Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
`'Tis some visitor,' I muttered, `tapping at my chamber door -
Only this, and nothing more.'
Actually, it was my Mom, and she was knocking on my bedroom door, to tell me that the NHL was a thing again. Also, it was around 5 in the morning, not midnight. I was dreary, though so Poe got that right. The dreariness faded instantly, as I said aloud, "regarding the lockout, we shall now speak nevermore". It is April 28th, and each team has played 48 games in this truncated season. By the way, the only time I ever heard "truncated" before this NHL season was in reference to a truncated rectum, which I assure you is not how I wish to think about this NHL season. So therefore, of truncated rectums we shall speak "nevermore". Quoth the Schuster.
The name of the game this year is the asterisk. We've heard talk of the dreaded asterisk in Major League Baseball, where a bunch of fans, the government, sponsors, the league, and probably a few peanut vendors got up in arms, because their sport was significantly enhanced by steroids. Seriously, baseball was never more fun than when athletes who more closely resembled zoo animals than humans, both in appearance and in DNA structure, were hitting home runs like the bastard children of Clark Kent. The asterisk was to be put next to the names of these athletes, to denote the fact that their legendary feats of strength were aided by performance-enhancing drugs, in a half-assed effort to keep "integrity" alive.
The asterisk is alive again, this time in the NHL. In about a month and a half, fanbases of 29 teams will be clamoring for an asterisk to be affixed to the name of the 2013 Stanley Cup Champions. The win is tainted, they will say, because the team that won the Cup did so after little more than half of a regular season. It is inevitable. And it is false. The playoffs remain unsullied and whole. The road to the Stanley Cup is the same as it ever was. Win sixteen, achieve immortality. Lose four out of seven, get your golf clubs ready.
While the schedule is not yet out for the playoffs, we can assume that on Tuesday, the greatest tournament in professional sports will begin. 16 wins is what you need to win the Cup. A game every other day, with the speed turned up and the rules turned down. The best team might not win. If that was the case, hand the Cup to the Chicago Blackhawks. No, the team that wins will combine skill, which the Blackhawks, Penguins, and Ducks have in abundance, with brilliant coaching (see: Mike Babcock, Detroit) and the ruggedness necessary to stay healthy over a sustained playoff run. And a bit of luck.
Regular season records between teams do not matter. A team could go 4-0 against their first round opponent in the regular season, yet get swept in the playoffs by that same team. The reason is familiarity. When all is focused on crushing one opponent four times out of seven, a team learns everything about that opponent, and crafts a gameplan around minimizing their strengths and exploiting their weaknesses. It's more chess than brute force, and it will work every time. The team that wins will combine all of these attributes to hoist the Cup. Get in the fast lane, grandma, the bingo game is ready to roll.
|Now let me tell you a thing or two...|
The Matchups: Western Conference
The 4-5 Matchup: #4 St. Louis Blues (29-17-2) vs #5 Los Angeles Kings (27-16-5)
Regular Season series: 3-0 Kings
|Dustin Penner's a nice fellow.|
The Los Angeles Kings come into this series as the reigning Stanley Cup champions. Their regular season had its ups and downs, including a start that left some people wondering if they would succeed in even making the playoffs at all, let alone defend their championship. When the dust settled, the Kings finished in the 5th seed, staring the St. Louis Blues right in the face. The season series was a 3-0 sweep by the Kings, but if there is any series this year that could prove what I said above about regular season records being meaningless, this is the one. The Blues are built to be a tough, physical, and difficult team to play against in the playoffs. Bringing a lineup that boasts David Backes and TJ Oshie, the Blues have the physicality, along with the skill to put the puck in the net.
Still, I think that goaltending will play a decisive role in this matchup. The combination of Quick and Bernier for LA will outplay the tandem of Elliot and Halak in St. Louis, and send St Louis packing. If Jeff Carter can put the puck in the net for LA (he will) and Anze Kopitar can bring the game he brought last spring (he will), this one is an open and shut case. St. Louis will steal a game or two, but LA will move on.
Prediction: LA wins, 4-2.
The 3-6 Matchup: #3 Vancouver Canucks (26-15-7) vs #6 San Jose Sharks (26-16-7)
Regular Season Series: 3-0 Sharks
Uncertainty reigns supreme here. We saw that the Sharks were able to sweep the Canucks in the regular season, but which Sharks team will show up? The team that started the year on fire, or the team that couldn't put the puck in the net for 1/3 of the season? With Thornton, Marleau, and Logan Couture on the front end, the Sharks bring unquestionable talent, but especially in the case of Thornton and Marleau, do they bring the drive necessary to win a 7-game series against a perennial Western Conference powerhouse?
On the other side of the ice, the question is goaltending. The Sharks are backstopped by Antti Niemi, whose position is more solidified than Han Solo in carbonite. The Canucks, on the other hand, have been at the center of the hockey world this season, due to the goaltending controversy caused by their inability to find a suitable trade partner for Roberto Luongo. The oft-maligned netminder has kept a decent attitude through it all, taking the backseat whenever necessary, which is good, since Schneider will get the starts in the playoffs. If Schneider should collapse though, will the Canucks be able to trust Luongo, who has shown as much resilience in recent postseasons as a cardboard box in a hurricane? I think injuries and goaltending will play a role in this series more than any other factors, and I don't like how that looks for the Canucks.
Prediction: San Jose wins, 4-3.
The 2-7 Matchup: #2 Anaheim Ducks (30-12-6) vs #7 Detroit Red Wings (24-16-8)
Regular Season Series: 2-1 Red Wings
I honestly don't know what to think about this series. The Red Wings, by all means, shouldn't be here. They found themselves in the unenviable position of having to fight it out with the Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets on the last day of the regular season (aside from today's game, thanks to those assholes in Boston) in order to gain a spot in the playoffs. The Detroit Red Wings have refused to die this season. Major retirements in the offseason have hurt them, as has shaky goaltending at times, and an inability most of the season to play the deep style of game that has made them the class of the NHL over the last two decades (sorry, angry Pens and Blackhawks fans, but Detroit is the model of consistency). Still, they have refused to die and become the Dead Things instead of the Red Wings.
Looking at coaching, Bruce Boudreau has done everything in his power to turn the considerable talents of the Ducks into a powerhouse, and he has succeeded. The Red Wings are run by Mike Babcock, one of the best in the game. He makes adjustments when necessary, and more often than not, they pay off.
I'm prefacing this by saying that I think the Red Wings could be this season's LA Kings and make it to the finals, because that's what the Red Wings do, provided that they win this series. But they won't, because the Ducks are just too good.
Prediction: Anaheim wins, 4-2.
The 1-8 Matchup: #1 Chicago Blackhawks (36-7-5) vs #8 Minnesota Wild (26-19-3)
Regular Season Series: 2-1 Blackhawks
Money cannot buy you happiness. But a LOT of money can buy you Ryan Suter and Zach Parise. How sweet it would have been yesterday, if the Wild failed to defeat the hapless Colorado Avalanche, despite their spending in the offseason. I get that as a Penguins fan, I have no right to say anything about a team loading up with talent to win a Stanley Cup, but the fact remains that 1) the Penguins did so through trades and the draft, and 2) I don't care.
Not even Dr. House can save the Wild here, though. The Chicago Blackhawks are the best team in the NHL this season, with all due (and desired) respect to the Penguins. I cannot see any team defeating them in a best-of-seven series until the final round, though injuries will almost certainly change the makeup of the Hawks. In the first round, however, this won't play much of a role, if any. Therefore, get your brooms out, because it's gonna be a sweep.
Prediction: Chicago wins, 4-0
Once the game between the Senators and Bruins ends tonight, the playoff picture in the East will be set, and I will write Pt. 2 with my Eastern Conference predictions. I'll be more informed about the East, because I honestly haven't watched much of the West this season at all, aside from the last week, when I was firmly on the Columbus bandwagon. I'll also be including a bit of a eulogy for the Philadelphia Flyers.
I hope you enjoyed this post, and thanks for reading through all of it. It was a big one.