Besides Chicago, Who’s Toast?

I just spent the weekend in the beautiful Hocking Hills region in southern Ohio, but during the playoffs I think they should rename it Hockey Hell because there is absolutely no cell phone service at all, let alone internet access to properly follow the playoffs.  I had one TV in a cabin with 7 other people from southern and eastern Ohio, so you can imagine how often the dial was turned to Versus or NBC.  But I’m back where I belong, in front of a computer screen and televisions following the greatest tournament on the planet, and I have some things to point out about these first 2.5 games of the first round.

At this moment, only one team trails 3 games to none, and that team is the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks.  Earlier I wrote about why Vancouver was perfectly set up to knock off Chicago, and how it might propel them to a deep playoff run.  When you win the Presidents’ Trophy, I think a deep playoff run can be no shorter than losing the 7th game of your conference final, but that’s just me.  I also hate it when people say a regularly seeded team “lost early” when it went down in the second round.  The term “lost early” should be reserved for 1 and 2 seeds that lose in the first round.  Anything other than that is really not that unforeseeable.  But I digress…

At this point the Hawks look like they’re going to bow out in the opening round of these playoffs, and many people will talk about why this has happened.  They will cite all of the offseason trades that Chicago made to stay in compliance with the salary cap.  They will mention the well-known walking away from Antti Niemi that seemingly may have cost the Hawks some games.  But let’s get to the point. These are all reasons the Hawks won’t repeat as Cup champions, but they’re not the biggest reason the Hawks will lose in round 1.  That reason is without question the fact that they dropped the 82nd game of the season at home to hated division rival Detroit when the Hawks entered the game as 1 to 2 favorites.  They had just won at Joe Louis Arena, and looked to consolidate that break with a hold of service at home — one that would have given the Hawks the 5 seed and a zero-fear-inducing matchup with the Anaheim Ducks.  The way the Ducks look right now, they probably were the team that everyone wanted to play, although nobody was of that opinion prior to the playoffs.  I mean, did the Ducks really just get outshot 37-16 by the offensively challenged Predators, and coming off a series tying win?  Tell me no more.  Aside from a 30 second brace by the Finnish Flash, Anaheim got decimated in Game 3.  And that’s the opportunity the Hawks let get away eight days ago in that 4-3 loss to Detroit.  Instead of a series with Anaheim in which Chicago would have been the betting favorite, they got a matchup against the top team in the NHL.

That’s why regular season games do matter, despite all the clichés.  One could counter by saying that eventually Chicago would have had to beat Vancouver, but we all know that’s not necessarily true.  Many championships have been won in sports by getting lucky and avoiding the team you couldn’t beat.  All Chicago would have needed out of the 5 hole is a series win by either LA, Phoenix or Nashville against one of the top 3, and the Vancouver matchup would have at least been put off until the conference final, and that’s assuming that Vancouver wasn’t the one getting knocked off in round one or two.  Bottom line:  It looked at 3 p.m. last Sunday that Chicago’s loss cost them the playoffs, then Dallas followed suit and let Chicago in.  But in truth, that loss did cost them the playoffs, because it forced a matchup with the one team that Chicago really couldn’t handle.  This is not to say that Chicago couldn’t have won a series against Vancouver.  Two of the three games have been one-goal victories for the Canucks.  But it’s to say Chicago didn’t beat Vancouver, and that 82nd game is to blame for the matchup in the first place.  I know 3-0 comebacks are in style now, and I would expect the Hawks to play with champions’ pride in Game 4 to add to some uncontrollable complacency (just a little) from Vancouver that should all total in Chicago avoiding the embarrassing sweep.  But based on what I thought coming in and what I’ve seen, there’s no reason to think this series is a strong candidate to see a seventh game.

As for any other teams that are on the brink of checking out, I would say two road teams come to mind.  First, and to me most likely to fade away, the Anaheim Ducks have absolutely no chance of reaching a seventh game if they are hellbent on being outshot by 4 at home and 21 on the road.  That’s what they’ve done in this series per game, and I would say this next game is their best hope at getting to where they want to be:  hosting a Game 7.  Forget about winning this one in 6, as that seems less likely than Chicago coming back from 0-3 right now.  I suppose there should be a “fire under their ass” dimension to the Ducks play in Game 4, but the other side of the coin is that it seems Nashville is just better than them and can absolutely dominate possession at home.  In order to get to that 7th game, Anaheim needs to find a way to win 2 of the next 3, but 2 of those next 3 are in Nashville.  Good luck, looks like that could be my first loser.

My second loser looks to be most people’s loser — the Boston Bruins.  I still think the B’s are a pretty good team and I’ll follow tonight’s Game 3 intently, but Boston fans would be a lot more confident if Zdeno Chara wasn’t nursing some mystery ailment.  It looks like Big Z will be on the ice tonight, as Habs writer Dave Stubbs tweeted a little after high noon today that Chara looked fine during the morning skate.  I can’t help but be fascinated by this “dehydration” scratch in Game 2.  I mean, we are talking about a Norris Trophy candidate missing a nearly must-win Game 2 against a heated rival because of dehydration?  Dude, the playoff schedule came out last Sunday night, so you knew when the games were.  You didn’t have the flu, because teams disclose flulike symptoms all the time as excuses for scratches.  So uhh, drink water!  Even coach Julien supposedly “implied” that it was something more than dehydration, but I don’t know what that implication was.  All I know is that this situation screams one of three things.  Either 1) Chara was hungover something fierce, 2) he was actually very sick and the B’s just want to play head games, or 3) Chara was worrying himself sick days in advance of his almost legally inadvisable return trip to Montreal.  I’m not sure what to think, and the fact that this story was so buried on official websites reeks of Jason Bourne, but since I’m an amateur psychologist I’m going to go with option 3 because it seems the most extraordinary.  Imagine, a mix of the big man worrying about being arrested walking into the Bell Centre for Monday night’s Game 3 and the nagging pressure of the Boston media wondering why the team dropped the opening game to a supposedly weaker Montreal team.  I can see Chara fast tracking a stomach ulcer or forgetting to drink water for a couple days.  Either way, the real story is probably nowhere near as intriguing, so we’ll continue to be fascinated over the secrecy of this whole situation.

But regarding the actual game, I think everyone is of the opinion that Boston needs this one tonight, and almost needs both of these games at Montreal.  In truth they only need one, but it’s hard to see a team coming back from 0-3 this week when it concluded 2010 by blowing a 3-0 series lead and then a 3-0 lead in Game 7 at home to the Flyers.  Boston has now lost its last 6 playoff games, 4 of which being at home.  When it’s put into those terms, tonight’s game might be one that determines whether or not heads roll in the offseason.  I think it also determines whether the offseason comes for Boston before a week’s time.  Hard to pick against a team that needs a game so badly, but it’s also hard to pick against a team wearing the bleu, blanc et rouge inside the nuthouse that is the Bell Centre, which is inside the mob mentality-carrying city of Montreal.  It’s kind of like wandering into an insane asylum, and then locking yourself in Renfield’s room for three or four days.  Doesn’t seem likely to yield a good outcome for you, but that’s essentially what the Boston Bruins are doing, and hoping to survive.

Good luck to them, as it seems they need it to score goals on the most insane of them all right now, Carey Price.  The tall, young goalie is validating the Halak trade and reassuring the Habs faithful that management knows what it’s doing.  I was one who thought the Habs should have tried to shop Price last summer and kept Halak, but it wasn’t because of Halak’s olympic and playoff run.  It was instead because Price looked to me like a young man devoid of confidence.  He was decent in 2010, but seemed that he never felt in control of the situation.  What a difference a year makes, as Price has been elite from the very start of the season and remained in the top ten in both ratios while tying for the league lead with 38 wins, all the while carrying himself with calm focus between the pipes that was unlike the Price of old.  But the games won’t get any easier for him, and it should be very interesting to see which force snaps first, the desperate team or the insane asylum.  Count me in, 7 p.m. on CBC.


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