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.