I think in future I’ll stop making Stanley Cup winner predictions at the beginning of the first round because I am being made a fool of. The last two years, the team I have picked to win it all has been ingloriously eliminated easily in the first round by upstart, underdog, longshots. Last year it was the Los Angeles Kings and this year even more shockingly, the Chicago Blackhawks. I have to learn to keep my mouth and pen shut at times. Still I can accurately recap the previous round and explain who, both players and teams, won and lost big. Despite the Chicago debacle, I still went 6-2 in the opening round, so I suppose I know at least a little about what is going on.
Biggest Winners: Players (And Coaches)
In no particular order…
1. Randy Carlyle
A few years ago, I protested on another blog, in which would be my last article, that Carlyle was a good coach who should not have been fired by the Toronto Maple Leafs who were (and may still be) paying for the horrid ownership of the Ontario Teachers Pension Fund. The Anaheim sweep of Calgary gives me some vindicated satisfaction and reason to gloat. Carlyle took a team that was choking under mediocre playoff coach Bruce Boudreau, steadied them down the last part of the regular season where they overtook San Jose, beat off Edmonton, and won their division. Now they beat Calgary in a tough, but convincing series. With the elimination of Chicago, Carlyle’s Ducks have to be the new favorite in the Western Conference.
2. Marc Andre Fleury
Fleury’s erratic playoff goaltending was a major reason the Pittsburgh Penguins did not win more Stanley Cups during the Crosby-Malkin era since their first cup in 2009. With the victorious switch to Matt Murray last year, it seemed that Fleury’s career in Pittsburgh was over, even whether ANYBODY would want him at the end of this season. The victory over Columbus at least makes him marketable to somebody next year who wants to upgrade their goaltending and might be willing to take a chance on him.
3. Henrik Lundqvist
Lundqvist still has to be able to win the big one, but he can take some satisfaction of beating Carey Price, the World Cup and Olympic Gold Medal winning goaltender, but who has a horrid NHL playoff record. That is what is maddening about Lundqvist. He is too unpredictable and inconsistent. He can beat quality opponents like Montreal this time and then let in goals at the wrong time like he did against the two hybrids, Europe and North America in the World Cup which put Sweden out of the money. He has never been consistent enough to take New York all the way. But he can take some quiet satisfaction from this victory.
4. Mike Yeo
Yeo became coach of the Minnesota Wild, kept getting them into the post season, but watched while management, particularly General Manager Chuck Fletcher, did nothing to improve the team so that it could go farther in the playoffs. Of course that led to his inevitable firing. So it must have been particularly satisfying to take over the St. Louis Blues, a team that lost talent in the off season, who then traded their star defenseman, Kevin Shattenkirk so that they could start concentrating on rebuilding, to get them into the playoffs in spite of the significant talent losses, and then eliminate his old team without too much trouble, the same old Wild whom Fletcher refuses to significantly improve.
Biggest Losers: Players (And Coaches)
1. Carey Price
Price should stick to international play where he has won the Olympics and the World Cup. But in the Stanley Cup playoffs, he has a horrid record. Ironically in the World Cup Final, he beat his old teammate, Jaroslav Halak who took Montreal deeper into the Stanley Cup playoffs than Price has ever done. There was some debate about who should have been traded and who should have been kept, and these two recent episodes are going to revive it. Price, like Ovechkin and company in Washington, has never ever made it even to the Eastern Conference Final. That he lost to Henrik Lundqvist, a goaltender with a similar puzzling record is not going to help his reputation.
2. Bruce Boudreau and Chuck Fletcher
Boudreau, the unremarkable playoff coach, added another notch to his unremarkable playoff record when Minnesota humiliatingly lost in only five games to underdog St. Louis which had lost significant talent in the off season and then traded its best defenseman, Kevin Shattenkirk, to make it easy to be defeated. When Minnesota hired Boudreau (saving Calgary and Ottawa from making the same mistake), I wrote an article saying that it was a marriage made in heaven: The mediocre Minnesota Wild who can never beat a true playoff contender hiring a mediocre playoff coach who can never beat a true playoff contender. As I predicted, it turned out to be the perfect match.
But the real goat horns should belong to General Manager Chuck Fletcher who hired Boudreau in the first place. That Minnesota lost to its old coach, Mike Yeo, rubs it in further. A few years ago, Fletcher got free agents, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, patted himself on the back and said that was enough to make Minnesota a Stanley Cup Champion. But as mentioned above, they are good enough to get Minnesota into the playoffs, beat weak playoff teams, and nothing more. Fletcher has never added any significant talent since then to take Minnesota higher. In Buffalo, owner Terry Pegula ordered a review of the team from top to bottom after the Sabres missed the playoffs again. This led to the firing of both the general manager and the coach. The same thing should be done in Minnesota which keeps spinning its wheels under Fletcher’s management.
Biggest Winners: Teams
1. Nashville Predators
It goes without saying that the Predators fashioned the biggest upset in the first round, maybe even in the entire playoffs. All this by a team that nearly did not make the playoffs themselves and only with a late surge of good hockey grabbed the last playoff position. For a while P.K. Subban whom the Predators got in the big trade of last year, must have been playing with a bag over his head when the Predators were out of a playoff position and his old team, Montreal, was leading the Eastern Conference. Many NHL expert predictors at NHL.com were contemplating suicide because they picked the Predators to be in the Stanley Cup Final. Now a totally unexpected sweep of a recent 3 time Stanley Cup champion, a team they had never beaten in the playoffs before, including two consecutive shutouts on enemy ice has to make everyone rethink yet again about this most puzzling of teams. Are they finally the team the experts predicted they would be? Whatever happens later, they have won the biggest playoff series in their history and have been the most impressive team in the first round.
2. St. Louis Blues
The Blues lost significant talent in the off season, fired Stanley Cup winning coach, Ken Hitchcock who got them to the Eastern Conference Final last year, and then traded top defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk. They seemed to be ripe for the picking, intent on rebuilding their team and giving themselves salary cap space. Instead they rallied behind new coach Mike Yeo, made the playoffs, and have now eliminated Minnesota easily despite all the talent losses. Right now they are enjoying an unexpected bonus.
Biggest Losers: Teams
1. Chicago Blackhawks
This team must be in total shock. Favored to win the Western Conference, if not the Stanley Cup itself, it was ignominiously sent packing in the minimum four games including two shameful shutouts on home ice by an underdog, longshot team of upstarts. A year ago, I wrote an article about Chicago letting one of its core players, Patrick Sharp, go because of salary cap reasons. I put forth the theory that Sharp was the kind of player who would get a goal in the playoffs just when Chicago needed it the most and Chicago would get a spark and go on to victory. They certainly needed Sharp or somebody like him in this round. But whether Sharp would have been enough against Nashville is debatable. They were beaten convincingly. The Blackhawks brought back Johnny Oduya and he had a horrid series. But what is really disturbing was that none of the new, young players whom Chicago had brought in and were developing stepped up. There were no young Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kanes, Duncan Keiths, or Brent Seabrooks eager to make a name for themselves in the playoffs. That is not good for the future of this team.
2. Columbus Blue Jackets
I have gone over this in finer detail in a previous article, but Columbus had to win a playoff round for attendance reasons. Actually they should be proud and satisfied with the best year of their team’s history and not worry because they lost to Pittsburgh who may well win the Stanley Cup again. But Columbus plays in a region where top level, professional hockey is unpopular, so they were playing for attendance improvement and the very future of the franchise. Unfortunately they got the worst playoff match-up they could possibly get. Even playing first place, playoff choking Washington would have been better. They HAD to win their series, no matter who their opponent was. Normally, a team that did what Columbus did this season should forget this defeat and look forward to next year. But this playoff defeat did nothing to improve attendance, undid whatever good the team accomplished during the regular season, and the possibility of relocation still haunts this team.
3. Minnesota Wild
One of the two perpetual wheel spinners (Washington is the other one) who never do anything significant in the playoffs. This is because management has never added any significant new talent since Minnesota got Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. Now they have lost to lowly, underdog St Louis and their old coach, Mike Yeo. This is the lowest playoff blow so far. This is a mediocre team, with a mediocre coach, a mediocre general manager, and maybe mediocre ownership if it refuses to shake up this team that perpetually goes nowhere.
Teams That Can Go Home Happy
Toronto, Boston, and Calgary can go home glad that they got back in the playoffs and build on what they accomplished this year and look forward to taking the next stepping stone next season. Columbus would be on this list except for the attendance problems mentioned above. And Montreal will publicly proclaim they are happy to be on this list but secretly will be cursing because Nashville advanced (see below).
Players With The Pressure Still On Them
1, 2, 3
Alexander Ovechkin, Brooks Orpik, Braden Holtby
As mentioned in the article about the first round predictions, it is not enough for Washington to win one playoff round. The absolute minimum that is acceptable for Washington is to make it to the Eastern Conference Final. These players (and Nicklas Backstrom could also be added to this list) have been the core of the Washington failure for the past decade. Now they have even more pressure on them because management added T J Oshie and Kevin Shattenkirk the last two years. They are all getting older and if they prove yet again that they are not good enough, it should be time to consider trading them and go in a new direction.
4 Henrik Lundqvist
He passed his first test and put doubts about the Stanley Cup career of Montreal goaltender, Carey Price. Now he faces Craig Anderson of Ottawa who will be just as tough an opponent. But Anderson has been playing for inferior playoff teams, not Stanley Cup contenders like Lundqvist so he does not have the same pressure. Lundqvist’s goaltending will be scrutinized if New York loses and he is a major reason for the defeat.
Teams With The Pressure Still On Them
It goes without saying that the Washington Capitals remain the team that has to win the next round which they have never done during the Ovechkin era. No other team has the same amount of pressure on them though that could change if certain other teams do not do well this round too. At least Washington has gone farther than their western cousins in Minnesota who have a similar sorry stagnant record in the playoffs.
The Last Laugh
At one time, P. K. Subban was playing with a bag over his head while his old team, the Montreal Canadiens was leading the Eastern Conference, the person he was traded for, Shea Weber was flourishing, and the general manager, Marc Bergevin, was taking well earned bows for his bold trade that propelled the Canadiens higher; while his new team, the Nashville Predators were out of a playoff position, playing bad hockey, and seemed unlikely to make the post season. But now the Predators have scored their biggest playoff victory ever, eliminating 3 time Stanley Cup champion and one of the two favorites to win this year, Chicago Blackhawks in the minimum four games, while the Canadiens, who had home ice advantage lost to the New York Rangers. There is going to be bitterness in Montreal every time their fans have to watch Nashville continue to play in the current playoffs while their team is on the sidelines. Bergevin can say that he improved Montreal and that they made the playoffs instead of choking like last year, but this is not a result he will enjoy watching. It now puts his job as general manager under an unwelcome spotlight.
Alain Vigneault, coach of the New York Rangers defeated Claude Julien, coach of the Montreal Canadiens who had beaten him in the Stanley Cup Final in 2011. But how many Vancouver fans wish that Vigneault had won back then and lost this time instead?
Honorable mention: Mike Yeo eliminating his old team Minnesota fairly easily in a humiliating manner. There is going to be bitterness in Minnesota because of this.
Ottawa and Edmonton made it to the next round after beating American teams. Believe it or not, this has been the first time a Canadian city has beaten an American city in the Stanley Cup playoffs since 2014.
Stanley Cup Playoff Predictions
Ottawa Senators Vs. New York Rangers
Surprisingly Ottawa, which may be the weakest team in the playoffs has a season winning 2-1 record against the Rangers so this may be a closer series than I thought. But then the Rangers had an 0-3 record against stronger Montreal, Claude Julien had a Stanley Cup victory against Alain Vigneault and look what happened. To make matters even more interesting, the off season trade between the two teams, Mika Zibanejad to the Rangers and Derick Brassard to the Senators produced significant results in the first playoff round. The leading scorers on each team during that round were (you guessed it) Zibanejad with 4 points for New York, and Brassard with 8 points for Ottawa. One other unknown element that has to be tested is the unexpected return of Clarke MacArthur to Ottawa, who made a significant contribution to beat Boston. Erik Karlsson’s health is supposed to be impaired by a heel injury but it did not seem to be a factor when he got 6 assists against Boston. The Rangers do not have a big shooter but they have based on scoring average, the best equal 4 lines in the NHL. The goaltending is very equal between Henrik Lundqvist and Craig Anderson. Ottawa has home ice advantage but less points than the Rangers. Common sense tells me to pick the Rangers but I’ll have a bit of fun this time (I can’t do much worse than the unexpected Chicago debacle) and this will be my one upset this round (I did pick the St. Louis upset correctly last round) and pick Ottawa to win in 6 or 7 games.
Washington Capitals Vs. Pittsburgh Penguins
All the cards are on the table for Washington now. Management added T. J. Oshie and Kevin Shattenkirk the last two years to the perpetual chokers listed above. When Washington got Alexander Ovechkin the same time the Penguins got Sidney Crosby, he was billed as the equal of Crosby. That meant that when the two teams met in the playoffs, Washington would win at least 50% of the time. That meant that as the years passed, they would have equal numbers of Stanley Cup team and international team triumphs. But it is not even close. Ovechkin has a horrid playoff record with Washington and an equally horrid record internationally with Russia. It can even be argued that his Russian counterpart on Pittsburgh, Evgeni Malkin is a better player.
Washington HAS to win this series (Of course they HAD to win last year too). Oshie was supposed to put Washington over the top last year. It was not enough. Now they have added Shattenkirk this year. They HAVE to win this year or it is time to have a thorough review of the entire team and start trading these losers, including Ovechkin. Perhaps coach Barry Trotz would have to go too, but then NO COACH in the NHL or internationally has made Alexander Ovechkin a winner.
Washington’s best chance of victory is that Pittsburgh’s number one goaltender, Matt Murray is injured and Pittsburgh has to go with the erratic Marc Andre Fleury again, who between the 2009 Stanley Cup victory and the victory over Columbus in the last round gave Pittsburgh mostly horrid playoff goaltending, particularly in one series against Philadelphia which is probably the worst playoff goaltending I have ever seen since watching the playoffs in the 1960s. Washington has to do what Columbus could not do, make Fleury resemble his old horrid self. For victory, Washington has to have Fleury pulled in several games for poor performance. Washington also has to take advantage of the injury to star defenceman, Kris Letang. There has never been a better chance for Washington to defeat Pittsburgh than now. And with all the additions and subtractions made to this match, if Washington STILL cannot defeat Pittsburgh than there is no hope for this team.
But Washington is the “show me” team. They have to prove they can defeat Pittsburgh no matter how many additions and subtractions are made. Until they do so, you go with the tried and the true. Pittsburgh in 6 or 7 games.
St. Louis Blues Vs. Nashville Predators
This is certainly not the match I expected with Chicago’s unexpected ouster. The two underdogs of the division are meeting instead and it is a tough match to pick, especially the coaches. On one hand, there is Peter Laviolette, the coach of Nashville, who has won the big one with Carolina and has now coached the Predators to their greatest playoff victory. Then there is Mike Yeo who suffered under mediocre management in Minnesota, who somehow rallied the Blues who suffered significant talent losses in both the off season and at the trade deadline, who got the Blues into the playoffs and then beat his old team easily. Pekka Rinne is a better goaltender than Jake Allen and gives Nashville an edge at this vital position. The biggest negative for Nashville is that they have never made it to the Western Conference Final and it’s a hump to get over, but then again, the Predators had not beat the Chicago Blackhawks ever too. St. Louis, which seldom makes the third round did so last year but lost a lot of talent from that team this year. Still you’ve got to like how they have rallied around Yeo. St. Louis also has home ice advantage. I think Nashville is for real and will get to new territory for the first time and win in 6 or 7 hard fought games but it would not be surprising if the Blues continue to rally to Yeo’s coaching and won instead.
Anaheim Ducks Vs. Edmonton Oilers
This series is just as tough to pick as the other Western Conference match. Experienced Anaheim against newly arrived Edmonton. In their previous round, the Oilers had been playing against a team that had run out of gas and was playing bad hockey. But this time they are playing a team that pulled itself together during the last quarter of the regular season, played steady hockey when they needed to the most and then put Calgary out of the playoffs with authority in a hard-played series. The past few years, Anaheim has choked in the playoffs but then Anaheim made one significant change during the off season and got rid of the mediocre Bruce Boudreau (see above) and replaced him with their old Stanley Cup winning coach, Randy Carlyle. He is probably the main difference why Anaheim is this far. He gives the Ducks a big edge over Oilers coach Todd McLellan who has not won anything significant as an NHL head coach.
The big plus for the Oilers is Connor McDavid, projected to be Sidney Crosby’s heir on Canada’s Golden Hockey Chain (the list of Canadian players who are head and shoulders above every other active player for their generation beginning with Maurice Richard). He did not have a particularly distinguishing playoff debut but he played well enough to win in his first crack at the NHL playoffs, something not even Wayne Gretzky was able to do with the Oilers. (It took Wayne three tries before the Oilers won their first playoff round. Perhaps this is an unfair comparison.) Anaheim has nothing like him but if they want to win the Stanley Cup, they will have to learn to beat this kind of player because if they go all the way, it is likely they will be facing Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in the Final. That task starts right now. McDavid will have to be everything he is projected to be for the Oilers to beat Anaheim. I don’t think he will be enough this time. Anaheim will win in 6 games but like the other Western Conference series, it would not be an upset if the Oilers won.