If you're a completely Habs-centric individual that likes to shield their eyes from the remainder of the NHL, then I'm surprised you even clicked on this article, but now that you have, allow me to share some brief insight into the remaining seven first round playoff matchups that kickoff tonight. So here goes.
It has been interesting over the years to see how the perception of seeding has shifted among casual NHL fans and even supposed experts. The conventional wisdom has long seemed to be that 1/8 upsets rarely happen, and that you have to be a high seed to win the Stanley Cup or even to go far in the playoffs. That wisdom was somewhat challenged last spring when the Los Angeles Kings made their historic run, winning the cup as the Western Conference's no. 8 seed. Swiftly, the narrative changed to convey the idea that "anything can happen" and that just getting in is enough. While of course, star players can be injured, goalies can get hot, and snipers can become snakebitten, the fact that Pittsburgh is seen by many out there as an obvious first round winner belies the fact that all season long they have failed to be as good as people have given them credit for. People don't truly understand why the LA Kings did what they managed to do, and when it might happen again.
The New York Islanders are a very impressive team, and my personal belief is that Jack Capuano should be in serious contention for the Jack Adams award. His team made a massive leap forward this year, but unlike with the Leafs or Ducks or Sens, it wasn't because of ridiculous goaltending or an unsustainably high shooting percentages - factors that the coach tends to have a smaller part in controlling - it was because the Islanders were transformed into an above average and at times really solid possession club. The Isles finished the year with a FenClose% (percentage of total unblocked shot attempts directed at the net at even strength with the score within one goal or tied in the third) of 52.01%, whereas the "powerhouse" Pens clocked in at only 49.87%. Granted, the Pens have yet to ice a fully healthy roster since they beefed up their squad at the deadline, but there is an inescapable conclusion that may, and should, make fans uneasy: Marc Andre Fleury has been a key to the Penguins' success this year -- .916 sv% -- and will need to continue to play some of the best hockey of his career for his squad to make a deep run.
On the other side of the coin, Evgeni Nabokov, the Isles' starter, has posted a .910 sv%, not terrible, not great, and that number gives you some insight into how much each team relies upon its goalie. It's truly hard to predict how things will shake out if and when the Pens are truly healthy, and this isn't exactly the Canucks vs. the dominant possession Kings with the all-world goalie, so we'll trust that in a hard-fought series the Pens -- who are due for some good playoff goaltending and a first round win -- will pull through. Prediction: Penguins in 6.
This series will be broken down in depth in a series of articles, but for the sake of consistency I'll put my money on the rejuvenated Habs. Prediction: Canadiens in 6.
Maybe it's because I live in the capital, maybe it's because I've watched these teams go head-to-head in the playoffs in four of the past five years, but to me this is both the most exciting and most unpredictable series. On one side, you have the red-hot Caps, who are 22-10-1 since Valentine's day -- the point at which the Caps and Islanders were the bottom two teams in the NHL -- and who last year managed to trump a far superior possession club with great goaltending and opportunistic scoring. The Caps' FenClose% is the lowest among all playoff teams except Toronto, at 47.72 percent, but goaltender Braden Holtby's save percentage has increased every month, and the resurgence of Alex Ovechkin has been well-documented. The Caps hold the no. 1 powerplay in the NHL, and it truly is a thing of beauty, converting on 26.8% of its chances, but of course reduced opportunities in the post-season could hurt them.
On the flip side, you have the Rangers, who advanced to the Eastern Conference finals last season, despite minimal scoring depth, and then traded more of that depth for Rick Nash. The Rangers struggled nearly as badly for most of the year, before pulling it together in the final months. Injuries are a concern, as Marc Staal remains sidelined and Ryane Clowe is questionable to play. Obviously, reigning and possibly soon-to-be-repeat Vezina winner Henrik Lundqvist is always a threat in goal, and under-the-radar center Derek Stepan, with 44 points this year, should be in the MVP conversation. Another thing to consider is that the Rangers actually improved in terms of possession statistics this season, posting a 53.88 FenClose%, up significantly from a 49.90% last year. We'll see if that can continue.
As I mentioned previously, this series is incredibly hard to call because for all we know, five days between games could cause the Caps to lose momentum, have their shooting percentage regress to the mean -- Lundqvist might also have something to say about that -- and the red team could lose in 5. That said, I like what I've seen up close from Head Coach Adam Oates this season, and I'd be willing to bet the Capitals at least manage to send this to a seventh game, as they did last year as the lower seed. This time however, with a deciding game at a pumped up Verizon Center, hard to pick against the Caps. Prediction: Capitals in 7.
So the Leafs are back in the playoffs, and we're soon to see whether the cliche that a team "has to learn to lose before it can learn to win" is true. Well actually, we likely won't, because on paper this group in blue, even with all the playoff experience in the world, has no business winning this series. Let's start with the obvious. The Leafs had the third-worst FenClose% in the NHL last year at 46.70%, fired their coach, and promptly got worse. This year they've been strolling along at a clip of 44.01%, that's second-worst in the league ahead of Buffalo. Yes, even the Florida Panthers were a better possession club than the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Meanwhile, the Bruins, despite a rough finish, were once again a great possession club, with a 54.35% -- second best in the East after New Jersey (yikes) -- boast an experienced and very solid goaltender, possess a top PK unit, have all the experience in the world, and are well-coached.
So on paper, the Bs should absolutely destroy Toronto. But what could stop the yellow and black? Well it's pretty simple. James Reimer could play a Halakian series for the ages, Phil Kessel could explode against his former team, and the Bruins could realize that at no point in recent history has its team dressed anything more than two top-4 defensemen. Anything could happen, but I'd gamble that the Bs handle themselves better than last year, get a few more bounces, and the Leafs' luck runs out. Prediction: Bruins in 5.
I'm not going to give this series a lot of time here because I really don't think it's worth it. The Blackhawks are an elite possession club (55.80%) and the Wild are very much not (48.68%). Minnesota has mediocre special teams, while Chicago boasts an elite penalty-kill. It's hard to get a read on the goaltending, since we don't know if Crawford can replicate his regular season success, but in this series it shouldn't matter too much. Parise and Suter are nice and all, but this team isn't far removed from the one that collapsed in 2011-2012. They have some great young parts, including deserved Calder (and EOTP pick as the) winner Jonas Brodin, but they just aren't ready. Some more depth and maybe a new coach will be needed before this team takes its true step forward. Prediction: Blackhawks in 4.
Let me first say that a lot of things about this series make me question my initial reaction. First of all, I truly believe that Bruce Boudreau is a good coach, and no matter what percentages you ride, leading a god-awful team at the end under Randy Carlyle to a division title in a tough division, even in a short season, is no easy feat. Second of all, the Red Wings are very much a team on the decline. It is stunning that Mike Babcock has been able to keep a team afloat while losing its top-3 defensemen in the last two years. The Wings are by no means pushovers, but they don't strike you as a team that has what it takes to pull an upset at this point. That said, the numbers indicate that picking the Ducks to advance can only really be a gut reaction, and is difficult to back up. That doesn't mean it won't happen, but it means that Anaheim winning would be the true upset here.
Let's look at the numbers. The Ducks' FenClose% has held fairly steady from 2012 to 2013, registering at 48.21% this season. Meanwhile, the Wings are at 53.92%. The Wings, however, tend to always be up there from a possession standpoint because of Datsyuk, Zetterberg, and Babcock, amongst other things. Anaheim has a better powerplay, but that's really the only aspect of the game that distinguishes it from its opposition. As we've seen with Phoenix last year, the inferior possession team is far from a guarantee to win, but I have significantly more faith in Howard this year than I did in Crawford last year, and therefore it will take some exceptional goaltending from Hiller to steal this series for the "favourites". I don't see it. Prediction: Red Wings in 5.
This is a series between two fairly good teams that some might consider unlucky to be facing one another in the first round. Both post decent possession stats (51.68/52.41 respectively), and both have been saddled with playoff disappointments over the years. The Sharks hold a slight special teams advantage, with a significantly better powerplay and equally mediocre penalty kill, and add that to the slight possession disparity and the Sharks may have a slight edge. That said, both teams have questions in goal. The Sharks' Niemi was my pick for the Vezina trophy by virtue of playing significantly more games than Sergei Bobrovsky until he was passed in most statistical categories by Lundqvist in the final week. That said, his season has still been incredibly impressive and under-the-radar. He hasn't generally been regarded as an elite goaltender, but that's exactly what he's been this year and his past playoff numbers prove he can get it done when it counts. On the other end of the ice, Cory Schneider shook off a slow start to post impressive numbers as well, but his health is a question and he may not be ready to go come game one. I don't like to speculate on team matters, but if Luongo is forced to take the reigns, it's unclear if at this point he would take the challenge and run with it, even knowing that he will continue to be the backup once Schneider returns, or if he would struggle as he has in the second half of the season. Both coaches featured in this series are very much on the hot seat, although neither one of them deserves to get fired. This is also a tough series to call, but I'll take the team that is most due for some playoff luck, and seems the more fundamentally sound going in. Prediction: Sharks in 6.
(4) St. Louis Blues vs. (5) Los Angeles Kings
In the second round of the 2012 playoffs, the Los Angeles Kings and St. Louis Blues faced off in a series that many knowledgable hockey people predicted, even at that early point, would determine the Stanley Cup champion. The series turned out to be a bust, as the Kings swept in 4, but the prediction turned out to be true, as Los Angeles steamrolled the competition to hoist the cup in the end. This year, the teams face each other in the first round in quite different situations.
This time around, the LA Kings won't take the hockey world by surprise. Okay, maybe they still will. After all, the Kings lead the NHL in FenClose% (57.35%) and yet are taking a back seat in the hype-machine to teams like the Hawks and Pens. They don't however, have goaltender Jonathan Quick coming off a Vezina-caliber season. And in the end, not having top notch goaltending may be the one thing that can derail the Kings' attempts to repeat.
The Blues, however, are no slouches. The no. 4 seed posts a FenClose% of 53.91, only slightly down from last year when it lead the entire NHL over the course of the season. Once again, Brian Elliot may be turned to as the option in goal, and we'll see if he can cope better than in last year's matchup -- I'm not holding my breath. Ultimately, this series may come down to which squad gets the better goaltending and manages to avoid injury. I think the Kings remain a slightly superior club, but putting together a second-consecutive playoff run -- even in a shortened season -- isn't easy. We'll see if they can cope. Prediction: Kings in 6.
Last year, our own Bruce Peter made the predictions for the site and went 2-6 in the first round. Hopefully, I fare a little better. Early Cup Prediction (I'm terrible at these): Hawks over Bruins.