Editor’s note: Cold As Ice contributor Phil Stacey chimes in with his picks for Round 2 of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The good news is I nailed three first round predictions exactly as they happened: Lightning in 5, Stars in 6, Capitals in 6.
Editor’s note: Cold As Ice contributor Phil Stacey chimes in with his picks for Round 2 of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The good news is I nailed three first round predictions exactly as they happened: Lightning in 5, Stars in 6, Capitals in 6.
Well, it’s a good thing I don’t rely on my playoff picks for my income because I’d be losing money right about now. I went 3-5 in Round 1, but I don’t think a lot of people were picking Chicago, Anaheim and Los Angeles to lose. Suddenly, there’s a lot of room in the West for a team to make a run. Meanwhile, the East has some interesting matchups as well. Whatever happens, we’re in for some great hockey this round.
So here’s goes nothing…
Washington vs. Pittsburgh
This is gonna be a good one. As I write this, game 1 is in overtime and the teams appeared pretty evenly matched throughout the game (the Caps won in OT thanks to T.J. Oshie’s game winner). The Penguins have a deep offensive lineup that allowed them to have all-world center Evgeni Malkin playing on the third line, while the Caps are no slouch themselves with a dangerous collection of forwards including Alex Ovechkin, Niklas Backstrom and Oshie. The real difference appears to be on defense and in goal, and I have to give Washington the edge because of Braden Holtby in net. Pittsburgh backup Matt Murray has been impressive of late while Marc-Andre Fleury recovers from a concussion, but we’re still talking about a goalie with little playoff experience. Ultimately, it’s Crosby vs. Ovechkin and it’s going to be fun to watch.
Capitals in 7.
NY Islanders vs. Tampa Bay
Captain Clutch John Tavares led the Islanders over the other Florida team in Round 1, winning three overtime games (two of them in double OT, including game 7), while Tampa dispatched the Red Wings in 5. The Lightning created some buzz when captain Steven Stamkos started practicing with the team again after having surgery on April 4 to remove a blood clot near his collarbone. He was originally said to be out for three months, but now there’s some hope he’ll return for the playoffs. The Islanders got off to a quick start in game 1 Wednesday with a 5-3 win, chasing TB starter Ben Bishop from the net early. Still, I feel Tampa has more depth than the Islanders to take the series.
Lightning in 7.
San Jose vs. Nashville
In the West, the perennially disappointing Sharks took out their nemeses the Kings in a decisive five-game rout, while the Preds knocked off the Ducks in 7. Both teams have had stacked teams that fell short over the last several years, so this spring is about redemption. Two really good, veteran-laden squads looking to take advantage of a sudden power vacuum in the West. When it comes down it, San Jose’s offensive and defensive depth wins it, but it won’t be easy given how well Nashville has been playing.
Sharks in 6.
St. Louis vs. Dallas
Another team that hasn’t lived up to expectations over the last decade is the Blues. Knocking off the defending Cup champs was a big step for the bruising, defensive-minded club, but they can’t overlook the offense-first Stars. Jamie Benn and Jason Spezza lead a dangerous team, but St. Louis’ size and discipline should get them through to the third round. Now is the time for fine players like Alex Steen and David Backes to lead Ken Hitchcock’s crew to the next level. It will help if Hitch doesn’t keep his biggest offensive threat, Vladimir Tarasenko, chained to the bench. Pressure’s on Blues top keeper Brian Elliott to stay strong against the Dallas attack; in past years, the goaltending has been St. Louis’ weak link, but Elliott appears to have stepped up his game.
Blues in 5.
Ho. Lee. Crap. That was about as unexpected a first round as I could have imagined, as evidenced by my (well, our really) terrible accuracy in picks so far. The Kings and Hawks are gone. The Islanders really did upset the Panthers (my only glimmer of prescience). The Sharks refused to choke and the Ducks continued to do so by blowing their fourth straight home game 7 in as many years, this time to the Predators. And the Flyers won more games than the Rangers. Madness…
Which leads us to round two, and a slate of four new, fantastic match-ups. Using the same metrics as before — nonsense, gut feelings, and Penguins fandom — I’ll predict my survivors of the conference semis. I expect this to go as poorly as before.
The division leading Stars took a convincing series win against the Wild, while the Blues came dangerously close to blowing yet another series to the Hawks. Dallas comes in with a much more potent offense, one that was firing on a majority of cylinders in round one (3.5 goals/game), with Benn and Spezza leading the charge. The Blues, meanwhile play a more defensively minded game thanks to the styling of Ken Hitchcock and managed to outlast Chicago thanks to that game plan. While Dallas actually holds a comparable goals against per game through round one (2.83 for Dallas, 2.86 for St. Louis), comparing opponents certainly gives the edge to the Blues.
In the end, this is your classic flash versus grit face-off, and while I like a lot of what Dallas is doing, I think the Blues have the personnel and the right goalie in Brian Elliot to take the edge.
Blues in 7
This is the match-up none of us saw coming, but here we are, trying to decide whether the Sharks or the Preds will be playing in the Western Conference Final. The Sharks looked dominant start to finish against the Kings, no easy feat against a team that’s won the Cup twice in the past four years or as a team that seems to falter in the playoff year in and year out. On the flip side, the raw stats from round one for Nashville paint a picture of, “What? Why?”, sporting a higher goals against (2.82) than goals for (2.00) and being outshot 37-20 in their game 7 win.
So the question is: are the Preds this year’s Cinderella story, or did they simply let the Ducks beat themselves? I’m definitely a believer in the intangibles of playoff magic, but at the same time, numbers don’t usually lie. I’d love to see the Predators find their way to the Finals, and they did take down my personal pick to win the West, but I just don’t see them challenging the Sharks. If they win again, I’ll buy into the hype. But I’m not there yet.
Sharks in 5
I sold the Lightning short last round (or maybe oversold the Wings), but Tampa rode the hot pads of Ben Bishop into the second round in convincing fashion. However the real story of the Eastern Conference this playoff season is the New York Islanders and the ungodly play of John Tavares and Thomas Greiss, the former now leading the field with 6 goals and 11 points and the latter boasting a startling .941 GAA. I knew the Islanders could surprise some people this post-season, but I didn’t expect them to make this much noise.
Tampa is still a solid team and Ben Bishop can stand on his head in the playoffs, but he also has a bit of a Jeckyll/Hyde issue (he was pulled Wednesday after letting in 4). On top of that, the injury concerns from round one are still present for Tampa. I’ve got a bit of extra information for this pick (whose dumb idea was it to muddle rounds ones and two!?), but I don’t see the Lightning slowing down the JT Express. There will be a New York team in the Eastern Finals, but it’s not the one everyone thought two weeks ago.
Islanders in 6
Here it is! The top-billing match-up the hockey world has been predicting since the Penguins started their second half march. The NHL wasted no time in drumming up the Crosby versus Ovechkin hype, and both teams are surprisingly deep this year. The Capitals have the steady pads of Holtby and the hot play of Backstrom, Oshie, and Johansson to thank for their series victory over the Flyers. This is a team that racked up 120 points in the regular season after all.
The Penguins, meanwhile, saw scoring from across their lines, with 16 players netting a point and 11 boasting 3+ (including rookies Bryan Rust and Connor Sheary). Yes, Crosby, Malkin, and the newly acquired Kessel are leading the charge, but unlike years past, the Pens have some depth to complement their superstars.
Most surprising, however, is the forecheck and defense coming from the Pens, strangling the Rangers for the majority of the series and making second and third string goalies Matt Murray and Jeff Zatkoff look good. Once again, the biggest question mark is going to be the net for the Penguins, as it seems increasingly unlikely the concussed Fleury will return for the series (or possibly the playoffs). Murray looked confident in net and made some solid saves when needed, but he’s a wild card next to Holtby. The Pens need to keep up their torrid scoring pace and stifle the neutral zone if they have a chance. Realistically, I’m not sure they can do it. But I’ll be damned if I ever pick the Caps to beat the Pens!
Penguins in 7
If you’re a hockey fan, you love the NHL playoffs. Hell, even if you’re not a hockey fan, you might love them…or at least acknowledge that they comprise the greatest tournament in sports. And yeah, the playoffs kicked off last night with three games, but it’s not too late to make my first-round picks. So here we go…
Washington (1) vs. Philadelphia (WC2)
It was a monster regular season for the Caps: An NHL-best 120 points, Alex Ovechkin with 50 goals and Braden Holtby with an NHL record-tying 48 wins. But all that goes out the window now. After years of disappointing playoff flameouts, the pressure’s on Washington to win the whole thing. And really, they have no excuses. And in this round, they won’t need any, because they will handle the Flyers, who played well down the stretch to squeak in the postseason. Caps in 5.
Pittsburgh (2) vs. NY Rangers (3)
The Pens and Rangers both had disappointing starts and strong finishes. Pittsburgh’s offense finally kicked in after Mike Sullivan was brought in as coach, replacing the fired Mike Johnston. With the likes of Sid Crosby, Kris Letang, Phil Kessel leading the way, the Pens can score (although they’re missing injured Evgeni Malkin). But with longtime starter Marc-Andre Fleury injured, they’re relying on backup goalies Jeff Zatkoff and Matt Murray to step up against the King, Henrik Lundqvist. Tough assignment. Rangers in 7.*
* Given the fact that Lundqvist took a stick to the eye last night and had to leave after the 1st, I may have to revise this pick. If he doesn’t come back, Penguins in 7.
Florida (1) vs. NY Islanders (WC1)
The excellent season Florida had has been well documented and fun to watch. Led by veterans Jaromir Jagr, Roberto Luongo and Brian Campbell, the Panthers also boast a strong group of young talent including Jonathan Huberdeau, Alexander Barkov, Vincent Trocheck, Reilly Smith and Aaron Ekblad. They’re up against a dangerous Isles team led by captain John Tavares and the goalie tandem of Thomas Greiss and Jaroslav Halak. Still, the Cinderella season will continue for Florida. Panthers in 6.
Detroit (3) vs. Tampa Bay (2)
Both the Wings and Lightning limped into the postseason, with Tampa especially feeling the pain after losing captain and elite player Steven Stamkos and reliable d-man Anton Stralman to injuries in the last few weeks. Detroit has struggled to maintain consistency all season, and top goalie Jimmy Howard has been ordinary for much of it. Despite the injuries, a healthy Ben Bishop and the offense of Nikita Kucherov, Alex Killorn, Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat will help the Lightning prevail. Lightning in 6.
Dallas (1) vs. Minnesota (WC2)
The Stars have a high-octane offense, which doesn’t usually translate into playoff success. Still, the likes of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Jason Spezza should be enough to take out the Wild, who are just happy to be here. Dallas will likely get bumped by one of the more complete teams in the West, but for now, they’re looking good. Stars in 5.
St. Louis (2) vs. Chicago (3)
This is gonna be a good one. Unfortunately for the Blues, they consistently have fine teams that run into the powerhouses of the West in the playoffs. This year, they get defending Cup champs Chicago and it’s not going to be easy. Even though the Hawks limped into the playoffs, they’ve still got Kane, Toews, Panarin et al. ’Nuff said. Hawks in 6.
Anaheim (1) vs. Nashville (WC1)
The Ducks got off to an absolutely horrendous start, but wow, what a turnaround. Coach Bruce Boudreau managed to get off the firing block and lead his team to first in the Pacific. But Boudreau is now feeling the heat to succeed in the playoffs, as are the Predators, who have had many disappointments over the years. Unfortunately for Nashville, this too will be a disappointment. Anaheim’s got too much to deal with. Ducks in 6.
Los Angeles (2) vs. San Jose (3)
The Kings and Sharks both had good bounce-back years after missing the postseason last spring. But when it comes to the playoffs, only one of these teams has a proven track record of success. That being LA, which won the Cup in 2011-12 and 2013-14, while the Sharks have failed to live up to expectations time and again. As much as I’d love to see Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski make a historic run, it doesn’t seem possible against this stacked Kings squad. Kings in 6.
Editor’s note: After watching his Bruins choke their way out of the postseason picture, contributor Phil Stacey shares his picks to click for the first round of the NHL playoffs.
Cold As Ice el jefe Jay Kumar and I were commiserating the other day about both of our favorite teams not making the playoffs. While it hurts knowing the squad you call your own won’t have a chance to play for the Stanley Cup, we both agreed it makes watching the postseason unfold a far less stressful experience—and, in some respects, more enjoyable.
I, like many of you, feel there’s no greater spectacle in sports than playoff hockey. The intensity level is ramped up tenfold; you’re watching multimillionaires willing to do anything, risking life, limb and lifeblood just for the opportunity to raise a 35-pound silver chalice in a room chock full o’ champagne spray and beer foam.
And thank God they do, because we love to watch it all unfold.
Here’s how I see the first round (i.e., Conference quarterfinals) playing out:
Washington Capitals over Philadelphia Flyers in 6: You’ve got to hand it to the Flyers, who went on a tear over the last month of the season and won a lot of money games in the process. But at what cost? To face perhaps the greatest assemblage of talent in the Capitals’ 42-year history? Philadelphia will be playing in memory of their beloved and recently deceased owner, Ed Snider, but that won’t compare to the machine that is Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, Backstrom, Holtby and co.
Florida Panthers over New York Islanders in 7: Who, honestly, didn’t expect the Panthers to fall off at some point this season? The Canadiens were bound to catch and pass them. Then it was Tampa Bay, or to a lesser degree, Boston and Detroit. Each time, Florida showed the pluckiness that got them to this point, a steely resolve and a team that combines young talent (Huberdeau, Ekblad, Barkov) with veteran savvy (Jagr, Luongo, Jokinen). Any team with John Tavares has to be a considered a threat and the Islanders will give Florida all they can handle before succumbing.
New York Rangers over Pittsburgh Penguins in 6. Call it my first round upset, if you like. But is it really? The Rangers were sloppy for large parts of the regular season and didn’t always seem motivated to play their ‘A’ game. Two consecutive long forays into the postseason will do that to a team. I think they turn it on now that the lights are a little brighter. Pittsburgh has played better in the season’s second half and, when they’re clicking, has arguably the best offense in hockey. But I’ll pass on Pittsburgh’s flash and go instead with the Rangers’ grit and experience.
Tampa Bay Lightning over Detroit Red Wings in 5. Not sure why so many people are picking Detroit to win this series; five of the six people in my office did so (with yours truly being the lone dissenter). Okay, the Lightning will certainly be without all-world Steven Stamkos as well as Anton Stralman in the first round due to injuries; Ryan Callahan, Victor Hedman, Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov may or may not be ready to suit up as they deal with their own ailments. But come on: the Red Wings stink. Their young players (Dylan Larkin, wow!) are intriguing, but this is a team that relies on too many guys past their primes, a sketchy defense and less-than-average goaltending. Lightning win, fairly easily.
Dallas Stars over Minnesota Wild in 6: The Wild seemingly follow a similar playoff pattern each season: scramble like hell to qualify, get in as the number 7 or 8 seed, then make life miserable for their higher-seeded foes. They’ll try to carve out another chapter in that book against Dallas, a fun, freewheeling club who unexpectedly finds themselves as the West’s top dog. The contests will undoubtedly be lower-scoring than Dallas would prefer, but they’ll find that their defense and goaltending (whether it’s Kari Lehtonen or Antti Niemi) will rise to the challenge.
Anaheim Ducks over Nashville Predators in 6: You could make an excellent case that the Ducks should be favorites to win the Stanley Cup. They’ve been as hot as any club since the calendar turned to 2016; have veteran leaders, proven scoring, depth, defense and a pair of clutch goalkeepers in Frederik Andersen and John Gibson. Nashville will do what Nashville does—get some “how-did-he-stop-THAT?” saves from Pekka Rinne, monster plays from Shea Weber and Roman Josi on the blue line and some clutch goals from Ryan Johansen, James Neal and Filip Forsberg. But in the end, Anaheim has a little too much.
Chicago Blackhawks over St. Louis Blues in 7: How do you not feel bad for the Blues? Year after year they have a great regular season, only to be faced with trying to slay the Blackhawks, who seem to be Team Kryptonite when the postseason rolls around. Chicago has played more playoff games over the last six years than there are deep dish pizza joints in the Windy City, and at some point that has to catch up with them in terms of lethargy. But it won’t be this year, not in the first round anyway. Kane outscores Tarasenko and the Hawks move on.
Los Angeles Kings over San Jose Sharks in 5: Flip around what I said about the Blues, and you have the Sharks. How can you feel bad for San Jose? They’ve had ample opportunity to leave the rest of the Western Conference in their wake, but failed to do so time and time again. Now they’ve Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau approaching the 18th hole of their careers while the Kings’ core—Quick, Doughty, Kopitar, Marian Gaborik, even likely one-year-and-done Milan Lucic—in the prime of theirs. They’re tougher, faster and just plain better than their California foes to the North.
I am not all that good at predicting sports, as my perennial failings in all thing fantasy sports can attest. If you need more proof, check out my March Madness bracket from this year. But this is the Internet, and you can say whatever you want without need for competence or qualifications. So here are my playoff predictions…
The season series was close, and the Stars squad is fairly green when it comes to playoff experience, but the Wild are also the team with the lowest point total to make the playoffs from either conference and are coming off a five-game losing streak. Despite young gun Seguin being questionable, the Stars are simply too much of an offensive powerhouse for me to think the Wild have any serious shot, barring some Cinderella magic from new coach Mike Yeo. Sorry, Minnesota…
Stars in 5
A highly touted St. Louis team facing a downward trending Hawks squad. Where have we seen this before…? St. Louis has a lot going for it, but playoff consistency is not among their strengths. Chicago has strongman Duncan Keith coming off a league-mandated rest period suspension for attempted murder a questionable slash and just generally seems to make impossible things happen in the postseason. Granted, they are 0-8-4 against fellow Western Conference playoff teams since a February 6 win over Dallas. But at this point, stats don’t matter. Freaking Hawks…
Hawks in 7
Oh God, not again…
I liked the Ducks in my preseason predictions and that applies here, too. The Predators have been making some solid postseason pushes in recent years, and Boudreau has a knack for playoff chokes, but I think the Ducks are too good of a squad for another early round exit. I’m sticking with my gut: this is the Year of the Duck.
Ducks in 4
Even-year Kings versus the reigning champions of playoff underperformance? Do I even need to respond? Quick has gotten some solid ROI on the whole “selling his soul” deal.
Kings in 6
Please God, let it be someone new…
The Panthers have taken the league by storm this year, led by the perennially talented, perennially sexy Jaromir Jagr. The Islanders, meanwhile, are coming off an exciting race to the bottom with their fellow New York team (which I insist stemmed from a latent fear on the Penguins). That said, the Islanders have played the spoiler role before and if any East Coast wild card team has a shot to move on, it’s the Islanders. So let’s make this my bold prediction!
Islanders in 7
The Lightning are essentially a triage unit on skates at this point, missing, among others, Stamkos and Stralman. Meanwhile, the Wings rallied to make this their 25th straight playoff appearance, and are trying their damnedest to win one last Cup for Pavel Datsyuk, who has made it clear he’s gone after this year. The Lightning have made it clear they’re rallying around their injured teammates, and if this were a Disney-produced sports movie, they’d probably go all the way. However, this is real life.
Wings in 5
Hey, look! It’s Stamkos and his new wingers!
The Flyers earned their playoff spot by being slightly better than a heavily regressing Bruins squad and beating the Penguins as they rested most of their starters. As a reward, they face what is essentially the hockey version of a T-1000 Terminator. “But Stephen,” you retort, “the T-1000 dies in the end.” Right you are, but in this reproduction, the Flyers are no Arnold. At best, they are John Connor’s foster dad. This is going to be a massacre.
Capitals in 4, but possibly with casualties
Since March, the Penguins are 16-5 with 3.8 goals per game. Replacement coach Mike Sullivan has managed to undo all the damage done by fired coach Mike Johnston’s rigid system and create four lines of goal-scoring terror. Keep in mind this is without a healthy Evgeni Malkin. Goaltending depth issues have begun to rear their head, but as of Monday, rumors are swirling that starter Marc-Andre Fleury (who suffered a concussion on March 31) will be ready to start game 1. The Pens will have to crack Henrik Lundqvist in playoff mode, a challenge they have failed to overcome in years past. But those teams didn’t have a healthy core of forwards or a beast-mode Letang. I’m a homer to be sure, but the Pens are coming. Be afraid, Rangers. Be very afraid.
Pens in 5
Although his season had a rough start off the ice, Patrick Kane has had a monster year for the Chicago Blackhawks. On Sunday, he helped the Hawks take down a desperate Boston Bruins team with three goals and an assist. With three games left in the season, Kane now has 100 points, a full 12 ahead of Dallas’ Jamie Benn, all but assuring him of his first scoring title.
Which is great, but consider that the term “monster year” is relative. Because 20 years ago in the 1995-96 season, Kane would have been (if the season ended today) in 13th in scoring. In 1992-93, he’d be tied for 20th. Hell, in 1988-89, there were four players with more than 150 points.
Hitting the century mark in a season was a fairly common occurrence back in the days before the Dead Puck Era, which took hold after the ’94-’95 lockout thanks to teams like the New Jersey Devils perfecting the neutral zone trap. Clutching and grabbing became commonplace, as did bigger, more athletic goalies (equipped with seemingly larger and larger pads and jerseys) than in the past. Pretty soon, scoring dried up and as a result, the NHL adopted some radical changes after the 2004-05 lockout in an attempt to jumpstart league offenses. The changes included adding the shootout, abolishing the two-line offside pass and reducing the size of goalie equipment by 11%.
There was an immediate boost in scoring the first few seasons after the rule changes but by 2010-11, the year the Boston Bruins used a stifling defensive game and the hot goaltending of Tim Thomas to win the Cup, offense was on the downswing again. Last season, scoring diminished to the point where Dallas’ Jamie Benn led the league with just 87 points, the lowest non-lockout-year total since Stan Mikita’s 87 in 1967-68. It was a far cry from the days when Gretzky would drop 200 points in a season (he did that FOUR times and missed a fifth by four points).
And it’s important to keep in mind that even though individual scoring is down, we’re not seeing the obstruction and downright boring style of play that the Devils and other teams specialized in during that decade of dullness from ’95 to ’04. There are still boring games from time to time, but all in all, there are a lot of exciting players still creating excitement on the ice.
So what’s the solution? As we’ve seen, there’s no easy fix. Some suggestions have included bigger nets, calling more penalties, reducing the size of goalie equipment again and even increasing the size of the ice surface. Whatever the NHL does to address this situation (if it does anything at all), hopefully it won’t be something gimmicky. Ultimately, the game has changed so much since those halcyon days of the early ’90s when Gretzky, Lemieux, Hull and Yzerman were racking up ridiculous stats. It may just be that nobody will score 150 or more points because defensemen are too big and goalies are too good to allow so much offense. As long as they don’t start using soccer nets or requiring goalies to wear blindfolds, we should be okay.