2016-17 NHL Final Stanley Cup Playoff Report

 

Well we’ve come to the end of another entertaining NHL season and from my point of view there is no surprise about the final outcome. There is no surprise that the Pittsburgh Penguins successfully defended their championship. Before the playoffs started, I said in my predictions for the first round that Pittsburgh was the team to beat in the east and Chicago was the team to beat in the west. So my east prediction was ho hum and the west an electric shock. But what did the whole thing mean? This article tries to make sense of what happened in the NHL from April to June. Before I get down to business I must take a moment to congratulate myself and pat myself on the back. I finished 12-3 for the playoff rounds, predicted Pittsburgh was the team to beat in the east. If Chicago had played up to expectations, I might have done even better. So before recapping, I’ll put away my wizard’s hat until next year…

No Surprise

The only surprise about the Penguins repeating as champion was how strong and how good this team is. They won without their best defenseman, Kris Letang playing a single playoff game. They won with their best goaltender Matt Murray missing three quarters of the playoffs. And they won with their best player Sidney Crosby missing one game with a concussion. Baring injury or the unexpected, the Penguins can win a few more in row. By a country mile, they are already the team to beat for next year.

Biggest Disappointment

The early exit of the Chicago Blackhawks to a team they never lost to before in the very first round, in the minimum four games, including two shutouts on home ice had to be the biggest upset and shock of the whole playoffs. It is true that the core of this team that has won 3 Stanley Cups since 2010 is starting to age, but much better was definitely expected. What really hurt this team is that all the new players who are expected to lead the way in the future showed absolutely nothing, a bad omen for the future of this team. A team that I expected to be Pittsburgh’s main challenger has now got lots of doubts hanging over its head.

Biggest Surprise

Under talented Ottawa upsetting the New York Rangers and then nearly pulling off an equal upset of Nashville’s elimination of Chicago by taking Pittsburgh to a 7 game semi-final.

Honorable mention: St. Louis which lost a lot of top talent in the off season and then by trades winning a playoff round and then putting up a good struggle against Nashville.

Feet Kisser

That guy everybody saw in the Pittsburgh dressing room after the Stanley Cup victory who was on the floor kissing every Penguin toe he could get his lips around was really General Manager Marc Bergevin of the Montreal Canadiens. Bergevin stood to lose his life either by lynching or by honorable suicide before the mob got to him because he made P. K. Subban the scapegoat for Montreal missing the playoffs the year before and traded him to Nashville. If the Predators had won and Subban won the Conn Smythe Trophy which nearly happened, his worst nightmare would have come true. Kissing a few Penguin toes are small tokens of gratitude for sparing him the fate of what could have happened if Nashville won the Stanley Cup. He still isn’t off the hook. Montreal fans will still remember the trade next year. For now at least, his life is spared.

Best Playoff Series

Gutsy under talented Ottawa taking powerful Pittsburgh to a Game 7, double overtime thriller. If Pittsburgh’s other more talented opponents had put out the same effort, they might have pulled off an upset.

Most Unfortunate Series

Columbus, which has always had attendance problems and has never won a playoff round, had to play the one team, Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins, that they probably had no chance of beating. Columbus gave their fans the finest regular season in their history, but any attendance gains certainly got discouraged by the usual first round defeat. Columbus fans needed to see progress that could be measured by a playoff victory over anybody. Sure it was champion Pittsburgh, but hockey patrons are still going to stay away from the box office and say, “Same old Blue Jackets…”

Best Opponent Wasn’t There

The playoff series during the Crosby-Malkin era between Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay was tied 1-1. Last year, with Pittsburgh even healthier than this year and Tampa Bay missing star forward Steve Stamkos for every game except the last one, the Lightning took Pittsburgh to a 7 game semi-final. This year, Tampa Bay General Manager Steve Yzerman signed all his star players, clearly expecting to win the Stanley Cup. But again Stamkos got injured early in the season and the Lightning never recovered and missed the playoffs. With this year’s Chicago debacle, Tampa Bay may be the only team with the talent when it is completely healthy to really challenge Pittsburgh in the immediate future. Pittsburgh has never beaten Tampa Bay when it has had a healthy Stamkos for a full playoff series. With a healthy team, expect the Lightning to be back in the playoffs next year.

The Usual Stanley Cup For Wheel Spinners…

Once again the eastern champion Washington Captials met the western champion Minnesota Wild for the Stanley Cup of wheel spinning, a regular occurrence for the past half-decade. Inglorious Minnesota was put out easily in the first round by underdog St. Louis with the extra spice of the Blues being coached by ex-Wild coach, Mike Yeo. The main culprit is Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher who has never added any significant talent to his roster since he signed Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. Poor Yeo had to stomach this do-nothing improvement by Fletcher until he was inevitably fired. Minnesota’s easy exit to underdog St. Louis, coached by Yeo, is the lowest playoff blow yet.

In Washington’s case, you cannot blame the General Manager Brian MacLellan who signed T. J. Oshie last year and Kevin Shattenkirk this year. The real culprits are a group of players led by Alexander Ovechkin who consistently fail to rise to the occasion in the NHL playoffs and in Ovechkin’s case, internationally as well with Russia. Pittsburgh played without its best defenseman Kris Letang, had to use the erratic Marc Andre Fleury as its goaltender, lost Sidney Crosby for one game with a concussion, and still beat the Capitals who had all the advantages. Pittsburgh won three games in Washington, its home away from home. Ovechkin, by his own admission was playing poorly and was demoted to the third line in despair by coach Barry Trotz, who like all other Washington and Russian coaches, cannot make a winner out of him. The so-called Crosby-Ovechkin “rivalry” is a dud. The score in playoff meetings is Pittsburgh 3 Washington 0. There are 3 Stanley Cups, 2 Conn Smythe Trophies, 2 Olympic Gold Medals, and a World Cup championship for Crosby to none for Ovechkin. For the first time I’m reading articles about Washington finally trading the underachieving Ovechkin who has never risen to the occasion. The Capitals can also probably trade the equally uninspiring Brooks Orpik, Nicklas Backstrom, goaltender Braden Holtby, and new guy Shattenkirk who was supposed to put Washington over the top as well.

Compare this with under talented Ottawa who chased Fleury from the nets and then took Pittsburgh with their best goaltender Matt Murray to double overtime in the 7th game in Pittsburgh instead of being shut out in the 7th game on home ice in Washington by backup goaltender Fleury.

Consolation Prizes

  1. Nashville

The Predators biggest victory of the playoffs may have been off the ice. Before this playoff run, nobody really has called Nashville a hockey town. But like the agonizing Tennessee Titan Super Bowl loss, the Predators caught the imagination of most of the city. In previous years, there has been talk of Nashville losing money and even about its survival. Hopefully now, being a Predator fan will be fully ingrained in this city in the future. There is already talk of awarding Nashville an outdoor stadium game sometime soon. If the Predators keep icing competitive teams, they will increase their following, and a once hockey-ignorant city will become as knowledgeable as the best of NHL cities.

  1. New York Rangers

On the very day of their defeat by Ottawa, the Rangers were awarded next year’s outdoor Winter Classic game against the Buffalo Sabres.

Welcome Back Strangers

Edmonton Oilers, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Columbus Blue Jackets who have seldom made the playoffs recently finally made it back to the post season. Edmonton won a playoff round, Toronto played credibly against Washington and the unfortunate Columbus had to play the best team in the playoffs in the first round. Hopefully they will be able to build on what they accomplished this year.

Are You A Stanley Cup Goaltender?

Carey Price can win the big one internationally when he plays for Canada but cannot win more than one playoff round for Montreal. This year he was put out in the first round by the equally puzzling Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers. Ironically in the World Cup, Price defeated his old teammate, Jaroslav Halak of Team Europe who took the Canadiens farther in the Stanley Cup playoffs than Price has ever done.

Also on this list is the horrible Braden Holtby of the Washington Capitals. Going to head-to-head against erratic backup goaltender Marc Andre Fleury of Pittsburgh, he actually turned in Fleury-like playoff performances of 3 goals on 19 shots and 3 goals on 14 shots. Like his other teammates who I have noted above, he never rises to the occasion when he is needed most.

The Flip Flop Man

Lundqvist beats tough Montreal, then loses to under talented Ottawa and then beats tough Canada in the World Championship Final. Jekyll-turned Hyde-turned Jekyll.

Who Can Beat Pittsburgh Next Year?

Nobody.

Actually assuming the correct additions, subtractions, injuries, trades and draft choices take place the teams with the best chances seem to be…

  1. Tampa Bay

This assumes that Steve Stamkos finally doesn’t get himself injured, Tampa makes a good draft choice and/or an astute trade and the new goaltending tandem replacing Ben Bishop works out.

  1. Ottawa

Under talented Ottawa drafts and trades for more talent at forward who play with the same inspired enthusiasm and dedication as this year’s team did in the playoffs.

  1. Anaheim

The Ducks continue to improve under their old Stanley Cup winning coach Randy Carlyle. The add more talent by a good draft and astute trades to finally being able to beat Nashville and make the Stanley Cup Finals. And goaltender John Gibson who showed promise this year continues to develop.

2016-17 NHL Stanley Cup Final Prediction

The third NHL playoff round has now come and gone, concluding with a classic double overtime playoff game between the Stanley Cup champions and over-achieving, heavily underdog Ottawa. I had a 50% winning percentage this time, being wrong about Anaheim and just narrowly missing going 0-2 thanks to Ottawa’s gritty play. So my record is now 11-3. I usually start off writing about teams and players who won and lost big. There are no losers in this round, so I’ll just be listing the positives.

Biggest Winners – Players

1.  Filip Forsberg

Forsberg had an exceptional series against Anaheim where he established himself as a money player who comes through in the clutch when his team needs it the most. This is a break through playoff year for Forsberg who is establishing himself as Nashville’s offensive leader, the star forward they have never had in the past. Nashville will especially need him to come through big again against Pittsburgh. He gave the kind of performance that his old team, the Washington Capitals who stupidly traded him desperately needed against the Penguins.

2.  Marc Andre Fleury

Unless Matt Murray gets injured, Fleury has probably played his last game in Pittsburgh. The surprise was that Pittsburgh has kept him and his big contract this long. His erratic playoff goaltending between the first Pittsburgh victory in 2009 until 2016 when the Penguins switched to Matt Murray was a major reason why the Penguins did not win the Stanley Cup any more and why Dan Bylsma is no longer the coach and Ray Shero no longer the general manager. His career seemed finished but he showed enough in this year’s playoffs for some team to take a chance on him next year. His 7th game shutout of Washington has probably saved his NHL career.

3.  Matt Murray

The Ottawa series proved that if Pittsburgh wants to win future Stanley Cups, Murray is their goaltender. Pittsburgh plays with more confidence knowing Murray is in the nets. He should have won the Conn Smythe Trophy last year. The Penguins are now completely his team, not Fleury’s.

4.  Chris Kunitz

If ever a player played the greatest game of his career when his team needed it the most, it was Kunitz who scored two goals, including the winner and assisted on the other during the double-overtime 7th game thriller. That’s coming through in the clutch. Were you watching, Alexander Ovechkin, Kevin Shattenkirk, Brooks Orpik, and Nicklas Backstrom?

5.  Craig Anderson

Anderson gave a Conn Smythe Trophy performance in every playoff round except that he can’t score. Is there a lesson there for you Braden Holtby? Anderson almost fashioned the greatest heartwarming North American professional sports story since Jim Plunkett returned from oblivion with the Oakland Raiders of the NFL in 1980. His team hung in without him while he was at home nursing his wife who had cancer and when he returned he was the key in the New York upset and nearly made a bigger one over Pittsburgh. Ottawa simply does not have enough talent, especially at forward to match Pittsburgh. He showed enough that if Ottawa can significantly upgrade their talent, he might be able to take them all the way.

 

Teams That Can Go Home Happy

 

Anaheim Ducks

The Ducks rehired their Stanley Cup winning coach, Randy Carlyle who corrected their choking problem of recent years. He got the Ducks to keep their heads during the last part of the regular season which saw them overtake the San Jose Sharks and stay ahead of the Edmonton Oilers. The Ducks then won two playoff rounds, including a 7th game at home against the Oilers where they had been choking under previous coaches. The Ducks are clearly the best team in their division right now.

Two problems for the future: Is goaltender John Gibson good enough to take this team all the way to the Stanley Cup? He showed promise in winning two playoff rounds before being put out by Nashville. They still have problems winning playoff games at home. And Nashville itself is another problem. The Predators have eliminated the Ducks two years in a row so they have their number. Before that, the Chicago Blackhawks eliminated them. So Anaheim’s problem is not its own division but in beating the best teams of the other Western Conference division. There will have to be some changes made and a good draft choice added that fills a hole to take the next step forward.

Ottawa Senators

Before the Pittsburgh series started, I wondered if the Senators would even belong on the same ice. They had already over-achieved including a mild upset of the New York Rangers. But the gritty Senators went toe-to-toe with the defending Stanley Cup champions until they lost a 7th game double-overtime thriller. Unlike new kids Columbus and choker Washington, Ottawa was smart enough to get to Marc Andre Fleury and chase him from the nets. Unfortunately, by this time, Pittsburgh’s number one goaltender, Matt Murray was ready to play and that meant no more easy games. It may well be that if Fleury had been forced to continue, Ottawa would have won the series. The difference was at forward where the Senators have nothing to match the high powered Pittsburgh offense. Credit has to go to coach Guy Boucher who devised a defense system that except for one game, made Pittsburgh play at Ottawa’s offensive level. Ottawa came closer to the Stanley Cup than was ever expected. Upgrading their offense in the off season is essential if they want to go all the way.

Nightmare Continues…

Montreal General Manager Marc Bergevin was relaxing, accepting all kinds of praises early in the season after he made P. K. Subban the scapegoat for Montreal missing the playoffs the year before and then seeing the Canadiens be on top of the Eastern Conference while Nashville was out of a playoff spot. These days he seldom leaves his office without a body guard and grits his teeth and curses while he sees Subban’s smiling face advancing to the Stanley Cup Final. If Nashville wins the Stanley Cup and Subban wins the Conn Smythe trophy, will he use the pistol that is rumored to be in his drawer before the mob with the noose and the tar and the feathers gets to him first? They’ll probably strip him first to see if he really has been wearing a Nashville jersey under his suit and if they can spot the Predator logo that is supposed to be tattooed to his butt.

Stanley Cup Final Prediction

Pittsburgh Penguins Vs. Nashville Predators

The over-the-hump Predators now face the greatest challenge they have faced in the Stanley Cup playoffs so far. They have already scored the greatest upset of the current playoff year by eliminating Western Conference favorite Chicago, a team they never came close to beating in the playoffs before in the minimum four games. But it has to be remembered that Chicago was severely hurt by the fact that all the new, young players whom they were developing showed absolutely nothing, a dark portent for the future of that team. Now the Predators are facing the Eastern Conference favorite Pittsburgh Penguins, the defending Stanley Cup Champions. Both Peter Laviolette and Mike Sullivan have won the Stanley Cup so the coaching is even. There are two reasons why Pittsburgh is the defending champion. First, the Penguins finally got championship playoff goaltending after years of bad performances by Marc Andre Fleury by Matt Murray. Second, Sullivan got everyone on the team, including star performers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to concentrate on playing good defense. Nashville goaltender Pekka Rinne is just as good a goaltender as Ottawa’s Craig Anderson. He can significantly outplay Fleury but like Anderson, he won’t significantly outplay Murray. More significant is that Nashville does not have anyone to compare with Crosby and Malkin. They are the best players they have yet seen. And Pittsburgh is getting clutch performances from other guys like Chris Kunitz. The combination of Crosby, Malkin, clutch performances, good defense, return of Matt Murray is too much for Nashville. In fact it is too much for every other team in the NHL. Pittsburgh will defend its championship over Nashville in 6 games.

 

 

2016-17 NHL Third Playoff Round Predictions

It’s half way through the playoffs and I went 4 for 4 in my second round predictions, including an Ottawa upset of the New York Rangers. My overall record is now 10-2, the only serious blot being the Chicago debacle. Like every other playoff round, some teams and players won and lost big, meaning that there is more significance for them than for others who won or lost. As usual I’ll start with giving my view about the significance of the second round before concluding with my two third round predictions. In no particular order…

Biggest Winners – Players

Pekka Rinne

Rinne was always a good goaltender but his team never had the talent until now to do much in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Predators have finally done something they have not been able to do before. First they eliminated the Chicago Blackhawks and now the have reached the Western Conference Final for the first time. How good a goaltender is Rinne? We are about to find out.

P. K. Subban

There has to be some inner satisfaction for Subban who was singled out by Montreal general manager, Marc Bergevin as the main reason for Montreal missing the playoffs the previous season when goaltender Carey Price was hurt. For a while this season, Montreal was on top of the Eastern Conference, Nsahville was out of the playoffs and seemed likely to miss the post season. Subban was playing with a bag over his head. But now Subban is going farther in the playoffs with the Predators than he ever did in Montreal which can only sit, wring their hands and watch him play after being eliminated in the first round.

Jean-Gabriel Pageau

The Ranger Destroyer. Sometimes an unknown, unexpected player emerges during times of crisis. Such is the case in this round of Pageau who at least in the Ranger series, gave Ottawa something they haven’t had for a long time, a real threat on the forward line, someone the opposition has to stop. You also like a player who comes through when they need him the most. He only had 33 points during the regular season but significantly an excellent plus/minus statistic. The question is can he continue this excellent play against a tougher opponent in the third round for over-achieving Ottawa.

Marc Andre Fleury

If Pittsburgh had lost, he would have made the Biggest Losers list. But thanks in large part to coach Mike Sullivan’s ability to get the entire team to commit to playing good defense, starting with last year’s Stanley Cup victory, Fleury who has looked horrible many times in the playoffs since the first victory in 2009 has been able to hang in. That he posted a shut out in game 7 when he needed to do it the most speaks volumes.

Biggest Winners – Teams

Nashville Predators

They are going places and doing things they never did before. First they humiliatingly eliminated the Western Conference Stanley Cup favorite, the Chicago Blackhawks, a team they had never been able to beat in the playoffs before in only 4 games. Now they got over a second hump and are on their way to their first Western Conference Final. Suddenly Nashville is a hockey town. Everybody is talking about the Predators. Regardless about what happens in the next round, Nashville has taken some significant steps forward.

 

Ottawa Senators

If Nashville is the over-the-humpers, Ottawa is the over-achievers. They caught a break in the first round when they played probably the only team they might be favored against, the Boston Bruins. But eliminating the Rangers was a significant upset. The two players who they needed the most came through big for them, goaltender Craig Anderson, and defenseman Erik Karlsson. And unexpectedly they got a significant contribution on the forward line from emerging hometown hero Jean-Gabriel Pageau. Like Nashville, no matter what happens in the third round, they have taken a significant step forward.

Biggest Losers – Players (And Coaches)

Henrik Lundqvist

The Jekyll and Hyde of NHL goalies became Hyde again at the wrong time. He eliminates tougher Montreal in the first round and then gets beaten by upstart Ottawa in the second round. He let in wrong goals at the wrong time just like he did against Europe and North America in the World Cup. His time to win the Stanley Cup as a starting goaltender is starting to run out. He joins the goaltender, he eliminated in the first round, Carey Price, as a net minder with a real question mark over his head about whether he really is a good Stanley Cup playoff goaltender.

Alexander Ovechkin, Brooks Orpik, Braden Holtby, Kevin Shattenkirk, Nicklas Backstrom

The gang at Washington failed again, hopefully for the last time. This team needs to be torn apart and built again. It simply is not good enough. What has to happen before people realize this? I’ll break this down even further.

1a & 1b Brooks Orpik and Nicklas Backstrom

These two can be easily disposed of. They, along with Ovechkin have been around the longest and like him have never had a playoff series where they were the difference makers. All you have to do is compare them to unknown Jean-Gabriel Pageau (see above) who without hype came through when his team needed him the most. Did Washington beat Pittsburgh because of them? Has there ever been a playoff series where Washington won because of them? The ugly truth is that they are not good enough and have to go.

1c Kevin Shattenkirk

He was supposed to be the prized acquisition of the trade deadline from St. Louis, the desperate trade that General Manager, Brian MacLellan made mostly at the request of Alexander Ovechkin to put Washington finally over the top. Like Ovechkin, Orpik, and Backstrom, he failed to distinguish himself. The difference maker, the player who got Washington over the hump never occurred. What is even more galling is that his old team in St. Louis dumped him and his huge salary to get cap space, and the Blues instead of folding, rallied and did almost as well as Washington without him and other significant talent losses during last year’s off season. St. Louis now has a chance for the future while Washington is now a team with large salaries for players who do not win.

1d Braden Holtby

He cannot beat the highly questionable playoff goaltender, Marc Andre Fleury, never mind Pittsburgh’s top goaltender, Matt Murray. When I made my predictions for the second round, I said that Washington had to get Fleury to be his usual horrid playoff self and be pulled from some the games. Pitted against the real thing, Holtby out-Fleuryed Fleury, and gave performances of 3 goals on 19 shots, and 3 goals on 14 shots (He was pulled in that game). This series should prove once and for all that Washington cannot be a champion with Holtby as its goaltender. Incredibly he is somehow a contender for the Vezina Trophy.

1e Alexander Ovechkin

I have listed this group from least worst to worst of the worst, and this series instead of enhancing him is probably the series in which Ovechkin’s over-rated status has most clearly been brought into focus. When drafted by Washington, he was billed as the equal of Sidney Crosby. He has lots of pretty individual statistics but horrid team records both in the NHL with Washington and internationally with Russia. Almost every playoff year, he ends up with a horrible plus/minus record, meaning in spite of all his offense, he is actually a liability for Washington in the playoffs. Like the others listed above he is no difference maker, the player who comes up big when the pressure is on, when his team needs him the most. By his own admission, he was playing poorly in this series, and coach Barry Trotz, finally dropping his belief in the myth of Ovechkin, in desperation demoted him to the third line where could do the least damage. The ugly truth is that it should be over in Washington for Ovechkin, he should be traded, and a new era begin.

Todd McLellan

Ever notice that Todd McLellan’s playoff record is very similar to that of the undistinguished Bruce Boudreau of Minnesota? Like Boudreau, his teams never do much in the playoffs. They beat weak playoff teams and nobody else. Right now everybody in Edmonton is rejoicing because they are back in the playoffs after a decade and won a playoff round against declining San Jose. But I, at least am going to file this defeat in the back of my mind with an eye to the future. McLellan’s team came up short again against a true contender. His playoff record should be closely noted next year.

Biggest Losers – Teams

Washington Capitals

There is only one big team loser in this round and we all know who it is. Washington has yet to make it to the Eastern Conference Final, never mind challenging for the Stanley Cup during the Ovechkin era. And don’t say, “Oh they played tough Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh.” There were many years during the Ovechkin era when they did not play Pittsburgh and were upset by other underdog teams. The Pittsburgh-Washington “rivalry” is itself a dud, a myth. Washington is actually Pittsburgh’s home away from home. (3 of Pittsburgh’s victories were in Washington.) Pittsburgh has had more trouble in the past in the playoffs during this era with Tampa Bay, New York Rangers, Ottawa, Boston,  Philadelphia, and Montreal. Pittsburgh played without its best defenseman, its best goaltender, and Sidney Crosby for one game and they still won. The Crosby-Ovechkin comparison is a mismatch. I’ve broken down a lot of reasons for Washington’s continued defeat above. The bottom line is that this team has never been good enough and now needs to be completely torn apart and rebuilt with players who can come through in the playoffs when they are needed the most.

Teams That Can Go Home Happy

The St. Louis Blues lost significant talent during the off-season, fired Stanley Cup winning coach Ken Hitchcock, traded top defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk and still won a playoff round and put up a good struggle against Nashville. They did not go as far as they did in the playoffs last season, but considering all the negative changes, their season has to be considered a success and now they have cap space and a new coach with potential to build a good future.

And of course Edmonton, after being exiled from the playoffs for a decade can celebrate a triumphant return and a first round playoff victory.

Consolation Prize

The New York Rangers improved from last year, advancing to the second round of the playoffs. And on the very day they were eliminated by the Ottawa Senators, they were awarded next year’s Winter Classic outdoor game against the Buffalo Sabres. But I think they would rather trade that game for an opportunity to keep playing in this year’s playoffs…

Still No Answers…

The NHL playoffs are now half way over and the NHL has made a significant decision about the Olympics, announced they would play regular season games in Europe again, and have now set up next year’s Winter Classic outdoor game between the New York Rangers and the Buffalo Sabres. But the three most important issues remain unresolved. Will the New York Islanders get a new arena? Will Quebec get an NHL team? And where will the Arizona Coyotes play?

The End Of Agony/The Humiliation Continues

Two teams, the Montreal Canadiens and the Minnesota Wild were suffering this second round because of the St. Louis-Nashville series. Minnesota refused to significantly upgrade its team during Mike Yeo’s period of coaching which led to his inevitable firing. Minnesota’s punishment was to be humiliatingly eliminated by the St. Louis Blues in the first round in only 5 games, coached by none other than Yeo.

In Montreal during the off season last year, General Manager Marc Bergevin was looking for culprits who failed to respond during the previous season when goaltender Carey Price got injured and caused the Canadiens to miss the playoffs. He zeroed in on P. K. Subban and traded him to Nashville for Shea Weber. For a while he triumphed. During the early part of the season, Montreal was on top of the Eastern Conference while Nashville was out of a playoff position with Subban and the team playing badly. But Subban got the last laugh. His Predators are now going to their first Western Conference Final while Montreal sits on the sidelines, eliminated with home ice advantage in the first round by the New York Rangers. Bergevin, who was taking bows for his shrewd trade earlier now has to grit his teeth and smile and try to explain things.

For both Minnesota and Montreal, the humiliation will be remembered after this season is over. For Minnesota, at least, they do not have to watch Yeo still coaching the Blues in further playoff rounds. But for Montreal the anguish and frustration will continue…

The Start Of A Beautiful Rivalry?

Edmonton with Connor McDavid is the team of the future. But right now, their best playoff rival is the Anaheim Ducks. They had a thrilling 7 game series this time. Is this the start of an era where we will see many intense Duck-Oiler playoff series in the immediate future?

Stanley Cup Playoff Predictions

Eastern Conference

Pittsburgh Penguins Vs. Ottawa Senators

When Sidney Crosby made his playoff debut, it was against Ottawa who at the time, iced the best team they ever had since their reincarnation, led by Daniel Alfredsson which defeated Pittsburgh and made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final where they lost to Anaheim. Since then it has been all Pittsburgh in future playoff meetings. It should be the same again. Pittsburgh simply has more talent than Ottawa, particularly at forward where Ottawa has nobody to compare with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. On the other hand, Ottawa has the best defenceman, Erik Karlsson and Craig Anderson is a better goaltender than Marc Andre Fleury. Will we see Pittsburgh’s top goaltender, Matt Murray in this series? And mysteriously, Ottawa again has a winning record against Pittsburgh this year, just like they did against Boston and the New York Rangers. One of their victories was when Fleury was in the nets for Pittsburgh. Again, the only chance for Ottawa is to do what Columbus and Washington failed to do and make Fleury revert to his erratic playoff self. Craig Anderson has to significantly outplay him. That will be tougher to do because since last year, Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan got the team to commit to playing good defense which was probably the main reason Pittsburgh won the Stanley Cup. This series may be closer than I think it is and I’d love to predict an upset, just like I did for Ottawa against the New York Rangers. But I am too much of a realist this time. It is the end of the line for the over-achieving Senators. Pittsburgh in 5 or 6 games.

Western Conference

Anaheim Ducks Vs. Nashville Predators

This is a rematch of last year’s first round playoff series which the Predators barely won in 7 games. This is going to be a really tough series to predict. There have been significant changes since last year. Nashville, playing in its first Western Conference Final, has added P. K. Subban and Ryan Johansen. For Anaheim, the most significant change was the dumping of mediocre playoff coach Bruce Boudreau, and the rehiring of their Stanley Cup winning coach, Randy Carlyle. So who has made the most improvements? The coaching is even. Both Carlyle and Nashville coach Peter Laviolette have won the Stanley Cup. How does the unknown John Gibson of Anaheim, who has responded extremely well so far match up with Nashville’s goaltender, Pekka Rinne? Nashville has a psychological edge because they beat Anaheim last year. But Anaheim did not have Carlyle who steadied the team down the home stretch in the regular season, overtook San Jose and beat off Edmonton’s challenge. And then in the playoffs, the Ducks eliminated Calgary with authority in a hard played 4 game series, and then beat off Edmonton in a 7th game at home where they had been choking under previous coaches. Anaheim has home ice this time but that has meant nothing to the 8th seeded Predators. Nashville is the new kid on the block who have been doing things in these playoffs that they could not do before. Anaheim has lots of experienced pros who have been corrected from their choking habit by Carlyle. What do I do? Flip a coin? It won’t be an upset if either wins. But I’ll continue to believe Carlyle’s coaching and Anaheim will win in a series that goes the full 7 games.

 

2016-17 NHL Second Playoff Round Predictions

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.

Revenge

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.

Oh Canada

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

Eastern Conference

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.

Western Conference

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.

2016-17 NHL First Playoff Round Predictions

Well it is the start of the Stanley Cup playoffs again with 7 new teams in this year’s tournament.  Changes are particularly noticeable in the Eastern Conference where 5 new teams have made it.  And Canada which had no teams last year has 5 this year.  As customary, before going into each playoff matchup, I’ll list players and teams that have extra pressure on them and thus have more to lose than other teams.

Overjoyed

The CBC, which has five Canadian teams in the playoffs this year, including its biggest market, Toronto.  Big ratings are coming.

 Players With Extra Pressure

  1. Alexander Ovechkin

Every year Ovechkin tops the list of players with the most pressure on them in the playoffs.  He has a basket load of individual honors, both in the NHL and internationally, but he has the most horrible team records.  The latest was his Russian team making the semi-finals at September’s World Cup where they were badly out-shot and beaten by Canada.  Believe it or not, that was actually an improvement.  Washington under his leadership has never even made the Conference finals in the playoffs and frequently gets upset by lesser teams.  He is past the peak of his playing days and time is running out for a Stanley Cup victory.  He used to be compared to Sidney Crosby but his team record is nowhere on the horizon.  Unless he wins a championship, his mentor is Marcel Dionne who had a similar career.  Somehow the pressure on him increases every year, especially this year because Washington has acquired top defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, largely at Ovechkin’s insistence.  Washington is expected to win it all and if they do not, and Ovechkin is in the spotlight because of it, perhaps it is time to trade him and go in a new direction.

  1. Brooks Orpik

Right behind Ovechkin is his long time teammate Brooks Orpik who played like a bonehead in last year’s playoffs and was a major reason Washington lost to Pittsburgh.  Like Ovechkin he is past his prime and time is running out on him in Washington.  He too could be shoved out the door if Washington flops in the playoffs.

  1. Braden Holtby

The goaltender of the Washington Capitals, giving the team the hat-trick of players under the gun.  Holtby is not a bad goaltender but he is nothing special.  One just has to compare his work with that of Pittsburgh goaltender Matt Murray last year who seized his chance and ran with it all the way to the Stanley Cup where he should have been named the Conn Smythe Trophy winner.  Holtby has to rise above what he can usually do and outplay the goaltenders of other top contenders.  He has extra pressure on him now that Shattenkirk is here.  If he cannot do it, Washington may have to get another goaltender to complete the final piece of the puzzle.

  1. Henrik Lundqvist

The Alexander Ovechkin of NHL goaltenders.  At least he has a better record than Ovechkin in the playoffs because he took the New York Rangers to a Stanley Cup Final where they lost to Los Angeles.  But that was only once and his record in playoffs and international competition is undistinguished.  The latest unremarkable effort was in September’s World Cup where he let in two critical goals to the hybrids Europe and North America and Sweden was put out of the playoffs.  Now he has to go up against Carey Price in the first round and outplay him.

  1. Carey Price

Price at least has a distinguished international record both at the Olympics and the World Cup.  But his Stanley Cup playoff record is not good where he has the Montreal defense, not the Canada defense to protect him.  As noted above, he faces another top goaltender in the first round, Lundqvist in a similar situation, and the loser is going to come out, especially if one badly outplays the other, with a diminished reputation and questions hanging above him.  That will mean increased pressure in future Stanley Cup playoffs.  Something has to give.

  1. Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry

Under mediocre playoff coach, Bruce Boudreau, the Anaheim Ducks have choked against lesser teams.  But they have rehired their Stanley Cup winning coach, Randy Carlyle again so the pressure will now be more focused on the players who failed to rise to the occasion under Boudreau.  If the Ducks fall to a lesser team in the playoffs this year, management might conclude that the roster is not good enough and does not respond any more.  Top players like Getzlaf and Perry would come under serious re-evaluation and could be traded as part of a rebuilding process.

  1. Bruce Boudreau and Chuck Fletcher

I know this section is supposed to be about players but Boudreau and Fletcher, the coach and general manager of the Minnesota Wild belong on it.  Boudreau is like Ovechkin in the playoffs.  His teams can beat lesser lights but never a true contender.  Fletcher’s team, Minnesota got Zach Parise and Ryan Suter a few years ago, patted himself on the back and then assumed that was enough to be a Stanley Cup champion.  Alas Minnesota has never risen above mediocrity in the playoffs and has never added significantly better talent since to rise any further.  Then last year, Fletcher hired mediocre playoff coach Boudreau.  The perfect combination.  Minnesota had better show something in this year’s playoffs or attention and pressure will be focused on the management, coaching, and ownership where it will belong.

Teams With Extra Pressure (The “Show Me” Teams)

  1. Washington Capitals

It goes without saying that the team with three players on the list above and the now two-time President’s Trophy winner has the most pressure on it again.  The minimum that is acceptable for Washington is to make the Eastern Conference Final which has never happened during the Ovechkin era.  Coach Barry Trotz will be under fire if the team underperforms because now Kevin Shattenkirk has been added, but NO COACH either in the NHL or internationally has been able to make a winner out of Alexander Ovechkin.  General Manager Brian MacLellan got himself and the owners off the hook by boldly and bravely getting Shattenkirk at the trade deadline.  Last year they got T. J. Oshie who made a notable contribution but it still was not enough.  As noted above, if Washington flops and any of the three players listed in the above section is a part of the reason, it may be overdue time to try to keep Shattenkirk and Oshie, trade the others and go in a new direction.

  1. Minnesota Wild

Right behind the Capitals are the Minnesota Wild, especially since the Bruce Boudreau Regular Season Machine did so well this year.  But Minnesota looked brittle coming down the home stretch and only their excellent earlier record kept them in second place in their division.  Even more ominous was that they did poorly head-to-head against Chicago, who is the favorite in the Western Conference.  As noted above, Minnesota added Suter and Parise and have done nothing since.  If the Wild flops again and continues to stagnate, there should be a shake-up of both the roster and the management.

  1. Columbus Blue Jackets

Actually neither players, coaches, or management should have any extra pressure on them.  They have overachieved.  But Columbus plays in the Ohio-Indiana area, close to the Canadian border, where hockey is mysteriously unpopular, which I have termed the “Death Valley” of professional hockey.  The Blue Jackets get consistently bad attendance.  They have only made the playoffs three times in their history and have never won a playoff series.  Sure Columbus had the finest regular season in their history, but is that enough to convince local fans to support the team?  The cynical fans may be saying “Show me” before they really start believing in this team and that means a playoff victory.  And if that is still not enough to attract increased attendance, perhaps it may be time to consider a franchise shift to Quebec, Hamilton, or Hartford.

Stanley Cup First Round Predictions

Eastern Conference

  1. Washington Capitals Vs. Toronto Maple Leafs

All the pressure is on Washington but at least in this round they should not have to worry.  They have to be heavily favored over newly arrived Toronto which is a team full of rookies making their Stanley Cup playoff debuts.  As if the Leafs didn’t have enough to worry about in this round, the Capitals added star defenseman, Kevin Shattenkirk to push them over the top.  This is the first playoff meeting ever between Washington and Toronto.  It may seem a mismatch but the season series was very close, Washington winning 2-1 with one game going into overtime.  The best things the Maple Leafs have going for them is that they have the young, up-coming superstar Auston Matthews, the overall number one pick this year who has been everything the Leafs wanted, and wants to make his playoff debut just as good as his regular season debut was; and the coaching of Mike Babcock.  But with all the experience and star players, the Capitals should win in 5 games.

P.S.  If the Capitals somehow blow this series, I would not want to be a Washington Capital in the off season.

  1. Montreal Canadiens Vs. New York Rangers

These two teams probably knew for months that they would be facing each other in the first round of the playoffs.  At one time it seemed that both of them would be challenging for the President’s Trophy but they faded and weaknesses have showed.  Montreal went so far as to fire its coach and replace him with their old mentor, Stanley Cup winning coach, Claude Julien who won with Boston.  The Canadiens swept their series with the Rangers, establishing a clear edge over them.

Coaching wise the hockey gods mischievously matched up French Canadian coaches Alain Vigneault of the New York Rangers against (you remember) the coach who beat him in the Stanley Cup Finals in 7 games, Claude Julien, another edge for the Canadiens.  Canadiens have home ice.  Henrik Lundqvist can be counted on to let in at least one goal at the wrong time.  Montreal in 6 or 7 games.

  1. Pittsburgh Penguins Vs. Columbus Blue Jackets

Poor Columbus.  They overachieved and ended up with the worst playoff matchup possible, the Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins, just when they needed to convince local fans that they were for real the most.  Even playing against choker Washington would have been better.  The only good news that Columbus got was that Pittsburgh’s best defenseman, Kris Letang is out for the entire playoffs.  But Evgeni Malkin will be back and combined with Sidney Crosby that should be enough for victory for Pittsburgh over Columbus who are a team of no-names.  Sergei Bobrovsky is a good goaltender but Pittsburgh goaltender Matt Murray won it all last year.  It would have been better for Columbus if Murray had been injured instead of Letang and Pittsburgh would have had to start the erratic Marc Andre Fleury.  In Columbus’s favor is that they played Pittsburgh even head-to-head this year.  Pittsburgh has the home ice edge and is vastly superior in talent and playoff experience.  Columbus’s only hope is that the Letang injury means a serious drop-off in defensive performance but that won’t happen with Murray in Pittsburgh’s net.  Pittsburgh in 5 or 6 games.

  1. Ottawa Senators Vs. Boston Bruins

This is the first playoff meeting between these teams since the 1920s.  The Senators played bad hockey down the stretch and on paper may be the weakest team in the Eastern Conference playoffs.  They would probably lose to every other playoff team in the conference – except the Boston Bruins who are 0-3-1 against them.  For that reason, the Senators have to be favored in this series though it could go either way, especially if Boston goaltender Tukka Rask gets hot and outplays Craig Anderson.  Ottawa in 6 or 7 games.

Western Conference

  1. Chicago Blackhawks Vs. Nashville Predators

When Nashville got P. K. Subban from Montreal for Shea Weber, many Predator fans and a whole bunch of predictors at the NHL website assumed that the Predators had got the “final piece of the puzzle” and that Nashville would at least be the Western Conference champion.  Instead the Predators nearly finished out of the playoffs and only a late surge of good hockey got them back in.  Subban is certainly not enough to topple Chicago who have won three Stanley Cups since 2010 and have to be the favorites this year to win it all again, especially since Pittsburgh lost Kris Letang.  Chicago has too much talent and is too well coached to lose to a team like Nashville that needs a lot more talent than Subban to become a champion.  Chicago in 5 games.

  1. Minnesota Wild Vs. St. Louis Blues

Bruce Boudreau is a mediocre playoff coach.  The Minnesota Wild are a mediocre playoff team.  The St. Louis Blues made a bit of a break-through last year and reached the Western Conference Final, where they seldom go, but then lost talent in the off-season and then obligingly traded one of their top defensemen, Kevin Shattenkirk so that Los Angeles could make the playoffs while they rebuilt their team.  Instead the Blues responded and made the playoffs while Minnesota had a horrible last quarter of the season.  Minnesota which is supposed to be superior cannot lose to a team which at least on paper is much worse than last year.  Can they?  Then again, they are the Minnesota Wild and he is coach Bruce Boudreau…  And the hockey gods continued their weird sense of humor by matching Minnesota against their old coach, Mike Yeo.  This is tough to predict.  It could go either way.  At least on paper, Minnesota should win, but I’ll go out on a limb and say St. Louis will rankle Boudreau and General Manager Chuck Fletcher and win for Yeo in 7 games.

  1. Edmonton Oilers Vs. San Jose Sharks

Last year, San Jose coach Peter DeBoer took a team that was supposed to be over the hill and on the way down into new territory, all the way to the Stanley Cup Final.  For part of this season, San Jose looked like that team, but the Sharks had a horrible last quarter and tumbled out of first place in their division to third.  Has an aging reality finally caught up to the Sharks?  Meanwhile the Oilers, under Sidney Crosby’s heir, Connor McDavid made the playoffs after 10 years of futility.  Added to the spice and intrigue is that the perverted hockey gods decided that the Oilers coach should be San Jose’s old coach, Todd McLellan.  Martin Jones, who played so well for the Sharks in net during last year’s playoffs gives San Jose an edge at a key position.  Unknown positive factor for the Oilers:  How good is Connor McDavid?  San Jose has nothing like him, just like they had nobody like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in last year’s final.  Unknown negative factor for the Oilers:  It took Wayne Gretzky three years before the Oilers won a playoff round.  If San Jose had been playing good down the stretch, I would take them based on their playoff experience and Jones’ goaltending.  But I don’t think San Jose will find themselves this time, McDavid will be the difference, and the Oilers will win in 6 games.

  1. Anaheim Ducks Vs. Calgary Flames

The Ducks had been choking in the playoffs under mediocre playoff coach Bruce Boudreau, so they reached back into their past and rehired their Stanley Cup winning coach, Randy Carlyle again.  So far it has paid off.  The Ducks kept their heads while the Sharks faded and the Oilers and Flames also took a run at them and ended up winning their division.  Carlyle certainly has the experience and knowledge to keep them playing that way in the playoffs.  Meanwhile Calgary got hot at the right time and put together a 10 game winning streak in the last quarter of the regular season, just when they needed it the most.  Rookie coach Glenn Gulutan should also be saluted because he took a team that seemed headed for the bottom of the Western Conference standings at the beginning of the season, turned it around and got it into the playoffs.  Unknown factor:  The coaching of Gulutan.  Will he be just as good in the playoffs as he was in the regular season?  Can he match the experienced, Stanley Cup winning coach, Carlyle?  And how will the goaltending match up?  This could go in Calgary’s favor if all the unknown factors go their way.  Anaheim’s veterans have more to lose in this series than up and coming Calgary.  Based on what I know about Carlyle, I’ll take the Ducks in 6 games.

Early Stanley Cup Prediction

Since the beginning of the season, until otherwise proven, I’ve consistently said that the Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins were the teams to beat and I still hold to that.  When Pittsburgh built its team around the latest member on Canada’s Golden Hockey Chain, Sidney Crosby (A list of the top Canadian players of their generation who is head and shoulders above everyone else, dating back to Maurice Richard), and top Russian, Evgeni Malkin, it was predicted that Pittsburgh would win many Stanley Cups during the coming era.  But while Pittsburgh floundered under the bad goaltending of Marc Andre Fleury, Chicago seized its opportunity to win every other year.  Chicago is back again this year and Pittsburgh has been hurt by the injury to top defenseman, Kris Letang.  A dream matchup will be a Chicago-Pittsburgh final and the Blackhawks will continue their pattern by winning their fourth Stanley Cup in 8 years.

2016 NHL SECOND ROUND PLAYOFF PREDICTIONS

It is now anybody’s tournament, anybody’s Stanley Cup. With the ouster of the Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks and the Los Angeles Kings, there will be a new champion for the first time in four years. All the teams left in the playoffs have never won the Stanley Cup or haven’t won it in a long time with the exception of the Pittsburgh Penguins who are trying to get back to the level they were at – at the level that had been foreseen for them – in 2009.

During the first round, I took the stand of “show me” – prove it to me that you really have improved, that you have righted the ship, that you can win the big one, that you are over the hump. Well several teams did just that, making me look bad. Some of the results have far-reaching implications and may lead to serious consequences in the off season. Others were just routine wins and losses. So before moving on to my predictions, I’ll give my usual analysis about who won big and who lost big, both for players and teams.

Players – Biggest Winners

There are no players who were big losers in the first round, but several players deserve an extra pat on the back.

1. Joe Thornton (and Patrick Marleau)

Over the years I’ve probably berated Joe Thornton more than any other player because under his leadership, San Jose has never come close to the playoff results that have been predicted. But now in the twilight of his career, he has pulled off a huge upset of a team that I predicted would repeat its pattern of the previous four years and win the Stanley Cup. I don’t care how much Joe and Patrick actually contributed. They both deserve to take a well-earned bow for this.

2. Martin Jones

Jones took away the Los Angeles Kings’ biggest edge, their biggest weapon, former Conn Smythe Trophy winner, goaltender Jonathan Quick. By outplaying Quick or at least playing him equal, Jones played the crucial part in giving whatever hopes the Sharks had of pulling an upset, a chance to come true. This result establishes himself a playoff caliber goaltender, a huge boost for his career and gives hope for the Sharks in the future.

3. John Tavares

Tavares had never won a playoff round and to lose to untried Florida would have been a huge setback not only to the Islanders but for also his career. To never win a playoff round would start to haunt him and the critics would start to question his capability. He desperately wanted to establish his Islanders team as a potential Stanley Cup champion, a team that could win in the playoffs and this result is a good starting point.

4. Matt Murray

When Marc Andre Fleury was  removed  from the Pittsburgh roster by a concussion, Murray stepped up and gave Pittsburgh the type of steady goal tending  that the Penguins have so sorely lacked in the playoffs since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009.  The result has been that Pittsburgh was finally able to beat the New York Rangers, who had been consistently eliminating them from the playoffs in recent years.  If Murray continues his fine play, Fleury will be history in Pittsburgh.

 

 

Players Under The Gun

Alexander Ovechkin

You’re playing for it all in this next round against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Alexander, and I mean everything. Not only the chance to move on in the playoffs, not only the chance to win the Stanley Cup, but the implied rivalry that has been around with Sidney Crosby since you both arrived in the league at the same time as best player in the league; your status as best Russian in the NHL against Evgeni Malkin; the fate of your veteran players on Washington especially long time pals and teammates Brooks Orpik, and Nicklas Backstrom; the status by which you will be remembered in the NHL when you retire; your future status with the Russian national team; the meaning of the successful season your Washington Capitals have had this year; and possibly your very future with the Washington Capitals.

You may be piling up the individual records but as a team man you’ve been a horrible flop. Your Washington Capitals are notorious chokers in the NHL playoffs just like your Russian national teams in the Olympics. Crosby and Malkin can retire right now having won the Stanley Cup, with Malkin getting the Conn Smythe Trophy as most valuable player, and Crosby winning two Olympic Gold Medals to your none. There is only one constant in both situations: you. If you really are a champion, the great player you and everybody else claimed you are, you could not get a tougher opponent or a more direct challenge to prove it. You’re staring down the barrel of a gun. You will be competing against the two players you are most compared with and if you don’t look good against them, your status in the NHL is going to take a deep fall no matter how many individual feats you pile up in the future. You have never even been to the third round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The ball is squarely in your court this round. No other player in the NHL has so much pressure on him in this round as you do. Because if you don’t make it to the next round this time after the season the Capitals have had, all your achievements this year will mean nothing and it is doubtful that ANY team will become a champion with you as its leader.

Teams – Biggest Winners

1. Pittsburgh Penguins

Ever since 2009 when the Penguins won the Stanley Cup they have been floundering in the playoffs. General Manager Ray Shero tinkered incorrectly with the chemistry of the team and now both he and coach Dan Bylsma are gone. Still worse, most of the playoff losses were to teams with inferior talent. When Pittsburgh drafted both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, they were expected to win many championships, not just one. Has the ship finally been righted? Pittsburgh roared down the home stretch, moving up from 7th to 2nd, and then dispatched impressively, the Rangers, a team that had beaten them consistently in the playoffs in recent years. Are the Penguins finally back and ready to reclaim the future predicted for them? Beating a nemesis convincingly was a good way of making believers.

2. St. Louis Blues

St. Louis was in the same position as Pittsburgh, having to prove themselves against a long time nemesis. Actually the St. Louis victory was even more impressive because it was against the toughest opponent in the first round, defending champion and three time Stanley Cup winner Chicago who had beaten St. Louis consistently in the playoffs. St. Louis was desperately trying to reach the level of the Blackhawks (all be it without core player Patrick Sharp) and Los Angeles Kings and now that both main rivals are gone, they have a great chance of getting back to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since 1970.

3. San Jose Sharks

They are not supposed to be here. Anachronistic San Jose, still led by long time playoff floppers Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau somehow managed to beat and impressively too, Los Angeles Kings, who if the recent pattern held true, were scheduled to win the Stanley Cup again this year. But the key figure for San Jose was probably goaltender Martin Jones who managed to be the equal and even superior of former Conn Smythe Trophy winner Jonathan Quick. His emergence provides great hope for San Jose’s future. But does his emergence now make the Sharks this year’s team of destiny? They pulled off the biggest miracle of the first round. Based on that, are there more to come?

4. Nashville Predators

The Predators have won some first-round matches in the past but the Ducks might be the best team that the Predators have ever eliminated, a sign that they are on the way to becoming a true Stanley Cup competitor at last. It was also the first time that they won a seven game playoff series. This is a young team on the way up and the door is wide open for them to advance farther than they have ever been in this year’s playoffs.

Teams – Biggest Losers

1. Minnesota Wild

For a long time Minnesota could not make the playoffs and then added native Minnesota hero Zach Parise and other free agents to really contend for the Stanley Cup. They managed to beat teams on the same level as themselves like Colorado but could not compete with real Stanley Cup caliber teams like Los Angeles and Chicago. Now they have lost to unproven Dallas. The results are plain. The amount of talent on Minnesota is not enough and not good enough. They might make the playoffs and win the odd round against lesser teams but they are far from being a true Stanley Cup contender. This team needs a major retooling in the off season to become a true contender.

2. Los Angeles Kings

The pattern was Chicago wins; win the Stanley Cup; off year while Chicago wins; win the Stanley Cup; off year while Chicago wins; they were supposed to win the Stanley Cup again this year. Clearly management thought that by adding past Stanley Cup winners Vincent Lecavalier and Milan Lucic they had rebuilt this team to be a winner again. What really hurt was that the Kings’ best weapon, the one edge they thought they had over everybody, former Conn Smythe Trophy winner, goaltender Jonathan Quick was played equal or even out-played. When that happens, the Kings do not have enough talent to make up the deficit. It will not be that difficult a task, the Kings are not that far away, especially as long as they have Quick, but management has to add more to bring the Kings back to the winners circle.

3. Anaheim Ducks

I know I said in my first round predictions that Anaheim-Nashville was not a mismatch and that an upset could occur but this was a bitter setback for the Anaheim Ducks, the team who in recent years came closest to breaking through the Chicago-Los Angeles Western Conference monopoly. It is one thing losing to established Stanley Cup champions Blackhawks-Kings, but it is quite another to lose to up-and-coming Nashville no matter how good a team the Predators are especially when you have home ice advantage, at one point led 3-2, your two main rivals have been eliminated, and you had the advantage of being a battle-hardened veteran team that knows the ropes. This defeat is particularly damaging to the career of coach Bruce Boudreau. He is a good coach but when all things are added up, he has never been to a Stanley Cup Final, let alone win the big one. This is the type of defeat that might make management feel that the Ducks are just spinning their wheels under Boudreau and not progressing. There could be changes both at the coaching level and in the team during the off season.
Eastern Conference

1. Tampa Bay-New York Islanders

It could happen, the New York Islanders beating Tampa Bay. As long as they are on the ice to compete, it can. Ask San Jose. But it won’t happen this time. Finally winning a playoff round was a huge step for the Islanders who had not won for eons. At least they are over that hump. But they are facing a far different caliber opponent in Florida’s other team, seasoned Tampa Bay Lightning that made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final last year and put up a good struggle against champion Chicago. The best thing the Islanders have going for them is the hunger of John Tavares. But it will not be enough against Tampa Bay which has far more talent and experience. Now that their two toughest rivals, Chicago and Los Angeles have been removed and the Stanley Cup is now anybody’s trophy to win, Tampa Bay will not blow their best chance to win the Stanley Cup to such a lesser team in experience and talent. The Lightning will win in 6 or 5 games.

2. Washington-Pittsburgh

Pity poor Washington. These are the two most desperate teams in the Eastern Conference and it is all summed up in the names of their two biggest stars, Sydney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin who entered the NHL at the same time and were supposed be equal rivals for the rest of their careers. But there is a big divergence in their careers. Crosby has won a Stanley Cup and two Olympic medals while Ovechkin has won nothing except individual trophies, and has not even been to a conference final. And there is reason to doubt whether Ovechkin has really been the best Russian player during this period and the player who has supplanted him is none other than Evgeni Malkin, who is also lining up against him in this round. Since the end of the 2009 season, these two teams have been the worst chokers of the Eastern Conference, often losing to teams of much lesser talent. But at least Pittsburgh has won one championship, though that is far from what was predicted for them. For the Capitals to win, they must get great goaltending from Braden Holtby and get to Pittsburgh goaltender Matt Murray. The best thing the Capitals have going for them is coach Barry Trotz who managed to get them to win a gritty 1-0 game in game 6 in Philadelphia, the type of lesser team the Capitals have lost to so frequently in the past, just when the Flyers were starting to smell the Capitals’ blood. But Pittsburgh has far more talent than lowly Philadelphia and has been red hot since the middle of March. I believe in Barry Trotz but I don’t believe in brittle Ovechkin, Brooks Orpik, and Nicklas Backstrom and Trotz will not be enough this time. Pittsburgh will win in 6 or 7 games and then there needs to be a deep rethink in Washington about winning with this core of veteran players, especially winning with ANY team that has Ovechkin as the leader. As in the previous round, Washington is playing for its future.

Western Conference

3. Dallas-St. Louis

This is a very tough series to call. It pits the long-time-trying-to-prove-it-to-everyone St. Louis Blues who seldom ever make the Conference Final against the newly put together, up-and-coming Western Conference champion Dallas Stars. Let’s start putting the series factors together and see what comes out.

Regular Season Winner: Dallas 2-1 with two games in overtime
Home Ice Advantage: Dallas
Goaltending: Dallas
Beat tougher opponent in the first round: St Louis
Team with most players who have won the Stanley Cup before and know how to win the big one: Dallas
Desperation Factor: Should be St. Louis, if it is not, they deserve to lose.
Coaching: St. Louis Ken Hitchcock who has won a Stanley Cup, ironically with Dallas. Lindy Ruff is a good coach but he has never won the big one.
Hex Factor/Choker Habit: St. Louis
At least on paper better offence: Dallas
At least on paper better defense: St. Louis

I’ll go with St. Louis because they should have a better defense, at least on paper, they should play more desperately, and Ken Hitchcock has won the big one. But St. Louis always chokes, especially in this round, and Dallas has a wide edge in players who have won the big one before. Ugg, I even feel like changing my mind. However St. Louis did finally manage to beat the Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks. But long time Blackhawk Stanley Cup champion Patrick Sharp is now playing for Dallas… I’d like to duck picking this match but since I have to choose I’ll take St. Louis in 6 or 7 games but it won’t be a surprise or upset if Dallas wins.
4. San Jose-Nashville

This is the Cinderella series, a battle of two teams who beat superior opponents in the first round, but both are coming from opposite directions. The Sharks are led by veterans who may be having their last hurrah, their last chance to win the Stanley Cup while the Predators are a young, up-and-coming team. For both teams this should be a desperate series because the Predators have never been to a Conference Final and Sharks have seldom reached it during the Thornton-Marleau era, so this is the best chance each team has had for reaching new ground. Nashville won the regular season series, 2-1. At the coaching level, it is pretty even; Nashville coach Peter Laviolette who has won the big one with Carolina, against San Jose coach Peter DeBoer who took underdog, under-talented New Jersey to the Stanley Cup Final and has already pulled off a major upset in the first round with the supposedly over-the-hill Sharks. San Jose has home ice but that meant nothing in the last round to the Predators. The key to this series is San Jose goaltender Martin Jones. Was that just a flash-in-the-pan performance when he outplayed maybe the best goaltender of the Stanley Cup playoffs, Los Angeles Kings Jonathan Quick, or is he the real thing? He will have to be just as good against Nashville goaltender Pekka Rinne for the Sharks to have a chance to win. This is also the round where San Jose traditionally chokes. I will take youth over age in this unique battle of the underdog teams with Nashville winning in 6 games. Either way, it will be a Cinderella team in the Conference Final and possibly in the Stanley Cup as well.