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Giving The NHL Playoffs The Oscar Treatment

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scarjo

For anyone who saw the outstanding Spike Jonze-directed movie Her at some point during this unending winter, there were a lot of things that made it an Oscar contender.

The futuristic yet not unrealistic setting, the fascinating questions about where human relationships are headed, the wardrobe choices – I’m looking at you, high-waisted pants – and Joaquin Phoenix’s subtly vulnerable performance were all captivating in their own right.

But nothing was quite as attention-grabbing as that voice. The sultry tone of Samantha, the operating system that made Phoenix’s Theodore Twombly begin to fall in love, was captivating enough to make even the audience forget it was actually coming from a computer.

The voice, that voice, was famously Scarlett Johansson’s, but you know whose it was supposed to be? Samantha Morton’s. Fine actress, Academy Award nominee, probably a nice person, but little more than your run-of-the-mill British accent.

Jonze brought Johansson in during the post-production process and, though no footage or audio seems to have been released with Morton voicing Samantha, the decision completely changed the experience viewing and hearing the movie. It’s a good flick if Morton’s is the voice you’re hearing Phoenix banter with for two hours, but the switch to Johansson made it borderline great.

The NHL regular season is a pleasant, satisfying Samantha Morton – always comforting, occasionally wonderful.

The NHL playoffs are ScarJo.

Steven Stamkos now has two healthy legs on which to celebrate. (Getty Images)

Steven Stamkos now has two healthy legs on which to celebrate. (Getty Images)

There’s a lot of playoff analysis and regular-season award chatter around this time, but instead of simply breaking down the first round or delving into who should win the Calder and Hart trophies, why not combine some postseason prognostications with a bit of talk about which individual hockey hardware belongs where?

Without further ado, Checking The Score presents … the NHL playoff Oscars as we head into the best postseason in sports.

8.) Best Writing – Adapted Screenplay

And the Oscar goes to … the Tampa Bay Lightning and Montreal Canadiens.

Steven Stamkos missed 45 games with a broken leg and the relationship between GM Steve Yzerman and franchise mainstay Martin St. Louis was so damaged that St. Louis wound up being dealt to the New York Rangers. Yet here’s Tampa Bay, with 100 points and home-ice advantage against Montreal. Ondrej Palat, Valtteri Filppula, Tyler Johnson, Teddy Purcell and Alex Killorn stepped up in Stamkos’ absence and Ryan Callahan – over from the Rangers in the St. Louis trade – became a positive presence after a somewhat difficult start. The Lightning’s biggest adaptation, however, may be yet to come. Vezina Trophy candidate Ben Bishop has a sore elbow and won’t play in Wednesday’s Game 1, leaving backup Anders Lindback and his woeful .891 save percentage to start. The Canadiens, meanwhile, have gone from a team that relied too heavily on balance in 2012-13 – no consistent goal scorers, too much pressure on an inconsistent Carey Price – to one that has two stud scorers and a completely confident Price between the pipes. Max Pacioretty finished fourth in the league with 39 goals and Thomas Vanek had 15 points in 18 games after coming over for basically nothing from the New York Islanders at the trade deadline. It’s Price, though, who may make the biggest difference. He’s 12-4-1 with a .945 save percentage since Jan. 28 – and oh, by the way, he led Canada to Olympic gold in that stretch as well.

Post-Oscar buzz: Bishop should return at some point in the series and Tampa Bay is a far better possession team that Montreal and figures to keep Price busy. He may be up to the task in a series that figures to be tight and low-scoring – these two produced just 11 combined goals in four games this season. I’ll take a healthy Stamkos to be the difference.

Academy consensus: Lightning in 7

Henrik Lundqvist doesn't let the Flyers get much by him. (New York Times)

Henrik Lundqvist doesn’t let the Flyers get much by him. (New York Times)

7.) Best Visual Effects

And the Oscar goes to … the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers

There’s just something appealing about these two matching up in the postseason for the first time since 1997, and what’s so striking might be the contrast in styles. Only conference No. 1s Boston and Anaheim have scored more goals since Jan. 1 than the Flyers, and no one has allowed fewer than the Rangers in that time. Claude Giroux has been a different player for Philadelphia after a rough first two months that cost him a spot on Canada’s Olympic team, but like Price in Montreal, New York’s Henrik Lundqvist has been rejuvenated after leading Sweden to silver in Sochi. He’s 11-4-1 with a .939 save percentage since March 7 and he’s kind of owned the Flyers in recent years – if that’s what 13-3-0 with a 1.81 goals-against average in his last 16 starts means. He’s allowed 21 goals in 14 home games against Philadelphia in five years, and guess what? He has home-ice here. There are always questions in net for the Flyers and that’s no different here, with Steve Mason slated to miss Game 1 with an upper-body injury. That means Ray Emery, and that probably means trouble for Philadelphia.

Post-Oscar buzz: The advanced stats love the Rangers, who are fourth in the league in shot differential and far better in puck possession. The Flyers thrive on the power play but New York actually is four goals better overall in special teams differential. The Rangers are, quite simply, not a good matchup for Philadelphia.

Academy consensus: Rangers in 5

It's OK, this man is Swedish so he's allowed to wear this jersey. (USA Today Sports)

It’s OK, this man is Swedish so he’s allowed to wear this jersey. (USA Today Sports)

6.) Best Foreign Language Film

And the Oscar goes to … the Boston Bruins and Detroit Red Wings

The Red Wings have imported more Swedish products than Ikea for the last few decades, but it’s one of their youngest who helped push their streak of consecutive postseason appearances to 23. Gustav Nyquist had 14 goals in his first 18 games back from the Olympic break, keeping Detroit afloat while Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg were down with injuries. Datsyuk is back but Zetterberg is no sure thing to return for this series. Even if he does, he’ll run into fellow Scandinavian stalwart Tuukka Rask, who’s 11-1-2 with a 1.68 GAA in his last 14 starts and was outstanding throughout the postseason while guiding Boston to the Stanley Cup final a year ago. Boston’s defense has a lot of youth in front of Rask with Adam McQuaid and Dennis Seidenberg out, but it also has Zdeno Chara, a top-seven penalty kill and the fewest goals allowed in the Eastern Conference. Chara, in fact, was one of eight Bruins to score at least 16 goals for a team that had the NHL’s best differential (plus-87) since Ottawa and Detroit topped that in 2005-06.

Post-Oscar buzz: The Red Wings didn’t just miss Datsyuk and Zetterberg. There are still injuries to Mikael Samuelsson, Daniel Cleary, Stephen Weiss and Jonathan Ericsson to worry about, which will severely test their youth and depth against what’s probably the league’s deepest team. Detroit played well down the stretch but this is an awfully tall task. Had the Red Wings jumped Columbus for the first wild-card and landed a series against Pittsburgh, they might have had just enough to pull the upset. Rask was sick in the Olympic semifinals and his absence cost Finland against Sweden, but he’ll get a little sweet Scandinavian revenge here.

Academy consensus: Bruins in 6

Jonathan Toews reminding Alexander Steen that he may win this series, but still lives in St. Louis. (USA Today Sports)

Jonathan Toews reminding Alexander Steen that he may win, but he still lives in St. Louis. (USA Today Sports)

5.) Best Original Score

And the Oscar goes to … the St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks

This was going to be the second-round matchup for the ages, the defending Stanley Cup champs against the loaded, deep machine that was out to run them down. Then something funny happened: the Blues became kind of mediocre overnight. Starting with a 4-0 loss at Chicago on March 19, St. Louis went 5-9-0 down the stretch, totaling an NHL-worst 21 goals and breaking out the fine china to serve up the Central Division title to Colorado in a 14-course meal that would make Thomas Keller blush. The Blackhawks’ woes date back to their return from the Olympic break, as they went 11-10-1 down the stretch and lost eight of 10 on the road. The last 13 of those, however, came without Patrick Kane and the last six without Jonathan Toews, both of whom will be back for Game 1. The Blues had a lot of injuries down the stretch as well, and not all of their walking wounded are likely to be back as soon. Shootout sensation T.J. Oshie and center David Backes should be, but Patrik Berglund, Vladimir Tarasenko and Brenden Morrow may not be ready for Game 1. If the ‘Hawks and Blues are even close to full strength, expect some offensive fireworks. Chicago was second and St. Louis seventh in scoring in the regular season and neither Ryan Miller nor Corey Crawford was particularly impressive in net toward the end of the regular season.

Post-Oscar buzz: Aside from injuries, a lot of both teams’ struggles may have had to do with complacency. It’s difficult to get up for each of 82 games the season after winning the Cup, and in the Blues’ case, the Olympics seemed to do plenty to slow what to that point had been the Western Conference’s speediest freight train. This is a heavyweight title fight in every sense, and it’d be no surprise to see it go the distance.

Academy consensus: Blackhawks in 7

He's no Goldberg, but the Ducks are hoping he'll do. (AP)

He’s no Goldberg, but the Ducks are hoping he’ll do. (AP)

4.) Actor in a Supporting Role

And the Oscar goes to … Frederik Andersen

Jonas Hiller was a Swiss Olympian and Anaheim’s unquestioned starter through the first half of the season, but he might not even be the backup when the top-seeded Ducks open the playoffs against Dallas on Wednesday. The starting job belongs to Andersen, who beat out Hiller and fellow rookie John Gibson to be the eventual target of coach Bruce Boudreau’s ire. Andersen wasn’t exactly awesome himself down the stretch, posting a 2.72 GAA since the Olympics, but he’ll be the Ducks’ man – at least initially. Both Anaheim and Dallas rely heavily on their top lines, and this series may come down to whether Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf or Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin can produce more. Neither team has a particularly productive power play and neither has a starting goaltender with playoff experience – though Dallas’ Kari Lehtonen certainly isn’t without NHL experience. The 10-year veteran will get his first taste of the postseason since playing two games for Atlanta (remember them?) in 2006-07. He’s perhaps the best backstop in this series, though, having gone 13-5-1 with a 2.07 GAA since February and winning nine of his last 10 home starts.

Post-Oscar buzz: There doesn’t seem to be a lot of faith in the Ducks for a team that finished atop its conference, and with the questions in goal, many of those may be justified. Anaheim is not a great possession team and isn’t particularly good at faceoffs, and there’s a lot of pressure on Perry and Getzlaf to carry the team – particularly with the inexperience in next. The Stars haven’t been to the playoffs since 2008, but Seguin should have a vested interest in stepping into the spotlight after his 2013 postseason disappearing act with Boston. The Ducks went down in Round 1 last season after winning the Pacific, so why can’t it happen again?

Academy consensus: Stars in 6

Odds are Patrick Roy is angry with you right now. (Icon CMI)

Odds are Patrick Roy is angry with you right now. (Icon CMI)

3.) Best Director

And the Oscar goes to … Patrick Roy

After no playoff appearances in their last three years under Joe Sacco, the Avalanche made the ballsy move to hand the reins to Roy, who had no previous NHL coaching experience. And … it couldn’t have worked out better. Roy made his presence felt from his first game behind the bench, nearly challenging Boudreau and Anaheim to a fight, and the Avalanche seemed to take their cues from their feisty and often crazy boss. Colorado won 12 of its first 13 games but was playing perhaps its best down the stretch, going 8-1-2 in its last 11 to seize the Central Division from St. Louis and likely lock up the Jack Adams Trophy for Roy. The Avalanche aren’t without their warts, though. Leading scorer Matt Duchene likely won’t play in this opening series against Minnesota due to a bruised knee. They’re 25th in the league in shot percentage, meaning they’ve perhaps too heavily relied on Semyon Varlamov at times. The Wild, meanwhile, are hitching their wagon to Ilya Bryzgalov, who was solid in the final two weeks of the regular season but has a spotty postseason track record – unless a 3.70 GAA in his last 15 starts is your thing. Minnesota lacks Colorado’s depth up front – especially down the middle – and is going to have to turn this series into a bunch of 2-1 games to have a chance.

Post-Oscar buzz: With Duchene out and his team’s sudden offseason transformation from the second-worst in the league to the third-best, Colorado would seem to be ripe for an upset. The Avs aren’t a great possession team and they’re relying on a lot of youth in key areas, but Minnesota – for as well as it played down the stretch – isn’t the team to knock them out.

Academy consensus: Avalanche in 6

That baby face my never seem to age, but the Penguins' gap between Cups is getting wider. (Getty Images)

That baby face my never age, but the Penguins’ gap between Cups is getting wider. (Getty Images)

2.) Actor in a Leading Role

And the Oscar goes to … Sidney Crosby

Yes, Flyers fans, it’s richly ironic that we’re giving the diving diva of a man you all love to call “Cindy” an award for acting. Very funny, but go back to booing your grandmothers so we can all move along. The NHL’s leading scorer is a shoo-in for his second Hart Trophy – and it really should be his third or fourth, but they have to give Alex Ovechkin some reason to keep playing. All that being said, Crosby’s Penguins have earned the label of postseason underachievers the past few seasons. The captain himself shouldn’t shoulder a ton of blame – he’s averaged 1.39 points in the regular season and 1.28 in the always more tightly contested playoffs while his shooting percentage (14.8) is identical – but he hasn’t really elevated Pittsburgh come mid-April since the team’s Stanley Cup run in 2009. The pressure is on, yet in reality this isn’t one of the Penguins’ strongest groups. They missed 529 man-games to injury – most in the league and 180 more than the No. 3 team – but Crosby played essentially his first full season in four years. Pittsburgh is a poor puck possession team and relies heavily on its special teams to succeed, generally lousy things to rely on if you fashion yourself Cup contenders. The forward depth isn’t even as good as it was last season, when the Penguins were last seen scoring two total goals while being swept by Boston. Enter Columbus, which has never won a playoff game in its 13-season existence, yet has turned into a solid two-way club with a stud goaltender in Sergei Bobrovsky under coach Todd Richards. Bobrovsky won the Vezina Trophy last season, but he might have to be superhuman to keep Crosby and the Penguins from advancing.

Post-Oscar buzz: The Blue Jackets couldn’t solve Pittsburgh in the regular season, losing all five meetings, and Bobrovsky has a career 3.38 GAA in 11 games against the Penguins. Boston completely shut Pittsburgh down in last season’s Eastern Conference finals but Columbus won’t be able to rely on Bobrovsky doing it alone. The Penguins have been vulnerable in up-and-down, high-scoring hockey games the past few postseasons, but Ryan Johansen is the only consistently intimidating offensive threat for the Jackets.

Academy consensus: Penguins in 5

Quick! Who was the last goalie to single-handedly win a Stanley Cup? (Getty Images)

Quick! Who was the last goalie to single-handedly win a Stanley Cup? (Getty Images)

1.) Best Picture

And the Oscar goes to … the San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings

These games might be low-scoring, but not in an “Astros-Marlins can’t get out of their way” type. I’m thinking more along the lines of “Greg Maddux-Pedro Martinez throwing zeroes for nine innings” type. The home team won every game in last season’s 7-game second round masterpiece, which featured five one-goal margins, and four of their five 2013-14 meetings were also decided by a single light of the lamp. San Jose had the highest shot differential since the Cup-winning 2009-10 Blackhawks, peppering the net with nearly 35 shots per game, but there may be no goaltender you’d rather have facing those than Jonathan Quick. Twenty-two goaltenders have started at least five games over the last two postseasons and Quick’s 1.62 GAA is nearly a quarter-goal lower than the man closest to him, Boston’s Tuukka Rask. The advanced stats love the Kings, who rank first in Corsi and also happened to allow the fewest goals in the league. The Sharks, meanwhile, can empathize with the Penguins’ underachiever label – but at least Crosby and company have one Cup to show for their troubles. San Jose has finished with at least 105 points in six of the last seven non-lockout-shortened seasons and hasn’t even made it out of the West once, losing eight of the nine conference finals games it’s played in that time. With Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Logan Couture and a healthy Tomas Hertl, there’s plenty of firepower to make this year the year for the Sharks. But it’s hard to believe it until we see it.

Post-Oscar buzz: The Kings had identical 23-14-4 records at home and on the road, and when it comes to the playoffs, that’s probably a good thing. They owned the road en route to their Cup win two years ago, though they had no success winning in San Jose last postseason. In fact, they’ve lost 10 of their last 11 in the Shark Tank and scored a whopping total of … 17 goals. Quick is good, but the Sharks are better, and more importantly, they have home-ice this time around. One bounce will probably decide that series, and San Jose is finally due to have it go their way. This is a series worthy of a conference final.

Academy consensus: Sharks in 7

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