The Stanley Cup playoffs are here at long last—they open Wednesday with three games—and that means the long, seemingly never-ending 82-game season has come to a close. There is no better time of year for a hockey fan than the next two months, and they are almost more rewarding after an 82-game season than after a 48-game season induced by a lockout.
(Apologies to all the fans of teams that missed the playoffs, as these next two months probably won't be as much fun for you, but hey, stop thinking so much about yourselves and consider the rest of the world for once.)
Unlike in 1996 when the New Jersey Devils missed the postseason, the defending champions of the 48-game season, the Chicago Blackhawks, are back in the playoffs and among the favorites to win the Stanley Cup yet again. That is, if they are somewhat close to 100 percent healthy—Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are expected back after lengthy absences with injuries, and there's no telling how far along they are in the mending process.
"I'm excited to get things going," Kane said to NHL.com's Brian Hedger. "I've watched a lot of hockey lately, so it's going to be nice to play in some games now. I feel pretty good. It'll be nice to get a couple skates with the team [Tuesday and Wednesday] and the pre-game skate Thursday and get ready to go."
There is no shortage of worthy adversaries in the West who will be trying to lay claim to the Blackhawks' throne.
The San Jose Sharks are loaded and dangerous, something the St. Louis Blues were able to boast before injuries and losses piled up over the last two weeks. The Colorado Avalanche and Anaheim Ducks are 100-point teams and division winners, although they have their flaws. The Los Angeles Kings, champions of the most recent 82-game season, are the only team in this year's playoffs who can boast the claim of having gone at least three rounds in each of the past two postseasons.
In the East, it's the Boston Bruins and everyone else. That's not to say they can't be knocked off, but it will take a majestic effort to upset the Presidents' Trophy winners.
There is no shortage of storylines and intriguing matchups highlighting this year's playoffs, and here's a look at some of them:
The New Format Is Simple Yet Weird
When the NHL realigned before this season, it also went back to the old-school playoff format from the days of the Patrick, Adams, Smythe and Norris Divisions. That was when teams played the first two rounds of the playoffs within their division, then played the winner from the other division in their conference, then played the winner from the other conference.
That's how it is now. Well, sort of.
The use of wild-card teams throws it off a bit. It's not as simple as No. 1 vs. No. 4 and No. 2 vs. No. 3 in each division. Instead, the division winners in each conference with the most points get wild-card teams. Because of that setup, there are crossover games between teams in different divisions in the West.
The East is easy to follow; the Atlantic has four teams facing each other (No. 1 Boston vs. No. 4 Detroit, No. 2 Tampa Bay vs. No. 3 Montreal) as does the Metropolitan (No. 1 Pittsburgh vs. No. 4 Columbus, No. 2 N.Y. Rangers vs. No. 3 Philadelphia).
The West is a little more complicated.
Five teams qualified from the Central (Colorado, St. Louis, Chicago, Minnesota and Dallas) while only three made it from the Pacific (Anaheim, San Jose and Los Angeles). The lack of balance means for the purposes of the postseason, Dallas is back in the Pacific Division for the first two rounds.
That means the Central has four teams (No. 1 Colorado vs. No. 4 Minnesota, No. 2 St. Louis vs. No. 3 Chicago), and the Pacific has four teams (No. 1 Anaheim vs. No. 4 Dallas, No. 2 San Jose vs. No. 3 Los Angeles).
It's worth noting that realignment was designed to reduce travel during the regular season, yet Anaheim's reward for finishing with the best record in the West is a first-round series that features at least two 1,400-mile flights and as many as five of those trips.
That's NHL ingenuity at its finest!
Don't Roll a Seven in Round 1
In the NCAA tournament, the term "survive and advance" is quite the popular saying. The idea is win any way you can, no matter how ugly, and get to the next round, because winning in a one-and-done tournament is all that matters.
The same can be said about the NHL playoffs, although winning quickly in the first round has proven to be very important.
Since 1992, 49 teams have needed seven games to win their first-round series. Only two—the 1992 Pittsburgh Penguins and the 2011 Boston Bruins—have gone on to win the Stanley Cup.
The Penguins benefited from having their next two opponents be teams that needed seven games in the first round as well (every Eastern opening-round series went seven games that year), although they needed the minimum four games to win the Cup vs. the Blackhawks, who had lost two games in their previous three series.
The Bruins caught some breaks after needing seven games to dispatch the Montreal Canadiens in the first round, as their Eastern Conference Final opponent (Tampa Bay) and their Stanley Cup Final opponent (Vancouver) both went seven games in Round 1 as well.
The lesson here is if you need seven games in Round 1, hope everyone else needs seven games too. Or try to have Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr and Ron Francis in their primes.
The NHL playoffs are grueling, a physically punishing and mentally draining exhibition, and snagging an extra day or two of rest by finishing off a series in fewer than seven games can pay dividends down the road. There's a big difference between winning a series in six games and getting an extra day or two to recover and winning in seven games and starting your next series two days later.
This season, all of the 2-3 divisional matchups look like prime territory for seven-game series. Los Angeles and San Jose played a terrific seven-gamer in 2013, and a repeat of that in 2014 could bode well for their second-round opponent or whichever Central team emerges in the conference finals.
Get your rest wherever you can, playoff teams.
The Ballad of Marc-Andre Fleury
If Rustin Cohle is correct and time is a flat circle, we can expect to relive another implosion by Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.
Two years ago, the Penguins finished with the second-most points in the East but had to settle for the No. 4 seed, as their 108 points were one fewer than that of the New York Rangers, who won the Atlantic Division to earn the No. 1 seed. It did not matter, as Fleury allowed 26 goals in six first-round games against the Philadelphia Flyers, causing the Penguins to head home early for the summer.
|Marc-Andre Fleury's Last Two Postseasons|
|2012||4.63||.834||2-4||Lost in Round 1|
|2013||3.52||.883||2-2||Benched in Round 1|
Last year, the Penguins finished with the most points in the East, posting 72 in 48 games to earn the No. 1 seed in the conference. Again, Fleury was a tragedy on par with a bus full of puppies exploding in a baby koala farm. He posted a 26-save shutout in Game 1 vs. the New York Islanders but gave up 14 goals in his next three games before coach Dan Bylsma went with Tomas Vokoun for the remainder of the postseason.
The Penguins reached the conference finals with Vokoun, but Bylsma won't have that luxury this season. Rookie Jeff Zatkoff is the backup this time, which means this will be Fleury's show from start to finish.
You can cut the lid off that can of Lone Star beer and take a drag of your cigarette if you'd like, but things are a little different for Fleury entering this year's postseason.
In his last eight starts before the 2012 playoffs, Fleury went 1-3-0 with a 3.16/.890 split. In his last eight starts before the 2013 playoffs, Fleury went 5-3-0 with a 3.02/.907 split. In his last eight starts before the 2014 playoffs, Fleury went 5-2-1 with a 2.44/.914 split.
A 2.44/.914 isn't winning anyone a Vezina Trophy, but Fleury closed much stronger this season than he had in the previous two seasons.
Another factor that bodes well is the Columbus Blue Jackets aren't the offensive juggernauts that the Flyers were in 2012 and the Islanders were in 2013. The 2012 Flyers were tied for second in the league in goals per game at 3.17; the 2013 Islanders were seventh in the league with 2.81 goals per game.
This year's Jackets are scoring 2.76 goals per game, which ranks 12th in the NHL.
Fleury has one year remaining on a contract that carries a $5 million cap hit for a team that fancies itself Stanley Cup contenders every season. If Fleury fails to deliver for a third straight season, an amnesty buyout could be in his future.
Fleury told Nick Cotsonika of Yahoo Sports in September that he was going to take it one game at a time, and when April comes around, everything should be fine.
Well, does he strike you as more of a talker or a doer?
Canadiens Carry Hopes of All Canadians
A Canadian franchise hasn't won the Stanley Cup since 1993, when the Montreal Canadiens defeated the Los Angeles Kings in five games. Only one Canadian team qualified for the playoffs in 2014—the Montreal Canadiens.
The inability of a Canadian squad to win a championship in the sport its nation invented is more of a cute anomaly than a tragic drought. Mention the 21-year void to any Canadian hockey fan, and he or she will point out how every Stanley Cup winner's roster is littered with Canadian-born players, so go suck an egg, hoser, or whatever it is Canadians say when they're angry. I've never seen one angry.
Adding to that trademark Canadian indifference is while the country unites to cheer its players at international events, Toronto Maple Leafs fans have no interest in seeing Montreal Canadiens fans happy. If the Canadiens win four rounds in 2014, it'll make for a neat story, but it's not going to lead to parades in the streets of Calgary and Edmonton.
FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver delved into this topic last year, and long story short, he deduced that a lot of it has to do with bad luck. There have been some really good Canadian clubs over that time, but only 14 percent of the top-two seeds in each conference were from Canada, which greatly inhibits a team's chances of going all the way.
For the Canadiens to throw dirt on this yearly storyline, they'll likely have to win three or four rounds as the team without home-ice advantage. They'll be on the road to start the playoffs against Tampa Bay and will probably get Boston in Round 2 should they advance. Six of the eight teams to make the playoffs in the West would have home ice in the conference final against the Canadiens.
As if there's not enough pressure to win when playing in Montreal, just wait until the questions about being "Canada's team" for the playoffs start piling up as they advance.
The Colorado Avalanche and Anaheim Ducks Are So Hot Right Now
An inevitable theme with the start of the playoffs is the teams that finished strongly down the stretch of the regular season and how that makes them dangerous during the NHL's second season.
The Los Angeles Kings and New Jersey Devils, the combatants in the most recent 82-game season Stanley Cup Final, were at opposite ends of the spectrum over their final 10 regular-season games of 2012. The Devils went 7-2-1, tied with the Bruins for the best mark in the East; the Kings were a middling 5-2-3, a mark bettered by four other teams in the West that made the postseason.
|The Five Hottest Teams at the End of the 2013-14 Season|
|Team||Last 10 games||First-round opponent|
|Colorado Avalanche||7-1-2||vs. No. 4 Minnesota|
|Anaheim Ducks||7-2-1||vs. No. 4 Dallas|
|Montreal Canadiens||7-2-1||vs. No. 2 Tampa Bay|
|Tampa Bay Lightning||7-3-0||vs. No. 3 Montreal|
|New York Rangers||6-2-2||vs. No. 3 Philadelphia|
The two teams in 2012 that had the best final 10-game runs were the Vancouver Canucks (8-1-1) and Phoenix Coyotes (7-1-2), who lost in the first round and third round to the Kings, respectively. The Devils, of course, lost to the Kings in the Final.
Who are those crackling-hot teams this season?
The three hottest playoff teams over the final 10 games of the season were the Colorado Avalanche (7-1-2), Montreal Canadiens (7-2-1) and Anaheim Ducks (7-2-1). The Tampa Bay Lightning closed 7-3-0.
What does it mean?
Well, nothing. Well, not nothing, but not as much as many would have you believe.
SB Nation's Adam Gretz broke this down recently, discovering that Stanley Cup champions aren't ever playing poorly toward the end of the regular season (the 2000-01 Red Wings are the outlier), but it's not necessarily the hottest team that wins it all.
Just about every playoff team is good, and some of them are great, so it's only natural and likely that they'd be playing great over their final 10 or 20 regular-season games. Even if your team limped into the postseason (looking at you, St. Louis Blues), that doesn't rule out anything, but it certainly doesn't help.
The Corsi Hockey League and Fenwick Hockey Association
Advanced stats, fancy stats or just plain stats, whatever you want to call them, have proven themselves to be a helpful tool for judging the quality of a team. You can be willfully ignorant or blatantly foolish and dismiss them as tools of basement bloggers or people who don't watch games, but do so at your own peril.
Of the 16 teams to qualify for the playoffs, 12 ranked in the top 16 in score-close Fenwick differential, with the other four playoff teams ranking 21st, 22nd, 23rd and 27th in that category. Last season, 12 of the top 16 teams in Fenwick differential also made the playoffs, while two seasons ago, 14 of the top 16 teams accomplished that same feat.
No one is saying the only way to analyze the quality of a team is shots directed toward the opposing net minus shots directed toward your own net, but it has coincided with more than 75 percent of playoff teams the past three seasons.
How has it coincided with crowning a champion in recent years?
In 2012, the Kings ranked fourth; in 2013, the Blackhawks ranked second.
This season, the top five teams in score-close Fenwick differential are the Kings, Blackhawks, Sharks, Bruins and Rangers. Chances are the 2014 Stanley Cup champion will come out of this group.
If you'd like to use fancy advanced stats to seek a team ripe for a first-round upset, look no further than the Anaheim Ducks. They finished 15th in score-close FD (plus-0.4) but led the league in PDO (103.4). Those two numbers are screaming regression at the top of their lungs. The Dallas Stars, the sixth-best team in score-close Fenwick differential, could give the Ducks trouble.
A personal side note about the war between the Stat Truthers and the Corsi Deniers: Corsi and Fenwick are simply the counting of shot attempts (minus shots blocked in the case of Fenwick), which makes them neither advanced nor fancy. For those who say "watch the game, nerds," I rarely—and I mean rarely—find much of a difference between what I'm watching and what the numbers tell me. There's the occasional surprise that makes me rethink my view on a player, but really, if you're actually watching the game and understand the game, the numbers will almost always match up with your eyes.
Admittedly, seeing terms like CD/60, FD/60, DZSt% and TotTm% QoC for the first time can be quite overwhelming after being raised in a world of G, A, Pts and +/-. But like anything, if you immerse yourself in it, you gain a greater understanding of it. If you don't want to put the work into it, that's fine, but demeaning those who see the worthiness in those numbers and ignoring their value to focus solely on grit, heart, momentum and hits only hurts you.
The Injured and the Recovered
No matter the reason a key player is out of the lineup, coaches and teammates are loath to use it as an excuse for underwhelming or poor play. "I know Ryan Miller, David Backes and Alex Pietrangelo were killed in that vampire attack, and having Alexander Steen and Kevin Shattenkirk kidnapped by an underground civilization of mole people hurt us, but that's no excuse for us losing tonight," is probably what Ken Hitchcock would say.
While dismissing the impact of injuries is part of the job for NHL coaches, they are a reality that can't be ignored during the playoffs.
The big names who likely won't be around for at least part of the first round of the playoffs and in some cases longer include: Dennis Seidenberg of the Bruins, Matt Duchene of the Avalanche, Henrik Zetterberg of the Red Wings, Pascal Dupuis of the Penguins and Patrik Berglund and Vladimir Tarasenko of the Blues.
Some of those players, like Seidenberg and Dupuis, have been out for a long time, while others were hurt during the final month of the season and will be greatly missed for some or all of the first round.
Drew Doughty of the Kings, Ryan McDonagh of the Rangers, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane of the Blackhawks and Tomas Hertl of the Sharks are all expected to return from injury for Game 1 of their respective series after missing extended time with injuries. How close those players are to 100 percent could go a long way toward determining their teams' first-round fates.
The biggest loss is that of Duchene, who led the Avalanche in points, game-winning goals and was their top driver of possession in close situations. Many pegged his knee injury to be a devastating blow to a team that was playing over its head, but the Avalanche finished strong without Duchene down the stretch.
The Underdogs Worth Watching
There are two things that are guaranteed to happen during the NHL playoffs—referees will forget how to call penalties that they called all season, and there will be upsets during the first round. Whether the two are connected is another thing, but upsets are the calling card of the NHL playoffs.
Last season, five lower-seeded teams, including both No. 7 seeds, beat higher-seeded teams in the first round. Since 2006, lower-seeded teams have won 27 of 64 first-round series with nine of those upsets coming at the expense of No. 1 or 2 seeds in either conference.
With the new playoff format, those major upsets are lurking in the matchups with wild-card teams, and there are some interesting possibilities there.
The Penguins are always vulnerable as long as they have Marc-Andre Fleury between the pipes. Their lack of forward depth and relatively poor overall health leaves the door open for the Blue Jackets, who went 4-1-0 in their final five games. The Penguins, however, went 5-0-0 against the Blue Jackets this season.
The Bruins should handle the Red Wings despite dropping three of four to them in the regular season, but it won't be a cakewalk either. The Bruins are deeper and stronger in every area and should render the Red Wings' regular-season dominance a moot point.
The Ducks have been trending in the wrong direction for a while now. Since beating the Kings 3-0 on Jan. 25, the Ducks are 15-10-3 and only won the Pacific Division because the Sharks struggled more than they did over the final month. Meanwhile, the Stars have arguably the better goaltender between the two teams in Kari Lehtonen over Jonas Hiller, Frederik Andersen or John Gibson.
Can the Wild pick off the Avalanche? The Avalanche enter the playoffs as the league's hottest team despite the absence of Matt Duchene, although the Wild finished 6-1-1 in their final eight games. The Avs went 4-0-1 against the Wild this season, which does not bode well for the State of Hockey. If Ilya Bryzgalov can outplay Semyon Varlamov, the Wild have a shot.
The Presidents' Trophy Is OK to Win Again! (Maybe)
Before the Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup last year, the previous four Presidents' Trophy winners failed to win the Stanley Cup, with three failing to get out of the first round. Now that the Blackhawks did the Presidents' Trophy/Stanley Cup double dip, maybe it'll become trendy.
Since the Stars (1999), Avalanche (2001) and Red Wings (2002) pulled off the exacta over a four-year span, just one team (Red Wings, 2008) in the past nine 82-game seasons won both trophies in the same season. So maybe the Blackhawks didn't so much kick off a trend last year but instead bucked the old one thanks to a 48-game schedule.
There are no such things as hexes or curses, for this is not a Stephen King book or a movie in which Lindsay Lohan and Jamie Lee Curtis switch bodies. But it's worth noting that recent history is not on the side of the Boston Bruins.
Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @DaveLozo.