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As I try to dig my proverbial rollerblades into the concrete that is another Stanley Cup playoffs, I can’t help but notice how douchey most of us have gotten with regard to sport. No longer do we live in an age of winning and losing, but rather an era of meaningless chatter concerning referees (and linesmen) blowing entire series with one call, mind-numbing slurs launched at anyone supporting the other team (or anyone who wants to bring calmness or rationality into the argument), and the incessant, universal need of every “fan” to be wholly accepted as not only underdogs, but victims.

Count me out. I don’t need this mentally weak view of my favorite sport, and I’m hoping that some of you may come to realize that you don’t either. In fact, this whole thing is much more enjoyable and just as satisfying once a person comes around and figures out just what this “sport” thing is, and how to go about consuming it.
I love hockey, the NHL, and sport in general. I like talking about them, reading about them, debating them. But I refuse to accept that in order to partake in these things I have to let go of maturity and accept that I have to join the idiots that might have a monopoly on the industry. 
Part of the issue is that hockey has been engaging in efforts to grow the game, which necessarily means grabbing the eyeballs and dollars of middle America and Joe Sports Fan. Of course, this demographic is high on unnecessary expenses but low on poise and mastery of its emotions. I get that Twitter is always going to bring out and give a platform to the trolls who will use what minds they have to dip their paintbrushes in feces and wave them frantically as if Voldemort is nearby. But I want to examine the mindset of the collective majority that has taken over the conversation.
Victimization Complex
The psychological aspect that influences otherwise smart enough people and leads them to discard rational thought and kind human behavior is this omnipresent victimization complex. It is everywhere; it is all around you. Sport may be different from “real life,” or belong in the entertainment section of the newspaper (as hockey’s best voice, Jeff Marek, has claimed), but the folks who consume sport are the same ones who consume real life. Namely, anyone and everyone. So it’s logical to assume that where there exists a societal propensity for victimization complexes, so too will one exist in the sporting realm.

Anyone questioning the existence of a pressure to adopt a victimization complex needs only to look at politics, music, television and film or pop culture in general for glaring and continual examples. People complain about rappers bragging about their gold chains and spinning rims. But those rappers also want you to know that they came up from nothing. They didn’t get any advantages. They’ve never seen a silver spoon. They were victims, before they won.
Romantic comedies follow a pre-packaged script that makes sure to let every viewer know that the protagonist is to a large degree also a victim. Never mind that the main character is played by a woman who is a multiple-time charter on Maxim’s Hot 100, because the writer and director can throw more makeup and form fitting clothing on an equally gorgeous lady and then have this antagonist go over the top to make sure that the viewer is disgusted with the way she does our poor, homely protagonist dirty. Or in men’s terms, think Luke Wilson vs. Craig Kilborn in Old School, or Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson vs. Bradley Cooper in Wedding Crashers. Our good guys may actually be kinda bad, but that’s alright because the other guy is really bad. Such as it is with hockey fans: yeah, our guy jumped yours, but you started it and you got away with three similar acts earlier. You have no true claim at this win, and more importantly, we are the underdogs.
In U.S. politics, democrats cite the right wing’s “War on Women” and beliefs that public projects have no place in a free society as bigoted, ignorant and self-serving, while republicans see socialist ghosts everywhere trying to take away their guns, dollar value and dollars in general. This is to say nothing of all of these “freedoms” that half the nation claims are being taken, like the freedom from any and all pain-inducing thought.
In one of the most incredible political rally cries, Texas governor Rick Perry asserted at some point in his failed 2012 presidential campaign that he was “not ashamed to be Christian,” which is to say that he is not ashamed to be included in a group that made up 76% of Americans, according to the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey. I’m not sure what more proof of a victimization complex needs to be offered after a person who placed in the top ten of possible presidents of the entire nation thinks being part of any 76% slice of any pie has ever been linked with present-day shame. But we need to be victims. We need to be the underdogs.
Comparisons to War
The first step in building a victimization complex is identifying yourself as part of a specific group. In hockey, the obvious group is “fans of my team,” or “us.” The second step is establishing a rival group and relegating other individuals as simply members of this other group, which is roughly identified as “fans of other teams,” or “them.” Every team competes for the one and only prize worth winning in the NHL — Lord Stanley’s Cup. Therefore, once the us versus them is established, it becomes easy to go to step three: “they” are trying to take what’s “ours.” Which of course leads into “we” must be united to defeat the “bad guys (villains / anti-victims)” and all the other insane references to war that lowlifes seem to need to conjure up in order to justify their inability to control their emotions or treat this sport thing as what it is — a competition between separate teams competing for the same prize under defined rules.
Perhaps the war analogies were always inevitable. Many of the films regarded as the best of all-time center around wars or have wartime settings. I haven’t run the numbers on this, but I’m pretty sure shooting a movie based on war adds roughly three-fourths of a star to your movie rating on the cable guide. Just rough estimates, though. I get the feeling this need to relate sports to war is higher in people who never served or engaged in actual war, but I suppose further research would be needed to safely make this assertion. My point is that, in my opinion, framing sport against the backdrop of war is lazy, disrespectful to actual military men and women, and immature. It’s a form of lower thinking, but one that can be necessary in real fight or flight situations, such as real war. Hockey is not war. The team that surrenders more shots on goal does not have to worry about being waterboarded in some underground camp. Failing to put a body on the pinching defenseman is not followed by having to hand-deliver a folded, officially licensed New York Rangers flag to Dan Girardi’s mother. Sport and war are just not the same thing.
Not to take the conversation away from hockey for too long, but the English Premier League offers us great examples of groups’ need to play the victim. When I started really following domestic soccer, England had what was called the “big four,” which included the four teams that had won the title for the last million seasons: Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea. Since that time, the stranglehold at the top has dissolved somewhat and now includes Manchester City and Tottenham. Here’s the breakdown of victims and villains according to every other fan base in England.
English Soccer: My Team is the Victim, Yours is the Villain
Manchester United are villains due to their recent hoarding of league titles and perceived propensity to be beneficiaries of poor refereeing decisions. Manchester City are villains because a wealthy Sheikh bought the club in 2008 and had the audacity to spend a lot of money on players in an effort to challenge to “big four.” It seems to be working, as City will either finish second in the league for the first time since 1977 or snatch the title for the first time since 1968. Arsenal are victims in that they refuse to divorce their manager’s ideology of raising his players through the system and playing a style dedicated to offensive beauty at the expense of overpaying for other teams’ players or getting “dirty” wins. But they are also villains in that their fans are not real fans, but rather just a group of elitist Londoners who jumped on the bandwagon when the team was “invincible” in 2003-04.
Liverpool has been the most villainous club lately thanks to their “us versus them” PR nightmare involving Luis Suarez, who was found guilty of racially abusing Patrice Evra on the field in 2011. And then there’s Chelsea, who are despised by fans of every other team because it seems that they have embraced the role of villain and appallingly said to the rest of the victims in (and of) society, “We don’t really care if you like us.” If you’re looking for proof of this, check out the John Terry scandal. Think Tiger Woods but involving Woods’ secret funding of an abortion of the love child created from Tiger’s escapades with Stevie Williams’ wife. No joke. And John Terry’s not only still on the team, but is serving as the pseudo-manager whenever it happens that he is on the bench. And you know that whole hate Tiger Woods because he’s a dirty cheater and throws golf clubs and tears up greens but is way richer than any of us will ever be so I hate him thing? Yeah, there aren’t many better ways to typecast an athlete, his team, and fans of that team as villains than having a situation like that right there.
A Few Days In & We’re Already At It
Getting back to hockey, there’s no question that the majority of fans have victimization complexes. The playoffs are only a few days old, but already plenty of fan bases are screaming about the need for justice to right the wrongs that have been imposed on their teams. The Penguins are bitching about blowing a 3-0 lead to the Flyers due to Philly’s first goal coming from a breakaway that should have been called offside. The Flyers justify it with some “well you got one a little while after what really should have been an icing” argument.
The Red Wings (my Red Wings, I have to admit) have screamed for the suspension of Shea Weber, and then for the inherent unfairness that comes with the “Shana-ban can’t suspend anyone playing against Detroit ‘cuz then the other team would cry and play the victim” situation. Think about that folks: we are screaming and crying about being victimized essentially on the basis of a third-party judge actively refraining from giving the other group of fans the right to feel victimized. Read that sentence again. Rinse and repeat.
I haven’t put my ear to the ground today, but I’m sure in British Columbia there is a shortage of tin foil in the stores after the Canucks somehow have fallen behind an eight seed two games to none before hitting the road. I’m guilty of assuming that the league would make sure Pittsburgh took care of Philadelphia after the NHL seemed to be pushing a policy of fines for verbal assertions that the Penguins may be anything akin to the villains. 

I’m sure the Steel City feels that it trails 3-0 not because it lost three hockey games, but because the league is in fact overcompensating for the trio of fines that it recently levied. Because, you know, winning and losing isn’t decided on the 200-by-85-foot sheet of frozen water, but rather behind some closed door that leads to a room in which old white men who are richer than us and fatter than us smoke cigars and laugh about how they’re going to screw our team this time.
But none of this answers the real question: why do we have to do this? Why do we have to act like assholes and morons about something that we really have no financial stake in? That is, unless you want to tally the negative impact our team’s successes have on our wallets in the form of overpriced championship t-shirts and hats, more time spent watching games deeper into the playoffs, and maybe even some money spent going to these games that our team is only playing in because it had a very recent triumph (and the later it gets, the more likely those tickets came from Stubhub, which means we aren’t paying face value anymore).
I’m willing to accept those financial losses as some form of bought happiness. The fact still remains that our salaries don’t increase if our team makes it out of the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. There are no groupies that see Zach Parise score a big goal and think to themselves, “That deke really makes me want to hook up with an angry dude in a replica #9 jersey so hard.” Not really any power at stake either.
So there’s no money, sex or power on the table for most of us, yet sport yields actions that are (or at least used to be) unacceptable in everyday life. This can only be explained by the masses’ inability to control their emotions. Nobody is saying that picking a team and watching a hockey game should stir up zero emotions in an onlooker. Hell, I’d pity you if you could watch a playoff game and feel absolutely nothing. It’s just the way in which people are completely unable or unwilling to take a moment and let the emotion die down a little bit before saying or doing something that makes this whole thing less enjoyable for the rest of us. It’s juvenile in every sense. Kids are generally not tried as adults for crimes because of this theory that it is harder for a juvenile to understand the consequences of his actions or how to handle his emotions. But how many of the people that this writing would apply to are actually juveniles? I would say not many.
The inability to handle emotional swings can be slightly offset by adopting the underdog mentality, or victimization complex. Suffering from manic depression is seen as a disease — just revisit the Charlie Sheen coverage for evidence of that. But all manic depression really means is that a person has too wide a gap in their response to positive and negative emotions. The highs are too high; the lows are too low. In a hockey fan’s sense, winning the Stanley Cup is the ultimate high and that moment of elimination from contention for the Cup is the ultimate low. There are other highs and lows like scoring / allowing goals, winning / losing a fight, being the Shea Weber / being the Henrik Zetterberg that all contribute toward that ultimate high or low for a season.
The Victimization Complex is a Foolish Attempt to Close Fans’ Emotional Gap
The people that need to be victims need this because it allows the highs to be higher or just as high, while also letting the lows be higher. When a person is the victim and underdog, they never have to deal with losing when they should have won. Additionally, a Cup will never simply yield that “whew” feeling that might come with adopting the mentality of a favorite. They never have to act like they’ve been there before, because their narrative lets you know that they haven’t been there before thanks to everyone else in the world continually beating them down for no justifiable reason.
The high is as high as they can picture it: they overcame bad officiating, the league’s hatred of them and all of the other teams. The low is a little less low: they wouldn’t have gotten this far if the league got what it wanted, the officials in games 37 and 59 blew the four points that they needed to have home-ice advantage in this series, and my personal favorite — the old, “still better than you even though you won” argument.
These are all obvious defense mechanisms employed by the insecure to protect themselves against their greatest unknown: growing up. Why admit that something’s just a game, albeit a really great game, when we can instead turn it into a war? Why take the life-or-death stakes out of something that gives us those euphoric releases of dopamine that some of us evidently still haven’t figured out how to control, let alone use to our advantage?
Fans are so Emotionally Invested that They Need to Hedge Their Bets
Mental and emotional weakness is on display quite often thanks to our need to declare a series “over” as quickly as possible. It never ceases to amaze me how many fans need to stick a fork in their teams after the second loss in a best-of-seven series. This aspect of the problem isn’t limited to just your run-of-the-mill fans, either. When was the last time a television program on sports did not at least debate the question of whether or not a random series is “over?” I’ve seen it frequently with 2-0 series, especially ones in which the team with the lead is heading home for two games. I’ve seen it in 3-1 series all the time, despite the fact that the trailing team has two of the next three games at home and is theoretically the better team anyway, as evidenced by their higher seeding. I’ve even seen it in series that are at 3-2, which is the epitome of insanity. If the thing goes seven, all the clichés will come out about anything being possible. We’re one game away from anything being possible, and yet we’re going to even entertain the idea that the thing is “over?” Incredible.
This need to get out early is akin to a poker player needing to fold after the flop so as to avoid further losses during the next two betting rounds. I understand it. If I quit now, then once I’m really eliminated it won’t hurt as badly. Except it does. It always will, if you allow yourself to care, which I totally think you should. But here’s the thing: there aren’t future betting rounds to come. It’s not poker. If you miss the playoffs, you lost. If you lose in the first round, you lost. If you lose in the seventh game of the conference final (or the Cup Final, if you think winning the conference is meaningless), you lost. The result is the same for you emotionally no matter when the elimination comes. So there’s no need to try to figure out if something is “over” or not while there’s still another game on the schedule, and doing so saves you absolutely nothing emotionally, especially when we consider that those fans who declare things “over” are always pumped up and back on board for the next game anyway.
If We’re Incapable of Holding it Together, Is Ambien the Answer?
The transformation into an insecure, mentally weak culture has been years in the making and probably will continue if the content of television programming is any indication — there are currently six different Real Housewives of… series that have also spawned five different spin-offs on Bravo and Slice in the U.S. and Canada, respectively. And let’s not kid ourselves and pretend that women are the only ones watching. This might not be your world, it might not be my world, but there’s no denying that it exists and thrives in our world.
Upon considering the mental weakness aspect of unacceptable fan behavior, I naturally had to check out the stats regarding Americans on anti-depressants, since that seems to be a running joke in our society. I was actually surprised that the 11% figure released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for 2011 was so low. Maybe one in ten is a lot, but the way we talk about depression these days had me figuring the proportion would be higher.
Then I did some reading and noticed that not only were anti-depressants the second-most prescribed drugs in the U.S., but that studies suggest that a lot of people are afraid to talk about their depression with physicians because they are afraid of the stigmas associated with being prescribed antidepressants or referred to psychiatrists.
There are many stats of intrigue in these studies, but one that I thought might be relevant to the jerkoff hockey fan debate is that women and adolescent girls are 2.5 times more likely to use antidepressants than men or adolescent boys. My thoughts upon reading this couldn’t help but drift back to Twitter, where I then couldn’t help but recall that most of the angry, immature, hypocritical or no value added tweets from hockey fans this time of year seem to be disproportionally from dudes.
This left me in a quandary — I got all shook up. You see, rightly or wrongly, I’ve been the kind of person to poke fun at members of our “Prozac Nation,” or Ambien or whatever the drug might be. I’ve always taken a skeptical view of the idea that everyone on this stuff needs to be, or should be. You know, the old “quit being a sissy and get it together”-type of thing. Or as Barney Stinson once explained it, “When I get sad, I stop being sad and be awesome instead. True story.”
But, if it turns out that manic depressive tendencies are in fact near the root of all this unacceptable fan behavior including widespread victimization complexes and the need to relate sport to war, and the demographic that is less likely to use antidepressants is the same one that seems to be more likely to put on their asshole face, then maybe more of these angry, irrational, hypocritical, indoctrinated pretend soldiers (or pretend generals, let’s get real) should look into the whole sad pill option.
Let’s Get Our Shit Together
What might be the ultimate irony in all of this is that most of these symptoms are not experienced by the actual professional ice hockey team as a whole. Players give interviews and are sometimes candid, but in reality they always think they have a chance to win the next game, and hold most of their teammates in high enough regard to stick up for them during a game, but when summer comes they take off the skates and go back to their real lives just like any well-balanced adult would. Why can’t fans take the same dose of perspective and refrain from looting local shops, lighting cars on fire or trolling the internet?
These playoffs are still very young, so it’s not too late to take a chill pill and realize that hoping our teams win is just about all we can do. Trust that your boys are trying to win. Get a little upset with those dodgy penalty calls because that’s human nature, but then take a deep breath and shift into penalty killing mode, rather than spamming everyone’s timeline with biased hate. Trust me, win or lose, it’s a better way to enjoy the game for you and me both.
It’s playoff time, and rather than lead off with some clever transition from nothing, I’ll mention that I don’t need to do that and that you don’t need another vanilla, clichéd-up version of some dude picking all the favorites to win in 6 or 7 games and act like any value was added to your Stanley Cup playoff investment.

What we are going to do today is look at the “experts’ picks” from three of the most visible hockey media companies, compare their hunches to the series prices currently offered by the sportsbooks, and see if we can’t take a stab at predicting some things that won’t happen in the first round of the playoffs.

The three sources that I tallied to compile the 35 “experts’ picks” figures were NHL.com, espn.com (I know, I know), and Sportsnet.ca. The series price betting lines were taken from sportsbook.com.

Western Conference
#1 Vancouver Canucks vs. #8 Los Angeles Kings
The Canucks are the Presidents’ Trophy winners for a second consecutive season, and return to the playoffs after last season’s highly scrutinized loss in the 107th game. They were always going to be favorites as a #1 seed, but the L.A. Kings really don’t match up all that well with Vancouver.
L.A. game is based on defensive prowess and superb goaltending from Jonathan Quick, who will certainly be in Vegas as a finalist for the Vezina this summer. But, contrary to popular belief, the Canucks are an excellent defensive team as well. And they have speed!
While the Kings’ D is properly lauded for being the second stingiest in the league, the Canucks only allowed 19 more goals this season than L.A., which placed Vancouver fourth in the league in total defense.
And contrary to the widespread mob mentality, Roberto Luongo is just fine. I wrote all about that before the trade deadline, so I won’t go over the same numbers. But people need to get over that brain cramp in 2007. Seriously. Or, at least hold Luongo to the same standards to which every other goalie is held.

Both Daniel Sedin and Jeff Carter are expected to be ready for their respective teams, so the injury excuse isn’t one that we can use for either team yet.
Everyone will be and is talking about how it is just a matter of time before Cory Schneider rips the starting spot from Luongo. I disagree. I don’t think Schneider will see more than one game of the five that will be played, and I think that one is going to be simply to keep him fresh and because the Canucks will be taking care of business.
Quick Reference – Experts’ picks: 28-7 VAN; Series price: VAN (-225) LAK (+185); What Won’t Happen: L.A. winning this series, Roberto Luongo losing his starting job.
#2 St. Louis Blues vs. #7 San Jose Sharks
I really thought more people would be calling for the Sharks to win this one. After all, they have more playoff experience and perhaps the freedom of starting as a lower seed this time around. I thought the betting line would be close to even, allowing for wise guys to make a killing on the Blues as the disrespected-yet-clearly-better team.
That didn’t happen, as the Blues are getting more respect than I figured a hockey team from St. Louis could in what might as well be their first go-round.
The experts had the Blues over the Sharks at a 25-10 clip, and the betting line was an unforgiving -165 for St. Louis.
Photo found here
Halak & Backes: Two of my fantasy studs. They’re also on my fantasy hockey team.

Here’s why I love the Blues.
First, there seems to be this common perception that all of a sudden the playoffs will expose the Blues’ limitations and lack of experience, and that the veteran Sharks took the regular season off but will be fully focused now that it counts. The problem with this logic is that St. Louis plays a playoff style of hockey in the regular season. Why in the world would they be unfit to continue to succeed with this playoff style in the playoffs?
The Blues led the league in defense by a wide margin. Isn’t that old, mindless cliché about the hot goalie supposed to be regurgitated a thousand times by now? Well if so, here we have the best defensive team in the NHL backstopped by the guy who grabbed his crappy 8 seed by the scruff of the neck and dragged them past at-the-time still hot young thing Washington and defending champion Pittsburgh. The lazy saying was made for matchups like this. Throw in a possibly healthy peripheral league leader in Brian Elliott, and the Blues should be able to continue to lock everyone down just like they have for the last six months.
Speaking of goalies, isn’t everybody talking about how Antti Niemi is iffy and the worst goalie to ever win a Cup and blah blah blah? If all that is true, and you’re needing to match up with the best defensive team in hockey, wouldn’t it follow that San Jose is not good enough to out defend St. Louis?
The Sharks’ were tied for 6th best in goals allowed in the Western Conference, which allowed them to be +18 in goal differential, as compared to the Blues’ +45. And remember, that’s +45 and the best goals allowed total whilst playing in a division that far outscores the one that San Jose plays in.
The bottom line is, as much as I respect the possibility that the Sharks learn and put it all together, I just prefer the roster and playing style of the Blues, especially if the team I like more has home ice advantage.
It should be noted that of the underdogs, San Jose has the third-lowest payout on the moneyline, making this series the third most likely to yield an upset according to the sportsbooks.
Quick Reference – Experts’ picks: 25-10 STL; Series price: STL (-165) SJ (+145); What Won’t Happen: St. Louis is unable to exact their playing style now that it’s the playoffs, Anyone in 4, Anyone in 7.
#3 Phoenix Coyotes vs. #6 Chicago Blackhawks
I’m impressed with both the “experts” and the lines makers for recognizing just how good this series is set up to be.
This is another instance of the home seed having a lower point total but benefitting from geography, but readers know I have overvalued the Coyotes players for a while. I may have picked them to beat Detroit last year. I’m too lazy to check, but if I didn’t take Phoenix, I at least took them to lose in 7. That looked laughable last year, as Phoenix was the only team to get swept in the opening round.
But here we are again, and I still love Phoenix’s makeup. The roster gets made fun of, and everyone uses words like “toughness” in the same go-to way that NFL draft experts talk about college players that have a “motor,” or NBA draft talking heads refer to every white guy’s athleticism as “sneaky.”
These are the freaking playoffs. The NHL playoffs. This is hockey, and at the highest level. Every single team is going to have multiple instances and examples of “toughness.”
What everyone is really saying is, “We don’t think Phoenix is very talented.” Well, that’s cool. Let me ask you this: what would be the narrative about 35-goal scorer Radim Vrbata if he played on the east coast and/or had a North American-sounding name? I’ll tell you what word wouldn’t be used to describe his offensive output: “sneaky.” Alas, he plays his home games in Phoenix, and therefore is an overachiever, just like the rest of them.
The dichotomy in net couldn’t be more distinct. Mike Smith placed in the top eight in every relevant goaltending category this season. Corey Crawford was in the thirties in peripherals amongst qualifying netminders, and led the line for a team that completed exactly zero shutouts this season. 0-for-82. That might prove to be irrelevant, as either Chicago could pick the best time to start shutting people out, or they may just win the series without needing any bagels. But as of right now, the individual seasons for the young goalies Smith and Crawford went in very different directions.
And as much as I love Chicago’s offensive prowess from the blue line, Keith Yandle led all defensemen in this series in points, while second-year stud Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s 13 goals were tops. Those guys play for Phoenix, and I think you’ll find their games to be anything but “sneaky.”
I love this matchup for a lot of reasons. The less respected, more defensively reliant team has home ice. The offensively explosive, recent Cup champions find themselves about to embark on a battle that will be every bit as physically demanding as the one they found themselves in with Vancouver last year. Of the eight western playoff teams, Phoenix (+12) and Chicago (+10) have the lowest goal differentials (but for very different reasons). This is a contrast of styles and accomplishments that is about as interesting as a first-round series can yield. The picks and lines on this one reflect that.
Quick Reference – Experts’ picks: 20-15 CHI; Series price: PHX (+115) CHI (-135); What Won’t Happen: Chicago walks through this one, you don’t remember Phoenix center Martin Hanzal’s name when it’s all over.
#4 Nashville Predators vs. #5 Detroit Red Wings
Alright, so what’s up with this one. Not surprisingly, the books have this as a pick ‘em at the moment. I can see why. One one hand, we have a somewhat recent champion with most of the same players in key positions. On the other hand, we have a team that is all-in for the title right now and has home ice. The consensus seems to be that this series is a candidate for going the distance.
What’s stunning is the consensus that once this one gets to a seventh game that the Predators will win. Nashville won in the experts’ books by a whopping 29-6 count. So, almost everybody likes the Preds to win the series. Yet, nearly everyone likes them to do so in exactly seven games. I’ve never seen a bigger example of playing it safe. Pick the home team, but take it in seven.
Amongst the twelve ESPN “experts,” only one has Detroit to win the series (Linda Cohn, in 6 games). So, how many of the remaining eleven, all of whom picked the Predators, took Smashville to win it in exactly seven games? How about ELEVEN. That’s right — eleven out of eleven.
This says a few things. First, it’s a close call. Second, nobody wants to take Detroit over Nashville, despite the books and the length-of-series projections admitting that the series is essentially a pick ‘em. And third, nobody likes Nashville to close out the series at Joe Louis Arena. Smart call, I would say.
The whole “what won’t happen” idea for these analyses basically came from my belief that while my Red Wings may win and they may lose, they sure as hell aren’t getting eliminated at home. It would seem that ESPN agrees with me. Not sure what that says about me… Come to think of it… shit.
Quick Reference: Experts’ picks: 29-6 NSH; Series price: NSH (-110) DET (-110); What Won’t Happen: Predators in 4 or 6.
Thanks for reading; we’ll be back to do this again for the conference semifinals.

It’s playoff time, and rather than lead off with some clever transition from nothing, I’ll mention that I don’t need to do that and that you don’t need another vanilla, clichéd-up version of some dude picking all the favorites to win in 6 or 7 games and act like any value was added to your Stanley Cup playoff investment.
What we are going to do today is look at the “experts’ picks” from three of the most visible hockey media companies, compare their hunches to the series prices currently offered by the sportsbooks, and see if we can’t take a stab at predicting some things that won’t happen in the first round of the playoffs.
The three sources that I tallied to compile the 35 “experts’ picks” figures were NHL.com, espn.com (I know, I know), and Sportsnet.ca. The series price betting lines were taken from sportsbook.com.
Eastern Conference
#1 New York Rangers vs. #8 Ottawa Senators – For all the talk that I seem to be hearing amongst the hockey world about a lot of people picking Ottawa to win this series, it sure didn’t show up with regard to the experts. Of the 35 to vote, 33 took the Rangers to advance, making New York the most sure thing to win a round amongst all NHL teams. At -240, the Rangers are also the most expensive bet. No matter how we slice it, NYR is the most favored team of any in the first round of the playoffs.

I think that suits Ottawa just fine, what with their Roland Deschain attitude both in net and throughout the roster. Craig Anderson lives for big games, and is the kind of goalie that almost guarantees his team won’t get swept out of any series. Unfortunately, the flipside is a lack of consistency at mundane times, which leads to a lot of doubters. I am unsure if Ben Bishop is in the team’s plans as far as playing in this series, but I am confident that what won’t happen is Ottawa getting swept out by New York. Their offense is too dynamic at the top and Anderson is going to have at least a pseudo-Game 3 moment at some point.
Photo found here
Sir Craig Anderson, F.M. (Fuckin’ Man)

But, I also don’t believe Ottawa would go into New York and win a Game 7 against such a deep, physical team with the best goalie in the world. Game 7s are typically only lost at home by uber-talented, smooth skating offensive teams that get the yips when everything is on the line in front of their demanding fans. The Rangers are not this type of team. They are too physical and deep, and whedn the moment gets as big as it can get, I like teams that base their games around the simple things to be most likely to close out a home Game 7.
I want to put this out there right now: there is only 1 way that Ottawa can win this series, and it basically looks like the blueprint for any underdog in a seven-game series. The Sens must split the first two games, then bring it home and ambush the Rangers. If Ottawa can grab the coveted 3-1 lead, then I would expect they can close it out at home in Game 6. Let’s also point out that New York is not as seasoned as the stereotypical #1 seed, so there is always the possibility that MSG eats its young in Game 5 when the chips are down, whether the series be at 2-2 or 1-3 against the Rangers.
My ones of loyal readers know that I do not like picking “good” teams to get eliminated at home, but I’m struggling to pick against Ottawa winning two games in a series against a team that has truly no playoff success to speak of. I can’t deny that I feel the most likely (safe?) outcome is that the Rangers will do enough to take a 3-2 lead back to Ottawa and find a way to play a grinding, shutdown road game to knock the Sens out in 6.
Quick Reference – Experts’ picks: 33-2 NYR; Series price NYR (-240) OTT (+190); What Won’t Happen: NYR in 4, OTT in 7.
#2 Boston Bruins vs. #7 Washington Capitals
This one smells like a rat. A cheese eater. Another member of that nation that Frank Costello so resented toward his end.
Let’s play a game called “go back twelve months.” It’s fun. You can often spot forests through trees. Here we go.
Twelve months ago, people were giving the Washington Capitals one last chance to make things right and get to the finals (or at least the conference finals). The Caps came into the playoffs on fire and grabbed another #1 seed. They would even go on to casually handle the New York Rangers in an albeit contested five-game series with playoff rookie Michal Neuvirth in nets. Washington then got swept by Tampa Bay, and all of us proverbial Ned Starks dropped our proverbial Ices through the necks of Alex Ovechkin, Bruce Boudreau and everyone involved with the Capitals’ organization.
We were pissed. Much like Mrs. Bobby Petrino, we all knew we were looking the other way on a team that had not under its current makeup seriously challenged for a spot in the eastern final. And don’t give me “’09 Game 7,” because I watched that damn game. I said “seriously.” But we went ahead and picked them anyway, and if we didn’t, it’s because we picked them to lose in the second round to Pittsburgh, who actually lost in the first round to Tampa Bay. Once the second round was set, everybody was back on the bandwagon and unafraid to admit it. We weren’t sure Washington was going to win it all, or even get past PHILADELPHIA in the east, but they were damn sure not losing to a division rival who plays in the state of Florida.
Then the Caps got swept, and we got embarrassed. “We’ll never back you again,” we said. And from the looks of it, we haven’t reneged on that promise yet.
Boston, meanwhile, was still having to deal with questions about their most recent playoff collapse — that of blowing 3-0 series and Game 7 leads at home to the Flyers. Boston squeaked past a Montreal team that most had pegged for what actually happened to them this season. The Bs entered the second round on the road at the team that had not only done them dirty the season before, but had led the eastern conference for much of the season. I don’t remember Boston being a consensus pick to beat Philadelphia, but maybe I have amnesia. Or maybe all the rest of you do. That’s why we’re playing this game.
Then Boston swept the Flyers en route to two more series that had to end with victories in deciding seventh games. Kudos to the champs, they earned it. But that’s what happened. Boston won a 16-team, 4-round tournament in which 3 of those 4 rounds saw them pushed to the brink, and that’s having the league leading Vezina-in-waiting goaltender backstopping every game. Tim Thomas is still there, but he’s only shining out the string with regard to that trophy.
So, what are the numbers, you ask? Of the 35 “experts,” 32 of them have picked the Bruins to defeat the Capitals. In other words, this is the second-most surefire bet in their eyes. I get that it’s a 2-7 matchup, but this 32-3 vote still raises my eyebrows. This whole thing stinks of revenge. If you don’t believe me and are countering with, “Yeah, but Boston will win this series and almost anyone would think so,” let me get to the rest of the tallies here in a minute. And remember, it’s the Washington Capitals here. Despite all of their transparent playoff problems, it never stopped the majority of people from picking them to win before. So, what’s changed so drastically? Our egos, maybe…
The betting line represents Boston as tied for the second biggest favorite, along with Vancouver, at -225.
I’m not going to pick Washington to win straight up, and I certainly have never liked some of their key players, but if you’re looking solely for value, the Caps on the money line has to be a candidate.
Here’s what won’t happen: Caps’ goalie Braden Holtby will not get deer-faced and give up terrible goals to get the team eliminated. It’s funny, Neuvirth was a playoff rookie until he looked incredibly solid last year against the Rangers. Most people think Holtby is more talented than Neuvirth, and has been pretty good in limited big league action over the past two seasons. Yet, Holtby’s assumed status as fill-in starter is cited as a big reason why Washington will lose. Seriously? The Caps might lose because they are not as well set up to enjoy playoff success as the Bruins are, but it won’t be because Holtby shits the bed.
Quick Reference – Experts’ picks: 32-3 BOS; Series price: BOS (-225) WSH (+188); What Won’t Happen: Caps lose because of Holtby.
#3 Florida Panthers vs. #6 New Jersey Devils
This one’s just comical. I understand it’s the Florida Panthers. I understand it’s the Southeast Division. I understand it’s a traditional power with the winningest goalie ever. But the degree to which the Panthers are being written off as glorified sparring partners for a team that has accomplished exactly nothing over the last four seasons can only be explained by the “name on the front” theory.
See, it doesn’t matter that the New Jersey Devils have won only two first round series (and zero beyond that) since the lockout, or that the Panthers have home ice in this series, or that until upgrading the size of his pads, Marty Brodeur looked like he might not be able to start in the ECHL. None of that matters, because this series is between the Florida Panthers and the New Jersey Devils.
Who cares that the best defenseman in the series is Florida’s Brian Campbell, or that six of the eight points that the Devils have on the Panthers this year are via the six extra shootout wins that New Jersey “earned,” or that, again, Florida has home ice in the series. None of that matters, because New Jersey is going to pound their asses and it’s unfair that all of us have to sit through such an undeserving playoff qualification (never mind that we love watching the Capitals… who lost the division to Florida…).
New Jersey ought to be the favorite, but the gap is too wide for a road favorite that led the league in shootout wins. If they play their cards right, the Devils will be lucky enough to bring a 3-2 lead home, where they would logically close it out. But this is far from a sure thing.
Quick Reference – Experts’ picks: 30-5 NJD; Series price NJD (-210) FLA (+170); What Won’t Happen: Devils in 4, as projected by a few of the experts (including Sportsnet’s Jeff Marek, who I tend to agree with on most hockey arguments).
#4 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. #5 Philadelphia Flyers
It’s really too bad. This one could have been so badass. The league could have went and let everybody believe that this was a true grudge match, that no holds were going to be barred and that the face would have to go through hell to get past a very worthy adversary just to advance to the second round.
Then the league went and started fining anyone and everyone who used anything relating to Pittsburgh in a paragraph with anything relating to a putdown. You aren’t reading this for information on the league’s clear “no shit talk on the Pens” directive, so I won’t go into detail, but over the past few weeks no fewer than three fines have been levied at three separate entities who may have used words to call into question basic things like fairness, toughness or a propensity to bitch and moan.
Lots has been said recently on the matter, and I don’t have much to add except that the complaints by fans, coaches and all those around the game are very warranted and on point. Quite simply, the first rule of the NHL is that you do not talk about the Pittsburgh Penguins (unless it’s to select roster players as either award candidates or all-time great fodder). The second rule is that you do not, under any bleeping circumstances, talk about the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The whole situation is pretty sad, and not the least of which for the Penguins themselves, who through league memos regarding unfair practices that they went on to use themselves, medical incompetence that was masked as the need to give special officiating for special players, and the public silence regarding these ridiculous, arbitrary and capricious fines that are getting levied against any and all dissenters, have adopted the roles of Craig Kilborn in Old School or Bradley Cooper in Wedding Crashers — men who have all the tools and do not need to win by cheating or having others cheat for them, yet go down that route nonetheless.
It’s embarrassing to the league, it’s embarrassing to the Pens and it makes a mockery of notions of justice. But, the rules are the rules, and the commissioner’s office makes the rules.
Of course, there’s no way that office would let an anti-shit-talking directive leak over into an on-ice anti-shit-officiating directive that would screw the Pens’ opponents. Not after losing Pittsburgh in the first round of the playoffs last year. Not a chance.
Don’t like the conspiracy theorist? Then don’t give him all the reason in the world to believe in the likelihood and practicality of the conspiracy.
Notice I haven’t even mentioned a player in this series yet. It’s because I don’t have to. Sorry Flyers fans, there’s no way you’re winning this series. I’m surprised the votes and line are as close as they are. The sad thing is, I think the Flyers actually match up alright with the Penguins. Oh well, what could have been…
Quick Reference – Experts’ picks: 27-8 PIT; Series price: PIT (-220) PHIL (+180); What Won’t Happen: Philadelphia winning the series… or the penalty minute battle… or the lowest fine competition…

Five months ago I wrote about why Phoenix and Florida, two franchises pegged for relocation by many over the past few seasons, were sitting atop their respective divisions early, and why expectations for both franchises should be raised from the bottom-dwelling perceptions that most hockey fans had.
Well, here we are on this Easter Sunday celebrating the resurrection of two hockey franchises thought to be dead men skating as recently as… well, right now, if we’re talking about the Coyotes.
Back in November, I wrote about how the increase in scope and prevalence of information and coverage has led us all to become more aware of financials all around us — never mind that we don’t actually get to see any team’s balance sheet. The Pacific and Southeast division titles clinched on Super Saturday only cement my opinion that we all give too much weight to team finances and salary cap figures when trying to project a point total in the standings.
Photo via (Timothy T. Ludwig, US Presswire)
Pound that water, Mike Smith. You’ve earned it.

Aside from the “hockey is played on a sheet of ice, not a balance sheet” argument, we looked at how all too often sports predictions are based heavily on the previous season. Upon looking at the six division champions, I would need proof of anybody seriously calling for any of the division winners we saw this year outside of the two defending conference champions — Vancouver and Boston.

I loved the N.Y. Rangers growing roster, and I still couldn’t pull the trigger on picking them ahead of Pittsburgh (and I was wishy-washy on taking them second over Philadelphia). I liked the St. Louis Blues, and still deferred to last season in picking them to squeak into the playoffs as the Central Division’s fourth-best team. Granted, none of us saw the Ken Hitchcock lockdown D coming, but the roster didn’t change from opening night. Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott just decided to tag team the Jennings Trophy. And then there are Florida and Phoenix. Show me the timestamp on someone’s projection of either one of them as division title winners, and I’ll show you someone who forges timestamps.
The unfortunate part for both the Panthers and Coyotes is that they’ll have to face two teams that are very deep in playoff experience at different positions. Florida will host New Jersey, whose word association answer is always going to be “Brodeur.” Aside from the winningest netminder in league history, the Devils still have Patrik Elias and Zach Parise to lead the line, as well as 83-point scorer Ilya Kovalchuk, surprise 30-goal man David Clarkson, and a pair of elderly chaps in Petr Sykora and Dainus Zubrus who each turned in 44 points in 82 games.
I have not come across series prices yet this morning, but I do see Florida getting twice the money to win the eastern conference that New Jersey gets, making the Panthers unsurprising underdogs in that respect.
Phoenix, meanwhile, will have to deal with the tough task of knocking out recent champs Chicago, who I mistakenly pegged for a huge regular season, but seem to be coming together at the right time and may get captain Jonathan Toews back from a concussion as early as Game 1. Then again, he may never play again. You guys know the drill.

Photo credit to cbc.ca (Nuccio DiNuzzo/AP)
The Blackhawks can’t be having this if they want to compete for another Stanley Cup.

The Coyotes are getting more than double the odds to win the west as compared to the Blackhawks, making Phoenix another unsurprisingly underdogged three seed. The one advantage for Phoenix that most people would agree upon has to be in goal, where Mike Smith finished in the top eight leaguewide in GAA (8th), save % (3rd), games played (8th), wins (4th), and shutouts (3rd). Blackhawks’ starter Corey Crawford, by contrast, placed 34th, 37th, 18th, 16th and tied for last in those same categories (Chicago rocked zero shutouts this season). Phoenix’s physical style should trouble Chicago a bit as well, especially considering the importance Toews has on the Hawks winning playoff games.

Smith’s success dispelled the final argument I made in November, which was that it was very early and there was still time for Smith or Florida’s trio to go sideways. That obviously didn’t happen with Smith, but neither did it happen with Jose Theodore or Scott Clemmensen after much-hyped rookie Jacob Markstrom went down with an injury following a promising start. As far as upside goes, most people would take the Coyotes’ goaltending over that of the Panthers, but that is not to say that Florida’s pair doesn’t inspire an average amount of confidence that the goalie will probably not blow the series. Neither Theodore nor Clemmensen played nearly as bad as Brodeur’s worst this season, which, to be fair, does seem to have been pushed back by Marty’s recent success.
A full playoff preview with predictions that will probably hit at just over 50% is on its way, but until then I’ll just point out that neither Florida nor Phoenix lost the season series to its first-round opponent. Phoenix went 3-1 against Chicago this year, with one of those wins coming by the playoff-insignificant way of shootout. Florida went 2-1-1 against New Jersey this season, with that hanger on the end being a shootout loss, not an overtime one. So, both the Coyotes and Panthers went 2-1-1 against the Blackhawks and Devils in games that are decided by a 60-to-65-minute hockey contest. And they both have home ice. That’s the positive contemporary history part of this thing.

Photo via (Joe Rimkus Jr., Miami Herald)
Super Saturday sure was for the Panthers, who celebrated the first division title in franchise history.

The negative historical trend? Neither Phoenix nor Florida has won a playoff series since 1996 — the year Florida made their stunning run to the Cup Finals and Phoenix scored the relocation of the Winnipeg Jets. The Panthers are 0-2 in playoff series since the ’96 run, and that includes a 1-8 game record and zero playoff appearances since 2000. The Coyotes are 0-7 in the first round, but three times have forced a deciding Game 7.

John Mayer’s song “Belief,” or track three on his 2006 studio album Continuum, was by all accounts not written about the Calgary Flames. But after Wednesday night’s humiliating 19-shot effort at home against an opponent not only competing for what the Red Mile hoped was its #8 seed, but also one being coached by the very man who took the Flames to within one booth review of the Stanley Cup eight years ago, many of Mayer’s realist, if not indicting, lines seem very relevant to the current state of the hockey franchise in Calgary.
Oh everyone believes
In how they think it ought to be,
Oh everyone believes
They’re not going easily.
Year after year, the Flames seem to get themselves in this position of needing to put a run together at the end of March to make a charge for one of the final playoff spots in the Western Conference. The rhetoric never changes: “Calgary is one of the hottest teams in the league right now (despite a pedestrian record);” “If the Flames find a way to get in, those division winners better watch out… after all, the playoffs are won by the hottest goalie, and Calgary’s got one with pedigree;” “None of the teams battling the Flames in the standings have the kind of heart and soul that Iginla & the boys do,” and so forth and so on.

Come the end of the year, every year, supporters of the Flames work themselves up enough to believe in how they think it ought to be — specifically, that the Flames are molded in the fashion of a good old underperforming-yet-peaking lower seed that can skate toe-to-toe with any squad that it may face in the playoffs. What’s more is the belief that despite habitually trailing multiple teams and spotting said teams a game in hand or two, Calgary seems to always believe that the old “win out” scenario is normal and achievable in the first place.
After all, everyone believes that they’re not going easily.
But after last season’s attempt at pole vaulting out of purgatory fell considerably short, and this season had many wondering why GM Jay Feaster a) would not consider trading Iginla before the deadline to rebuild this stagnant ship, or b) still has a job, the old end of the season desperation set in and everyone forgot all of the problems that still torture the Flames. Despite all of the negativity that comes with following a Canadian team in the NHL, everyone assumed that a home ice meeting with the L.A. Kings, who sat one point ahead of Calgary and without the tiebreaker over the Flames, would go just brilliantly. Because the Flames sure as hell aren’t going easily.
Then, the Flames went easily. By the time the puck was dropped, the lid to the candle was being slid over the Saddledome. Less than six minutes in, Kings’ defenseman Willie Mitchell scored the game winner. Less than twenty minutes later, Dustin Brown, the very much questioned, trade-dangled and under-appreciated captain of the Kings, fired home the insurance goal.
Calgary got outshot 30-19. They were outhit 17-14. Takeaways were 7-6 in favor of the Kings, and the Flames gave away a vomit inducing 15 pucks, compared to L.A.’s grand total of 2. Penalty minutes and faceoffs won were drawn, at 10 and 29 apiece respectively. Again, Calgary was at home.
Everyone believes
From emptiness to everything,
Everyone believes
And no one’s going quietly.
If “emptiness to everything” doesn’t sum up the way most of the hockey world views the Flames’ own self-image over the course of a hockey season, I’m not sure what does. Except maybe “Potential to everything to emptiness to everything to hell in a hand basket.” And yes, in that exact order.
We’re never gonna win the world
We’re never gonna stop the war
We’re never gonna beat this
If belief is what we’re fighting for.
Am I the only one who notices how much of Feaster’s plan seems to be PR-based? Granted, in an age when the public can chant its way to firings, promotions and trades, a lot of Feaster’s job has to be coaxing the public into believing in his plan. I just wonder at what point we realize that there are a lot of educated fans out there who have evaluated the situation and called for a rebuild. When is it alright to make the hard decision to go down the tougher road with the idea that in four or five years the franchise will be much better off?

Make no mistake about it, continually chasing the eighth seed and refusing to consider flipping the few assets one possesses is not choosing the harder route. Sure, there’s honor in the fight, but it’s fun to chase the playoffs. Fans forget this all the time — just look at the sentiment in Toronto right now — but the truth is that prior to the clinical depression that comes with a 9th, 10th or 11th place finish (or a first-round beatdown) is a euphoria of mild success mixed with grandiose hopes and expectations. That euphoric part is fun. A lot of fun. If it wasn’t, nobody would use drugs a second time. Nobody would gamble. Smart people wouldn’t secretly like pop music.
The hard decision would be to start over and gut the thing. The reason this would be hard is that there would be absolutely no foreseeable moments of euphoria for a few years. The team would suck and miss the playoffs. There would be no “we almost made it” salability. Truths would have to be faced. Everyone involved would have to go through rehab.
So instead of making the hard choices that should give the Flames a better chance of being a true Stanley Cup contender five years from now — or “winning the world,” in a hockey sense — the Flames will continue to fight for belief. Belief of the fans, the players, and themselves at the top. Flames’ brass will continue to do what it has to do in order to convince itself that the squad is just one or two pieces away; never mind that those hypothetical pieces would be much too big to fit through the doorway.
The real Cup contenders have built themselves into such. They know they are capable; the only question that remains is whether or not they will win their world, and (temporarily) stop their war. But a team like the Flames will never beat this if belief is what they’re fighting for.
Is there anyone
You can remember
Who ever surrendered
With their life on the line?
Yep. Again, sitting in 11th place and spotting a game in hand to all but Colorado, the Flames’ playoff lives were on the line last night. And I don’t know how a 19-shot performance at home can be called anything but a surrender. There was never a lead to protect. The penalties were even. Calgary simply put 19 pucks on net in a must-win home game.
For those who think the Flames are still in this thing, let’s go to the schedule, shall we? Calgary has four games left, which is one more than Colorado but one less than every other relevant team in the West. The Flames are at home against Colorado on Friday night before heading to Vancouver for an HNIC late game the very next night. After the four days off that follow, Calgary then hosts Vancouver before closing out at home against Anaheim on one of those patented lazy weekend afternoon games (Saturday at 2 p.m. local time).
Those who disagree with my pronouncement that the Flames are doused will cite the three home games coming in. How’d that home thing go last night? They will claim that Vancouver may be resting up for the playoffs. For starters, the Canucks would probably like to finish ahead of St. Louis for home ice throughout the conference playoffs (and probably SCF). On top of that, did anyone notice that 1-0 shutout that Cory Schneider pitched Wednesday night against the desperate-and-actually-playing-like-it Avalanche? Unlike Calgary, Colorado fired an impressive 43 shots on goal in a road game at a superior opponent. Schneider handled them all, and this came just two days after his buddy Roberto Luongo did the Kings in with his own 38-save 1-0 shutout. If Vancouver doesn’t care, somebody forgot to tell the team’s entire defensive system.
With no relevant games to this situation on Sunday, we will know the outlook for the Flames by the end of their HNIC game this weekend in Vancouver. Anything shy of four points between now and then should see the team eliminated by the time the Canucks make the return trip to Calgary. On top of that, there are a few Pacific Division games that could head to overtime and whittle that tragic number down even further.
Let’s see if the Flames play this thing out with true belief, or if 19 shots at home in a must win game was the surrender it seems to be.

WIth a half dozen or so games to go for most teams, the playoffs are starting to take shape. Although many possibilities still exist, what would be the most interesting first-round matchups that appear as likely as not to fall into place?
Eastern Conference
New York Rangers – If NYR wins the #1 seed, the obvious opponent from a perspective of intrigue is the Washington Capitals. The intrastate argument can be made for a Rangers – Sabres series, but the recent history exists between the Rangers and Caps. The last two times the Rangers have made the playoffs, their season has ended in first-round defeats in the home-seeded Capitals’ building.
Prior to their memorable second-round series with eventual champion Pittsburgh, the #2 seed Capitals had to survive a seven-game series with Henrik Lundqvist and the Rangers. New York fell behind 3-1 in the series before forcing the seventh game. This was a feat they could not duplicate last year, when they dropped that road elimination Game 5 in Washington as the #8 seed. If this matchup is to happen, it would be the Rangers who would have home ice and possibly even the Presidents’ Trophy.

If NYR is caught by Pittsburgh, the almost certain first-round pairing would be with Philadelphia in the 4-5 series. That would be a high-profile intradivisional matchup that might have HBO reconsidering its decision to not renew 24/7. The possibility exists for a Rangers – Devils series, but Philly would have to tank it to allow New Jersey to make up a six-point gap with only six games to play.
Boston Bruins – I’ve never taken the “Boston better be careful or they’ll drop the division” talk seriously, and I’m willing to assume that Boston is going to place into the #2 seed in the east. Of all the teams they could face in the first round, I think the most interesting series might be against New Jersey, who sits only two points ahead of Ottawa for the sixth spot. Some would argue that Ottawa or Buffalo are the best opponents for Boston because of the divisional aspect, but I would much rather see a contest between similar-minded teams with very contrasting expectations and recent playoff showings.
Florida Panthers – It’s going to be hard to argue that the Florida series will be interesting no matter who they face simply because nobody cares about hockey in Florida. But if we’re going to pit them against any potential #6 seed, I would personally love to see them face Ottawa. These two teams finished 13th and 15th in the Eastern Conference last season, respectively. But the manner in which they would get to this potential 3-6 matchup is very different.
Florida went out and overspent last summer just to reach the salary cap floor, and had been targeting July 2011 as the month in which the franchise would be able to begin to turn the whole thing around. So far, nobody can argue with the results.
Meanwhile back at the ranch, Ottawa was supposed to be in rebuilding mode. Filip Kuba was supposed to have been dangled in February and shipped off to a playoff contender for yet more young talent and/or draft picks. Everyone of consequence besides Spezza and Anderson were either really old or really young. Alex Auld was the backup goalie.
But the Sens’ veterans ran the show, the rookies were solid and Craig Anderson was nothing if not reliable. Number 41 is never going to be the most consistent tender in the league, but dare I say consistency isn’t really the thing a “crap team” needs in net. Teams that are supposed to suck often have a decent enough, consistent goalie who always faces more shots than his counterpart and usually puts up a respectable 2.60 – 2.75 GAA while getting no goal support. This leads to a good amount of one-goal losses and not enough points in the standings.
A goalie like Anderson, however, is going to miss a lot of fairways and make some double bogeys. But when he’s feeling it, that same top-of-the-crease, gambler attitude is going to steal some games as well. And at the end of the year, that inconsistent style might lead to more wins and overtime/shootout losses, along with some more blowout losses. This leads to more points in the standings, and a better shot at playoff qualification.
Throw in the “goalie against his old team” thing with Anderson against the Panthers (which almost nobody knows or thinks about), and the idea that nobody takes either Ottawa or Florida seriously as eastern conference contenders, and what’s not to like about #3 Florida against #6 Ottawa? At least that leaves more “big boy” series for the rest of you.
Pittsburgh Penguins – This is obvious. If the red-hot, playoff favorite Penguins finish behind New York and get the #4 seed, everyone will want (and almost certainly get) the no holds barred Pennsylvania state title series against the fifth-seeded Philadelphia Flyers. It is entirely possible that the Flyers catch the Pens and get home ice for this series.
If Pittsburgh ends up grabbing the top seed, as most people have felt that they will for a few weeks now, the glaringly obvious NHL wet dream is that Washington finishes in 8th. You don’t need a lecture on the hype that would surround another Pittsburgh – Washington series.
Philadelphia Flyers – The revamped Flyers are probably going to finish third in the Atlantic and get the #5 seed, although the #4 is certainly within reach, and other than the location of a potential seventh game, it doesn’t really matter. The Flyers are probably going to face whoever doesn’t win the division, and whether it’s Pittsburgh or New York, the rivalry exists and doesn’t need manufacturing. The east’s 4-5 series should be one to watch.
I’ve laid out my desired opponents for New Jersey, Ottawa and Washington, and I think Buffalo would be happy to play anyone. I don’t really see a jaw-dropping opponent for the Sabres that would place in the east’s top two, although that’s not to say a series involving Buffalo would be boring.
Western Conference
St. Louis Blues – The Blues are closing in on a rather unforeseen division title and possible Presidents’ Trophy, and their 147 goals allowed this season are best in the league by a laughable margin. St. Louis’ most gimmicky opponent out of the 7 or 8 hole would be Colorado based simply on last year’s trade, but regular readers know what I think of the Avalanche’s front office and general leadership. Because of this void in direction and the fact that Colorado has only four games left to play and are already trailing the 8th spot, I don’t see the Avs getting in.
This would leave the Blues list of potential opponents as the entire Pacific Division with Anaheim swapped out for Calgary. As much as I love the Red Mile and the passion of the Flames’ fans, and as cool as it would be to see what San Jose could do with a #8 by their names (just think, Washington and San Jose as the EIGHT seeds), the most interesting opponent for the Blues from a style of play standpoint might be the Los Angeles Kings.
Sure, it might be a snoozer for the scoreboard operator, but I think the irony of this series would be worth at least five games. Just think, there’s this midwestern squad that doesn’t spend to anywhere near the salary cap, but has figured out a way to master the exact style of play that the team from Hollywood has been trying to play for some time now. Both teams fired their head coaches during the season, but only the small, red-state Blues have seen the kind of ludicrous uptick in results that followed.
Unlike most pundits, I do not think an early exit is inevitable for St. Louis. On top of that, I think the Blues match up with the Kings very well — much in the same manner the ’08 Red Wings did with the Penguins. Similar systems and styles of play, but one team just seems to be doing it better. Despite the studliness of Kings’ goalie Jonathan Quick and the ability of most fans to name more skaters for L.A. than for Dallas or Phoenix, I believe the Blues should actually welcome a first-round series with the Kings, lest they go up against an offense that can actually hurt them.
Vancouver Canucks – The Canucks are either going to get the #1 or #2 seed, and since I think the top six are already determined, I’m not going to waste time dreaming up another first-round series against Chicago. Vancouver’s potential opponents are pretty much the same as those for St. Louis, and of those teams I’d like to see the Canucks face the Dallas Stars.
Dallas is a quiet team that nobody feels they need to pay attention to, but a series with the Canucks would be akin to a #13 seed in the NCAA basketball tournament finally getting on TV. Nobody knows your players’ names until you start canning threes and D’ing up on a team that everybody assumed would advance to the next weekend. It happens every year, and a highlight series with the desperate Canucks might be what it takes to get trending topics in North America like “Jamie Benn” or “Lehtonen.” Dallas has a roster that clearly is highlighted on the blue line, but aren’t those the types of teams that are able to surprise higher seeds in the playoffs?
There’s always the possibility that San Jose slides back into the 7th or 8th seed, and this would make for the highest profile opponent that Vancouver could face in mid-April, but forgive me for not being all that excited to see another shockingly short series between these two.
San Jose Sharks – Chicago. Chicago. My kind of matchup.
This can only happen if San Jose wins the division and Chicago completes its BlackSawks plan of diving for the 6th seed, which looks to be fully operational, but there is absolutely no opponent that would be more salacious for the rest of us third parties.

Gary Bettman’s search history: 2012 Sharks – Blackhawks first round + British accent

Yes, we all want the Sharks to fail and finish ninth or something, but in the interest of eyeballs, a San Jose – Chicago series in the 3-6 matchup is another one of those “NHL google images Kate Beckinsale” type scenarios. Let’s get it done. Plus, one of them has to lose!
Nashville Predators – It looks for all the world like the Chicago BlackSawks are going to win the race to the bottom for the 6th seed, and so we’re left with the near certainty of a Nashville – Detroit series in the first round. This is cool, although as a Red Wings fan it’s a bit depressing. There is the whole contrast of styles thing, as well as the contrast of urgency. Detroit did next to nothing transactionally all year despite having all of this extra cap space that team owner Mike Ilitch dumped right into the pie hole of Prince Fielder. Nashville, meanwhile, went out and paid a crazy price at the trade deadline for Paul Gaustad, must have made Alex Radulov some sort of offer he couldn’t refuse to get him back over from Russia a couple weeks ago, threw the cash at goalie Pekka Rinne and hope to be able to do the same for defensemen Ryan Suter and Shea Weber.
The Preds are coming off their first playoff series win in 2011 and are clearly gunning for the Cup right now. The Red Wings look more like an organization that is owned by an 82 year-old man who has already won four Stanley Cups and has that one last thing to do before he dies: get his baseball team a world series title. Look at the change in salary expenditures and policy and tell me I’m wrong.
Detroit Red Wings – Again, it looks like Detroit is going to lose the race to the top to St. Louis and the race to the bottom to Chicago, and will be stuck in the undesirable 4-5 series against Nashville. A series win would get the “see, we’re up there with the best and the struggles were only due to injury” bandwagon up and rolling, while a series loss would kinda, sorta disgrace Nick Lidstrom’s final year. And make no mistake about it, if the Red Wings lose in the first round after two consecutive second-round exits and failing to bring in any personnel help despite having a considerable amount of salary cap space for the first time in years, I highly doubt GM Ken Holland will be able to convince Lidstrom that the team is close enough to a Stanley Cup to warrant another year of unrelenting work. But then, I don’t think or live like Nick Lidstrom. Unfortunately.
Chicago Blackhawks – There’s that dream matchup with San Jose for the rest of us that I mentioned earlier, but I’ll tell you who Chicago shouldn’t want to play: the Dallas Stars. I’m not necessarily calling for a Dallas “upset” over Chicago at this moment, but come April 9th I might be.
The Hawks obviously are hoping for the return of captain Jonathan Toews, and therefore should want to delay any headlining matchups as long as possible. But what seems easier from a physicality perspective: playing San Jose or playing Dallas or Phoenix? To me the answer is obvious, and the Hawks seem like a team that needs to be kicked into gear anyway. Dallas or Phoenix just might lull Chicago to sleep. There’s no way anyone sleeps through a series with San Jose.
So Chicago, San Jose, let’s just see it already.
The Most Interesting (Possible) First Round in the World
Eastern Conference
#1 Pittsburgh v. #8 Washington
#2 Boston v. #7 New Jersey
#3 Florida v. #6 Ottawa
#4 N.Y. Rangers v. #5 Philadelphia
Western Conference
#1 St. Louis v. #8 Los Angeles / Calgary (L.A. for style, Calgary for fandom)
#2 Vancouver v. #7 Dallas
#3 San Jose v. #6 Chicago
#4 Nashville v. #5 Detroit
Apologies to fans of Buffalo and Phoenix, as well as L.A. and Calgary for only putting them halfway into the playoffs. I don’t apologize to any other team, because I don’t believe any other team can get to the playoffs. Except of course the Leafs…

While the masses will tell you that the NCAA Sweet Sixteen begins Thursday, those of us in the know understand that the real 16-team tournament begins on Friday. The get-in-get-out format of college hockey’s national tournament makes it difficult to latch onto any previously unknown teams or story lines, save those who actually qualify for the Frozen Four. As my college hockey tracking has declined since my graduation from America’s system of higher learning, I’m not going to try to pretend to be an expert on NCAA hockey anymore. But I do follow the CCHA pretty well, and here’s a few things to look for and/or consider as we head into the first and penultimate weekend of the big ice dance.
Boston College is awesome. They’re ranked number one for a reason… right? (Ode to Chase Daniel, member of the all-insecure team). But seriously, though, they are ranked number one for a reason. As much as I hate to admit it as a CCHA fan, if there’s only one team you watch in this tournament it has to be the BC Eagles. Their skill level is very high, they play tough in all three zones, and they’re led by a head coach in Jerry York who has won four national championships — the first of which of course being in 1984 whilst heading former CCHA power Bowling Green — and three in the last eleven years with BC.

The Eagles’ road to the Frozen Four is arguably the easiest of any of the sixteen clubs, and not solely because they are the best team. They lead off with the lowest ranked team to qualify in Air Force. I’m not certain that the “other” Falcons are actually the 16th-best team involved, but they come from the conference that will always send only the tournament champion, and for that they are stuck as a bottom seed no matter what they do. Assuming BC gets by the AFA, they will get the winner of defending champion Minnesota-Duluth and Maine. Both teams are top-10 contenders, but BC just handled Maine in the Hockey East tournament finals rather easily. And alas, this regional is played in… Worcester, Mass.
Before Boston College gets started on Saturday, however, half the field will have already started. Friday’s play includes two of the four regions, and might as well be called the CCHA play-in round. Of the five CCHA teams that qualified for the tournament and the eight teams in total that play on Friday, four CCHA teams play on the first day.
The default pick for best CCHA contender is always Michigan, and despite not winning the league or postseason tournament, the deference to Red Berenson and a high total of NHL draft picks reigns again. The Midwest Region’s top seed will lead off with a Cornell squad that finished just 2 points behind national #3 Union for the ECAC title. Cornell was brutally beaten in the league semis by Harvard before recovering to trounce Colgate in the third-place game. So this one’s a matchup of two teams that won neither their leagues nor tournaments.
The other game in Green Bay will be CCHA champion Ferris State against perennial powerhouse Denver University, who finished third in the WCHA before falling 4-0 to North Dakota in the league title game. This game is intriguing thanks to that age old comedic tactic — the reversal. On the one hand, there’s Denver, a seven-time national champion that won back-to-back titles as recently as 2004 & ’05 with two different goaltenders. On the other hand, there’s the squad that’s ranked and seeded higher while also being able to boast actual hardware this season by winning the nation’s toughest conference over the league’s 28-game schedule. By contrast, Denver couldn’t even win the Denver Cup this Thanksgiving (because they lost at home to the CCHA’s fourth-place team).
Granted, the tendency is to go with Denver solely because of experience and tournament pedigree, but as a school, the last time Ferris State won the CCHA (2003 — check out Chris Kunitz’ stats from that year) they got shipped out west and beat a traditional WCHA power in the first round (5-2 win over North Dakota). All of this should make for an interesting region. It isn’t all that unlikely that the Midwest regional final is the CCHA’s 1 vs. 2 matchup that never happened in the conference tourney. And considering that Western and State may be in for first-round exits, this one would be for a “state title” as well. Not that the Frozen Four doesn’t trump the hell out of that.
The other half-CCHA region that kicks off Friday is that of the East, which will be played in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Second-seeded and zero-time national champion Miami (what up, 2009?) will face Mass.-Lowell in a game that I don’t have much insight into. I watched Miami play two games last weekend in Detroit, and they looked alright in half of them. I understand that the size and talent is there, but they took approximately one thousand penalties in getting whacked by Western Michigan in the league semis. Then they beat up a depleted Bowling Green team that was just playing out the string.
Bridgeport also plays host to the most ludicrous at-large bid in a while, when fourth-seeded Michigan State will take on ECAC champion Union College. It’s not so much the fact that MSU got in that bothers me, but rather the idea that the fifth-place team from its conference can get humbly crushed in its playoff series by a combined score of 10-1 and be a lock for NCAA qualification while the team that finished tied for second in that same league was a win-it-or-miss-out team. Western Michigan did in fact win automatic entry into the dance by beating Miami and Michigan in Detroit last weekend, but the idea that the Broncos were lower on the NCAA pecking order than the Spartans based on this season is absurd. There’s nothing that can justify this — not the pairwise rankings, not the polls, not the record against fellow teams under consideration, not the league finish, not the tournament finish. It is true that MSU went 2-0 against WMU this year, but it was early in the year, and those kinds of things are only supposed to ever be used as a tiebreaker. This comparison was nothing near a tie.
None of this is to say that Michigan State cannot upset Union, but odds are that the top seed will advance. 
The fifth CCHA team in the mix is of course the auto-bid Broncos of Western Michigan. They are the fourth seed in the West Region, which kicks off Saturday in St. Paul, Minnesota. While the Broncos are on a roll (who wouldn’t be after replacing Tim Tebow with Peyton Manning, eh?), they get a dreadful matchup here with top-seed and in my opinion #2 nationally North Dakota. Expect Western to fight the good fight but probably lose by one or two.
From a neutral point of view, the West has to be the most interesting region. Not only do we have conference tournament champions playing in the 1-4 matchup, but we have recent national champions squaring off in the 2-3 game. The champs from 2009 (second dig at Miami!), Boston University, have the tough and borderline unfair task of going into the Twin Cities and knocking off the University of Minnesota. I’ve never been a big fan of non-one seeds getting to play entire regionals at home, but the sites are predetermined and really there was no way the Golden Gophers were going anywhere but St. Paul anyway.
Minnesota won back-to-back national titles in 2002 & ’03, the latter of which largely behind freshman phenom Thomas Vanek. For all of the Gophers’ moxie and tradition, the main school in the “State of Hockey” has been pretty dire since its last Frozen Four appearance in 2005. In the last seven years, Minnesota is 1-3 in NCAA tournament play, and failed to qualify in each of the three seasons prior to this one. I know they’re at home and all of these teams are capable, but I get the feeling Minnesota is the third-best team in this region, and as such I doubt even the location will overcome what is likely a BU-UND gauntlet on back-to-back days.
If it’s prediction time, which I guess at some point it has to be, put me down for the following regional final results:
East: #1 Union d. #2 Miami
Midwest: #2 Ferris State d. #1 Michigan
Northeast: #1 Boston College d. #2 Minnesota-Duluth
West: #1 North Dakota d. #3 Boston University
After I go 1-for-4 we’ll pick the Frozen Four games and act like nothing happened. As for my BGSU Falcons, does anyone know the time and place of our NIT game?