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CAN YOU TASTE THE EXCITEMENT?!
That’s right – it’s NHL playoff season.
Or, as Canucks fans call it, “Ah fuck – the Leafs are still playing?” season, a.k.a. “Spring”.
As is DFO custom, interested parties have been surveyed for their favourite team’s chances to survive the first round on their way to win the best trophy in pro sports. Tonight we survey the Eastern Conference, and tomorrow will have the West.
As always, opinions are those of the individual authors. If it’s unattributed, then I did it. Still – fuck the Leafs.
Tampa Bay Lightning (by Senor Weaselo)
The Lightning jumped out to lead the pack in the early goings of the season and did just enough late to hold off the Bruins and win the Atlantic and the Eastern Conference’s best record. Also the Panthers who had been eliminated the previous day helped by beating the Bruins.
The Triplets line (Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and Nikita Kucherov) has split up to an extent. As a not-a-Bolts-fan, I can’t tell you their normal lines other than what I’m reading as I am writing this, but Kucherov (who had 100 points on the year—39 goals, 61 assists) is on the same line as captain Steven Stamkos. IIRC Stamkos has been injury prone in years past (notably missing almost all of the 2016 playoffs) and is indeed just now coming off a lower-body injury though he hopes to play in Game 1. On defense they are led by Norris Trophy candidate Victor Hedman, who had 63 points this season, and goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, who was tied for the league lead in wins with 44.
Around my neck of the woods this team is called “Rangers South,” which is why I get to do this one. The last two captains (Ryans Callahan and McDonagh), along with Dan Girardi, JT Miller, and Anton Stralman, all came from New York, and were all on that squad’s last Stanley Cup appearing team (okay, Callahan was traded at midseason, but it was that year). I have no idea how that happened, but if Tampa wins the Cup this year or next the 2nd-round pick in the 2019 Draft they dealt the Rangers for Miller and McDonagh becomes a 1st, in addition to the 1st they already dealt. So the Lightning are all in.
They get the up-and-coming Devils in the first round who are at least a year ahead of schedule, are just as fast, and who took all three meetings between the two teams, so even if the Lightning are stacked on paper, this could be a dangerous series for them. However with Keith Kinkaid God Mode (it’s the Devils, so Satan Mode?) having to wear off at some point (I think), I’ll take Lightning in 7.
Toronto Maple Leafs (by The Maestro)
Growing up a fan of the Ottawa Senators, I’ve been raised since birth to be permanently disgusted by The Blue Team, as they’re known to many here. As a youth, they were responsible for some of my all-time worst memories, defeating the Sens four times in the quarterfinals between 2000 to 2004. While the Battle of Ontario has since cooled since the days of Alfredsson, Redden and Lalime versus Sundin, Tucker and Joseph, there’s still some animosity… and after over a decade of being one of the most horrendous teams in the league, it pains me to see them A) relevant once again and B) a legit contender for a Stanley Cup, three seasons after a full-scale rebuild.
As much as it pains me to admit it, the Leafs have become legit. With superstar young center Auston Matthews now healthy after missing some extended time during the season with a shoulder injury, the Buds have their best player back leading the way once more. The scariest thing about Toronto, however, is that it’s not all about Matthews – they have arguably some of the best forward depth in the entire league, with Mitch Marner and William Nylander completing a trifecta of fantastic youngsters driving the play. Mix in some veteran sharpshooting in James van Riemsdyk, Nazem Kadri, and Patrick Marleau, and that’s a lot of people to worry about on any given shift. With the recent emergence of other call-ups like Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson, the bottom six is going to be filled primarily with guys who have speed and skill – a far cry from the days when John Ferguson, Jr. designed the Maple Leafs to be slow, plodding grinders who hit everything that moved (and also stuff that didn’t).
Starting goaltender Frederik Andersen also had a career year, breaking the Leafs’ franchise record for victories this year, racking up 38 victories. While his GAA and save percentage were close to his median average, strong team play drove Toronto to their best regular season record in franchise history, finishing 49-26-7 for 105 points.
If there’s a weakness to the Leafs’ lineup, it’s probably on defence; while Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly each topped the 50-point mark for the first time in their careers, the right side remains exposed. Mike Babcock has shown a curious stubbornness at continuing to run a right side comprising Ron Hainsey, Nikita Zaitsev, and Roman Polak, despite all three players continuously giving up far more chances against than generating chances for. Polak, in particular, is big, slow, and lumbering in his own end, and his lack of speed is a real question mark when compared to the majority of Toronto’s roster.
All the same, the Leafs’ ability to score goals makes up for much of an apparent weakness on the back end; however, with the road to the Stanley Cup Final likely running through Boston and Tampa Bay, as well as one of Pittsburgh or Washington, they’re going to have their work cut out for them. Last year’s team bowed out in six games to the Capitals in Round One, and the front office addressed that by going out and acquiring some major veteran experience in Patrick Marleau; the hope this year is that the team will have learned from their mistakes and be more prepared for a deep playoff run this spring. Against the Bruins, though… boy, will it be tough. Boston lost last year in Round One to the Senators in part to having a defence decimated by injuries and starting goalie Tuukka Rask deciding to turn into a pumpkin at the worst possible moment. This year, things have stabilized greatly, and while they don’t have the same forward depth that Toronto does, they are, on the whole, a more balanced team, in my opinion. I’m fully prepared to expect anything for this series, but if there is somehow a merciful and just God out there, I would absolutely KILL for a repeat of Game 7 in 2013, which, for those in the know, has been forever memorialized with the hashtag #ItWasFourOne… Bruins in seven.
In reference to the above preview, I’mma just leave this here as the Bruins preview.
Bruins in six.
New Jersey Devils
The New Jersey Devils are a NHL team that has made the 2018 playoffs.
I was not aware they were even that good this year, probably because they are the third-team in a saturated market filled with weak sporting franchises, whose media are currently obsessed with Giancarlo Stanton & his platinum sombreros. Led by Oilers castoff Taylor Hall & his 93 points, the Devils managed to squeak into the playoffs by virtue of Florida not coming together quickly enough at the end of the season. Their reward for such diligence, in making the playoffs for the first time since 2012, is playing top-seeded Tampa in the first-round.
The Devils do carry a modicum of consistency in their three main lines. After Taylor Hall, you have a 40-point drop in scoring to everyone else on the team. They will win a lot of close games, but don’t have the firepower to win any shootouts. The defence is led by…Sami Vatanen? He was a -7 this year, meaning he was on the ice giving up more goals than helping his team score them. The rest of their defence is equally suspect, and occasionally have looked like turnstiles barely keeping track of whom is about to break in on net.
On that front, they are backstopped by
Martin Brodeur a tandem of Cory Schneider, former Canucks ‘saviour’ and guy who can stand on his head one minute & be mentally visiting Disneyworld the next, and Keith Kinkaid (pictured), who took over for Schneider when he stumbled down the stretch & won 10 games to help the Devils into the playoffs. Kinkaid will get the Game-1 start, but won’t last long if he gets shelled.
On paper, the Devils have no chance against the Lightning. After Taylor Hall, they don’t have the firepower to last with Tampa. Questionable defence & goaltending means they’ll have to rely on a streak in order to win more than one game. In reality, that won’t happen.
Lightning in five.
It would be foolish to bet against them, even if they stumbled a bit down the stretch. They still have Sid-who-ain’t-no-kid-no-more, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel (pictured), but after that it’s a 38-point drop down to #4 scorer, defenceman Kris Letang, which is remarkable given his injury-plagued career. The Penguins roll a deadly power-play, which was their bread & butter during the season. The defence is solid but unremarkable; even if they give up three goals per game, the offence usually bails them out with four.
Matt Murray has been steady in net, but his results have been overshadowed by former Penguin Marc-Andre Fleury helming expansion-Vegas to the West’s third-best record. The boo-birds the Pens thought they’d excised when Fleury left will return anew & more furious if it looks like Murray can’t drag them through the first round.
But, they’re playing the Flyers – who at times couldn’t decide if they wanted to play into May or give up & go golfing.
Penguins in six.
It’s playoff season in Philly, so you know what that means –
It’s time to dust off the old ghosts & pray for an end to Philadelphia’s second-longest championship drought.
This time around, it’s the Claude Giroux show. Realistically, he should be the League’s MVP after he willed the Flyers into the playoffs on his back, arms & 100 points.
I can’t think of a better all-around candidate on a team destined to get bounced in the first round. He also managed to drag other teammates into career-highs for points. But they’re not going to get far if he has to continue being Bobby Clarke, Eric Lindros and Dave “The Hammer” Schultz all at the same time.
Their defence is anchored by the awesomely named Shayne Gostisbehere, the “Ghost Bear”. He has embraced his nickname
to the point that he started his “Ghost Bear Foundation” with his sister to help disabled children & at-risk animals.
Goaltending will be the key. Brian Elliott has had a shaky season, but has been bailed out by the Flyers firepower. His inefficiency helped the Flames get swept in 2017, so he’ll need to do way-better, because trade-deadline acquisition Petr Mrazek was not a solution.
Oh sure, they’re playing the Penguins. That alone guarantees them at least two victories in the series, because Sid always gets the yips because the Flyers always run him. It’ll be close, because RIVALRY (Doc Emrick voice), but the pressure will get to the Flyers, and a city with moderate expectations for hockey success will be able to switch to booing wiener-dog races at Phillies games before the end of the month.
Penguins in six.
Columbus Blue Jackets
If “who cares” was an actual franchise operating model.
Their head coach, John Tortorella, is a contemptible human being to whom bad things should always happen.
They play boring hockey, in a boring joint-use facility, in a boring town that’s only watching them until tOSU football starts up again. The only way they could attract my attention, if not affection, is if they embraced the whole ugliness of Ohio hockey & had a Cleveland Barons throwback night.
Capitals in six.
Washington Capitals (by theeWeeBabySeamus)
Well, you won’t have Braden Holtby to kick around anymore. OK, you probably will at some point, but not to start in Game 1.
Another year, another Metro Division title. But no Presidents Trophy this year. Then again, who cares? All that got them in years past was a prompt 2nd round playoff exit at the hands of those dirty stinking Yinzers.
The big news for the Caps going into the playoffs is that for the first time since 2011, someone other that Holtby will be getting a playoff start in goal. Philipp Grubauer gets the nod in Game 1 vs Columbus. It’s not a huge shock, as Grubauer saw his role steadily grow as the season came down to the finish line, starting 10 of the Caps’ final 16. Alternatively, Holtby of course saw his role diminish. Which is not to say Holtby is now useless. Far from it. In fact, with Grubauer and Holtby sharing time in the net, the Caps won 12 of their final 15. They haven’t lost back to back games since March 6th/8th (@ANA, @LA).
I said back in December that the Caps really need to get a hard hitting defenseman to take some pressure out of the net. Well, they went out at the trade deadline and did exactly that. It wasn’t a flashy move, to be sure. But the Caps picked up Michal Kempny from Chicago, and Jakub Jerabek from Montreal. Since then, the Caps have ranked 2nd in the East in goals allowed.
Alex Ovechkin took another scoring title this year.
Yawn. Big deal Ovie, you still fell one short of 50 this year. What a pedestrian effort for the Russian.
Kuznetsov, Backstrom and Carlson all had 50+ assists this year. That helps. TJ Oshie is hurt. That doesn’t help.
So, what happens when the Caps fly under the radar and finally don’t have any pressure on them headed into the Stanley Cup Playoffs?
Columbus in 6
You heard it here first.
And that’s that. Plenty of engaging scenarios, nervous fans, and Canadians outside the 416 hate-watching the Leafs hoping they lose.
Tomorrow we’ll be analyzing the West, with a particularly litre-focused overview of Canada’s team – the Winnipeg Jets.
The opening round is always the best, so enjoy it while it lasts.