NHL's April Madness: How Would Hockey's Version of the NCAA Tournament Look?
The entire sports world is captivated this time of year by the oddly-shaped designs of straight lines, the numbers one through 16, and a whole lot of March Madness basketball.
We all can admit we spend at least a few minutes every time it rolls around to fill out a bracket with some random predictions we put on paper - whether or not you have St. Peter's or Ohio State advancing to the Championship doesn't matter. But what if it were hockey teams we were choosing from? Now, that could be fun!
But, first it would have to be up to the NHL Selection committee. They would decide whether Columbus would be a better fit as a 10 or 11 seed, or if Boston has the perimeter shooting to warrant a two seed. They would choose to bump Colorado down to a 14 based on their strength of schedule, and chalk up Phoenix as a six because of their presence in the goal crease.
Indeed, it would be a much different experience than the NHL Playoffs, and I'm not sure a new "April Madness" would catch on too well. However, if things were switched around for a day, how would the brackets look filled with hockey clubs? We'll do our best to sort it out.
Note: Since the NHL has only 30 teams, compared to the NCAA Tournament's 68, the format needs a few changes. There will still be four "regions", but only seeds one through eight will be used, and the top two teams will receive first-round byes.
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Region One: Vancouver Canucks
Taking one of the four number one seeds and the overall top spot in the tournament is Vancouver, who ran away with the selection by sporting an eight-point lead on the league's second-place team. Also in their favor is a recent six-game win streak, the top offense in the NHL, and a pair of brotherly superstars bound to draw a huge television audience.
Region Two: Detroit Red Wings
The Red Wings trail fellow No. 1 seed Philadelphia by three points in the overall standings, but they have a much tougher in-division and in-conference strength of schedule and a legacy of hockey rivaling that of Ohio State, Kansas, and North Carolina...err...
Region Three: Philadelphia Flyers
Quite a few losses down the stretch have hurt the Flyers resume, which has now fallen to the third No. 1 spot and out of the first-round-bye group. They have a good offense, but inexperienced goaltenders (plus, that's illegal in the real tournament, anyway) hurt their claim to fame from last season's Stanley Cup Finals run.
Region Four: Pittsburgh Penguins
After a heated debate, Pittsburgh gets the edge over Winter Classic rival Washington by way of better recent success in the postseason. Despite the lack of stars Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, the Pens have always played better than the Caps in the playoffs, earning them the final No. 1 spot.
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Following with the NCAA Tournament format, the seeds are given in a serpentine fashion, so the region with the determined worst No. 1 seed gets the best No. 2 seed, and so forth. Abiding by that rule, here are the No. 2 seeds...
Region Four: Washington Capitals
To make up from their snub from a top spot, the Capitals will not only have a chance to finally win a few games in the playoffs, but also perhaps get some revenge on Pittsburgh in the Elite Eight. Washington's fantastic eight-game winning streak earned them the edge over fellow Eastern rivals Boston and Tampa Bay.
Region Three: Boston Bruins
Tim Thomas-led Boston pushes their way into a two seed with one of the NHL's best defenses and points in eight of their last ten games. The star power of Thomas alone makes them a smart political choice for a high placement, too.
Region Two: Chicago Blackhawks
Last year's Champions were unexciting for the first half of the season, but have surged lately and have just one regulation loss in their last ten matches. Along with the Sharks, they move ahead of East Coast competitors because of a much tougher schedule (yes, I know, that gets redundant).
Region One: San Jose Sharks
San Jose has turned on the jets recently to power through a highly-competitive Pacific Division, moving themselves up to a No. 2 seed just in time. Although they've been quiet this year, SportsCenter calls them a team to watch for...well, they would if ESPN payed any attention to the NHL...or if this tournament actually existed...
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Region One: Tampa Bay Lightning
The Bolts haven't been in these situations very often over the past five years, but they are poised to become a true sleeper in the Cup battle. A shutdown top line and a rare headline-making GM make them an attention-grabbing choice as a three seed and also a talented bunch capable of making it far past the Sweet Sixteen.
Region Two: Los Angeles Kings
Another young and flashy team to make up this under-the-radar foursome of three seeds, Los Angeles is fueled by a 7-2-1 record in their last ten games and a four-game winning streak that has catapulted them to the upper echelon of the league. Solid goaltending from Jonathan Quick also gives them a two-headed monster factor.
Region Three: Phoenix Coyotes
The biggest surprise of the 2009-2010 season, the Coyotes are back for more in 2011 with Ilya Bryzgalov highlighting the headlines and a balanced bunch of forwards baffling opponents. Six games with each of San Jose, Dallas, Los Angeles, and Anaheim give them a nice collection of headlining victories to put on their ballot.
Region Four: Dallas Stars
Dallas jumped quickly out of the gate, fell back to mediocrity mid-season, and is now on the rise again - enough to put them in the last seed available for this group. Making use of a tough and unheralded roster, the Stars won't be a popular Final Four choice but might just deserve to be.
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Region Four: Montreal Canadiens
Snubbed from the top 12, the angry Canadiens are not to be written off despite being forced to take on a mere five seed in just the first round. All-Star Carey Price is not used to playoff situations but has the support to succeed, and Montreal is sure to draw an avid audience on screen - a factor which is sure to win over CBS...or, actually, Versus, I guess...
Region Three: Nashville Predators
One team that's hard to read is the Predators, who have Shea Weber and pretty much no one else any household fan has ever heard of. They'll get a chance to win a closely-matched game in the first round, though, and then be really tested against an NHL elite in their next game. Solid defense and a relatively difficult schedule earn them the edge into the upper half.
Region Two: Anaheim Ducks
The Ducks' solid home record but struggles on the road won't help them in a tournament, but a veteran team with a lot of viable threats makes Anaheim a force to be reckoned with, especially when Hiller returns to goal.
Region One: Buffalo Sabres
A four seed would've been dreamland for the Sabres a couple of months ago, but a massive surge since winter began to turn to spring has Buffalo warming up, both on the Weather Channel and on the ice. Ryan Miller can win games by himself, which could make for a nice advertising campaign to promote the possible Cinderella stories of this year's April Madness.
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Region One: Calgary Flames
The Flames rose up from the basement of the Western Conference around mid-season to get right in the middle of the playoff hunt, but they've just turned on auto-drive since then. A shaky defense and a lack of recent appearances knock Calgary into a five seed, but they'll have the chance to win a few with an inexperienced bracket around them.
Region Two: New York Rangers
Despite staying in the East's top eight for pretty much the whole season to date, the Blueshirts are not going to scare many teams in this spring's April Madness. Trying to work around some inconsistent scoring, Henrik Lundqvist and Marian Gaborik are the only players who might turn a few eyes in their regional.
Region Three: Minnesota Wild
Just three wins in their last ten games as well as a three-game losing streak have somewhat screwed the Wild in the ultra-competitive Western Conference and also places them with an only average seeding. The return of Mikko Koivu will help, though, but the situation is quite similar to Duke's Kyrie Irving...well, if Duke played hockey.
Region Four: New Jersey Devils
New Jersey barely snuck into a five seed, but their incredible ongoing run makes them just as viable as any two- or three-seed to win the whole thing. Ilya Kovalchuk's crazy knack for scoring game-winners give the pregame show a big new thing to talk about, and the Devils new firepower gives an evenly-balanced Region Four a new powerhouse to be scared of.
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Region Four: Columbus Blue Jackets
Ending a streak of six consecutive losses with a win over fellow six seed Carolina this past weekend, the supposedly Rick Nash-led Blue Jackets have had some identity crisis in this up-and-down season. They won't have an easy road forward, but a hot streak could but Columbus in contention.
Region Three: Carolina Hurricanes
The 'Canes always seem to catch on fire when the weather warms up again, but they haven't done it so far this year, struggling so far in March. Additionally, Jeff Skinner has hit a rough patch and the defense is back to its early-season issues, so some fix-ups will be necessary for Carolina to pull more April magic.
Region Two: St. Louis Blues
St. Louis is horrendous on the road, which won't help as they travel to wherever this soon-to-be tournament will be played, and a lack of headline names will lose them attention on the scoretracker. This gritty team will not be shaken by the bright lights, though, so opponents shouldn't try the intimidation factor.
Region One: Toronto Maple Leafs
The Maple Leafs are having a better season than they have in the past couple tries, but they'll need an extra push to make the real playoffs, and also to make an impact on this NHL Tournament. With difficult matchups throughout their fragile path, Toronto may play their card as a dark horse but we just don't see enough top-end talent for them to upheave some top seeds.
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Region One: Atlanta Thrashers
Atlanta was, surprisingly, an above-average team for most of the first half of the season, but a continuous slide (quite similar to Villanova, actually...oh, there we go again...) knocked them back down into the bottom seeds. Fortunately, a slight improvement lately moved them into the top seven seed. Nonetheless, it's a tough road ahead for this scrappy yet leadership-lacking Thrashers squad.
Region Two: New York Islanders
The Isles have lost only two of their last 10 overall games in regulation, but it hasn't been nearly enough to vault them into the playoff picture nor into a respectable placement here. The trio of Travares, Moulson, and Okposo just hasn't clicked as much this season, and a crazy rollercoaster ride through several goaltenders has not been a good solid base for this young team. Don't expect much from this bottom feeder in the tourney.
Region Three: Florida Panthers
With the third-worst offense in the NHL and an aging goaltender who won't help a rebuilding team much, Florida went after youth at the trade deadline and completely scrapped all hopes of doing anything at all in April Madness...although, we have to admit they probably weren't thinking about April Madness much, since it doesn't exist yet. Still, no better than a mid-range seven seed for them.
Region Four: Ottawa Senators
An even .500 record in their last ten games managed to pull the Sens up from the very bottom, but we don't expect it to help much, as whoever they meet in the first round is likely to be thrilled. Ottawa has not really managed to provide any sparks to their lackluster efforts this season and have really fallen short from last year's bright spots.
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With two of the one seeds getting a first-round bye, there are just two eight seeds, as well.
Region Four: Colorado Avalanche
With both of the eight seeds coming from the Northwest Division, the Avalanche aren't getting many props for strength of schedule, and they certainly aren't getting any accolades for anything else. This looking-towards-tomorrow franchise made the playoffs last year with the youngest roster in the NHL, but they really fell flat this season. Their NHL Tournament berth is likely to be short and not very sweet.
Region Three: Edmonton Oilers
No one thought the Oilers would be anything more than a team that's still rebuilding this year, and they all though correctly. Taylor Hall would be the only attention-grabbing player that Edmonton could've sported at the tournament, but with the rookie phenom out for the year now, they'll quickly be finished off by much better top seeds.
First Round Matchups
With the seedings set, these are our first round matchups.
(1) Vancouver has a bye
(4) Buffalo vs. (5) Calgary
(3) Tampa Bay vs (6) Toronto
(2) San Jose vs. (7) Atlanta
(1) Detroit has a bye
(4) Anaheim vs. (5) NY Rangers
(3) Los Angeles vs. (6) Carolina
(2) Chicago vs. (7) NY Islanders
(1) Philadelphia vs. (8) Edmonton
(4) Nashville vs. (5) Minnesota
(3) Phoenix vs. (6) St. Louis
(2) Boston vs. (7) Florida
(1) Pittsburgh vs. (8) Colorado
(4) Montreal vs. (5) New Jersey
(3) Dallas vs. (6) Columbus
(2) Washington vs. (7) Ottawa
What are your predictions for the results of our first round games? Chime in your picks in the comments section!