Stanley Cup 2018, I: Place Your Bets

I – II – III – IV – V –

Ladies and gentlemen, we are gathered here to today to celebrate and to mourn, for we have come to the end of another long, yet exciting, yet miserable, NHL season.  The playoffs are here, which today will ring in one of my favorite times of the year.  As is tradition, I will go through the matchups and dissect them with my expert analysis and make a prediction on not only each series, but the tournament as a whole.

Hang on.  Predictions.  Why does that ring a bell…

Oh.  Right.  Before the season began, way back in September of 2017, I decided to put my prognostication prowess to the test and calculate out every single teams’ point projection and standings position.  What resulted was this image:

You know, it’s not half bad!  …in that it’s actually straight up half bad.  Let’s have a closer look.  I expected more from Dallas.  Edmonton, what the hell??  Chicago, it was going to happen eventually, but the year after winning the West?  Montréal — meh.  Carolina, I am so sorry.  New York Rangers, I predicted a slide, but not one this bad.

Now, I got the Jets as a playoff team right as a bit of a bold pick.  Nashville should have been higher, obviously.  The Lightning winning the East was right on, though it got hairy at the end of the season there and they didn’t win the Presidents’ Trophy.  Washington & Pittsburgh were perfect and easy, as were Toronto, Minnesota and San Jose.

Boldly, I chose St. Louis to miss the playoffs.  That was a close one.  Colorado, good on you.  Vancouver, that’s about right.  In the east, I correctly foresaw Ottawa’s slide, though severely underestimated it.  Boston is not even close, looking like perhaps the best team in the league right now.  Buffalo… sigh… congrats on being the first ever 31st place team in NHL history.

And that brings us to the elephant in the room: the Vegas Golden Knights.  I am absolutely willing to eat a whole buffet of crow, given that I called them to finish dead last disdainfully with, and I quote, “that roster.”  I am happy to be exceptionally wrong, as the Golden Knights have weaved one of the season’s most compelling stories and becoming the best expansion team in all of major league sports history.  As had been cheekily predicted by many, they were dominant at home, and having attended a game at T-Mobile Arena myself, I can attest to their definite strength on home ice, as well as their fantastically entertaining arena experience.  Additionally, the Golden Knights, despite being a hockey team in the desert, have a ubiquitous presence in and around the Strip.  Las Vegas is proud to have their team, and they’ve shown that it’s well deserved.

Diving a little deeper into the numbers: I correctly predicted the exact point totals for two teams: Philadelphia and St. Louis.  I was within 3 points with Washington, Pittsburgh, Minnesota, Detroit, Tampa Bay, and Vancouver.  I mentioned the playoff seeds I got correct above — strangely enough, I missed on all non-playoff seeding positions.  The worst predictions were Buffalo, Montréal, and Edmonton, all being off by exactly 30 points too many.  But of course, I was wrong on Vegas by 44 points too few.  On average, my predictions were off by 15 points.  Yikes.  It’s a good thing I’m not a professional hockey writer.

Naturally, after gambling on preseason picks and finishing quite a bit in the red, it makes complete sense to stay at the table and pray for Lady Luck to come around.  Same shooter.  Coming out:

Bringing the Cup back to Canada, eh?  Bold choice, especially against the Bruins, slayer of northern dreams.  Along the way we’ve got some choice matchups — Jets/Preds, Sharks/Kings, Penguins/Jackets, Bruins/Lightning — as well as upsets galore.  Fun and plausible!  Let’s take a look at the first round, shall we?

Stats herein (Power Play and Penalty Kill percentages, 5v5 Score-Adjusted Corsi [Shots on goal + missed shots + blocked shots, a decent measure of possession] & PDO [save percentage + shooting percentage, a decent measure of luck]) are measured from the trade deadline, February 26th, 2018, until the end of the regular season.  This is done in order to portray a more representative sample as teams trend toward their playoff forms.  All numbers are taken from NHL.com, hockey-reference.com, and Corsica.

 

A1. Tampa Bay Lightning vs M5. New Jersey Devils:  For the first time since I’ve been writing playoff predictions, the New Jersey Devils are in.  (Aside: that leaves only Arizona, Buffalo, and Carolina as the teams I’ve never written about on here…)  It’s been five long years, which is crazy since I grew up with the Devils being a playoff mainstay and multi-Cup winning team.  They face the Tampa Bay Lightning, reluctant winners of the Eastern Conference and most recently a playoff rival from back in 2007.  These are two speedy teams, lead by two late 2000s first overall draft picks in Steven Stamkos and Taylor Hall, respectively.  In fact, the Devils are basically just Taylor Hall and friends.  He put up 93 points this season, first on the team by a margin of 41 (!) points.  Holy crap.  Think they won the 2016 trade with Edmonton?  The Devils depth leaves a lot to be desired, and their goaltending tandem is shaky with former number one Cory Schneider performing horribly in limited starts since returning from injury.

Meanwhile, the Lightning, while still the best in the East, had fallen to Earth down the stretch (that negative goal differential since the deadline is a huge red flag).  This is  an incredibly deep team with superstars and solid youngsters, yet their goaltending of late has turned from Vezina quality to just about average.  If Andrei Vasilevskiy is fatigued as rumored, I don’t know that I trust him and Louis Domingue to handle a playoff workload successfully.  Still, their defense is solid, and goal scoring should come in spades given their overwhelming talent.  With the Devils having swept the season series (somehow), I can easily see this being an upset, however I think the Lightning will find a way to shut down Taylor Hall, and therefore, the Devils.  Lightning in six.  Truth be told, I don’t see my confidence in Tampa lasting longer than a round.

Record (P | W [ROW] – L – OTL – SOL | GD)
TBL: 113 | 54 [48] - 23 - 3 - 2 | +56
NJD:  97 | 44 [39] - 29 - 2 - 4 |  +3

Record Since Trade Deadline (P [Pts%] | W [ROW] – L – OTL – SOL | GD)
TBL: 26 [0.650] | 12 [ 9] - 6 - 2 - 0 | -2
NJD: 25 [0.625] | 12 [11] - 7 - 1 - 0 | +5

Power Play%
TBL: 20.7%, 14th
NJD: 28.8%,  4th

Penalty Kill%
TBL: 70.8%, 26th
NJD: 79.5%, 14th

5v5 Corsi, Score-Adjusted
TBL: 52.69%,  6th
NJD: 47.93%, 24th

PDO
TBL: 100.09, 17th
NJD: 100.86, 13th

Notable Injuries
TBL: Steven Stamkos
NJD: Marcus Johansson

Season Series
2017-10-17; TBL 4, NJD 4 S/O
2018-02-17; NJD 4, TBL 3
2018-03-24; TBL 1, NJD 2
TBL: 0-2-1 [0.167]
NJD: 3-0-0 [1.000]

 

A2. Boston Bruins vs A3. Toronto Maple Leafs:  Ohhhh baby this is what I’ve been hoping for ever since these two seeds were basically locked up back in… November.  Although the Sabres fan in me prefers that both teams missed the playoffs entirely, this will certainly do instead!

Everybody remembers 2013.  I was at a Sara Bareilles concert checking the scores on my phone before it started.  Toronto was up 4-1 in Game 7 and we know how that ended.  Six weeks later, I was in Boston the same night as the deciding game of the Cup Final… in Boston.  The Leafs imploded dramatically, bottoming out in 2016 to win the right to draft phenom Auston Matthews.  In 2014, the B’s won the Presidents’ Trophy, then imploded in a slightly less dramatic fashion over the subsequent two seasons.  Now we’ve got possibly the best matchup of the Eastern Conference, with both teams having something to prove and an age-old rivalry still burning hot.

These two have a lot in common; both are quick, young teams with a handful of incredible rookies, a smattering of dependable vets, and decades upon decades of history.  Toronto has arguably the better forward group, though Boston’s Brad Marchand eclipses all in points by a sizable margin.  Toronto has a higher scoring defensive core, but Boston has a better back end in general, including star goaltender Tuukka Rask, as well as boasting the best possession numbers in the league.  Honestly, I’m sensing a toss up here.  I hope it’s a brutal, seven game war of attrition, and I think that (gag) Boston triumphs over Toronto once again.  Bruins in seven.  It just feels like they’re peaking at the right time.

 Record (P | W [ROW] – L – OTL – SOL | GD)
BOS: 112 | 50 [47] - 20 - 9 - 3 | +56
TOR: 105 | 49 [42] - 26 - 5 - 2 | +40

Record Since Trade Deadline (P [Pts%] | W [ROW] – L – OTL – SOL | GD)
BOS: 30 [0.682] | 13 [13] - 5 - 3 - 1 | +13
TOR: 22 [0.611] | 10 [ 9] - 6 - 1 - 1 | +10

Power Play%
BOS: 33.3%, 2nd
TOR: 41.7%, 1st (!)

Penalty Kill%
BOS: 85.3%,  8th
TOR: 74.0%, 23rd

 5v5 Corsi, Score-Adjusted
BOS: 53.10%, 4th
TOR: 52.75%, 5th

 PDO
BOS: 100.26, 15th
TOR: 101.52, 10th

 Notable Injuries
BOS: Rick Nash, Brandon Carlo
TOR: None

 Season Series
2017-11-10; BOS 2, TOR 3 OT
2017-11-11; TOR 4, BOS 1
2018-02-03; TOR 1, BOS 4
2018-02-24; BOS 3, TOR 3
BOS: 1-2-1 [0.375]
TOR: 3-1-0 [0.750]

 

M1. Washington Capitals vs M4. Columbus Blue Jackets:  Welcome to the club of perennial playoff teams, Columbus.  It’s been a long time coming.  In your first back-to-back appearance, you’ve been rewarded with a team that’s not Pittsburgh.  Hooray!  And I didn’t realize at the time, but Columbus, despite the wild card finish, has been one of the hottest teams of late.  That should terrify the Capitals, who, while winning the division, have fallen noticeably backward since last year.  Perhaps the lack of Presidents’ Trophy pressure will relax Washington into winning three rounds this time around?  I’m not sure.  Alex Ovechkin is always a force, however Columbus too comes equipped this year with a bonafide offensive dynamo in Artemi Panarin.  The Jackets are quite a bit deeper than the top-heavy Capitals but they do stumble significantly on special teams.  On the goaltending front, it’s Braden Holtby versus Sergei Bobrovsky, two of the best in the league, yet both have a bit of a playoff choking reputation, both specifically against the Penguins, funnily enough.  Oy, I have no idea what’s going to happen, so I’m going to do what I promised to do last year: never pick the Capitals to win anything again.  Blue Jackets in five.  Oh yes, I’m going there.

…congrats on your series win, Washington…

 Record (P | W [ROW] – L – OTL – SOL | GD)
WSH: 105 | 49 [46] - 26 - 6 - 1 | +18
CBJ:  97 | 45 [39] - 30 - 3 - 4 | +10

Record Since Trade Deadline (P [Pts%] | W [ROW] – L – OTL – SOL | GD)
WSH: 28 [0.700] | 14 [14] - 6 - 0 - 0 | +10
CBJ: 30 [0.750] | 14 [14] - 4 - 2 - 0 | +23

Power Play%
WSH: 25.0%, T6th
CBJ: 25.0%, T6th

Penalty Kill%
WSH: 81.3%, 12th
CBJ: 74.5%, 22nd

 5v5 Corsi, Score-Adjusted
WSH: 48.50%, 22nd
CBJ: 52.47%,  7th

 PDO
WSH: 101.80, 9th
CBJ: 103.67, 3rd

 Notable Injuries
WSH: Jay Beagle
CBJ: Nick Foligno, Markus Nutivaara

 Season Series
2017-12-02; CBJ 3, WSH 4
2018-02-06; WSH 3, CBJ 2
2018-02-09; CBJ 2, WSH 4
2018-02-26; WSH 1, CBJ 5
WSH: 3-1-0 [0.750]
CBJ: 1-3-0 [0.250]

 

M2. Pittsburgh Penguins vs M3. Philadelphia Flyers: Awwwwww yes!  It seems the Penguins keep pulling in teams for series that I absolutely love to see, such as Columbus or Washington of late, but now we’re treated to the real Battle of Pennsylvania.  The last matchup in 2012 was a barnburner and a donnybrook, one of the most memorable series of the last decade, easily.  It featured scores like 8-5 and 10-3, 56 goals in total, and most notably, three suspensions and 258 PIMs in just Games 3 and 4.  So yeah, it was awesome.

Now we have the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions, led by the arguably best player in the game and the sidekick who’s flown under the radar with 98 points in Evgeni Malkin, as well as the enigmatic Phil Kessel with 92 of his own.  The defense leaves a little to be desired, but as we know that doesn’t seem to matter, given their success in last year’s playoffs.  Matt Murray is accustomed to winning Cups, having two to his name in his first two seasons — at some point he must come to Earth.  Meanwhile, Philadelphia is an enigma of their own.  Last year they had a ten game winning streak and missed the playoffs; this year, they went on a ten game losing streak and made the playoffs in a divisional spot.  Weird, but not entirely unexpected, given the resurgence of Claude Giroux who put up 102 points — his best year since, you guessed it, 2012.

I don’t think this is a particularly hard choice.  The Penguins have scored 5 goals in each of the four games with Philadelphia this year.  The Flyers’ penalty kill over the course of the season is next to second last, and Pittsburgh’s power play over that time is first.  That alone tips the scales heavily in favor of the Penguins.  Given their feisty history, there should be no shortage of special teams this series, so there’s a clear advantage here.  Penguins in six.  Honestly, it should probably be a sweep, but Philly will make it at least a little interesting.  I would prefer that this went seven though, for obvious reasons.

Notice how I set up a Pittsburgh – Columbus second round matchup?  Calculated.

 Record (P | W [ROW] – L – OTL – SOL | GD)
PIT: 100 | 47 [45] - 29 - 4 - 2 | +22
PHI:  98 | 42 [40] - 26 - 7 - 7 | +13

Record Since Trade Deadline (P [Pts%] | W [ROW] – L – OTL – SOL | GD)
PIT: 24 [0.632] | 11 [11] - 6 - 2 - 0 | +3
PHI: 22 [0.550] |  9 [ 8] - 7 - 2 - 2 |  0

Power Play%
PIT: 22.4%, 10th
PHI: 18.2%, 21st

Penalty Kill%
PIT: 69.6%, 28th
PHI: 78.3%, 17th

 5v5 Corsi, Score-Adjusted
PIT: 51.78%, 10th
PHI: 50.44%, 14th

 PDO
PIT: 99.31, 18th
PHI: 98.41, 25th

 Notable Injuries
PIT: Derrick Brassard
PHI: Johnny Oduya, Michal Neuvirth

 Season Series
2017-11-27; PHI 4, PIT 5 OT
2018-01-02; PIT 5, PHI 1
2018-03-07; PIT 5, PHI 2
2018-03-25; PHI 4, PIT 5 OT
PIT: 4-0-0 [1.000]
PHI: 0-2-2 [0.250]

 

C1. Nashville Predators vs C4. Colorado Avalanche:  Can you believe this?  The Colorado Avalanche made the playoffs the year after they set a modern record for futility in the regular season.  Well done.  You’ve been rewarded with a date with the best team in hockey, the Nashville Predators.  And you get to go up to seven games potentially without your best veteran defenseman and goaltender.  Welp.  At least Nashville doesn’t have the best D-corps and the Vezina frontrunner to contend with…  Whoops!  Just kidding.  Colorado, if you make it out of this series, I will be damn impressed.  Without even going into Nashville’s offense, which is stellar and balanced, by the way, I don’t see the Avalanche winning a game.  Indeed, in the season series they did not.  The only way the Predators don’t win this series is if they lose a key piece to injury — like a Ryan Johansen or Filip Forsberg.  Otherwise, yeah, not much else to say here.  Predators in four.

 Record (P | W [ROW] – L – OTL – SOL | GD)
NSH: 117 | 53 [47] - 18 - 4 - 7 | +57
COL:  95 | 43 [41] - 30 - 8 - 1 | +19

Record Since Trade Deadline (P [Pts%] | W [ROW] – L – OTL – SOL | GD)
NSH: 32 [0.762] | 15 [14] - 4 - 0 - 2 | +17
COL: 26 [0.619] | 11 [10] - 6 - 4 - 0 | +16

Power Play%
NSH: 15.6%, 28th
COL: 27.8%,  5th

Penalty Kill%
NSH: 79.5%, 15th
COL: 86.0%,  6th

 5v5 Corsi, Score-Adjusted
NSH: 51.91%,  9th
COL: 49.14%, 18th

 PDO
NSH: 102.28, 6th
COL: 103.70, 2nd

 Notable Injuries
NSH: Calle Jarnkrok, Yannick Weber
COL: Erik Johnson, Semyon Varlamov

 Season Series
2017-10-17; COL 1, NSH 4
2017-11-18; COL 2, NSH 5
2018-03-04; NSH 4, COL 3 OT
2018-03-16; NSH 4, COL 2
NSH: 4-0-0 [1.000]
COL: 0-3-1 [0.125]

 

C2. Winnipeg Jets vs C3. Minnesota Wild:  Since 2011, the Jets and Wild have been geographic rivals, sort of.  It wasn’t until 2013-14 that the Winnipeg Jets finally moved into the Central Division, and since then they’ve been to the playoffs just once, failing to win a single game.  Minnesota, meanwhile, has been in the show every year since 2013, so I guess it was only a matter of time before these two finally met to consummate their rivalry.  I don’t know what to expect out of this, honestly — I haven’t watched a ton of Wild games this year, and, while the opposite is true of the Jets, they’ve been outright dominant in just about every game I saw.  So, my bias is toward Winnipeg.  In fact, they win in every category below.

That said, Minnesota is a sneaky good team.  Eric Staal has had a hell of a good year, against expectations and recent history.  And for the Wild, that’s where the good news ends.  They’ll be without Ryan Suter, and their defense will suffer greatly as a result.  On the other hand, the Jets have had an outstanding season, blowing away their team records and capturing home ice in the playoffs for the first time (out of their three franchise appearances).  Jets captain Blake Wheeler has had a career year, phenom Patrik Laine continues to make a push for future Rocket Richard trophies, and the older kids, Ehlers and Connor, are alright.  Oh yeah, they have Tyler Myers too.  Remember him?  And they have the winningest American goaltender in Connor Hellebuyck, so that’s pretty nifty I would say.  Jets in five.  A low five — four would not surprise me in the least.  Then we get our perhaps de facto Western Conference Final in Nashville-Winnipeg in the second found.

 Record (P | W [ROW] – L – OTL – SOL | GD)
WPG: 114 | 52 [47] - 20 - 8 - 2 | +57
MIN: 101 | 45 [42] - 26 - 8 - 3 | +21

Record Since Trade Deadline (P [Pts%] | W [ROW] – L – OTL – SOL | GD)
WPG: 31 [0.775] | 15 [13] - 4 - 1 - 0 | +11
MIN: 24 [0.600] | 10 [10] - 6 - 3 - 1 |  +9

Power Play%
WPG: 19.3%, T17th
MIN: 19.3%, T17th

Penalty Kill%
WPG: 78.0%, 18th
MIN: 82.5%, 11th

 5v5 Corsi, Score-Adjusted
WPG: 53.90%,  3rd
MIN: 48.80%, 20th

 PDO
WPG: 101.92,  7th
MIN: 100.62, 14th

 Notable Injuries
WPG: Matt Hendricks, Toby Enstrom, Jacob Trouba
MIN: Jared Spurgeon, Ryan Suter

 Season Series
2017-10-20; MIN 2, WPG 4
2017-10-31; WPG 2, MIN 1
2017-11-27; MIN 2, WPG 7
2018-01-13; WPG 1, MIN 4
WPG: 3-1-0 [0.750]
MIN: 1-3-0 [0.250]

 

P1. Vegas Golden Knights vs P4. Los Angeles Kings:  Yeah, so about those Golden Knights.  They absolutely ran away with the Pacific Division, having led it since late December and finishing, albeit on a bit of slump, eight points up on second place.  The aforementioned game I attended was the night they clinched the division and it. was. awesome.  Now, the Los Angeles Kings are back in the playoffs after a brief hiatus.  I expected them to slide into mediocrity, but with a reborn Anze Kopitar putting up 92 points and the top defensive line in Cup-winning condition, they were right there fighting for the division all along.  The Golden Knights strength lies in their balance.  Due to the Expansion Draft providing no real superstars, the Knights instead have what amounts to a team of second and third liners.  Their weak spots are few, so opponents must compete against talent all game long.  They’ve also established deadly chemistry on offense, with William Karlsson’s unexpected 43 goal breakout demonstrating its effectiveness.

While Las Vegas will be pumped to host the playoffs for the first time, Los Angeles, the Knights’ de facto biggest rival, will be set on ruining their fun.  It is a new era for the Kings, but I learned not to underestimate this core a long time ago.  The Knights on the other hand have been underestimated consistently, yet they’ve always thrived against all odds.  At some point, they have to fall, right?  It’s true they’ve already been slumping for a few weeks (see their recent negative goal differential — thanks, Calgary), so I don’t really know what to expect with them.  The Golden Knights moving on the second round would be the best story, but I think it’s going to be the Kings in seven.  Los Angeles is used to winning, especially as a low seed, and the pressure is rising for Vegas.  Experience wins here.

 Record (P | W [ROW] – L – OTL – SOL | GD)
VGK: 109 | 51 [47] - 24 - 4 - 3 | +43
LAK:  98 | 45 [43] - 29 - 7 - 1 | +35

Record Since Trade Deadline (P [Pts%] | W [ROW] – L – OTL – SOL | GD)
VGK: 23 [0.548] | 10 [ 8] - 8 - 2 - 1 |  -7
LAK: 27 [0.675] | 12 [12] - 5 - 2 - 1 | +16

Power Play%
VGK: 20.0%, 15th
LAK: 22.6%,  9th

Penalty Kill%
VGK: 83.6%, T9th
LAK: 92.3%,  1st

 5v5 Corsi, Score-Adjusted
VGK: 49.20%, 17th
LAK: 50.05%, 15th

 PDO
VGK:  99.02, 19th
LAK: 101.87,  8th

 Notable Injuries
VGK: Luca Sbisa, David Perron
LAK: Jake Muzzin, Alex Iafallo

 Season Series
2017-11-19; LAK 2, VGK 4
2017-12-28; VGK 3, LAK 2 OT
2018-02-26; VGK 2, LAK 3 OT
2018-02-27; LAK 4, VGK 1
VGK: 2-1-1 [0.625]
LAK: 2-1-1 [0.625]

P2. Anaheim Ducks vs P3. San Jose Sharks:  Our final matchup of the first round is an old favorite.  The third leg of the Battle of California has been dormant since 2009, when the Ducks upset the Presidents’ Trophy winning Sharks in the first round.  In intrastate rivalries since then, the Ducks and Sharks have played the Kings in the playoffs one and four times, respectively, with the Kings winning three of five series (and two Cups).  That said, there’s never a dull moment between these two.  They really don’t like each other.  And how can you blame them?  The Ducks are horrible.  Just the worst.  They’ve been the bullies of the Western Conference for years and they just never seem to stop.  Unfortunately, they were able to secure home ice on the last day of the season due to the Sharks cooling off down the stretch.

But, seeding doesn’t matter, especially to the Ducks who are prone to losing Games Seven on home ice.  The Sharks, despite being a point behind in the standings, are simply the better team.  They score more, have better special teams, possession stats, and fewer wounded goaltenders.  I just can’t see the Ducks winning this series.  Sharks in six.  Get it done.

Regardless of any result in the Pacific, the second round is sure to be a bloodbath.

 Record (P | W [ROW] – L – OTL – SOL | GD)
ANA: 101 | 44 [40] - 25 - 6 - 7 | +22
SJS: 100 | 45 [40] - 27 - 7 - 3 | +21

Record Since Trade Deadline (P [Pts%] | W [ROW] – L – OTL – SOL | GD)
ANA: 27 [0.750] | 13 [13] - 4 - 1 - 0 | +21
SJS: 25 [0.658] | 12 [11] - 6 - 1 - 0 | +15

Power Play%
ANA: 17.5%, 22nd
SJS: 16.7%, 26th

Penalty Kill%
ANA: 86.7%, 5th
SJS: 87.5%, 4th

 5v5 Corsi, Score-Adjusted
ANA: 50.86%, 12th
SJS: 51.45%, 11th

 PDO
ANA: 104.19,  1st
SJS: 101.19, 11th

 Notable Injuries
ANA: John Gibson, Cam Fowler
SJS: Joe Thornton, Eric Fehr

 Season Series
2017-11-04; ANA 1, SJS 2 S/O
2017-11-20; ANA 3, SJS 2 S/O
2018-01-21; SJS 6, ANA 2
2018-02-11; SJS 3, ANA 2 S/O
ANA: 1-2-1 [0.375]
SJS: 3-0-1 [0.875]

We’ve got exactly as much turnover as last year, and somehow despite that, still only seven Cup virgins.  I guess bringing back New Jersey, Colorado, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Tampa will do that.  The rivalries here though might just be the best of the divisional playoff system.  It’s guaranteed to be a good time in the first round.

One other related fun fact to note: not only are there only two Original Arbitrary Six teams in the first round, one of which is guaranteed to go home, but the last five expansion teams, those no older than twenty years, are all in the playoffs together for the first time.  Nashville, Winnipeg (formerly Atlanta), Minnesota, Columbus, and Vegas collectively outnumber their rivals from antiquity five to two.  Pretty neat.  Maybe one of them will win a Cup?

Fun Facts & Frivolity Field
Cup Virgins:  7 — CBJ, MIN, NSH, SJS, VGK, WSH, WPG
Cup Champions since 2006:  4 — ANA (’07), BOS (’11), LAK (’12, ’14), PIT (’09, ’16, ’17)
Longest Cup drought:  TOR — 49 seasons
Returning teams:  9 — ANA, BOS, CBJ, MIN, NSH, PIT, SJS, TOR, WSH
Fresh blood:  7 — COL, LAK, NJD, PHI, TBL, VGK, WPG

Only minor tweaks were made in the offseason — none of them particularly notable.  I like where I’m at with the bracket.  If anything changes, I’ll be sure to let you know when they happen.

Let’s go Sharks!

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Pittsburgh Penguins: 2017 Stanley Cup Champions

I II III IV V

They did it again.  I can’t say I don’t believe it since this was the expected result, yet I kinda don’t want to believe.  Two years in a row, the Pittsburgh Penguins are the Stanley Cup champions.  They are the first team to repeat since the 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings and the first to do so in the salary cap era.  Two years in a row they’ve faced an opponent in its first Cup Final appearance after years and years of playoff struggles, and both times they won the Cup in six games in said opponents’ buildings.

Nashville put up a fight though.  After two games, both of which were won by Pittsburgh after a brief flurry of goals surrounded by an extended period of Predator domination, this series could have been over.  Instead the Preds stormed back to take the next two by a combined score of 9-2.  But, unfortunately, the offensive injuries came back to haunt Nashville and they went scoreless during their last two games.  And how about that, Matt Murray?  Two shutouts to win the Cup, the second Cup of his as a rookie.  How weird.

Playoff Series
2017-05-29; NSH 3, PIT 5
2017-05-31; NSH 1, PIT 4
2017-06-03; PIT 1, NSH 5
2017-06-05; PIT 1, NSH 4
2017-06-08; NSH 0, PIT 6
2017-06-11; PIT 2, NSH 0
PIT defeats NSH: 4-2
Prediction: Penguins in 6 ✓✓

You know, I haven’t seen much talk about these Penguins as a dynasty.  Since bringing the core of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Marc-Andre Fleury together, they’d been contenders every year and since their first Cup appearance in 2008, it seemed like they could win the Cup each time.  Well, it took until 2015-16 to get a second, but it almost looks like this team will never lose again.

Speaking of pseudo-dynasties, a curious thing has happened, one which I even had an inkling of last year.  Let’s look at the Stanley Cup champion teams between 1994 and 2004 and also those of the last nine seasons:

1995 New Jersey Devils 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins
1996 Colorado Avalanche 2010 Chicago Blackhawks
1997 Detroit Red Wings 2011 Boston Bruins
1998 Detroit Red Wings 2012 Los Angeles Kings
1999 Dallas Stars 2013 Chicago Blackhawks
2000 New Jersey Devils 2014 Los Angeles Kings
2001 Colorado Avalanche 2015 Chicago Blackhawks
2002 Detroit Red Wings 2016 Pittsburgh Penguins
2003 New Jersey Devils 2017 Pittsburgh Penguins

During each eight year span, four teams won the Cup.  Two of them won thrice, one won twice, and one oddball won once.  One team won back to back.  Of the teams that won thrice, one pair was from the east, one pair was from the west.  The teams that won twice were both from the west and both won their first two Cups.

If you want to get weirder, the Cup champions before these years were both Original six.  Even weirder, the Cup Finals before that was Canada versus California.  But yeah, this is pretty strange.  After the parity of the first few years of the salary cap era, we’re seemingly back to where we started.  Hopefully history continues to repeat and somebody wins their first Cup next year, and hopefully they do it without controversy.

Speaking of controversy, I can’t help but think that this series might have ended differently if Colton Sissons’ opening goal wasn’t waved off.  There’s not a lot to be done now, of course, but who knows what might have been.  With the home team winning every game until then, this series was shaping up to be a lot like Vancouver/Boston.  It was a bitterly contested matchup with blowouts, on-ice antics, simultaneously stellar and porous goaltending, a team with a rabid fanbase chasing its first Cup, and a team winning it all on the road while wearing black and yellow.

And like that 2011 series, the ending was anticlimactic as hell.  This is the Cup winning goal.  The dagger with 95 seconds left was hardly even a shot.

It wasn’t just that though.  I feel like, since most of these guys just won last year, this wasn’t special.  The celebrations seemed less enthusiastic.  Maybe it was the lack of a home crowd that did it, I’m not sure.  Maybe I projected my own personal feelings of being let down on the Penguins.  I don’t know.  I was really into this year’s playoffs, shockingly so without a true rooting interest, but this ending just doesn’t do anything for me.

I must salute you, Nashville.  There were many who didn’t realize how great of a fanbase you were, and during the home game broadcasts were we told this fact over and over.  It’s true that it’d always been like this, and luckily for the league as a whole, it will continue.  Your contention window is wide open, so I have no doubt that the Predators are now firmly one of the most marketable teams in the NHL; likely we’ll see much more of them in the spotlight next year.  How about an outdoor game in Tennessee?

I say this every year it seems, but I am excited for this offseason.  The Vegas Golden Knights are finally here — their expansion draft roster will be revealed just 9 days from today.  Also, every NHL team is getting new jerseys, some of which involve rumored overhauls and/or jersey promotions, and each of them will also be revealed on the 21st 20th.  Oh yeah, this Penguins team?  They were built in large part by the man who now runs the Buffalo Sabres.  As if I needed another reason to be hyped about my hometown team’s never-ending rebuild.  I can only hope that what he helped to accomplish in Pittsburgh can be done up north as well.

It’s going to be a fun rest of June.  Time to relax and enjoy the show.

Stanley Cup 2017, IV: Gold & Silver

I II III IV V

Here we are again: on the one hand, we’ve got a team well established as a winner, with 4 Cups to its name and a handful of proven international superstars on their side.  On the other, we’ve got a team that’s never been here before, has a roster (mostly) full of near-nobodies, and plays in a city the average person doesn’t associate with hockey.  This is how it’s been each year for kind of a while now.

Recently we’ve had Pittsburgh, Chicago, New York, and New Jersey in Finals against San Jose, Tampa, Los Angeles, and Los Angeles respectively.  Going back to the Canucks/Bruins series, only the Blackhawks/Bruins series doesn’t really fit this mold.  True the Lightning and Kings each have at least a Cup, but how many regular folks know that (or care for that matter?)

It would have been horrendous for ratings and league popularity to have the Ottawa Senators find a berth in the Stanley Cup Final.  It’s also what I wanted most, with Nashville clinching first.  A Final with two Cup virgins, each from small markets, each franchise born in the 90s, and each with a defensive superstar I’d love to see hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup.  Alas, it was not to be, and in their stead, we’ve got Goliath.  At least there’s a clear underdog here to root for, and root for them I shall.

Penguins vs Senators:  This was entirely expected.  In fact, along with the following series, I predicted this one on the nose.  The Penguins, beaten and bruised, haemorrhaging players all playoffs long, managed to use their intangibles and their star power to narrowly win the war of attrition that is fighting the Ottawa Senators and their stifling system.  It was a rollercoaster of a series, with Ottawa and Pittsburgh exchanging wins before a complete and utterly devastating blowout put the Sens on the brink.  In true pesky Sens fashion, they suffocated their way to a Game Six comeback win, and, surprisingly, turned a boring first period of Game Seven into an all-time legendary game, answering the Pens goals with quick responses all the way to a marathon double-overtime finish.

I picked the Penguins to win, but my heart was screaming for the Senators.  Weird, I know.  I don’t hate this Senators team.  Both Buffalo and Ottawa are so far removed from 2006-07 that it doesn’t feel relevant anymore.  I like Erik Karlsson.  More than anything else, I wanted a new team to win, and I discovered that I’d be happy for the Senators if they pulled it off.  Now, much of that is satisfaction from an indirect blow to the Leafs, but hey, I like to have fun.  On the other hand, it’s probably best the Senators didn’t win.  The NHL is a copycat league, and boy, I don’t want to see this kind of hockey become the norm.  Not again.

Playoff Series
2017-05-13; OTT 2, PIT 1 OT
2017-05-15; OTT 0, PIT 1
2017-05-17; PIT 1, OTT 5
2017-05-19; PIT 3, OTT 2
2017-05-21; OTT 0, PIT 7
2017-05-23; PIT 1, OTT 2
2017-05-25; OTT 2, PIT 3 2OT
PIT defeats OTT: 4-3
Prediction: Penguins in 7 ✓✓

Ducks vs Predators:  We’re in a new era.  For a couple years around the lockout, the Anaheim Ducks more often than not faced the Detroit Red Wings in the playoffs.  Half of the time, they’d advance.  Now, they seem to run into the Nashville Predators every other year, but they never win.  In three meetings, the Preds have owned the Ducks 12 wins to 7.  That’s not to say this one was lopsided.  In fact, the team that scored first went on to lose 4 of 6 games.  This was an evenly matched, blow and parry type of series, with the counter being strong enough to overpower the initial attacker.  This was a feisty battle, which is expected with these Ducks, having usurped the role of the NHL’s bullies from a combination of Vancouver, Boston, and Philly.  The Predators were somewhat lucky to escape from this series with minimal injuries, though those they did suffer could be crippling; they’re missing their top 2 centers.

For Nashville though, it was their insane depth that carried them through Anaheim.  With an all-time great defensive line, albeit with Anaheim’s in 2nd right behind them, a host of young wingers (hello, Milwaukee Admirals) and the continued absolutely stellar play of Pekka Rinne, they simply outmatched the Ducks.  Any other team, perhaps, and the Stanley Cup is the Ducks to win.  With a shaky goaltending performance from Jonathan Bernier and the young John Gibson out with injury, it’s hard to imagine the Ducks having an answer to four lines of onslaught from the Preds, but weaker netminding has won Cups.  The Ducks, somehow, seem to have a wide open Stanley Cup window, despite an aging core and old-school coach.  They’re filled to the brim with young talent that, in a few years, might just give Southern California another Cup.

Playoff Series
2017-05-12; NSH 3, ANA 2 OT
2017-05-14; NSH 3, ANA 5
2017-05-16; ANA 1, NSH 2
2017-05-18; ANA 3, NSH 2 OT
2017-05-20; NSH 3, ANA 1
2017-05-22; ANA 3, NSH 6
NSH defeats ANA: 4-2
Prediction: Predators in 6 ✓✓

A newbie and a repeat appearance.  This should be good, no matter what happens.


Advanced stats herein are taken from March 1st through the end of the third round, with the rankings being among the two teams remaining.

 

C4. Nashville Predators vs M2. Pittsburgh Penguins:  This will be fun.  As I alluded to above, this is a real David vs. Goliath story.  The Pittsburgh Penguins are the defending Stanley Cup champions looking to become the first team to repeat since 1998.  They’re also making their third return trip to the Final in their history, which is weird — the Penguins only seem to make the Final in pairs of seasons.  The Nashville Predators are the first lowest-ranked seed to make the Stanley Cup Final, and are making the franchise’s first appearance as well, having previously never even played for a Conference Championship.

The thing about hockey is, though, that this is far more even of a match-up than it appears when comparing each franchise and their histories up to and including this past regular season.  The Predators have steamrolled their way to this point, losing just four games; the Penguins made easy work of their nearby interstate rivals, while getting into seven game slugfests with their next two opponents.  Looking at how banged up each team is, their deficiencies balance out:  Nashville has no center depth, while the Penguins are in shambles on the back end.  They’ve also deployed both of their goaltenders to decent results, as Matt Murray returned from a long injury from round one.

Meanwhile, in Nashville, Pekka Rinne has held fort for three rounds — we haven’t seen a sniff of Juuse Saros.  The Predators wingers are a deep collection of NHL vets and nobody rookies, whereas the Penguins are looking at promoted depth at this point.  To look at positions of strength, you see the Nashville blue line being dominant and as previously mentioned, in a class of its own.  In Pittsburgh, you’ve got the all-star one-two punch of Crosby and Malkin.  The Preds had done a great job of shutting down others’ offensive talents — Kane, Tarasenko, Getzlaf — but, I said the same of the Sharks last year.  The Penguins were just too quick to counter.  If Pekka Rinne stands on his head, the Penguins are toast.  If Crosby and Malkin play like, well, like they have been, then the Predators have a tough road ahead.  I like the Predators and I’m rooting for them.  The city deserves a Cup.  P.K. Subban deserves a Cup.  I want to see Mike Fisher (or proxy captain) hand it off to Pekka Rinne in full goalie gear.  I want a Cup champion wearing a color other than black or red.  I want a new team to win a Cup.  It’s about time.

That said, Penguins in six.  Yeah, they’re going to repeat.  I picked against them last year because of what my heart said; I won’t make that mistake again.

Power Play%
NSH: 13.7%
PIT: 26.8%

Penalty Kill%
NSH: 82.4%
PIT: 81.7%

5v5 Corsi, Score-Adjusted
NSH: 52.10%
PIT: 46.71%

PDO
NSH: 102.27
PIT: 101.54

Notable Injuries
NSH: Kevin Fiala, Ryan Johansen, Mike Fisher
PIT: Kris Letang, Patric Hornqvist

Season Series
2016-10-22; PIT 1, NSH 5
2017-01-31; NSH 2, PIT 4
NSH: 1-1-0
PIT: 1-1-0

Nothin’ but gold, baby.  In about two weeks, we’ll see a team decked out in gold lift the ultimate silver prize, the Stanley Cup.  And, shortly after that, the NHL will welcome another gold team to the party — the Vegas Golden Knights.  This seems less than unintentional, now that I put it all out there…

Final Fun Facts & Frivolity Field
Cup Virgins:  1 — NSH, OTT
Cup Champions since 2006:  1 — PIT (’09, ’16)
Longer (or, only) Cup drought:  NSH — 17 seasons

Just like last year, our final two teams’ logos are facing each other in battle, though I think they look far more intense this time.  Here’s hoping for a different result than before.