They’re baaack! After a shortened NHL season, Jay and Stephen return to pontificate, wax philosophical, and just generally shoot the breeze about this year’s playoff season. From the dark horses to the blue chips, we break down who we think will move one step closer to Lord Stanley’s halls. Plus, Jay is just giddy his Leafs made it past the regular season.
Jay: Well, it’s been a few months since we last convened, and in that time, there’s been a whole lot of NHL action. What are some of your thoughts on the just-concluded mini-season?
Stephen: I think, generally, it was good one, with a lot of surprises and, top seeds of each conference aside, a hotly contested one. In fact, blasphemy though it may be, I almost enjoyed the higher stakes of this shorter season. Each game mattered that much more.
Jay: Yeah, I’ve always felt a shorter regular season would be better. Maybe not THIS short, like the 48-game season, the league shoehorned in over the last four months…but maybe a 70-game season like they had in the ’60s. Still, it was a lot of fun. Especially since my team, the Leafs, finally made the frickin’ playoffs! And there were some good races for playoff spots right down to the last game of the season. You must feel good about your Penguins.
Stephen: I do, for the most part. Shero’s late season moves have us loaded. I mean, our freaking SECOND line is Neal, Iginla, and Malkin if we get Crosby back. That’s absurd. But at the same time, I felt good last year when we had a healthy Malkin and Crosby and we proceeded to fall apart in front of the Flyers. I think the Islanders are an easier match-up, especially with Nabokov’s playoff history. But I take nothing for granted now. How are you feeling about your Leafs?
Jay: As I wrote last week, I’m happy–nay ecstatic–that they made the playoffs for the first time in NINE FREAKING YEARS. That said, they’ve got a tough road ahead of them facing the Bruins in the first round. Boston has dominated the Leafs over the last few years, although this year the games have been closer. I was hoping the Leafs would face Montreal in the first round, which would have been awesome for Canada and a better matchup for Toronto, but this will still be fun. I’m keeping my expectations low and I’m picking Boston in 5, but I’m hoping like hell that I’m dead wrong and Leafs can pull off a miracle. It was 20 years ago that a similarly outmatched Leafs team upset the #1 seed Detroit in seven games in the first round and ended up one measly game away from the Cup finals. Do I believe in miracles? Sure, why the hell not?
Stephen: I agree it’s going to be a hard road, but the Bruins have been on a bit of a skid this past month and I don’t think they’re unbeatable. They have a ton of depth with their forwards, but they don’t have a superstar threat like Kessel. And I think, based on this season, Reimer at his best outplays Rask at his best. The stars will need to align, for sure, but I wouldn’t bat an eye if you told me Leafs take it in 7. And just for fun, that’s my pick for the series.
Jay: Nice! I’m saying B’s in 5 but hoping for Leafs in 7. Let’s hope we’re right! So that’s the 4 vs. 5 matchup in the East. Okay, so what about Pens-Islanders, 1 vs. 8? Pittsburgh has been pretty great all season long, despite various injuries. I’m going to go with the Pens, but it won’t be easy. The Islanders have scoring depth and a hot goalie. Pens in 6. What say you?
Stephen: I know a lot of people are predicting a quick exit for the Islanders, but I think they’re getting sold short. Tavares has been a runaway success this season, and like you said, Nabokov has finished out the season strong, and despite his perennial playoff chokes with the Sharks in years past, he is a top-tier netminder. I still think the Pens have this series well in hand: we have a better goalie situation with Vokoun on deck for Fleury, and our defense looks far less accident prone. And the scoring threats are there in all four lines. If we can keep the Islanders from exploding on offensive, it’s ours. I say Pens in 5 if we’re lucky, 6 realistically.
Jay: On to the 2 vs. 7 matchup, an all-Canadian battle between Montreal and Ottawa. The Habs limped into the postseason, with goalie Carey Price having a disastrous April (which helped tank my fantasy team, BTW), while Ottawa played tough, got their top defenseman Erik Karlsson back from an Achilles injury, AND beat the Bruins on the last day of the season. I say Ottawa takes the series in 7, with goalie Craig Anderson carrying the Sens.
Stephen: Have to agree with you there. The Habs season was one of highs and lows: good start, strong middle, awful finish. The whole team’s momentum is going in the wrong direction, and I don’t know if they have enough room to make a u-turn before the cliff. Especially with Sens team riding high and climbing up to the 7 seed from the basement on the back of Karlsson. I’ve got Sens in 6.
Jay: One last series to discuss in the East. Let’s see if we differ on this one. It’s 3 vs. 6, Washington vs. the Rangers. Both teams enter the postseason blazing hot, but Washington has been on a tear after a disappointing start, going 15-2-2 to finish the season and following the lead of Alex Ovechkin, who rediscovered his mojo this year after a few down seasons. The Rangers looked like they were done after trading top scorer Marian Gaborik to Columbus at the deadline, but they found new life with Rick Nash and Brad Richards leading the way. Both teams will be tough, but the Rangers have the edge with Henrik Lundqvist in goal. Rangers in 7.
Stephen: I agree with your analysis up until the outcome! Both teams have had a strong finish, and while I think Lundqvist is a huge asset, I think Holtby will be good enough and the Caps offense will continue to fire on all cylinders. I’ve got Washington in 7, but it’s entirely possible my decision is being influence by my hatred of Tortorella.
Jay: I can certainly understand that, but defense wins in the playoffs. All right, time to head out West. The Minnesota Wild have drawn the unenviable task of having to play the top-seeded Chicago Blackhawks in the first round. The Hawks were the wire-to-wire best team in the league and are absolutely stacked. If they have a weakness, it could be the goalies, Corey Crawford and Ray Emery–while they were absolutely awesome in the regular season, the playoffs are a different beast altogether. Still, I don’t see the Wild derailing that train. Hawks in 4.
Stephen: Yeah, congratulations to the Wild for making it to the big dance, but it’s going to be an early exit. The Hawks are scary across the board and I can’t see Minnesota doing much to stop their tear. I don’t think they’re a shoe-in for the West, but if anyone is going to play spoiler, they’ll need more going for them. Hawks in 4.
Jay: This next series should be fun: Anaheim (2) vs. Detroit (7). The Ducks were one of the great stories of the season, roaring off to a strong start and although they slumped in April, winning their division easily. They’ve got plenty of offensive depth with Getzlaf, Perry, Ryan and Selanne and a strong goalie tandem of Hiller and Viktor Fasth, not to mention a coach who’s hungry to prove himself in Bruce Boudreau. The Red Wings, on the other hand, had to scratch and claw just to get into the postseason. But they finished strong, they’ve got two of the best players in hockey in Datsyuk and Zetterberg, a goalie who can come up big in Jimmy Howard and a smart coach in Mike Babcock who’s won the Cup. The Ducks SHOULD win this series, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Detroit knocks them off. Still, I’m going to say Ducks in 6.
Stephen: Yeah, on paper the Ducks should take it easily. They’re carried their strong finish from last season into this one, even with the long delay from the lockout, and Hiller has given them the goaltending they missed in 2012. But as you said, you can never could out a team with Datsyuk and Zetterberg, and the Wings know playoff hockey (this is their 22nd straight appearance). Even with that prospect, though, I like the Ducks, and think they stand the best shot of stealing a Cup appearance from the clutches of Chicago. Ducks in 6.
Jay: The 3 vs. 6 matchup is Vancouver-San Jose. This is another interesting series. The Canucks have had the ongoing goalie controversy with Cory Schneider taking over the #1 spot until getting injured late in the season and Roberto Luongo stepping in. The Canucks still have most of the depth they had when they made their run to the finals two years ago. Meanwhile, San Jose is still burdened by the many past playoff failures of the last several years, but they’ve got Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau still hungry to win a Cup after all these years. The Sharks beat the Canucks all three times they played in the regular season. I’m rooting for the Sharks, but the Canucks look too deep. Canucks in 7.
Stephen: This one could go either way based on a few factors. I’ve learned long ago to take San Jose’s regular season play with a grain of salt, as they seem to be a different team in the postseason. But they also played like a normal team this year, falling middle of the pack in the West and having something to prove this year. Canucks do look deep, but the goalie problem could spiral if they don’t find a number one soon. I know the dual-goalie system has made a resurgence in recent years, but I still think a Cup-caliber team needs a clear #1, and the Canucks have had a hard time picking one. I think the Canucks take it in 6, provided the net stays under control.
Jay: So, thoughts on Kings-Blues?
Stephen: For a bit, the Kings looked like they wouldn’t even make it to the playoffs to defend their crown. They turned the ship around in the second half, but I still think the Blues have this series in their court. As you said, defense wins playoff series, and the Blues have one of the league’s best. They didn’t quite reach the heights they did last season, but I think they’re a team built for the postseason. The Kings could surprise us if the Quick of last Cup season returns, but barring that, I think Blues in 5.
Jay: Wow! We shall see. Well, the playoffs start Tuesday so we’ll have plenty of action to track over the next few months. I’m nervous and excited to see how the Leafs-Bruins series goes.
Stephen: Well, best of luck to your Leafs!
Jay: And to the Penguins, although they don’t need it.
Stephen: After last season’s meltdown, I’ll take all the luck we can get!
We’ll be back late next week with a blow by blow of the first round of the playoffs.