Don't be confused with the title of this blog entry....this really is the most wonderful time of the year. The Stanley Cup Playoffs are underway. A time of the year when most Canadian males will no longer speak to anyone other than other, usually, dudes who are watching hockey. If you are not into hockey and not a fan of hockey, consider yourself muted starting tonight from any dude you know. Ok ladies, true enough there are many, many fans of hockey and many women who actually know more about icing and slashing than some guys. So perhaps I am being a bit sexist...let's just say starting tonight, the hockey fan in your life will no longer care what you have to say unless you are also talking about the epic OT from the night before, the jaw-dropping save, the perfect pass and the goal that got our hearts racing.
Having lived in Edmonton for the past 9 seasons, I really haven't had the opportunity to truly experience the playoff atmosphere. This year will be different. How perfect was the timing that I move to Calgary to start a new job and the Flames end their playoff drought and make the playoffs? How more perfect is it that today I found out my name was drawn from the lottery to buy 2 tickets to Game 3 on Tuesday night? I have never been to a Stanley Cup Playoff game before, to say I am excited for next Tuesday may be a HUGE understatement.
Until then though, as is #TwineTime tradition with all sports, I wanted to offer my preview and picks for the opening round series. There are usually two things to count on in this opening round:
- The Eastern Conference will produce great games but little excitement if you enjoy seeing upsets.
- The Western Conference will be a gongshow and should see 1 if not 2 upsets
It should be worth noting the East has not produced a champion since 2011, and that team isn't even in the playoffs this year (Boston). In fact, in the past 8 seasons, the East has seen only 2 champions, with the other being my Penguins in 2009. The West is Best...but can this be the year for a change? Let's get to the preview show.....
EASTERN (CHALK TALK) CONFERENCE
(1) New York Rangers vs. (WC) Pittsburgh Penguins
The President's Trophy winners and defending Eastern Conference champion Blue Shirts look mighty dominant this season. The loss in the cup final last season to LA seemed to provide huge motivation for the Rangers and they are the overwhelming favorites to win this series, most predicting a sweep or quick 5 game series. Let's also remember the Rangers upset the top-seeded Penguins in the second round of last year's playoff run. And they dominated the Pens this season, winning 3 of 4. This Rangers team is strong and I expect a great series from Rick Nash. Of course, the Penguins have firepower up front with Sid Crosby and Geno Malkin but neither enter the playoffs looking too good. The big key for Pittsburgh to even stand a chance at not getting swept early is the play of Marc-Andre Fleury. Which Fleury will show up this playoff year? The same one from 2008 and 2009 when the Penguins made back-to-back Stanley Cup finals, including winning in 2009. Or the one who, since those two seasons really, has choked in the playoffs year after year. Sure he got better last year but the Rangers still got the best of him. If Fleury can recreate the 2009 magic, the Pens have a shot (assuming they avoid more injuries and the big boys step up). But I wouldn't bet the farm on that happening.
#TwineTime pick: Rangers over Penguins - 6 games (And boy was that hard to pick being a HUGE Penguins fan)
(2) Washington Capitals vs. (3) New York Islanders
Ok raise your hand if you saw this being a playoff match up at the beginning of the season. Nope, seeing none. Ok, now raise your hand if you thought both of these teams would even be in the playoffs this year. Wow, I see tops of heads but no hands. Both of these teams overachieved this season and give us an interesting playoff match up. I would expect a close series if the season series is any indication. They split 4 games and 3 went into OT. If you are into watching this series, you may want to make sure you don't work early the next morning. I will say I am excited to watch John Tavares match up against Ovi. If we go by players alone, I actually would like to see Tavaras outplay Ovi and have a better series. But even then, would that be enough? The battle between the pipes is going to be huge in this series. We have Jaroslov Halak vs Braden Holtby. If we go by players in this battle, I would like to see Holtby outplay Halak. Realistically I think Ovi will come out firing and will be the difference. While I see Holtby shutting down Tavares and the Isles offense for a few games, I struggle seeing Halak do the same. The Caps are notorious for playoff meltdowns but not usually until the second round. Let's call them through here...but possibly in trouble next round.
#TwineTime pick: Capitals over Islanders - 7 games (Of course, as a Pens fan, picking the Caps is VERY difficult)
(1) Montreal Canadiens vs (WC) Ottawa Senators
Our first of two All-Canadian opening round series. Everyone in Canada will be focused on both of these opening round series as Canadian hockey fans will be guaranteed 2 teams in round 2. This Eastern match up though is going to be quite interesting. You have the hottest team in hockey right now vs the best goalie of the season. While one will crack first? Ottawa has look unbeatable, riding the unexplainable success of Andrew "Hamburgler" Hammond. Hammond is 20-1-2 since being called up from the AHL. He has the confidence of his team, his coaches and the fans and that can be dangerous for the Canadiens. Not that Montreal is struggling in net either. Carey Price should run away with the Vezina trophy this season...and maybe even the Hart. Plus he is coming off an Olympic gold year in 2014. But can he carry this team on his back throughout the playoffs? The Senators have guys like Mark Stone, arguably the hottest player on the ice at the end of the season. The interesting stat is how the Senators have made some crazy 3rd period comebacks in games this season, especially during their late-season playoff run. In comparison, Montreal has given up the fewest 3rd period goals of all playoff teams. Again, which cracks first? The Senators were 14 points out of a playoff spot in February and here they are. I just don't see that momentum dying.
#TwineTime pick: Senators over Canadiens - 7 games
(2) Tampa Bay Lightning vs. (3) Detroit Red Wings
Ah playoff hockey is alive and well in the thriving hockey-crazy state of.....Florida? It still feels weird thinking Florida can possibly see another Stanley Cup graze its state this season but I wouldn't call it a shock or surprise if that happens. Although, look at California I suppose. The state has seen 3 champions in 8 seasons. The fun in the sun is taking over the league. Is this the season for the Sunshine State? In fact, the Lightning rank VERY HIGH on the #TwineTime favorite to take the cup home this year. This is the Stevie Y series. Yzerman's new vs old. The Lightning took the regular season series, winning 3 of 4. Many jumped on the Bolts bandwagon last season until goalie Ben Bishop got injured and they were quickly sweeped out of the playoffs. Not this year though! Stamkos, Johnson, Palat...just so much firepower that can come at you from so many different angles. The storyline in Detroit is more focusing on their coach Mike Babcock rather than their chance of winning this series. Babcock is likely coaching his final games with the Wings before probably bouncing over to Buffalo. Let's just have the Babcock-Wings era end quick so Mike can start focusing on how to fix the troubled Sabres.
#TwineTime pick: Lightning over Red Wings - 5 games
WESTERN (SAY HELLO TO UPSET CITY) CONFERENCE
(1) St. Louis Blues vs (WC) Minnesota Wild
What a playoff series to try and predict. They split their 4 game regular season. They are two of the best teams in the league and both have strong cases for being considered Cup favorites. And yet here we are in the opening round debating this series. The West is INSANE! You have to love the story of Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk. Dubnyk has been a journeyman goalie the past years, especially since his rough stint in Edmonton. All of a sudden the Wild came calling and Duby stepped up to the call, leading them right into the playoffs and being a strong upset pick. The Wild chances will clearly fall on his shoulders. The Blues have the opposite situation. They are riding a two-goalie scheme it seems with Jake Allen and Brian Elliott. But are they riding both because both are hot or because they have little faith in either to be named starter? I want to say Option A but my head says Option B. Both teams are healthy, both teams are cup favorites, both are capable to winning this series just as easy as being eliminated. All we can expect is a great series, close games and hopefully this one going the distance.
#TwineTime pick: Flip a coin....Blues over Wild - 7 games
(2) Nashville Predators vs (3) Chicago Blackhawks
The last time these teams met in the playoffs (the only time actually) the winner went on to win the cup (Chicago, 2010). Could we see history repeating this season? Similar to the other Central Division series, this one is a toss up as well. This series is a case of old school Original 6 recent dynasty vs the new kid on the block, blue light special. Fans of old school hockey are going to side with Chi-Town. Fans of upsets and young, explosive hockey will want to see the Preds prevail. The 'Hawks are just so hard to beat. Guys like Toews, Hossa, Keith and now Kane back make is look almost impossible to beat these guys. But it can be done...ask LA. The names on the back of the Preds jersey's are impressive as well: Rinne, Weber, Neal, Forsberg. These are all guys who can make big moves and big plays but can they match the Chicago intensity? The 'Hawks players have the playoff experience and that could be the deciding factor. Chicago in recent years has turned into a totally different team come playoff time and for Nashville to pull the upset, Forsberg will need to find the magic he had at the beginning of the season and Pekka Rinne is going to have to play the series of his life....just to survive Round 1.
#TwineTime pick: Blackhawks over Predators - 6 games
(1) Anaheim Ducks vs (WC) Winnipeg Jets
Welcome back to the playoffs Winnipeg! We are all excited to see you back. I can just imagine how electric the MTS Centre is going to be for games 3 and 4. I was lucky enough to watch the Jets beat the Leafs at MTS the first season hockey returned to Winnipeg and that was crazy enough. Now bring playoff action back to town and it will be unbelievable. So while the crowd, hockey fans and Canadians in general are excited for Winnipeg, can there really be Winning in Winnipeg? The Jets will need to see goalie Ondrej Pavelec continue his brick wall performance from the end of the season. He has three straight shut outs heading into game 1. If he continues the hot streak and burns down the ice, the Ducks will be left doing their best to tread the water. The Ducks have players like Getzlaf and Kesler to lead the charge and the tag-team of Frederik Anderson and John Gibson between the pipes. On paper, the Ducks seem to be the team to bet on to win this series. The swept the season series winning all 3 games. But something just seems in the air....and this is the West remember. Upsets are bound to happen and what better series than in the return to playoff hockey in Winterpeg. Get ready Jets fans....
#TwineTime pick: Jets over Ducks - 7 games
(2) Vancouver Canucks vs. (3) Calgary Flames
Earlier I covered the first All-Canadian match up, now lets preview the second All-Canadian pairing. What crazy history we have to discuss for this series. These teams have not met since 2004 but, the last 3 times they met in the playoffs the series went 7 games and the decider went into OT. How crazy is that? Want even more mind-bending stats? The winner of the series the past 3 times has gone on to the Stanley Cup final. So survive this series and off to the cup you go it appears. And go figure they split their season series. This could possibly be the final kick at the cup for this group of Canucks players. They don't really have a set goalie but expect Eddie Lack to start the series. If he plays well and get the Canucks at least a win in one of the opening two games at home, he should see more time. If he gets rattled in Game 1, expect to see the quick hook and Ryan Miller back on the ice. The Sedin boys are also not getting any younger and the window of opportunity is closing fast. They are fun to watch but can they do enough to carry the team? On the flip side, this Flames team feels you are watching Speedy Gonzales. They are quick, young, inexperienced and ready to just fly out onto the ice and play, play, play. Nobody can honestly say they expected the Flames to be in the playoffs, especially after losing Mark Giordano. Enter Johnny Hockey! Gaudreau should win the Calder as Rookie of the Year and is the hockey version of Speedy Gonzales. He is quick, dynamic and fun to watch. His energy alone could be enough to give the Flames at least 1 or 2 wins in this series. The big question mark for the Flames will be goaltending, similar to the Canucks. Jonas Hiller will get the start but he has a history of giving up some weak goals, especially early in games. In the playoffs, especially on the road, you cannot afford to give up those kind of goals and expect to win many games. Expect a very close series and a few OT games. But there really is only 1 pick I can go with in this one...
#TwineTime pick: Flames over Canucks - 7 games (Interesting note: I have been a Flames fan since I was a kid, we share something in common! We were both established in 1980)
Ok puck heads, there are my picks. Agree? Disagree? Let me know. Feel free to share your thoughts with my on here or on my twitter account. Most importantly, enjoy the playoff action over the many upcoming weeks. If my opening round picks stand true, we will see 3 Canadian teams in the second round and, possibly, another All-Canadian battle out West. 'Tis the most wonderful time of the year after all....