Yup, we've reached that time of the play-offs where I stop caring. Why'd it have to be the Kings? I really hoped they'd make that pick wrong. *sigh*
- Chicago/Los Angeles - Okay, okay, it's been 24 hours, so here's a legit analysis. LA has been finding things tougher this year, against teams that are probably not as good as the teams they played last year. Chicago stumbled a bit early in the series against Detroit, but I think that might be the first time they lost three in a row all year. That's not going to happen again. If the Sharks had won, I'd have said Chicago in 5. As media folks liked to write ad nauseum, there wasn't much of a difference between the Kings and the Sharks. So what should change about my pick? Chicago in 5.
- Pittsburgh/Boston - Boston took a miracle to get past a mediocre Toronto team. The Pens can score seemingly at will. Anderson had been one of the best regular season goalies in the regular season, and they made him look miserable those last two games. Rask may be good, but he's going to get that same treatment. And somehow, I don't think Boston's truculent chicanery will throw the Pens off their stride...and they don't have anywhere near enough offense to keep pace. Pittsburgh in 5.
That's more like it! Those 8 teams were really starting to bug me. Clearly, every single one of them is lacking in some way, and therefore everything they accomplished in the previous 48 games had no point, and their accomplishments are only targets for scorn and ridicule. Meanwhile, the 8 remaining teams are obviously superior...until four more lose, and then they, too, were just wasting their time for the last 4 months. At least it wasn't 8 months! As to my predictions, the Kings, once again, won against my pick and the Ducks let me down against the Wings. Strangely, I picked the Caps in these predictions here, but the Rangers on the little Excel bracket I have on my computer (which got totally busted because I had the Ducks coming out of the West as the only team that could beat Chicago). So, I guess that still counts as a miss. Still above 50%?
- Chicago/Detroit - I thought for the longest time that this was going to be Chicago vs. San Jose, but I guess the Wings had other ideas. I'm still not sure how they made the play-offs, let alone won that series. Well, that's not entirely true...I can sum it up in five words. Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. Every time I think Datsyuk may be over rated, I actually watch him play, and he can dominate the puck, both offensively and defensively. Zetterberg isn't as dominant...but he was timely, and his performance was a big difference maker in their victory. Unfortunately for Detroit, Chicago has way more depth than the Ducks could throw at them. I think Chicago really caught a break here by having the Wings knock off the Ducks. Detroit is a much more favorable match-up for them than the Sharks would have been (or than the Ducks could have been in the conference finals). I think they even wrap this one up early, especially since Detroit had to spend it all just to beat Anaheim. Chicago in 5.
- Los Angeles/San Jose - Ugh. So close to all three California teams in the conference semis, and getting to see the one California play-off match-up we haven't seen (Kings/Ducks). Instead, as others have pointed out, we get a rematch of the last play-off series the Kings lost...Kings/Sharks. Some things have changed since then, though. Darryl Sutter is now the Kings' coach, and I guess they had some sort of success last year or something. Adding the Flyers' duo of Carter and Richards has really made the Kings' forward depth pretty insane. Of course, since the Sharks moved Brent Burns to forward, their depth up front isn't anything to sneeze at either. Kind of like the Vancouver series, though, I think the Sharks have the better 3rd line. Of course, I'd feel more comfortable about that if Havlat was on the 2nd line, Torres on the 3rd, and Desi on the 4th. But even still...Lewis, Stoll, and Penner? Penner's only good when playing with good linemates. The most interesting thing to me in this series is going to be the difference from what each team experienced. The Kings just went through a massive slugfest against the Blues, while the Sharks had a possession-off against the Canucks. Can the Kings throw off the Sharks with physical play? Can the Sharks put pressure on the Kings with quality possession? I'm not sure. I really have no idea how this one will turn out. I still don't like the Sharks' chances on the road anywhere but Vancouver, though. It makes me barf to say it...but...Kings in 7.
- Pittsburgh/Ottawa - What's interesting is that I think if you asked Pens fans, "Which two teams do you least want to play in the play-offs?" the answer would have been the Isles and the Senators. So how lucky they must feel to get to play both of those teams in the first two rounds. Ottawa is a team that can score, just like the Isles...and unlike the Isles, they have a bit more reliable goaltending, which is the Pens' one achilles heel (as in...they don't have reliable goaltending). The Pens' offense is powerful enough to overcome Anderson...but will it overcome him enough to make up for how much Vokoun and/or Fleury give up? That's actually not quite as clear...especially after the Isles made the Pens sweat a little bit. In the end, I think the Pens are still the better team...but it may take a while. Pittsburgh in 6.
- Boston/NY Rangers - Oh, look, a Boston vs. New York match-up. *yawn* If this were baseball, ESPN would be exploding with glee. It's not, though, and this isn't quite as big a deal in hockey. Still, two "classic" teams battling in a series that'll probably have like 10 goals scored. Total. While most of the East explodes with offense, these two teams were 2 and 3 in the East in goals against, but in the middle of the pack in goals scored. Special teams counteract each other (good Boston PK vs. average Rangers PP and a weak Boston PP vs. average Rangers PK), both teams are worn out from 7-game epics, and both teams had higher expectations at the start of the season that they haven't reached. I think the Rangers' advantage in goaltending, plus their bigger "star power" at forward, combined with Boston having to stage a miraculous comeback to beat an average Leafs' team, means the Rangers have a bit of an edge. I'll say they finish another series on the road. New York in 7.
Ah, the pre-postseason has ended, so now the more expensive games can start. Predictions, as always, are a futile gesture. As much as anyone can say they know things, or analyze Fenwick or Corsi or 5-on-5 scoring, or blah blah blah, the actual games can go either way. But that's not really the point, is it? People fill out March Madness brackets for the same reason they play any game...because it's fun to engage yourself in the process.
- Chicago/Minnesota - Is it unfair to just assume Chicago is going to bowl these guys over? Minnesota stumbled down the stretch. I still don't know who actually plays defense for them after Ryan Suter...some guy named Stoner? Nice. No Heatley, and Mike Yeo doesn't seem like...the best coach. Meanwhile, Chicago is three lines deep, and at least two D pairs. Starting in Chicago, one of the toughest places to play in the play-offs. Minnesota's not likely to steal one, and I'm not even sure they can win one at home. So let's go out on the limb and call it...Chicago in 4.
- Anaheim/Detroit - Is this the one that's in line for the frequent 2/7 upset? Everyone thinks the Ducks aren't as good as their record, and of course, everyone still thinks Detroit is a gift to hockey we should all be happy to have. But seriously, they did nothing at the trade deadline, and when I watched them earlier this year, they were a shadow of what they used to be. Trying to be a puck possession team when they don't have the horses (especially on the back-end) to do that well. Meanwhile, the Ducks are the league's most entertaining high-wire act. Just when you think they're falling behind, they find a way to score in the 3rd period and win games. Just when you think things will come back to Earth because whatever depth player is hot at the moment is cooling off, Andrew Cogliano or Matt Belesky, or Nick Bonino, or some other 3rd line player will suddenly go on a tear. Are they as good as their record? Probably not. Are they better than the Red Wings? I still say yes. Anaheim in 7.
- Vancouver/San Jose - As always, it's hard for me to not be biased here. If you'd asked me a month ago, I would have been just as pessimistic as I was going into last year's play-offs...which is to say that the Sharks are an inherently flawed team which will be exposed in the match-ups of play-offs. I don't believe that this year. They suddenly have 3 solid lines (not as good as two years ago, but still solid) and a good energy 4th line. They have a serviceable back-end that generally gets the job done, thanks to Larry Robinson, who also rescued the Penalty Kill. Meanwhile, the Canucks have a resurrected 2nd line now that Kesler is back and Derek Roy has been added. Two years ago, I think the difference in the series was special teams, and that the Canucks' 3rd line (starring Raffi Torres) was clearly better. This year, I think those fortunes have reversed, thanks to the aforementioned Larry Robinson and (and I can't believe I'm saying this) Raffi Torres. Sharks get their revenge. San Jose in 6.
- St. Louis/Los Angeles - It's nice to see two teams that I had no interest in seeing the Sharks play against each other, because that means one of them has to lose! I think a lot of people will pick the Kings here, and that's a good pick. They're the defending champs, they've scored seemingly at will against St. Louis this year, they have a goalie who has proven he can be good, and this St. Louis team isn't as defensively dominant as they were last year. At least, that was the first half story. The Kings have been mediocre lately, while the Blues have been hot, and resumed making Brian Elliot look like an all-star goalie again. The Kings steamrolled to victory last year by getting ahead in every game, and every series. How will they react if they don't win the first game? With Quick looking much more beatable this year, that's not such a far-fetched question. Let's stick with the revenge theme here...Blues in 7.
- Pittsburgh/NY Islanders - Unlike the Chicago/Minnesota series, I don't see this one quite as one-sided. The Islanders often find a way to be a thorn in the Pens side. Tavares and co. are actually a team on a rise, and while Nabokov may seem like the kind of guy that doesn't steal games, and occassionally gives up heart-breaking soft goals...he's matched in that by his counterpart across the ice in Fleury. Meanwhile, the Pens are still battling to be fully healthy, and then putting all those pieces together with chemistry. Will Sid play? Malkin? Neal? Is their D-core really great, past Letang? Anyway, this is still a long way of saying that this is going to be a closer series than the Chicago one...but it still won't be that close in the long run. The Pens are just too good. Crosby, Malkin, Iginla, Morrow, Neal, Kunitz, Dupuis...and more. They'll score plenty. Pittsburgh in 5.
- Montreal/Ottawa - I gotta be honest...I haven't watched a ton of Eastern Conference hockey this year, so some of this feels like coin flips. But Ottawa has Karlsson back, and if they can find their early season stride, they can certainly be competitive with a Montreal team that scuffled in the last month, giving up a lot of goals. In fact, remember when I referred to that supposedly frequent 2/7 upset? I'm calling it here. Ottawa in 7.
- Washington/NY Rangers - Who are either of these teams? Washington is a team that seemed dead and ready to be buried, and it required Alex Ovechkin to regain his stride to barely win a horrible Southeast division. Still, they were on fire in the month of April, only leaving 3 points on the table (one regulation loss, and one OTL). Meanwhile, the Rangers had to struggle to make the play-offs despite their collection of talent...a team that definitely does not seem to exceeed or even match the sum of its parts. They also had finally started to find a bit of consistency in April, after the trade deadline, and things seemed to turn around. They probably have the goaltending edge in Lundquvist, while Washington probably has the offensive edge. Which of those two things yields more? I'll say that Washington uses their totally earned home ice advantage to their, well, advantage. Washington in 7.
- Boston/Toronto - This one should be entertaining, as 4/5 match-ups often are. But this one especially has some storylines. Toronto in the play-offs for the first time in years. The whole Seguin/Kessel/etc. thing. Do the Bruins play with a chip on their shoulder after not winning the division, or do they stumble? Again, I can't say I've watched a ton of either team, and the 4/5 match-up is even more of a toss-up than others. I think Boston is probably a better team, top to bottom, though, and seasoned. Boston in 6.
Summer Bonus: San Jose Sharks' "Mount Puckmore"
As seen on the Yahoo! Sports Puck Daddy NHL Blog, I'm taking this opportunity to procrastinate doing something productive and work-related to come up with my own opinion about the San Jose Sharks' Mount Puckmore foursome. The idea here is "choosing the four defining faces of their franchise. These four people are who you remember most when you think of these teams -- whether they be players, coaches or executives." Lacking the ultimate success of a Stanley Cup Champion, it's hard exactly to come up with criteria for these selections, but each choice will have its own arguments in its favor. So, without further ado...
- Patrick Marleau - Marleau sometimes gets a bad wrap among sports writers and fans alike, but in reality, "Patty" is far and away the Sharks' all-time leading scorer and, barring injury, will play his 1000th regular season game this season, all with the Sharks. This includes 320G/373A/693P, which, while not point-per-game stats, show his ability to both score and create offense. In addition, he has 45G/30A/75P in 106 play-off games, including 12 game-winners. A lot was made this last post-season about Marleau "disappearing" in the play-offs, but in fact his points per game ratio is consistent in the play-offs with his regular season numbers (which is as good as going up, as numbers usually go down in the play-offs), and his goals per game actually goes up (I can think of two memorable hat tricks against St. Louis and Nashville). I think all of that negative attitude stemmed from one single event against Detroit in 2007, when Ron Wilson called him out for playing too aggressively in the last minute, leading to Detroit's tying goal. The unspoken contention between the two seemed to grow, with Wilson constantly shuffling Marleau's line-mates, and not backing up his captain in the press, until it reached a point that it was clear either Marleau or Wilson had to go. I, for one, am glad that the long-time center remained. When I first signed up for season tickets with the Sharks, one of the main motivating factors was getting to see Marleau's speedy stride and quick release 41+ times a year. His rejuvination under McLellan has brought that back to life, and now the only question is...will it take bringing a cup to San Jose, or has his classy, long-time dedication to the organization earned him number retirement in the rafters of the tank when the time comes?
- Owen Nolan - "Buster" was certainly a memorable member of the Sharks' organization in the Daryl Sutter years. No one embodied the blue-collar, hard-working style of those teams better than Nolan, who was a vocal and physical leader. Before the emergence of Marleau, and the arrival of Joe Thornton, Nolan was the Sharks' leading scorer, racking up 451 points in 568 games (to go along with the 934 PIM showing his physical side). Of course, the most memorable moment of Nolan's San Jose tenure was during the all-star game, played in The Tank in San Jose that year, when he fired his called shot past Hasek to finish a hat trick. None of those late 90s teams were filled with talent, and while, as with most Sharks, his play-off success was limited, who could forget the memorable upset of the 1st seeded Blues in 2000, sparked by Nolan's fluke shot from center ice past Roman Turek in game 7. Nolan will always have a place in Sharks' fans hearts, and he still has ties to the community, including owning the Brittania Arms Pub/Restaurant (a nice place to grab a drink and a bite on game-days) with his brother.
- Doug Wilson - The first two choices were locks for me; the second two choices are a bit tougher. Ultimately, I'm going with Doug Wilson as being an instrumental part of this franchise. While those first two Sharks' seasons were dismal (including the record-awful 11 win season in 92-93), Wilson gave the team some veteran presence and respectability. In fact, he chose to come to San Jose after getting on the outs with then-Chicago coach Mike Keenan (what a surprise), and turning down offers to be a mercenary on contending teams to instead start building something in San Jose. It's hard to forget the image of him on the ice as one of the last remaining helmetless players in the NHL, anchoring the blue line. And while the Sharks haven't won the Cup (or even made it to the finals) during Wilson's tenure as GM (neither have 20 other teams), it's not from a lack of trying. Wilson has helped take a team that previously had won one division title in 12 years, and had in fact missed the play-offs the previous year, and built them toward four division titles in 6 years, a President's Trophy, and two trips to the conference finals. It remains to be seen if he can bring the ultimate prize to San Jose, but there's no doubt that he has had a major hand in creating the culture of class and winning of the Sharks' organization, and for that, I, for one, am thankful.
- Jeff Friesen - This last selection was toughest. So much so that I almost considered switching out Wilson for one of two guys. For the fourth pick though, I think my final answer is Jeff Friesen. From a list that I'll get into in a minute, I settled on him for the main reason that he was the team's first real home-grown star. Pat Falloon (the team's first overall pick) never grew into the leader it was hoped, and it wasn't until Friesen that a Sharks' draft pick lived up to potential. Friesen was one of the few bright spots on some otherwise below average teams in the mid-90s years after the euphoria of the play-off upsets in 94 and 95. He led the team in scoring in his first NHL season (15 goals in the lock-out shortened 94-95 season) and helped the team pull off the second of the aforementioned upsets. He was the poster boy for the organization (quite literally, in fact, as I actually have a Jeff Friesen poster) as well as one of the franchise's top-5 in scoring (4th, behind Marleau, Thornton, and Nolan). Even though the team didn't have a ton of success during his time here, he was always a fan favorite, and I know quite a few people would have been ecstatic to have him win a roster spot out of training camp a couple years back. His skill and speed were fun to watch, and he still is tied for the single season SHG franchise record (6 goals).
Narrowing down the list was tough toward the end, and there are two guys especially I struggled with, and some more who were on the cusp of breaking into the list. First is Mike Ricci, because, like Nolan, he was the face of the hard-working late-90s teams. I don't think the Sharks have ever had a 3rd line as good as the one he led with Scott Thornton and Niklas Sundstrom again. Not to mention that his is a face that you can't forget, and would look great on the side of the mountain. Ultimately though, I thought he and Nolan somewhat overlapped in what they represented. It still broke my heart to leave him off, though. Joe Thornton was quite the conundrum, because while he's an over a point per game player in the regular season, and probably the most talented player the Sharks have ever had, I'm not sure he really embodies the long term image of the Sharks. If the day ever comes when he hoists the cup while wearing teal, that would surely change, but for now...yeah. Others considered include long-time goalie Evgeni Nabokov (excellent stats, not enough resume to knock off anyone else) and Arturs Irbe (not long-term success, but definitely memorable for his duration).