I figured, then, that the pause before the second round started would be as good a time as any to take stock of the happenings so far and to put out a few thoughts for the remainder of the playoffs; of course, I still managed to miss my target by a day, but I still think that it's worth sharing my thoughts on the playoffs so far and what might be to come.
For what it's worth, I'm glad that I didn't publish my picks for Round 1, since a number of them were flat-out wrong, including everyone but Edmonton in the West. My informal performance confirmed my suspicion that I was likely going to be worse at my predictions this year than I was in most years, since I had not watched one minute of regular season NHL hockey this year, and most of what I was basing my opinions off of was what I had learned through following the league through various sources such as the columns and podcasts of Sean McIndoe of Down Goes Brown.
Part of the reason for my relative lack of attention is that I have used much less time and energy for sports in general, and I wonder at times whether I still actually enjoy watching and following sports, or if I do so primarily as a diminishing result of residual years of interest in sports along with the need for cultivating social currency. I wrote about my waning general interest in sports and the reasons therein back in October 2015, but that only explains part of the reason that I have not paid much attention to hockey.
It's not that I don't like hockey; I have a long and deep affinity for the sport that dates back to watching playoff hockey when I was ten years old. Some of the reason for my lack of attention is that I have realized how little I enjoy regular season hockey, period. I always tune in more in the playoffs because it's more fun and meaningful to watch. But the main reason I have realized that I have not invested in hockey over the past year is actually because of how much I am not a fan of the NHL.
It seems as though the NHL as an organization continually finds new and creative ways to mismanage the sport. Whether it is through bungling expansion and franchise location, the loser point, non-Olympic participation, non-changes to the rules, or even the impending and likely 2020 lockout, I am continually amazed at how often the NHL seems to be completely inept at doing much to support its fans. The very fact that I - a lifelong hockey fan whose team is finally competitive after a decade and a half - am still lukewarm at best toward the game should be indication enough that the league is in somewhat dire straits in regard to its public perception.
And yet, I still find myself drawn back to the game and the amazing possibilities of what can happen on the ice. This year's playoffs were fascinating from the onset, and even that aforementioned lack of seven-game series has not dulled the interesting possibilities that remain for the rest of the playoffs. There is a palpable sense that the NHL is in a good place in spite of itself, and I am legitimately excited about the possibility of following the league again, even though I know there is a good chance that I will inevitably be disappointed in the long run.
All of those thoughts are pretext to the things that I am thinking in the wake of the end of the first round. I was thinking some of these before the playoffs began, but I have done my best to update them with what we know now after the field has been cut in half. Here, then, are ten things I am thinking about this year's playoffs as they have unfolded so far.
The ten things I think after Round 1
1. The Maple Leafs made the playoffs!!! For the first time in a full season since 2004 - the year before the lockout - the Leafs played well enough over 82 games to earn the right to lose in the playoffs. Yes, I knew they would lose in a short series, and yes, I knew that there will be widespread glee from the rest of the hockey world at watching the Leafs lose, but there is no reason for Leafs fans to be upset at all after their performance over the past two weeks - and if any of us start complaining, please remind us of the following facts in a gentle and respectful manner.
The Leafs went from dead last to a playoff spot at least one year before they were expected to figure it out and make the postseason, and they went through a lot of adversity even in the last month to get there. They have arguably the best young core of players in the league, and there is a window of at least two years with this group before they start having any salary cap issues (although the cynic in me assumes that it might not matter since the 2020-21 season will be somewhat scrapped anyway due to a lockout). The Leafs have been incredibly fun to follow this year, and their best three players are not old enough to be finished university. This is nothing but a good thing at this point.
I'm actually somewhat relieved that they did not get the match-up against the Senators; although I think they actually could have won that series, it was far easier to lose against Washington than it would have been to lose against Ottawa. And for the first time I can remember, I was not heartbroken by the end of a Leafs playoff run; in fact, I was greatly encouraged by how the Leafs pushed the best team in the league to the brink and forced them to five overtime games. I had initially hoped for (and predicted) one win against the Caps in an OT win in Game 3 (which actually did happen), so the Leafs exceeded even my greatest expectations, and I am very excited to see them take another step forward next year.
2. This might be one of the most wide-open years that I can remember in recent history. This is very clear already, with two of the regular-season division winners (Montreal and Chicago) being upset in the first round, and another (Washington) coming surprisingly close to an epic choke. Hockey is always kind of open anyway - more on that later - but this year seems particularly open. Every remaining team has some distinct flaws and/or impediments to their possible success - and even the best teams have issues that could conceivably prevent them from victory. There are also narratives that can be constructed for almost any team to make a deep run at this point, which is usually not the case.
The last year I remember that was this wide open after the first round was 2006, the year directly after the full-year lockout. No one knew exactly what would happen, and then we all thought we had it figured out until the underdog won every series in the West and the Oilers ended up coming within a Dwayne Roloson injury of the most improbable Stanley Cup run ever. It should make for an interesting couple of months. There was, of course, also that odd year in 2012 when the eighth-seeded Kings blew everyone away and almost swept their way to a Cup, which seems to roughly follow the pattern that there is a weird playoffs an average of once about every five years. (For the record, other weird years in recent memory were 2003 when the Ducks almost won the Cup as a 6-seed and 1996 when the Florida Panthers made one of the more inexplicable runs to the Finals.)
3. The main reason for the wide-openness of this year's playoffs is that it might be one of the weakest playoff fields I can remember. There are usually at least six or seven distinct contenders for whom a narrative could be constructed based on merit; this year, there were maybe four (five if you generously included the Canadiens, which I did not). Most of the stories I could write for teams to succeed were either dependent on a lot of luck or some key injuries to other teams, and that's not the sign of a strong field of contenders.
4. It also seems as if this is one of those transitional years that happens every so often when we see the old generation falling and a new one rising. The fact that the Atlantic Division turned over their entire playoff roster this year is perhaps evidence enough, but the presence of Columbus and Edmonton in the top echelon of regular season teams only serves as further proof that the road from cellar dweller to Cup favourite is perhaps shorter than it ever has been. There is still a good chance that the best teams of the past six or seven years - Chicago, Pittsburgh, Washington, New York Rangers, and maybe Los Angeles - have at least one or two solid Cup runs left, but the torch might be being passed to the next generation of Toronto, Edmonton, and (assuming they return to form) Tampa Bay.
5. With that said, there has been and still is no excuse for the Washington Capitals to not make a run to the Finals and likely the Cup. Short of a goalie like Fleury or Lundqvist playing super well for a series, there is no reason that they should not break through this year. The Leafs pushed them further than anyone expected, but that has not deterred me from continuing to pick the Caps to advance. Pittsburgh looked really good against Columbus, but Washington is a much better team than the overachieving Blue Jackets were. The Capitals were my pick for the East at the beginning of the playoffs, and anything less than a Finals appearance will be a disappointment for this team.
6. I still do not like the way the divisional playoffs work now. I kind of get why they do things the way they do with the wild card and the divisional crossover, but I really think that it's a bad idea. They should just take the top four teams of each division and have them play each other, with one possible exception if it really seems necessary: if the fifth-place team is better than the fourth-place team in the other division, have them crossover and play in that division (like the CFL crossover rule). That way, it would not be as likely that there would be a scenario in which the New York Rangers could very conceivably win a division in which they do not play, which is definitely in play this year.
7. There really is nothing like playoff hockey, especially overtime. The increase in intensity and significance of results does a lot to erase all of the sins of the extended length of the regular season. Sudden death overtime is by far the most exciting part of any sport, and playoff hockey has arguably the best overtime of any sport; anything can happen at any time, and anyone can become the hero.
The Washington-Toronto series was particularly incredible because five of the six games went to overtime (and the other almost did). The first round featured eighteen overtime games, so there is a distinct possibility that the record of 28 - set in 1993, which is widely regarded as one of the best playoffs ever - is in jeopardy, which is a very good thing for hockey.
8. Picking series winners, particularly in a given number of games, seems more fickle than it has ever been. I have done well enough in picking winners in most years, but there is just no way to accurately predict the number of games in a series. I managed to pick only half of the series in the first round correctly, much less the number of games, and I am not even attempting to pick any numbers of games for the series of the second round. Of course, with that said, I will now make picks for both conferences based on what I have seen in the first round.
9. My pick for the Eastern Conference Finals is Washington over New York. Sure, I know there's all kinds of history there, and the Leafs have now exposed some of their flaws, but I still think that Washington is the best of the four remaining teams. The main problem for them is that, even though they were the top team in the league, they will face the second-best team in the league in Round 2, since Pittsburgh is in their division. The Penguins looked really strong in Round 1 despite injuries to their top defenseman and their top goalie, and I would not be surprised if they pulled out this series and even made it look easy. I did, however, pick the Caps earlier, so I am going to stick with them; after all, they have to break out of the pattern of losing sometime, don't they?
On the Atlantic side, Ottawa looked surprisingly good against Boston, but I have a feeling that the Rangers have a solid run in them this year (perhaps Lundqvist's last) mainly because it feels like the most NHL-y thing to happen for a team to win a division in which they did not compete all year. That said, I would not be surprised to see this series come down to whether Erik Karlsson, the best player in the series, is able to put the Senators over the top for a surprise division title. Either way, I'm expecting a long series with very little actually dividing the teams.
10. Western Conference: All four remaining teams looked surprisingly good in Round 1, so it feels like just as much of a crapshoot as it to choose now as it did then (and of my original unpublished picks, only the Oilers are left). In the Pacific, I think that Anaheim has a really good chance against the upstart Oilers, who looked both really good in winning their series against San Jose but also really bad losing 7-0 in Game Four. I just think that the Oilers are still a bit too young and that Anaheim has enough experience and talent to win the series; that said, I would not be surprised to see Edmonton push the series long and maybe even win with a couple of breaks their way.
In the Central, both Nashville and St. Louis shocked the favourites, but the Predators' win was definitely the more shocking of the two. Nashville has some series "LA in 2012" potential to run the table to a Finals appearance and maybe even a win, while I think St. Louis might have reached the end of their potential with a surprisingly dominant Round 1 win over the Wild, who had faded significantly in the last month of the season. There is, of course, always the possibility that Jake Allen shuts the door for the Blues, though, which means that St. Louis could win an improbable division title.
Overall, it seems like this year might be one of those really memorable playoff years that generates some great moments for the history of the league, which seems appropriate for the NHL's hundredth anniversary. The first round has already had some great stories, and there seems like there are more to come, based on what happened so far. Every year has memorable moments, of course, but some stick out more than others based on the overall picture, and this might be one of those years. There are some great possible redemption and revenge and vindication stories among the remaining teams, and unless Pittsburgh wins, there will be a winner who has not won a Cup in at least a decade.
Any of the eight remaining teams has at least a conceivable path to the Finals, and nothing feels like a given at this point. Many of the pundits picked Chicago to dominate the West, and they're already done, and there's a very real possibility that Washington, the consensus pick in the East, could face another agonizingly early exit at the hands of the Penguins this round. I mean, it's even possible that we could have a "rematch" of the 2007 Anaheim-Ottawa Final, which no one would have predicted to start the season (although, to be fair, most people still are not picking that particular match up to happen).
These next six weeks seem like they will continue to provide some great hockey, and I am looking forward to seeing all of the teams I picked against win these series, since that seems to be the way things are going for me in recent years. And, just in case you're wondering, I'm cheering for the Oilers, even though I'm picking against them this round. I have a soft spot for them going back to my early days as a hockey fan (pre-Leafs), and they're my favourite team in their division. But mostly, I'm cheering for a really great rest of the playoffs, and I'm glad to be reinspired by hockey in spite of the NHL.