, I see the Lightning being better than the Islanders in every category, albeit only with a slight edge. I think New York has the star power advantage, especially after the John Tavares show in Game Six last round and with a lack of Stamkos on the Tampa bench. Aside from my inclination against picking a cross-divisional winner, I think this series is Tampa’s to lose. Lightning in six. The Islanders will not go down without a fight. I wouldn’t be surprised to see them win either, but that’s true of most series now, isn’t it?
PP% / PK%
16.0%, 7th / 93.1%, 2nd
24.0%, 4th / 88.2%, 4th
5v5 Corsi, Score-Adjusted
2015-11-28; NYI 3, TBL 2
2016-03-25; NYI 4, TBL 7
2016-04-04; TBL 2, NYI 5
TBL: 1-2-0 — NYI: 2-1-0
M1. Washington Capitals vs M2. Pittsburgh Penguins: The NHL is salivating right now. The league’s marquee match-up since 2005 has found itself in the playoffs once again, for the first time since the legendary series of 2009. I can’t believe it’s been seven years already — I still remember the hat trick game like it was yesterday. This year could be different, though it’s looking closer than one might think. The Penguins, even without their starting goaltender, dominated the Rangers, even putting up a shutout win in Game Four. The Capitals had similarly awesome goaltending with a pair of shutouts themselves — Holtby wins the battle there, handily. The scoring depth has been better for the Penguins, whereas the Caps have had a significantly poorer shooting percentage with no shortage of chances. Both Crosby and Ovechkin look like to be in peak form. The Capital remain healthy, but were unable to close their series Philadelphia in two tries. You know what though? This year’s feeling different. After a slight scare in round one, I’m picking the Capitals in seven. I chose them over the Penguins on my bracket for a reason and I’m sticking with them here. Also, yeah, they’ll win in seven. This is their year, after all.
PP% / PK%
29.6%, 2nd / 95.8%, 1st
38.1%, 1st / 89.5%, 3rd
5v5 Corsi, Score-Adjusted
2015-10-28; PIT 3, WSH 1
2015-12-14; WSH 4, PIT 1
2016-03-01; PIT 2, WSH 3
2016-03-20; WSH 2, PIT 6
2016-04-07; PIT 4, WSH 3 OT
WSH: 2-2-1 — PIT: 3-2-0
C1. Dallas Stars vs C2. St. Louis Blues: So here’s the thing — Dallas may have won the conference, but St. Louis just knocked off their rival, the defending Stanley Cup champions, and quasi-dynastic Chicago Blackhawks. The Stars made an easy series difficult, scoring a bunch but letting in too many bad goals and allowing nearly one too many comebacks. The Blues, well, kinda did the same thing, except to a much stronger opponent. I think the Stars are somewhat rattled by their near collapse in Game Six against Minnesota. I think the Blues are strengthened and confident on their recent summit. Besides, this Blues team has always been good, they just needed to get it done — now they have. The Stars are questionable in the back, particularly in net. The Blues don’t have that problem. Dallas has firepower up top. So does St. Louis. Ruff vs. Hitchcock? What is this 1999? Hitchcock won that matchup (grumble grumble). He will again. Blues in five. It’s not really even that close on paper. St. Louis, enjoy your deep run — you’ve earned it.
PP% / PK%
21.1%, 6th / 75.0%, 7th
27.8%, 3rd / 68.4%, 8th
5v5 Corsi, Score-Adjusted
2015-12-12; DAL 0, STL 3
2015-12-26; DAL 2, STL 3 S/O
2015-12-27; STL 0, DAL 3
2016-02-16; DAL 1, STL 2 OT
2016-03-12; STL 5, DAL 4 OT
DAL: 1-1-3 — STL: 4-1-0
P3. San Jose Sharks vs C4. Nashville Predators: This is interesting. As I mentioned before in the Islanders’ blurb, there hadn’t been any cross-divisional wildcard series winners until their win this year. Well, we’ve got another this year to join them. The Predators topped the Ducks to play for the Pacific Division championship. Because nothing says Pacific like Nashville, Tennessee. Snark aside, I have already decided they won’t win. Despite my continued lack of faith in the Sharks (though, it’s getting better) I don’t think the Preds stand a chance. They somehow beat the Ducks, which I’m befuddled about, but the Sharks are well rested, confident, and proved that they’re on a mission this year. From what I saw from Nashville in the quarter-finals, they’re over-matched here. San Jose are hungry and circling; they’ve been waiting for an opponent for almost a week now. In the playoffs it’s all about the grind — this rest will do wonders for the Sharks. Besides, the Predators can’t win the Pacific Division! That would be lunacy! Sharks in five. Back when I was getting back into hockey a decade ago, these two teams met in back-to-back playoffs series. The Sharks took both in five. Time to complete the trifecta.
PP% / PK%
23.8%, 5th / 78.6%, 6th
4.3%, 8th / 85.7%, 5th
5v5 Corsi, Score-Adjusted
2015-10-28; NSH 2, SJS 1
2016-02-06; SJS 2, NSH 6
2016-04-02; SJS 3, NSH 2 S/O
SJS: 1-2-0 — NSH: 2-0-1
It feels like just last round I was bemoaning the lack of diversity in the field this year. Well, of the post-lockout Cup champions only the Penguins are still standing; the only Cup losers since 2005 in the playoffs are Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay. That’s wonderful! There are also no more Original Six teams, as well as a continued lack of Canadian teams. This might just be the freshest final eight we’ve had in years. Now we just have to see how many of those who’ve never won it all can make it through to the final four. Hopefully we keep at least a few, though we’re guaranteed to lose one.
Fun Facts & Frivolity Field
Cup Virgins: 4 —
FLA, MIN, NSH, SJS, STL, WSH
Cup Champions since 2006: 1 (!) —
ANA (’07), DET (’08), PIT (’09), CHI (’10, ’13, ’15), LAK (’12, ’14)
Longest Cup drought: STL — 47 seasons
Returning teams (to the second round): 2 — TBL, WSH
Fresh blood (in the second round): 6 — DAL, NSH, NYI (!), PIT, SJS, STL
Round two — let’s go! (Sharks!)