Two Weeks of Heaven
This Wednesday marks the beginning of what I consider the greatest two weeks in sports of the entire year. For one simple reason – really good hockey every single night, for hours and hours. Oh, and the two words that come along with this fantastic hockey.
Yes, there really isn’t anything like playoff overtime in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. There are no coin flips, no chance to “match” an opponent when they score. No four-on-four defaults, and definitely no shootout (though they decide Olympic Gold Medals that way; go figure).
No, playoff overtime in the NHL is simply a battle of wills – who’s going to be the guy to put it in the net first and give his team an instant victory? The greater question might be, when? One of my greatest memories of working in the NHL was when Brenden Morrow ended Game Six vs. the Sharks in the 2008 West Semifinals at 1:24 am with a power play goal to send the Stars to the West Finals.
Eight series begin this week, each of them are intriguing in their own right. The NHL is the only league where an 8-seed can beat a 1-seed and it’s not really a huge surprise. Take the 2012 LA Kings for example, the first 8-seed to win the Cup. Last year they won it again, this time by winning three Game Sevens on the road along the way. This spring, they didn’t even qualify. Thus is the nature of the beast. As they say, “That’s hockey.”
Winning and losing in this league is such a fine line; even more so when it comes to a seven-game series. Every loss feels like the end of the world while every win make you feel like the Cup is within your grasp. At least for the fans, it is.
So who’s going to take home the greatest trophy in sports this year? Will it be the New York Rangers, who won the Presidents’ Trophy as best overall team in the regular season? Or do the Winnipeg Jets even have a chance, facing the very powerful Anaheim Ducks in round one?
Speaking of Winnipeg, they are the original inventors of the “white out” for fans in the playoffs. Now everyone does it; well, they do it with their own colors. But make no mistake – the Jets were the first. And they do it well.
Hockey is a game that basically comes down to two things – special teams and goaltending. This is especially true in the playoffs, where referees swallow their whistles late in a tight game and basically lose them in overtime. Show me a Stanley Cup winner and I’ll show you a great goaltending performance alongside a fantastic penalty-kill percentage combined with timely power-play goals.
Looking at the first round, there isn’t a series that isn’t both interesting and compelling. Some do stand out though. In the East one that I think stands out is the all-Canadian matchup of Montreal and Ottawa. The Canadiens are division champs and won 50 games. Ottawa is hungry and young and excited to be back in the post-season. These division rivals take it up a notch when they meet, and with two of the hottest goaltenders in the league in Carey Price and Andrew Hammond, expect this one to go the full seven games.
Out West, the one that catches my eye is the Blackhawks/Predators match-up. Jonathan Toews is the best captain in hockey, and he raises his game in the playoffs. Nashville has one of the best home-ice advantages in the league, so if they have any chance of downing Chicago, they better use it and sweep games one and two in Nashville.
First round series winners:
1 NY Rangers vs. 8 Pittsburgh: Rangers in 6
2 Montreal vs. 7 Ottawa: Canadiens in 7
3 Tampa Bay vs. 6 Detroit: Lightning in 6
4 Washington vs. 5 NY Islanders: Islanders in 6
1 Anaheim vs. 7 Winnipeg: Ducks in 6
2 St. Louis vs. 6 Minnesota: Blues in 6
3 Nashville vs. 4 Chicago: Blackhawks in 7
5 Vancouver vs. 8 Calgary: Calgary in 6