Wednesday, April 15, 2015

NHL Playoff Predictions 2015: First Round

The NHL playoffs begin today, and this year is perhaps the tightest field I have ever seen - a fact that many writers are echoing as they make their picks for this year. The general consensus is that, of the 16 playoff teams, that 11 or 12 of them could actually make a run at the Cup this year; basically, everyone except Ottawa, Calgary, Vancouver, Detroit, and maybe Pittsburgh. And although that could be potentially true, depending on how the first round goes, I think the number of actual contenders is much lower: Chicago, Minnesota, New York Rangers, Washington, Montreal, Tampa Bay, and maybe Anaheim. Of course, if all of those teams win their first round match-ups, the first three pairs are set to meet in the second round, so there you have it.

As I started picking this year, I looked back at my picks from last year to see how I did. In the first round last year, I picked five of eight winners correctly, including all four from the East and only one from the West. I did not post anything after the second round, but I had the Bruins winning it all, so obviously that didn't happen. Still, there were some good things that I learned last year, and here are the five reflections I had last year after picking only one out of four match-ups correctly in the first round in the West.

1. Always trust your gut, go with your first instinct, and pick the best team.
2. If there's a doubt, pick the veterans.
3. The psychology of a team's history can never be underestimated.
4. Playoff performance matters much more than the season's results.
5. There's always at least one significant upset.

With those five principles in mind, here are my picks for this year's playoff field.

Pacific Division (Western Conference)

Anaheim (1) vs. Winnipeg (4): This is the trendiest of upsets: an upstart Jets team playing meaningful playoff hockey for the first time in almost two decades against an Anaheim team that looks a little tired and has shaky goaltending. The Ducks lost to the eventual champion Kings in Round 2 last year, but both California rivals are out of the picture early this year. Every one of the 5 principles applies here, but I'm going to go against the trend of picking the Jets and take the Ducks in, let's say, five.

Vancouver (2) vs. Calgary (3): The first of two all-Canadian team match-ups that everyone in Canada will be talking about even though WHY DOES THIS HAPPEN EVERY YEAR THAT TEAMS IN RANDOM CITIES BECOME NEWS STORIES REPRESENTING THE HOPES OF A WHOLE COUNTRY EVEN THOUGH MOST OF THE TEAMS LEFT IN THE PLAYOFFS HAVE RELATIVELY EQUAL NUMBERS OF PLAYERS FROM THAT COUNTRY? *Ahem. Sorry about that. End rant.* With that rant now finished (OK, it's not, but I'll pretend it is for now so I can continue with this column), let's move onto actually analyzing the series itself.

Vancouver is the better team, they have better goaltending, they have veterans who have made deep runs before, and this will not be the upset mentioned in principle #5. Still, I think the Canucks will find a way to make this series go longer than it should (as they often seem to do things the hard way) and there's a good chance of this series going long enough to drain them before Round 2. Vancouver in seven.

Central Divison (Western Conference)

St. Louis (1) vs. Minnesota (4): It seems strange that Minnesota is a number 4 seed, considering that they have been one of the best teams in the league since Christmas. My first instinct is Minnesota: they have momentum, they have veterans who have some victories, they made a run to the second round last year, the Blues always lose, and this would technically qualify as an upset, thus satisfying each principle of the five. Wild in six.

Chicago (2) vs. Nashville (3): Sure, Nashville had a great first three-quarters of the season, but boy were they terrible in the home stretch. Chicago has had some injuries, but this core group has two Cups and resentment from losing in last year's quarter finals, so I'll take Chicago in six.

Metro Divison (Eastern Conference)

New York Rangers (1) vs. Pittsburgh (4): It's easy to pick on the Penguins, so I'll join the chorus. It might be time for the team to make some big moves; then again, it might be time for Sid to reveal that injury he's been playing with for months (that's my guess, anyway). The Rangers should take this fairly easily, so New York in five.

Washington (2) vs. New York Islanders (3): The Islanders are always fun in the playoffs, and aside from a brutal series against the Leafs back in 2002 (when the Leafs actually might have been able to make the Finals if not for Sundin being injured by the Isles' dirty play - not that I'm still bitter 13 years later), I've cheered for them when they've been in the playoffs since that magical run in 1993 when they made the Conference Finals. I almost picked them to win this series. Almost. Then I looked at my principles again, and I realized that I would violate several of them in picking the Isles: no veterans, not a gut pick, and the fact that Washington has some playoff experience, unlike the plucky youngsters. I would not be surprised that the Islanders have a strong team in the future, but I don't think that this is their year; still, I'll give them some credit by having them take the series the full length. Washington in seven.

Atlantic Division (Eastern Conference)

Montreal (1) vs. Ottawa (4): Let's be honest: Montreal has not played many meaningful games (really) in the past month. They had to jockey for position a little with the Lightning, but they have been able to be more relaxed. Ottawa, on the other hand, is a record-setting miracle of a team, having been 14 points back in February and still making the playoffs (the greatest gap ever to be overcome in that amount of time). Sure, I could see a series in which Ottawa goalie Hammond records three shutouts and shocks the Habs, but at every position, the Canadiens are better. They are also seasoned from last year's loss in the Conference Finals, and Carey Price is the best goalie out there right now. Period. (Sorry, Lundqvist.) Montreal in five.

Tampa Bay (2) vs. Detroit (3): Tampa is scary when they are firing on all cylinders. They have the makings of a young team that is ready to make a run, much like Detroit was in 2007, just before they appeared in consecutive Cup Finals and won the Cup. That was eight years ago, and Detroit still has some of the same core players, so this should be considered the official passing of the torch to the next generation. Tampa Bay in five.

Predictions beyond the first round

If all of my predictions are correct (and there's no reason to think that they are not), the second round match-ups for division championships look like this:

Pacific: Anaheim (1) vs. Vancouver (2)
Central: Chicago (3) vs. Minnesota (4)
Metro: New York (1) vs. Washington (2)
Atlantic: Montreal (1) vs. Tampa Bay (2)

And, as I said in the introduction, I can see any team from the Central, Metro, and Atlantic (sorry, Pacific) taking the Cup home in June. My current pick is the Rangers over the Blackhawks for the Cup; although I don't really see anyone other than Chicago coming out of the West (I just think they have too much firepower and experience to lose a seven game series to any other team in their division, and the Pacific isn't likely to present a threat to them), I could easily see any of the four Eastern teams making a run. Lundqvist and Price are the two best right now, but either Ben Bishop (TBL) or Braden Holtby (WSH) could establish themselves as big-time goaltenders with a strong run in May.

Whatever happens, this might be one of the most memorable playoffs in years. Last year was memorable mainly because of the continued dominance of a few teams from recent years, but several of those teams are already out (Boston, LA, San Jose) or soon to join them (Pittsburgh). Sure, there are the teams that have had success that are trying to  (namely Chicago and the Rangers), but this year has the overall feel of years like 1983-84 or 1991 or 2003 or 2007-2008, when there was a shift in the powers that be and a new crop of young, exciting teams coming up as a new generation of possible perennial powerhouses; Tampa Bay is already there and the Islanders are close.

And then there's the fact that five Canadian teams, including four that were supposed to be near the bottom of the standings this year (Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, Ottawa) are playing meaningful hockey in April, and that Canada is guaranteed at least two teams in the second round. Not that that fact should matter to anyone; see earlier all-caps rant for more information. Still, I'm really actually looking forward to these playoffs, and that's more than I can say for most of the past few years, aside from the Maple Leafs' unfortunately brief run in 2013 which turned out to be an aberration rather than a statement of things to come. Either way, it should be a fun couple of months, especially once Calgary and Winnipeg host playoff games on the weekend. Let the games begin!

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