Saturday, April 16, 2016

Here Again

When it comes to blessing the world with my unsolicited thoughts about the Stanley Cup Playoffs, I was a little slow getting off the schneid this year, which seems odd because this is one of the most intriguing in recent memory.

But life has been hectic of late, and hey, we're only three days into the first round so I'm not extremely late. Here goes.

My Lightning Indulgence
Because the final days of the regular season saw Steven Stamkos get sidelined by a bloodclot, probably for the entire post-season; and indispensable D-man Anton Stralman suffer a broken fibula that will keep him out through at least the first round of the playoffs; and a nagging assortment of injuries continue to cause missed games by stars Victor Hedman, Tyler Johnson, and Nikita Kucherov and also Tampa Bay's blood-and-guts alternate captain, Ryan Callahan... let's just say that I felt a bit of dread about my team's chances in the days leading up to Wednesday.

We are talking about hockey. You expect a heavy dose of adversity-via-injury to occur during the two-month warfare of the playoffs, but you don't expect it to already be exacting a toll before the playoffs start. And you certainly don't expect it to affect so many main contributors on a single team. Ugh.

But the dread went away while watching Game One on Wednesday.

Hedman returned after missing the last few regular season games -- and logged 29 minutes of virtuoso performance, including this Lemieux-esque goal that didn't count because Jonathan Drouin was offsides.

Johnson played, somewhat unexpectedly, and not only was he all over the ice, he got the assist on the winning goal -- a Cicarelli-esque redirect by Alex Killorn.

Kucherov played, and scored on this laser and this mucker.

Brian Boyle and The Vampire did all the cunning little things that have huge impact but are never noted on the stat sheet.

Detroit's talentless scumbag goon hard-hitting winger Justin Abdelkader spent the entire night launching his 218-pound frame at people's heads and trying to cause brain damage send Tampa Bay players to the locker room. And the Bolts, especially Braydon Coburn and Ondrej Palat, stood up to his sorry ass without stooping to his paramecium level.

Then came Game Two, last night... The Bolts' penalty kill was phenomenal. Kucherov opened the scoring with another laser... Brian Boyle, not known for his scoring touch, looked like Kuch when he buried one into the back of the net after a perfect assist from Jonathan Drouin... Just two minutes after the Wings tied the game at two in the third, Johnson scored off a smart wrap-around assist by Killorn; and eight minutes after that, he put the Bolts up 4-2 off another wrap-around assist, this time by Kucherov.

The Wings continued to play dirty, with Abdelfuckerkader and Danny DeKeyser targeting heads and disgracing the game (Detroit fans no longer have any right to complain about Claude Lemieux concussing Kris Draper) but their dirty play FAILED to throw the Lightning off their game, as evidenced by the Lightning winning the game 5-2 and seizing a 2-0 series lead.

And no, I am not wearing rose-colored glasses. The Bolts are a long way from winning this series and the chances of them drinking from the Cup this year are long. But in Games One and Two they displayed all the qualities we Lightning fans love about them and they proved themselves a legit contender, injuries be damned.

And they also... Huh? What? There are 15 other teams playing in these playoffs?... Okay, whatever, I'll try to move on.

de l'ouest (that's French for "from the West")
Last year I predicted that the Cup winner would come from the Eastern Conference, and that the Western Conference champion would be whoever won the opening round series between Chicago and Nashville. I was wrong on the first count and right on the second.

I guess one out of two ain't bad, but if I had to be wrong on one, I really wish it would have been the second, since Chicago did beat Nashville and win the Western Conference, but then defeated my Lightning. Keep in mind, the Lightning outplayed Chicago for most of the series and only lost because Corey Crawford won Games Five and Six by standing on his head. And...

...oh, sorry, there I go again. Lemme get back on point.

The Washington Capitals had the best record in the NHL this year, and by many measures appear to be the best team in the league. On paper, they should win the Eastern Conference and have the inside track to win the Cup, though it wouldn't be a surprise if the Lightning denied them, like they did the last time the Caps were a #1 seed, in 2011, but there I go again... What I'm trying to say is that when I remove my emotions and think objectively, I believe this year's champion will come from the West.  And I believe it will be either LA or St. Louis.

The Stars are a "sexy" high-scoring pick, but they have questions in net and strike me as a regular season club... The Blackhawks are defending champs and have won three of the last six Cups, but their tank seems low on gas as they enter the post-season banged up and making it look hard... Anaheim's Lazarus-like rise across the second half of the season makes it easy to picture them hoisting the chalice, but I just can't envision them doing that when their net is minded by Frederik Andersen and John Gibson.

The LA Kings, on the other hand, have won two of the last four Stanley Cups and are backed by Jonathan Quick. They dropped Game One to San Jose, but I still would never bet against them.

And the St. Louis Blues are playing with a major chip on their shoulder. And although Brian Elliott has never been known as a money goaltender, he lit it up during this regular season and pitched a splendid shutout in Game One versus Chicago before his team dropped the second game by only the slimmest of margins.

And remember that no one thought Quick was great prior to the 2012 playoffs, yet now he is considered one of the top goalies on the planet. Elliott 2016 reminds me a lot of Quick 2012.

Hockey series, like hockey games, are marked by brain-melting shifts in momentum. Much could happen between now and the end of the first round -- much less between now and the end of the whole shebang -- to make me change my mind. But I am putting my name on this and putting it in writing, even though I hope the Lightning prove me wrong: This season's Cup champion will be either the Los Angeles Kings or St. Louis Blues.

...I should be able to say a lot more, but I'm beat so I'm gonna stop. I'll be back soon enough.

No comments: