April is the best month, isn’t it?! If you love sports, it is. Combine the Final Four with MLB opening day, the Masters, the Stanley Cup playoffs, the NBA playoffs, and the NFL draft with the fact that the snow is melting (or in the case here…has melted) and you can rock your flippy floppies around town again, it’s good times!
But obviously this year, especially in Alberta, it’s a lot different. Five Canadian teams. It’s only the second time since 1991 that both the Flames and the Oilers have made the playoffs in the same season. It’s the first time since 1990 that the Flames, the Oilers, and the Leafs have all made it in the same season! Here is another one for you…it’s the first time since 1993 that three Canadian teams have had home ice advantage. So all these years of being near the bottom of the standings look as though they’re about to really pay off for the Canadian teams. The Oilers and Leafs look as though they could be on a collision course in the next few years to meet in the final, and in my opinion the Jets and Flames won’t be far behind.
But that’s in the years to come. This is 2017, and it’s getting depressing to look three and four years down the road so let’s just focus on what’ll happen in the next two months.
Anaheim vs Calgary
This is going to sound bad. This is going to sound like a bitter Oilers fan. I don’t care, because I know that isn’t at all what it’s about and it’s purely from a hockey POV. The Flames are the weakest team in the West and to me don’t look like a threat to anyone in the conference. This team hasn’t beat a playoff team with their starting goaltender on regular rest (not on the 2nd half of a back to back) in regulation time since NOVEMBER 23rd! The media (Eastern media specifically) can rave about how they’ve looked the last few months all they want, the truth is that they’ve simply won the games they should win. Now, in fairness, that’s not easy to do. But the fact that they aren’t beating good teams at their best unless it’s in a gimmick format, that’s a terrible sign. I also don’t think the Flames do anything that would intimidate another team. Their skill is good not great, they’re not a big team, they have real good speed but not elite speed, the blueline is real solid but not overwhelming, and the goaltending is solid but nothing special. Then you have the Ducks, who look terrific top to bottom. I know, they’ve choked in game seven a lot, but don’t you have to take them seven before that becomes a factor? The Ducks either match everything the Flames have, or better them. I might have said the Flames are better in net about a month ago, but not the way I’ve seen Gibson play lately. I just really don’t like them as a playoff team, and out of all the teams they could have played the Ducks are likely the worst matchup of all.
Ducks in 5
Edmonton vs San Jose
A lot of this depends on how healthy both Logan Couture and Joe Thornton. I believe both are going to play, but I can’t see either of them being near their normal level of play. If they are, the Oilers are in big trouble here. The Sharks have a boat load more experience, and match the Oilers speed, size, goaltending, basically it’s the same matchup as Anaheim/Calgary. But if those two players are what I expect them to be which is shells of there former selves, then the Sharks are at a major disadvantage in this series. Home ice is pretty vital for the Oilers here just because they’ll be able to keep Vlasic away from McDavid a lot more often. I know McDavid had success against him and Braun in the regular season, but Vlasic is the type of guy who can raise his game. But while that’ll be the matchup everyone watches, I believe the X factor here is Brent Burns. Possibly the best PP weapon in the league this season, and the Oilers PK was horrendous at times in the final two months. Mind you, the Sharks had the worst PP of all 16 playoff teams, and Burns cooled off dramatically in the final month. But as an Oilers fan I really fear the PP vs PK matchup here. Another thing Oilers fans have to know going in, the officiating is going to be disgusting. Not because it’s the Oilers, but it’s a veteran team vs a youthful team. It’s humiliating that Elliotte Friedman can go on the air and talk about how a teams strategy will be to take as many penalties as they can against a player and in hockey circles this is accepted, and then they wonder why scoring is down and they have trouble growing the game. ANYWAY…Tough time picking this one, because I THINK it’ll be the Oilers, but I just hope I’m doing this with the head and not the heart.
Oilers in 7
Chicago vs Nashville
I doubt many will have this one the same, but I’ve been hot and bothered by the Preds since about midseason (maybe I’m going a LITTLE far by saying I’m hot and bothered by them). When everyone is going for the Preds, they’re damn good! For me, something just doesn’t feel right about this particular Hawks group. Full disclosure, outside of the Oilers, I’m pulling for Chicago in the West. I’d kill for a Hawks/Pens Cup final. But, I can’t put my finger on it, but I just don’t trust this Hawks team. Zero adversity all season long, and they really drew the short end of the stick getting Nashville instead of St. Louis in my opinion. I feel like the Preds can matchup with the Hawks everywhere, and the big X factor in this series is Pekka Rinne. He’s not near as consistent as he used to be, but still has the ability to raise his game to an elite level. If he does, and I’m saying he does, it’ll be the big reason the Preds pull off the upset. As a bit of a Hawks fan, hope I’m wrong.
Preds in 6
Minnesota vs St. Louis
Not at all a sexy matchup here, but a very interesting matchup. The Wild for 2/3 of the season were the top team in the West and looked like they would cruise to top spot in the Central. In the last third of the season, Devan Dubnyk resorted back to Oilers Devan Dubnyk and the Wild crashed hard down the stretch. Meanwhile, until the Ken Hitchcock firing the Blues looked as though they wouldn’t make the playoffs. Since Mike Yeo has taken over, the Blues, Jake Allen in particular, have been great. So which way do you go here? I’m sure most will take the Blues. I’m taking the Wild. The Wild analytically, and I go back and forth on how much stock I put into analytics, but analytically the Wild are still a great team, they just aren’t getting saves. The Blues are now getting saves, but are you going to trust Jake Allen in a pressure spot? You’re going to be that person? Ok, good luck with that. Go watch these two teams in the playoffs two years ago and tell me how Allen looked. How about the 2010 World Juniors, how’d he look there? This kid is going to have to prove himself under pressure, and until he does I won’t trust him.
Wild in 6
Montreal vs NY Rangers
What an awful prize for the Habs to win for finishing first in the Atlantic. I just don’t see how the Habs pull this series out. Goaltending is pretty much a wash, the Rangers are quicker, the Rangers have as good of a blueline, are stronger down the middle, I think Claude Julien is an elite coach but so is former Habs bench boss Alain Vigneault. I’m sorry to any Habs fans out there reading this, but I’m just not seeing it.
Rangers in 6
Ottawa vs Boston
I know the Sens managed to sweep the Bruins in the season series. I know the Sens are the much quicker team of the two. But the Bruins have so much experience, and so much high end talent that I really think in the end that is what’ll win out. Plus, we don’t know just how healthy Erik Karlsson will be, and if he’s not 100% (I doubt he is) I’m not seeing how the Senators can win it.
Bruins in 6
Washington vs Toronto
This one might be the biggest shocker pick of all. Ok, no. That’ll be the Preds pick. But the amount of games I go with here might surprise you all. I just think you have a classic case of one team having all the pressure in the world, not to mention a brutal history, vs a team that nobody expected to be here and simply couldn’t have less to lose. The Caps could easily sweep this series, so it’s a risky bet putting it out there that I believe it’ll go seven, but I just really believe that with how well coached this Leafs team is and that refuse to die attitude they seem to have, I really believe they’re going to be a very tough out for the Caps. Washington is still going to take the series, and it might be good for them to get a bit of a scare early on. You think of a team like the 89 Flames who could never get over the hump, looked like they had an easy first round matchup against the Canucks that season, and it went to OT in game 7 before they advanced. Point is, these kind of things happen and I’m playing a hunch that the Leafs will push them to the brink.
Caps in 7
Pittsburgh vs Columbus
The biggest problem here is that I don’t think the Blue Jackets have another gear. I believe we’ve been seeing their best all season long, and that’s great, but A) they likely have now emptied the tank and B) the Pens have a whole other gear to go to, yet still finished ahead of Columbus. Having said that, I do think the Jackets are going to be a miserable out for the Pens. Torts can coach in the playoffs, and knows Mike Sullivan well. The Jackets have an edge in goal no matter who the goaltender is for the Pens. They’ll start with Matt Murray, but he’s been inconsistent of late so don’t be surprised if Marc-Andre Fleury re-emerges. Another thing you can’t forget is how miserable Brandon Dubinsky makes life for Sidney Crosby. Still, despite all of this, and no Kris Letang, I don’t see the Jackets pulling this one out. The Pens are just simply too talented and too experienced for the Jackets to handle.
Pens in 6
Anaheim vs Nashville
Not at all a sexy matchup, but has the makings for a great series. A rematch of the first round a year ago that saw the Preds pull a massive upset to everyone….but me (although maybe I shouldn’t brag, I think I got like three of eight right in the first round last year, and this season I think I took the Kings and Lightning in the final…) Two teams that have a lot of size, a lot of speed, and a lot of skill. At midseason I loved the Preds, and still do. But as we’ve moved towards the playoffs, I’ve been seeing a Ducks team that pretty literally has it all and will be a nightmare for teams to matchup with. Randy Carlyle has won in the playoffs too, and while I’m not sure he’s a better coach than Bruce Boudreau, I do believe that mentally it’ll help the Ducks simply not having Boudreau’s postseason shortcomings hanging over their heads.
Ducks in 6
Pittsburgh vs NY Rangers
We saw this one in the first round last year as well, and it wasn’t nearly the series Anaheim/Nashville was. I kept waiting and waiting and waiting for the Rangers to show up, and wow did that ever not. At that point, the Pens had been a massive underachiever since 2009, and the Rangers…NEW YORK…was seemingly always forgotten despite a lot of recent success. Yet here we are a year later and even without Kris Letang I still like the Pens to come out of the Metro, and I only like the Rangers to get this far because the Atlantic is a bit of a joke. The Rangers on paper matchup with the Pens pretty good. But having seen that demolition by the Pens last spring I have a hard time believing it wouldn’t happen again
Pens in 5
Stanley Cup Final
Pittsburgh vs Anaheim
Not the matchup I’m hoping for, but I think this has the makings of a tremendous Stanley Cup final. The Ducks can match the Pens speed, have a better blueline should Cam Fowler make it back (and now that the Pens won’t have Letang), and the biggest thing of all is that the Ducks are one of the few teams in the NHL who can matchup with the Pens down the middle. Kesler vs Crosby, Getzlaf vs Malkin. You might then say “yeah, but the Pens kill you with the Kessel line”, but the Ducks have recently been running a 3rd line of Antoine Vermette with Rickard Rakell and Corey Perry! It would be a total pick’em series in my opinion.
Ducks in 7
Conn Smythe – Hampus Lindholm
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