Friday, May 02, 2014

Stanley Cup Playoffs 2014: Second round update

It's all over except the crying...and the next three rounds of playoff hockey. The first round finished on Wednesday, so it's time to evaluate how I did in my picks. (Spoiler: not great, at least in the West.)

Western Conference:
Colorado vs. Minnesota: Wrong team, wrong number of games.
Chicago vs. St. Louis: Wrong team, right number of games.
San Jose vs. Los Angeles: Wrong team, right number of games.
Anaheim vs. Dallas: Right team, wrong number of games.

Eastern Conference:
Boston vs. Detroit: Right team, right number of games.
Montreal vs. Tampa Bay: Right team, wrong number of games.
Pittsburgh vs. Columbus: Right team, wrong number of games.
New York vs. Philadelphia: Right team, wrong number of games.

Although my picks for the East were fairly solid (all correct, just wrong numbers of games), my West picks were terrible: three wrong, and I lost both of my Conference Finalists in complete collapses. I guess that's what I get for picking against the better teams and not paying as much attention to the West. I was much better with the Eastern Conference (an understatement, to say the least), which is perhaps not surprising because my team (Toronto) plays these teams far more often.

Lessons I learned in the first round

1. Always trust your gut, go with your first instinct, and pick the best team. If you had asked me straight up which team was better, Chicago or St. Louis, I would have answered Chicago. LA and San Jose? LA. Then why did I pick against them when their mettle would be tested in a grueling two-week period? I thought that maybe things would be different this time, or that maybe St. Louis or San Jose could win those series - and for five games I was right, as the Blues and Sharks started a combined 5-0, before they lost the next eight games combined. That's when I remembered: always pick the best team, no matter what. I tried to play the odds, and I lost big time with the West.

2. If there's a doubt, pick the veterans. Colorado vs. Minnesota was a toss up. Both teams had some serious question marks going into the series, but it seemed like a wash as far as who would win. I thought Colorado's youthfulness might give them the edge, but I should have gone the other way and picked the Wild, who have a year of playoff experience (only five games in the first round last year, but still more than the Avalanche), as well as a few veterans who have gone deep in the playoffs before.

3. The psychology of a team's history can never be underestimated. See the constant and repeated failures of St. Louis and San Jose, my two picks for the Conference Finals. I knew I was picking against history by choosing these two perennial chokers to meet in the Conference Finals, as it would have meant that one would have to go to the Finals. It's the same reason that the Leafs will have such a hard time making it to the Finals one day, or why the Boston Red Sox took 86 years to overcome their "curse" (and why the Cubs and Indians are still under the throes of theirs). There's something intangible about the weight of the past, but it's still there.

4. Playoff performance matters much more than the season's results. I fall into this trap almost every year, thinking that a team will do better in the playoffs because of their regular season performance. There's nothing like playing one team up to seven times in two weeks, and teams that have won in the playoffs before know how to do it. Case in point: Chicago and LA, the last two Cup champions against St. Louis and San Jose, respectively.

5. There's always at least one significant upset. In the old seeding model, you could always count on a 7-seed beating a 2-seed, and an 8-seed over a 1-seed every two or three years (if not more often) . In the new divisional model, it's a little more difficult to see the big upsets, but they will still happen. This year's was Minnesota, and I should have picked them, as they were the best candidate for such a feat.

Second round picks and thoughts

The first round answered a lot of questions (like whether the Blues and Sharks were actually contenders), but the second round is when the real questions get answered. Were the pre-season favourites to win each division actually correct? Can the four teams that played in last year's Conference Finals (Chicago, LA, Pittsburgh, and Boston) repeat that feat for the first time ever? (More on that in a future post.) Will the pattern of Cup champions continue (Chicago, Boston, LA, Chicago, ...?)? Will Montreal make it to the Conference Finals only the second time since 1993? And will Anaheim and Minnesota meet in a rematch of the worst Conference Finals ever (2003)? There are enough compelling storylines to keep even casual fans entertained, and here are my picks for Round 2.

Eastern Conference:

Boston vs. Montreal: I picked Boston to win it all this year, so I'm going to stick with them. But this series is coming down to Game 7 either way, so it could easily go to Montreal. With Game 1 already having gone to double OT, it's going to be hard for Boston to do it, but I have to stick with them. Boston in 7.

Pittsburgh vs. New York: I picked Pittsburgh to win before the playoffs, so I'm going to stick with them. Lundqvist is always a wild card, but I think that the Penguins should win (unless, of course, they choke...again). Pittsburgh in 7.

Western Conference:

Chicago vs. Minnesota: It looks like Chicago is rounding into championship form again, and I don't expect that Minnesota will be a challenge for them. Chicago in 5.

Anaheim vs. LA: Anaheim would love to spoil the repeat of all four Conference Finalists, and they just might be the best team to do it. LA is on a roll, though, so this series could go either way, and I think it's likely to go to seven games regardless. I'm picking LA in 7 based on the veteran factor and the goaltending.

Now I'm revising my West picks to Chicago for the Finals, making the rematch from last year complete. Let's see if I can do any better in Round 2.

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