Saturday, May 16, 2015

2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Round 2

So, here we are…2 rounds deep into the NHL playoffs.  Only one of my final four picks from my original bracket is left standing.  Thank you, New York Rangers.  Unfortunately, I picked the Canadiens to beat them on their way to a Stanley Cup win over the St. Louis Blues (who lost in the first round).  So now I am officially out of the running for the NHL Bracket Challenge.  I did pick the Rangers to make it this far, though, so I’m counting that as my one small victory.  I even predicted prior to the second round that they would beat the Capitals in seven games.  

They went about it the hard way; digging themselves a 3-1 hole in the series before winning the last three games to take the series.  Something about the Rangers in Game 7, especially at home, is hard to bet against.

Alex Ovechkin did his best to make things interesting.  After Game 6, Ovi boldly declared that the Caps would win Game 7 and take the series.  I’m not sure if he’s up on his Stanley Cup playoff history, but maybe a refresher is in order.

First of all, it’s never considered good form to predict victory in upcoming games.  It’s kind of a hockey bugaboo, the prevailing wisdom being that the only thing to be gained by it is firing up your opponent and giving him extra motivation to prove you wrong.  With a few notable exceptions, most hockey players and coaches don’t want to give their opponents “bulletin board material”.  It’s not wise to say anything that will be reprinted in the paper and end up posted on the other team’s bulletin board as motivation to beat you.  It’s best to let sleeping dogs lie.  This is why we always hear the same boring clich├ęs in post-game interviews.  “They’ve got a great team over there, but…”  “We have a lot of respect for them, but…”  Basically, you never want to say out loud that you think your team is better than their team, even if you do.

Secondly, the mother of all guarantees in hockey is and always will be Mark Messier’s declaration before Game 6 of the 1994 Prince of Wales Conference Final between the New York Rangers and the New Jersey Devils.  With the Rangers down 3-2 in the series and facing elimination in Game 6 in New Jersey, Messier declared “We’ll win tonight” and his words were plastered all over every newspaper in the Tri-State area.  It’s unclear whether Mess intended his words to be broadcast to the world, but there they were.  But, as we all know, the Captain delivered on his promise.  He didn’t just guarantee the win, he ensured it with a hat trick (the third goal an empty-netter, but it still counts) to lead the Blueshirts to a 4-2 victory to force a deciding game.  That seventh game, while pretty memorable in and of itself, pales in comparison to Messier’s Game 6 heroics.  The moral of the story is, if you’re going to guarantee victory you damn well better deliver.

Messier wasn’t the first New York athlete to make predictions.  “Broadway” Joe Namath famously guaranteed a victory over the Baltimore Colts (which sounds weird to me now) in Super Bowl III.  He then went out and played the game of his life and brought home the hardware.  You could argue that Babe Ruth started this trend with his “called shot” home run against the Cubs in the 1932 World Series, but there is much dispute over that legend.

I would be willing to bet that these are not the only examples of an athlete publicly predicting victory.  In many cases, the prediction is a futile attempt to fire up his own teammates and will them to victory (as I believe was the case with Ovi).  We don’t remember any of those because they faded into obscurity with the multitudes of others who failed to deliver.  I believe in just a few years, nobody will remember this prediction.  Some have probably already deleted it from their memory (as I’m sure Ovi would like to do).

In all fairness to Ovi, he did his part.  He played with abandon, hitting everything in sight, and scored the lone goal for the Caps.  It’s not a hat trick, but he did give a hearty effort.  But for a bounce or two, the story might have had a different ending.

In any case, the Rangers will now move on to face the Tampa Bay Lightning, who manhandled the Montreal Canadiens in Game Six to win their series 4-2.  Montreal’s effort to overcome a 3-0 games deficit fell short.  As I predicted, the series was decided by goaltending.  Unlike my prediction, it was decided by the goaltending of Ben Bishop and not the finalist for the Vezina and Hart trophies, Carey Price.  Price played well, to be sure, but he was human where a super-human effort would have been required to win.  Bishop played so well he deserves a promotion to Cardinal, maybe even Pope.

Tampa Bay was able to take advantage of their speed to overcome Montreal’s defense.  They didn’t get a ton of shots on Price, but they got a number of quality shots and second shots and screened shots, the kinds of shots that are difficult (if not damn near impossible) for any human goalie to stop.  Even in the 6-2 rout in Game Two, Price made the saves he could have reasonably been expected to make.  Four of the shots that eluded him were screened shots that he never saw, one was on a back-door one-timer and the other was a clean breakaway.  Maybe on another night he could have stopped two or three of them, but even Carey Price couldn’t stop them all.

Both Bishop and Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist seem to be at the top of their game right now.  I’m going to predict that once again goaltending will make the difference in this series.  Which hot goalie can remain hot?  Experience has to favor Lundqvist and the Rangers.  They’ve been here before, having made it to the Stanley Cup Final just last year.  They know what a grind the conference final will be and how to handle it.  The Lightning has less experience, but they do have a handful who have been there, including Brian Boyle and Anton Stralman (who went to the Final last year with the Rangers).  It may all come down to Hank’s experience and whether or not Bishop can stay hot.  He’s been the driving force for the Lightning this spring.  If he falters, so will they.

Over in the Western Conference (Oh, how I miss the Clarence Campbell Conference) I am going to pick the Blackhawks over the Ducks.  I’ll admit that I had completely underestimated the Ducks coming into the playoffs.  They swept a pretty good Jets team and steamrolled Calgary in five games.  If nothing else, they should be the most well-rested team remaining in the playoffs.  I’m just not sure they have enough experience to overcome the Hawks, who know what it takes to go all the way and have the weapons to do so.   All the usual suspects have shown up for the party, and now that the goaltending situation seems to have stabilized the Hawks are on a roll.  Patrick Kane, a big question mark coming into the playoffs, has proven that he is healthy and is playing some very good hockey right now.  Their talent, depth, and experience are going to be tough to beat.

So, my predictions for the third round are Hawks over Ducks (sorry, Coach Bombay) and Rangers over Lightning.  We’ll see how these picks turn out.

I went 3-for-4 with my second-round picks, but I should point out that I made those picks after both Anaheim and Chicago had posted blowout wins in their series-openers.  I may have picked differently had I made those picks before the second round got underway.

In any case, the second round was packed with a lot of really good hockey and the third round sets up for even better hockey.  It should be a lot of fun to watch.

Friday, May 1, 2015

2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Round 1

Like a lot of people, I filled out a bracket in the NHL playoff challenge.  Also like a lot of people, I actually thought I had a chance at picking the winners.  As the first round of the playoffs winds down, I can look at the ruins of my bracket and wonder where I went wrong.  All in all, I guess I really didn’t do terribly awful.  In the Eastern Conference I correctly picked 3 of the 4 winners, but was off in all the numbers of games of the 3 series.  I did, however, have the right number of games in the Caps/Isles series, but the wrong winner.
In the Western Conference I had the Flames beating the Canucks in 6 games, but I went downhill fast after that.  I had Anaheim over Winnipeg in 5 games, so I was only off by a game there.  I had Nashville in 7 games over Chicago (who won in 6).  But the biggest flub of all came when I picked the Blues to go all the way to the finals.  So, not only did they not win the first round, but now I have to look at that blue note in every subsequent round knowing that there’s at least one winner that I’m not picking.  My failure lives on all the way to the Stanley Cup Final (where, by the way, I had called a rematch of the 1968 and 1969 Final series between St. Louis and Montreal).

For what it’s worth, I could still have 3 of my final 4 teams make it…but it’s not looking good after last night.  I had picked Calgary to beat Anaheim, setting up a rematch of the 1986 Campbell Conference Final series.  As you can see, I like historical rematches.  Unfortunately, I like to make my picks based on things that haven’t happened in the last 30 or 40 years.  I guess that’s why I never managed to get a job as a pro scout.
If anybody cares, I picked the Canadiens and the Rangers in the Eastern Conference Final.  The Rangers suffered a setback in Game One, but I still think they’re the better team and will win out in the end.  The Montreal/Tampa Bay series is the one that could get interesting.  History, and especially recent history, doesn’t seem to be on Montreal’s side.  The last time Montreal made it to the Semifinals, Tampa Bay didn’t even exist yet.  Worse, Les Habitants lost all 5 meetings against the Lightning this season.  In their playoff history against each other the teams are 4-4, each having swept the other in the playoffs.  Tampa Bay’s sweep came in 2004, a stepping stone to winning the Stanley Cup.  Montreal’s sweep came last year in the first round, with Anders Lindback in goal for Tampa Bay after an injury to Bolts starter Ben Bishop.
This year, Bishop is back and looking strong after a Game 7 victory against the Detroit Red Wings.  This series should come down to goaltending, with Price being counted on heavily by the offense-challenged Canadiens.  Tampa Bay’s strength is their offense, so in the end this will come down to strength against strength.  Each game has the potential to end in one of two ways; either a 1-0 victory for Montreal, or a 6-1 victory for Tampa Bay.  Tampa Bay may outscore Montreal 30-9 in the series, and lose 4 games to 2.
The Rangers are too strong, and the Caps too one-dimensional, for that series to go Washington’s way.  I predict that it will go seven games, but I think the Rangers will move on.  Holtby looked good in the Caps net last night, but he’s no match for Hank at the other end.  When all is said and done, I think the Rangers will shut down Ovechkin and silence the Caps offense.  New York has too many weapons and Holtby can’t win every game 2-1.  The X-factor there might be “Big Goal” Joel Ward, who seems to have a knack for scoring goals when they are needed most.  I just don’t know if he has three more of those in him.
I picked Calgary over Anaheim largely for sentimental reasons.  Flames GM Brad Treliving is an old friend from my WPHL/CHL days and a former Coyotes Assistant GM to boot.  My heart picked him more than my head, but after last night it’s clear that I had no idea how good Anaheim is.  Despite being a left-coaster, I really haven’t seen much of the Ducks this year and had absolutely no idea they had that potent of an offense.  Unless last night was a complete anomaly, I just think they will overwhelm Calgary.  My prediction is Anaheim in 5 games.  I know, it’s a little easier to pick after game one, especially one that is that decisive, but there it is nonetheless.
I want Minnesota to beat Chicago, but I don’t think they have it in them.  As great of a story as they are, and especially Devan Dubnyk (another former Coyote), I just think the Hawks have too much playoff experience and too many weapons for the Wild to handle.  The deciding factor could come down to goaltending; Dubnyk will have to tend the goal like he’s never tended a goal before, and Chicago’s uncertainty at the position with the struggles of Crawford and Darling (himself a great feel-good story after climbing from the abyss of SPHL obscurity) may prove to be their undoing.  Still, I’m picking Chicago in 6.
I’ll meet you back here after this round is over so you can laugh at how awful my picks were.  Then I’ll make new picks for the third round, complete with justifications for why my second round went so awry.