Thursday, April 26, 2018

First One Won & Done

Some thoughts about this year's Stanley Cup Playoffs now that the first round is in the books...

My Lightning Indulgence
I can't really complain about the way the Lightning knocked off New Jersey. They got better throughout the series, and exited their own zone quickly and decisively to keep New Jersey from setting up offensively. They skated fast, passed sharp, were not hesitant to shoot, and they hit hard. Their power play clicked and their penalty kill was much better than it was in the regular season.

All of Tampa Bay's lines played well, and Nikita Kucherov -- who now has 52 points in 50 career playoff games -- was Mr. Clutch with five goals and five assists in the five games, including picture-perfect game-winners in Games Four and Five. And Andrei Vasilevskiy looked like the Vezina finalist he is by dialing up a .941 save percentage and 2.01 GAA.

The Bolts proved they are one of the handful of teams with a legit chance of winning it all. But of course, the odds are still long because they are not the only team in that handful, and their longtime nemesis, the Boston Bruins, await them in Round Two. My rational expectation is that the Bruins will win Game One because they have been playing games and staying at game speed up until last night's Game Seven, whereas the Lightning haven't played in what seems like forever because they ended their series quicker. But I do believe in my team. Go Bolts!

The Whiteout
How can you not be happy for the fans and players in Winnipeg? The last time a Jets team advanced past the first round was 31 years ago, back when the first Jets franchise played on the prairie. This year's roster includes four original "Jets 2.0 players" who were on the roster when this franchise moved north from Atlanta seven years ago: Blake Wheeler, Dustin Byfuglien, Toby Enstrom, and Bryan Little all could have since left for bigger paydays in warmer climes with teams that had a better chance of winning the Cup, but they all chose to stick it out in The Peg, and now here they are with a realistic chance to win it in a city that has never experienced that jubilation.

And here's the thing: The Jets are not a team that is just happy to be here, nor are they one that is going to be satisfied to finally advance if they then get eliminated in Round Two. They, like my Lightning, are a legit contender that wants to hoist the chalice and hoist it now. If you saw how loud and raucous Bell MTS Place was after every one of their five goals last Friday, can you imagine how loud and raucous it would be if Lord Stanley's Cup was in the building? Can you imagine how spastic the scene would be if Lord Stanley's Cup arrived at Portage & Main to cap off a championship parade?

By all means you should root for Tampa Bay to win the Cup this year. You should root for that every year! But if we find that for some reason Tampa Bay winning it is simply not in the cards, you should then root for Winnipeg. And if you are from south of the world's longest peaceful border, you should not get hung up on the fact that Winnipeg is located north of that border -- I already explained why seven years ago.

Nothing screams "Spring!" like the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals facing off in the playoffs. Especially in the second round. Which usually means Vegas sports books should not take bets because everyone with a sense of history is sure to bet on Pittsburgh and the house is sure to take a hit.

Will the Pens prevail again this time around? It's hard not to think so. Sidney Crosby is the best player in the world; Evgeni Malkin is one of the top five centermen on Earth, yet plays on the Pens' second line; Phil Kessel is an elite sniper yet can be sent out on their third line; and Jake Guentzel, merely two years removed from playing college hockey at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, just scored four goals in an elimination playoff game. When a team has that kind of pedigree and depth, how can you bet against them?

I predict Pittsburgh in six, but I won't be shocked if Washington pulls the upset. For once the Caps are not coming into this series weighed down by the pressure of being the top seed, of being designed to win it all now or bust. Rather than coming in off a Vezina caliber season, Braden Holtby is coming in off a bad campaign in which he lost his starting gig and didn't gain it back until a couple games into the post-season, after which he played like a gangbuster against Columbus. And after guaranteeing the Caps would rally back after dropping the first two games, and then delivering on that promise, Alexander Ovechkin has a swagger about him. And isn't conventional wisdom often wrong?

Granted, my reasons for thinking the Caps have more than a slugger's chance are based more on Karma-ish fluff than on logic, but let's face it: The Penguins' offensive excellence (they averaged 4.5 goals per game in Round One) masks a lot of defensive question marks (they twice surrendered five goals in Round One) and defensive question marks have a tendency to be your undoing; and there is no chance whatsoever that Washington's goaltending, even if Holtby struggles and gets replaced by Philipp Grubauer, will be as dismal against the Penguins as Philly's was (the respective save percentages for Brian Elliott, Michal Neuvirth, and Petr Mrazek were .856, .847, and .857).

This series will, as always, be fun to watch, and I cannot wait!

To Marc-Andre Fleury for posting that mind-boggling .977 save percentage and enabling the Golden Knights to sweep LA despite averaging only 1.75 goals per game.

To Filip Forsberg for scoring the kind of playoff goals that remind you of Mario Lemiuex and Mike Bossy at their peaks.

To Evander Kane for showing up big in his first playoff appearance, tallying four points in four games and helping San Jose sweep Anaheim.

To the Colorado Avalanche... not only for making the playoffs just one year after having the worst season of any NHL franchise in the salary cap era, but for actually pushing the Cup favorite Predators all the way to a sixth game.

To Mike Babcock for his salty reply to the media when asked why he used a 37-year-old (Ron Hainsey) so much on the penalty kill. Babcock responded by rhetorically asking "who did you want out there instead?" -- then he noted that neither 41-year-old Zdeno Chara nor 38-year-old Patrick Marleau were "bad" despite their workloads, and snipped that "age has nothing to do with it" because all that matters is "are you physically fit or not." It's against my religion to like Babcock, but in this instance, I like what he said!

To Marc-Andre Fleury for posting that mind-boggling .977 save percentage and enabling the Golden Knights to sweep LA, thus making me look stupid for predicting they would lose to LA.

To Jake Gardiner, for inexplicably turning to the middle of the ice and leaving the entire right side open for Jake DeBrusk to race down uncontested and beat Frederik Andersen for the Game Seven winner.

To Brad Marchand. For being Brad Marchand. No further explanation needed.

To Philadelphia fans, for being generally boorish and throwing full beers on the ice when things very predictably didn't go the way they wanted in Game Six.

To the NHL's brain-dead division-bracketing post-season scheme, which is responsible for guaranteeing that only one of the teams with the two best records in the league (Nashville and Winnipeg) can make it to the conference finals, while simultaneously seeing to it that either San Jose or Vegas is guaranteed a trip there... And that's only in the Western Conference! Back here in the East, the NHL's scheme guaranteed, before the first playoff puck ever dropped, that only one of the conference's top three teams (Tampa Bay, Boston, Toronto) could make it to the conference finals... The league has got to go back to the true seeding system it used up until a few years ago, because the current system is nothing more than corporate Marxism run amok. That might not be what it was intended to be, but that's what it is now that it has been moved from theory to practice.

And now...
...bring on the games!

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