If the NBA playoffs are Lincoln, a slow burn for two and a half hours that you feel like you should sit through for the historical significance, the NHL playoffs are Argo. Sure, you’re looking at many unfamiliar faces for the entire running length – even Ben Affleck is hardly the Chuckie Sullivan we’re used to – but from the get-go the dripping tension and urgent atmosphere have you on the edge of your seat.
After a rough start, the NBA playoffs have had their moments. Stephen Curry is a must-watch legend in the making and has Golden State on the cusp of a pretty big upset, Grizzlies-Clippers seems destined to go 7 and the triple-overtime Game 4 of Bulls-Nets provided enough drama to qualify as a classic in this or any other season.
But while the intensity is ratcheted up once the NBA’s postseason begins, the NHL’s is truly a second season entirely different than what we spent the first 82 – or in this case 48 – games witnessing. Every faceoff seems vital, every goal seems to bring a permanent shift in momentum and every series realistically could go either way. An eight seed won the Stanley Cup last season by giving up 30 GOALS IN 20 GAMES. There have been at least two upsets by seed in the first round of every iteration of the playoffs since the 2004-05 lockout. This isn’t the NCAA tournament, it’s better. If it required four wins in seven games to pull an upset in March Madness, Cinderella wouldn’t exist. In the NHL, she gets around more than Elisha Cuthbert.
This lockout-shortened slate makes it even likelier than usual that upsets are on the horizon, but there are still two serious heavyweights heading in. Chicago didn’t lose in regulation for exactly half of the season, while Pittsburgh didn’t lose in the entire month of March and went one 53-day stretch while dropping only two games. Had they been able to keep up their points pace for a regular 82-game schedule, the Blackhawks and Penguins would have finished tied for first and fourth, respectively, among the NHL’s best regular-season records in the last 35 years.
Are they on a collision course to play for the Stanley Cup? Probably not. Since the NHL began seeding one through eight in each conference in 1994, the top seeds have met in the final once.
So what surprises are in store in the first round this year? Let’s start out with the Western Conference, which features the three series that begin tonight. Tomorrow, the East.
No.1 Chicago vs. No. 8 Minnesota
Odds of an upset: 15 percent
The Blackhawks will win if: It continues to win battles at even strength. Though Pittsburgh led the league with 165 goals, Chicago had the NHL’s most in non-power play situations (119). It’s a good thing, too, because the Blackhawks have been abysmal with the man advantage. They’re 6 for 49 (12.2 percent) on the power play since St. Patrick’s Day, though they’ve only given up two shorthanded goals in that stretch.
The Wild will win if: Chicago’s goaltending becomes an issue. The Blackhawks allowed by far the fewest goals in the regular season, but half of their goaltending tandem is in doubt for the first round. Ray Emery likely won’t play in the first two games, leaving Corey Crawford – who did his reputation no favors with a rough performance in last season’s first-round exit against Phoenix – with only AHL journeyman Henrik Karlsson as his backup. Minnesota also needs Zach Parise to be the $98 million man it paid him to be in July, and his three goals and minus-9 rating in April are not good signs he’s ready to be that. Additionally, the Wild won’t have Jason Pominville for at least Game 1 after getting four goals and five assists in 10 games from their newest acquisition.
The pick: Blackhawks in 5
No. 2 Anaheim vs. No. 7 Detroit
Odds of an upset: 55 percent
The Ducks will win if: Their offense doesn’t disappear. Anaheim was fourth in the league in goals per game through March 21st, but was fourth from the bottom in their final 19 contests. Depth was important to the Ducks when they were scoring, and that may decide this series. Bobby Ryan, Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf should get theirs, but Anaheim needs Kyle Palmieri, Teemu Selanne and Andrew Cogliano to chip in as well. It should be noted that the Ducks’ final-40-percent-of-the-season drought began with back-to-back home losses to the Red Wings in which they totaled two goals.
The Red Wings will win if: Johan Franzen does his thing. The Mule had eight goals in his final eight games to help Detroit extend its NHL-record string of consecutive playoff appearances to 22, and he’ll be counted upon to get in front of Jonas Hiller or Viktor Fasth and wreak havoc again. But after scoring 31 goals and putting up 59 points in 51 playoff games from 2008-10, Franzen has just one goal in his last 10 postseason contests. Even if Franzen struggles, Detroit could win a low-scoring series. Jimmy Howard is 7-1-1 with a .949 save percentage in his last nine games against Anaheim.
The pick: Red Wings in 6
No. 3 Vancouver vs. No. 6 San Jose
Odds of an upset: 50 percent
The Canucks will win if: Cory Schneider is healthy. After seizing the starting job from Roberto Luongo, Schneider turned in an outstanding season even with the four-time All-Star looking over his shoulder. He’s back at practice after missing Vancouver’s final two regular season games and pronounced himself good to go for Wednesday’s Game 1. Considering Schneider was 11-3-1 with a 1.77 goals-against average at home this season, the Canucks better hope he’s telling the truth. Vancouver won eight of its last nine on home ice, and it will need to stay dominant at Rogers Arena considering …
The Sharks will win if: They can pick up a win in Vancouver. San Jose was 17-2-5 at HP Pavilion, so it should feel pretty good about its chances to defend its home ice. Problem is, the Sharks were brutal on the road, going 8-14-2 and converting just 10.4 percent of their power-play chances in the last 20 games. Not surprisingly, San Jose was held to two goals or fewer in 14 of its last 20 on the road. Joe Pavelski, third on the team with 16 goals, scored only three times outside of San Jose. And one more worrisome stat for good measure: Antti Niemi is 1-7-0 with a 2.96 GAA in his last eight postseason road games. Home ice isn’t usually a big deal in the NHL playoffs, but it will be in this series.
The pick: Sharks in 6
No. 4 St. Louis vs. No. 5 Los Angeles
Odds of an upset: 45 percent
The Blues will win if: Brian Elliott continues to turn in his payments on time to the higher power who suddenly made him a badass goaltender. Mostly lousy with Ottawa and Colorado in his first three NHL seasons, Elliott had the best single-season save percentage in NHL history in 2011-12. But he was terrible in the Blues’ second-round loss to the Kings and was bad enough in the first half of 2013 that he earned a trip to the minors. Elliott has returned with a vengeance in April, though, and St. Louis suddenly looks like a Stanley Cup contender because of it. He’s given up a total of 15 goals in 12 starts this month, so it’s safe to say Good Elliott has returned. The Blues don’t score a ton of goals, but the return of T.J. Oshie, who underwent surgery on a stress fracture in his ankle two weeks ago, should be a big boost. Oshie had 20 points in 30 games.
The Kings will win if: Conn Smythe Jonathan Quick returns. Quick was the utterly brilliant reason Los Angeles didn’t just win the Cup last year but also obliterated everyone along the way. He had a 1.41 GAA in the playoffs, but didn’t even look like the best goaltender named Jonathan on his own team for stretches this season. He’s been better over the last third of the season, posting a 2.15 GAA since St. Patrick’s Day. The difference between the Blues and Kings is that Los Angeles can survive without phenomenal goaltending thanks to a group of skilled forwards with experience scoring deep into the playoffs. It’s less certain if the largely anonymous Blues can say the same. If St. Louis allows even TWO goals, it’s 11-17-1.
The pick: Kings in 7