With all due respect to Andy Williams and, well Christmas, we all know that this really is the most wonderful time of the year. For hockey fans, there is no better two weeks on the calendar than the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The pace is frenetic. There are always a couple of shocking upsets. Overtime games abound. Pacing yourself and dealing with little sleep, particularly on the nights when the San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings play, is paramount.
When the league came up with its current playoff format that puts more of an emphasis on divisional play and geographical rivalries, this is exactly what it had in mind. And I wouldn’t be surprised if NHL chief operating officer John Collins, the marketing genius who has transformed the league into a big-time, event-driven cash cow, wasn’t in on the planning.
Because what the NHL has done has taken a page from March Madness with its new playoff bracket system. Who had ever heard of a playoff bracket before this season? Prior to this spring, doing playoff brackets were too unwieldy because you always had to wait until the rounds were over to untangle the seedings and move on to the next round. Now it’s nice and tidy. We know that regardless of upsets, the winner of the Boston-Detroit series will play the winner of the Montreal-Tampa first round set, and so it goes.
Trainer Andy O’Brien has a murderers’ row of clients and every summer he puts them through their paces. Sidney Crosby, Matt Duchene and Nathan MacKinnon are all on his roster and he makes sure his guys are ready for the season.
But now it’s playoff time, where the grind of 82 games – plus an Olympics-induced compressed schedule – gives way to the even harder road to the Stanley Cup. I caught up with O’Brien last week at the Gatorade High Performance Hockey Summit in Toronto to get a sense of how some of the NHL’s best are positioned for the playoffs.
Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins
Crosby locked up the Art Ross Trophy with 104 points in 80 games, so he’s been healthy. But he also played in the Olympics for Canada, winning gold and therefore playing until the final game of the tourney. Here’s O’Brien’s take on The Kid:
“It’s a real difficult season because it was a condensed schedule. For the players who actually had to go over to Sochi, they put a lot of stress on their nervous system and immune system by just going over there, then playing until the final game and going back to that condensed schedule. He’s really been preparing by making smart decisions on how to recover and working with the staff in Pittsburgh to make sure his body is fresh and ready. That’s the key in the playoffs. He’s learning every year from different playoff scenarios and it’s really just about managing energy. He’s done a phenomenal job of that this year.”
Welcome to the first round of the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs and the beginning of a new format. No longer will teams be seeded from 1-8 in their conference, but instead will have to play out of their division first. Teams are no longer re-seeded after the opening round and will face the other winner in their division in the second round.
THN gets you prepared for the action, which will start Wednesday, April 12. Below is our introduction to each series, insider analysis from CBC’s Kevin Weekes and TSN’s Jeff O’Neill, and THN’s prediction.
And be sure to vote on our poll: Who do you think will win the 2014 Stanley Cup?
BOSTON BRUINS vs. DETROIT RED WINGS
Introduction: A classic Original Six matchup welcomes the Detroit Red Wings to the East side of the playoff bracket and it won’t be a warm reception. The Bruins are the most complete team in the East and asserted their dominance by going through the East with a 12-4 record last playoff season. But the Wings are also an unfortunate draw for Boston. If any team, no matter its drawbacks, is capable of a shocking upset, it’s the experienced Red Wings machine. Just last season, Detroit upset Anaheim in the first round and took Chicago all the way to Game 7. This season, Gustav Nyquist should be even better for them. Read more
Just like the start of the regular season, any fan with a horse in the race starts the NHL playoffs with a giddy optimism. Even if you don’t believe your team will win it all, you’re surely thinking they can pull off an upset or two.
Well, sorry to break it to you, but you’re wrong. Your team isn’t as good or as complete as you believe it to be. They will not win the Stanley Cup.
And here’s why your favorite team will come up empty this spring:
Anaheim: Because the stats community says you’re doomed to fail. Your team’s 49.8 percent Corsi percentage is second-worst among Western playoff teams, which means you don’t possess the puck enough. You were upset last year and it’s going to happen again. Read more
Warning! The following video will make your eyes a little misty. Teemu Selanne ended his regular-season career last night as the Ducks beat Colorado 3-2 in a shootout, but the real fireworks came after the final buzzer when the Finnish Flash was named as all three stars in the game.
Selanne passed out three sticks to fans in the crowd and soaked in a wondrous ovation before being congratulated on an incredible career by the officials and then the Avalanche players. But Selanne had one more great moment left for the night, grabbing former Anaheim goalie J-S Giguere – who also looks to be retiring from Colorado – and taking him for one more spin around the ice:
Giguere, of course, has his own history with the Ducks.
With their 3-0 win over the suddenly slumping St. Louis Blues, the Dallas Stars are returning to the post-season, having eliminated the Phoenix Coyotes. It’ll be the franchise’s first playoff appearance since 2007-08 when ‘Big D’ made it to the Western Conference final before bowing out in six games to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings.
The 16 playoff teams are now set. All that’s to be decided now is positioning.
For the Stars, they could get any one of the Ducks, Avalanche or Blues in Round 1. They’re 2-1 against Anaheim, 1-3-1 versus Colorado and now 3-1-1 when facing St. Louis. Couple their success in Missouri with the Blues’ five-game losing streak, and the Stars might be hoping for first-round series against the Notes.
Colorado did the unthinkable last night – no, not beating Vancouver; that was very thinkable. What the Avs did do was pass the St. Louis Blues for first place in the Central Division. These are the same Avs whom we predicted would not even make the playoffs in our summer Yearbook and if you look at the advanced stats, shouldn’t be in the playoff picture right now.
On one level the Avs have been lucky – but you have to be good to be lucky and Colorado is good. Coach Patrick Roy – a Jack Adams candidate in his rookie year, to be sure – admitted as such last night. As noted by NHL.com reporter Kevin Woodley, Roy was well aware how poorly the Avalanche has fared in puck possession metrics. Colorado ranks 25th in the league when it comes to Corsi, the measure of all shots directed towards the opponent’s net (including blocked and missed attempts) versus those against. But as Roy pointed out, they’ve also got Semyon Varlamov, one of the best goaltenders in the NHL and that’s how they have managed to stay on top. Sure, the Avs have been playing with fire, but they’ve locked up a good post-season slot and didn’t get burned. And the playoffs are all about having a hot goaltender, so for now, no harm no foul.
The latest chapter in the Detroit-Colorado rivalry is being written in video sessions, practice rinks and dressing rooms. In place of blood, there’s chalk; instead of punching, there’s planning.
This showdown isn’t even face-to-face. It’s the virtual battle between Patrick Roy and Mike Babcock for the Jack Adams Award.
Naturally, if you try to talk to either man about the coach-of-the-year honor, they’ll deflect. It’s not a fight. For them, it’s about team success, one game, one period, one shift at a time. You know the clichés.
But to those of us either in fandom, or paid to observe, the matchup is intriguing.