I am interrupting this 2018 Stanley Cup Playoff recap / prediction series to bring some much needed, somewhat deserved, good news for the city of Buffalo:
Oh my gods it finally happened. Two Saturdays ago, three years after a second consecutive last-place finish, and a second consecutive lottery loss (though Jack Eichel isn’t bad 😉 ) the Buffalo Sabres, having become the first team to finish in 31st place in NHL history, have finally won the right to draft first overall. Waiting for them in Dallas this June will be Swedish defensive phenom Rasmus Dahlin. And isn’t that just what the team needs? Their defense has been mediocre at best for years; to add a generational talent to the blue-line changes the dynamic of this roster immensely and immediately, and for a long long time. I cannot wait to see what comes in the offseason and how Jason Botterill puts his touches on the team after a full year of observation and tweaks. Hopefully the toxicity of the locker room starts to shed, they give Jack Eichel the C, and the Sabres make great strides forward after years and years of suffering. It happened to the last two teams to pick first overall… It’s about time it happened to Buffalo too.
Before we get to the second round, I need to voice my opinion concerning a recent, popular debate.
See, a lot of people have been complaining about the playoff format — that it’s a shame #1 and #2 overall (Nashville and Winnipeg, respectively) have to play in the second round instead of the Cup Final, or one of #4 in the East Toronto and #2 in the East Boston has to go home after the first round, even though they deserve to advance, etc.
Well, things don’t always go the way they should, especially in hockey, where randomness is a major factor. Upsets are common: the higher seeded team advanced in 8 of 15 series in 2016 and 9 of 15 last year. Sometimes a team that based on seeding alone looks like they don’t deserve to win, does. Just look at Los Angeles in 2012 — an eight seed that won the Stanley Cup. And just last year, the lowest seeded team in the playoffs, the Nashville Predators, went six games deep in the Cup Final. So yeah, seeding doesn’t really matter now, does it? Parity, and the reduction of an 82 game marathon into a 7-game series against a particular opponent, basically nullifies what came before it. Anyone can beat anyone, so what’s the issue here?
The weird part this year is, yes, actually, seeding does seem to matter. There have only been two upsets this season through two rounds (and barely, with the #2 overall beating #1 and #11 overall beating #9). However, that’s exceptionally low as I noted above. In this year’s final four, we have three of four division winners, with the fourth being a #2 that actually has more points than the rest, and therefore home ice, somehow. I never thought I could win a bracket challenge by picking nothing but higher seeds, yet I’m losing a bracket challenge to someone who did just that…
The point is: this year is so far unusual, but usual is unpredictable, so I don’t see a problem here at all. Playoff seeds shouldn’t guarantee that the favorite advances, nor do they resign the underdog to defeat. Conference seeding worked well, sure, but I think the recurring match-ups between rivals old and new makes the divisional format light years better. And just forget about 1-16 seeding — travel and time zones make it a non-starter. So, maybe we should all just stop complaining about the playoff format and enjoy seeing great hockey between great teams.
Close one! Thank you Winnipeg! I’m glad you’ve rewarded my trust in you with fake internet points.
So, how about that second round??
Lightning vs Bruins: Well, huh. I guess I was wrong about the Lightning. …and the Bruins. My Cup finalist is gone, and, like Vegas last round, my lack of faith in Tampa Bay was misplaced. The Lightning, after looking like crap against Boston in Game One, and conversely, the Bruins, looking like they should win the Cup right then and there, traded fates before the next four. Tampa Bay made quick and easy work of a banged-up Boston roster, becoming the first team to advance to the Conference Final in five, and the only series of the second round not to be tied at two.
I guess on the one hand, I’m relieved because I cannot abide Boston sports’ success. I thought the Bruins were better than they ended up being, and for that I’m not sad, I’m disappointed. Boston, you’ve disappointed me. As if I needed another reason not to like your teams. But seriously, what the devil is wrong with Brad Marchand? That boy ain’t right. I love watching hockey, but I don’t need to see players licking each other. No thank you. I get that antics make playoff series fun — see all of the shenanigans that went on in 2011 between Vancouver and, of course, Boston — but come on, that’s gross. I’m glad this is over.
2018-04-28; BOS 6, TBL 2
2018-04-30; BOS 2, TBL 4
2018-05-02; TBL 4, BOS 1
2018-05-04; TBL 4, BOS 3 OT
2018-05-06; BOS 1, TBL 3
TBL defeats BOS: 4-1Prediction: Bruins in 7 ☓☓
Capitals vs Penguins: What the fuck. Of course this happens now, after I’ve given up faith in the Capitals. I was a year early on the no-expectations-so-of-course-this-is-their-year trendy pick and that defeat plunged me into never picking the Capitals again. Whoops? I don’t really like the Capitals, per se, but I really do feel happy for them now. This is the hill they’ve failed to climb year after year with this group. And not only that, but it’s been twenty years since Washington has seen the third round, where they defeated my Buffalo Sabres — when I was just a kid too young to stay up and watch. I digress; the Capitals have slain their tormentors, the Pittsburgh Penguins, two-time defending Cup champions, for the first time since 1994 and only the second time ever.
And what a series it was. It had everything. Suspensions! Fights! Goaltender interference! Inconclusive goal reviews! An overturned goal call! Ovechkin versus Crosby every single shift. It was insane. I said Winnipeg/Nashville was the marquee series in this fantastic second round, but even that seven game epic pales in comparison to the sheer animosity and intensity we’ve seen between these long time rivals. Indeed, rivalries have been waning in general during the post-lockout, speed- and skill-focused years, but clearly they’re still possible. Of all of the so-called rivalries still active in the league, this might just be the best.
До Свидания Pittsburgh. Nobody will miss you.
2018-04-26; PIT 3, WSH 2
2018-04-29; PIT 1, WSH 4
2018-05-01; WSH 4, PIT 3
2018-05-03; WSH 1, PIT 3
2018-05-05; PIT 3, WSH 6
2018-05-08; WSH 2, PIT 1 OT
WSH defeats PIT: 4-2
Prediction: Penguins in 6 ☓✓
Predators vs. Jets: Can you believe it? The Presidents’ Trophy winning Nashville Predators, a trendy pick for Cup champion after coming so close last year, is out after just two rounds, to a team that, previous to this season, had never even won a playoff game in almost 20 seasons. This series was awesome. The Jets looked phenomenal in their wins, while the Predators held steady in theirs. Game Two was insane, where Winnipeg lost a lead, but kept rallying late to force OT, where they lost in front of Nashville’s rabid home crowd. But the real crown jewel of this series was Game Three, the greatest comeback in Winnipeg Jets history — down 0-3 after one, they stormed back to put 5 goals past Vezina finalist Pekka Rinna and add two empty netters to make the score an absurd 7-4.
I don’t know if Nashville was just tired or lacked the chemistry of last year’s Cinderella run. They were good, but perhaps that long Colorado series was a harbinger of doom. Then again, the Jets are really good. They’ve got firepower up top, rock-solid goaltending, and a hard-hitting, offensive defense. The only number two seed left among a trio of one seeds, they’re somehow the Cup favorite. That’s right, the Winnipeg freakin’ Jets are the Cup favourite. What a year.
2018-04-26; WPG 4, NSH 1
2018-04-28; WPG 4, NSH 5 2OT
2018-04-30; NSH 4, WPG 7
2018-05-02; NSH 2, WPG 1
2018-05-05; WPG 6, NSH 2
2018-05-07; NSH 4, WPG 0
2018-05-10; WPG 5, NSH 1
WPG defeats NSH: 4-3
Prediction: Jets in 6 ✓☓
Golden Knights vs Sharks: This makes just about absolutely no sense. And yet, I (mostly) predicted this series correctly, save for a game seven and/or one extra road win. What can I say? The Vegas Golden Knights are for real, and this fairly dominant display over the feisty San Jose Sharks should once and for all put a nail into the coffin of doubt that’s been hanging around them since the start of the season. Marc-Andre Fleury is running away with the Conn Smythe at this point, and I’d not be surprised in the least if (gag) the Golden Knights win the Stanley Cup this year. I can’t believe I’ve finally said those words…
Poor Sharkies though. Joe Thornton never saw the ice in the playoffs, and this might be it for Jumbo Joe’s career. Will they re-sign Evander Kane? Are we back to an era of choking in San Jose? I hope not, I hope so, and I freakin’ hope not. I believe the window’s still very much open in the Bay. That is, if they can just win a Game Six at home for once.
2018-04-26; SJS 0, VGK 7
2018-04-28; SJS 4, VGK 3 2OT
2018-04-30; VGK 4, SJS 3 OT
2018-05-03; VGK 0, SJS 4
2018-05-05; SJS 3, VGK 4
2018-05-07; VGK 3, SJS 0
VGK defeats SJS: 4-2
Prediction: Golden Knights in 7 ✓☓
I said last year that if we get 75% turnover in the final four every year, we’ll get a new team a Cup eventually. Well, look at this. The Stanley Cup Champion is not going to be Pittsburgh. It’s not going to be Chicago. Nor Los Angeles. Nor Boston. That weird cycle is over. It’s also not going to be Detroit, Anaheim, nor Carolina — all of the post-lockout Cup champions are out. And we’ve got 50% unweighted odds of a first-time winner to boot. Heck yes.
Advanced stats herein are taken from February 26th through the end of the second round, with the rankings being among the four teams remaining.
A1 Tampa Bay Lightning vs M1 Washington Capitals: This feels weird. Tampa Bay is obviously no stranger to the Conference Finals, having reached the third round in 2015 and 2016. Washington, on the other hand, well, I said it above — their last appearance was in 1998, and their only other was in 1990. So, ‘sbeenawhile. These once Southeast Division rivals are meeting for the third time in the playoffs, where Tampa Bay won the previous two meetings. From my perspective, this is the battle of two teams I had no faith in at the start of the playoffs. My Eastern bracket is cooked, so this matchup is a new start. Tampa Bay had been everyone’s Cup pick (or finalist, at least) at the start of the year, and for good reason. They’re an extremely well rounded team, with exceptional scoring ability, forward depth, a Vezina finalist in goal, and a Norris Trophy finalist on the top defensive pairing. They’re a powerhouse team built to win now, and they’re healthy.
On the other hand, the Washington Capitals have far exceeded (admittedly low) expectations, but don’t forget, this team won their division handily this year. They too have a dangerous set of forwards, with some previously unknown depth guys chipping in clutchily. Defensively, the Capitals are a bit weaker than Tampa, but their goaltending, while not as lauded of late, can steal a game or four just as well. Washington has the better special teams here, while the Lightning boast better possession numbers, a (presumably) healthier roster, and took the season series. This is almost a toss-up, however I’m leaning toward Tampa Bay here. I’d be okay with a Capitals win (probably more so, as it would secure a brand new Cup champion), but I think it’s Lightning in six. My faith is restored — they’re just too good to lose now.
TBL: 22.9%, 2nd
WSH: 27.5%, 1st
TBL: 71.9%, 4th
WSH: 80.4%, 2nd
5v5 Corsi, Score-Adjusted
TBL: 53.47%, 2nd
WSH: 49.40%, 4th
TBL: 100.88, 3rd
WSH: 101.90, 2nd
WSH: Nicklas Backstrom, Andre Burakovsky
2017-10-09; WSH 3, TBL 4 OT
2017-11-24; TBL 1, WSH 3
2018-02-20; TBL 4, WSH 2
TBL: 2-1-0 [0.666]
WSH: 1-1-1 [0.500]
C2. Winnipeg Jets vs P1. Vegas Golden Knights: I’m still in disbelief about this series. The last two teams left standing in the Western Conference are the two most recent additions to the NHL — the Jets were re-established in Winnipeg in 2011, moving from Atlanta, and of course the Golden Knights are still in their first season as an expansion club. At the start of this year’s playoffs neither team had won a playoff game in franchise history; now one is guaranteed to play for a Stanley Cup. Incredible. Now, which one? I tipped my hand above, but again, it’s time to justify my support.
The Vegas Golden Knights are the team that continues to defy expectations. They have perhaps the best chemistry and well-roundedness of the final four. Scoring comes from everywhere, and their previous opponents have had a hard time line matching against a speedy Knights team composed of nothing but second and third lines. To add to that, their goaltending has been outstanding through two rounds, with Marc-Andre Fleury putting up an obscene 0.951 Sv%, 1.53 GAA and 4 shutouts in 10 games. His days as a playoff liability are long gone. I don’t know what the solution to defeating the Golden Knights is, because they’re not injured, not tired, well-rested after a week-long break, and against all odds, they show no signs of slowing.
The Winnipeg Jets will beat them. Not only are they the best team remaining, but they simply look the best as well. Their opponents have been tougher than Vegas’s, as they overcame the pesky Minnesota Wild in just five, and went the distance against the favored Nashville Predators, trading blowout wins with close losses. As I said above, the Jets have offensive star power in droves, not only up front but from the blue-line as well. Their goaltending has been incredible as well — among goaltenders starting all of their teams’ games, Connor Hellebuyck ranks third with 0.927 Sv%, 2.25 GAA, and 2 shutouts of his own. These teams are very similar — very quick, brick walls in goal, and succeeding against expectations and each having almost no playoff experience to carry them. In the battle of the Western teams of destiny, it’s going to be the Jets in six. The Winnipeg White Out will storm into the Stanley Cup Final.
WPG: 21.3%, 3rd
VGK: 19.0%, 4th
WPG: 76.7%, 3rd
VGK: 84.1%, 1st
5v5 Corsi, Score-Adjusted
WPG: 53.83%, 1st
VGK: 50.64%, 3rd
WPG: 102.40, 1st
VGK: 100.65, 4th
VGK: William Carrier
2017-11-10; WPG 2, VGK 5
2017-12-01; VGK 4, WPG 7
2018-02-01; VGK 3, WPG 2 OT
WPG: 1-1-1 [0.500]
VGK: 2-1-0 [0.666]
Like last year, this is a very different final four, except this time, none of the teams are making a repeat appearance. We’ve got three Cup Virgins out of four teams, the only previous winner precedes the lockout, and they have just one Cup to their name — the Lightning in 2004. Now here’s the cool aesthetic part: every Cup winner since 1994 (!) has worn red or black, primarily. This year, there’s only one red (or black) team left — the Washington Capitals. So, either we finally get a new color as champion, or the Capitals win the Cup. I’m okay with either! Also, weirdly, it looks like we’ve reached the bottom of the alphabet. Sorry, Vancouver.
Final Four Fun Facts & Frivolity Field
Cup Virgins: 3 —
SJS, VGK, WSH, WPG
Cup Champions since 2006: 0 —
BOS (’11), PIT (’09, ’16, ’17)
Longest Cup drought: WSH — 42 seasons
Returning teams (to the third round): 0 (!)
Fresh blood (in the third round): 4 — TBL, VGK (!), WSH (!), WPG (!!)
AN ALL NEW FINAL FOUR. HOLY CRAP LET’S DO THIS!