I know. It still stings.
For the first time in nine seasons, the Chicago Blackhawks will not play for Lord Stanley’s Cup. So, why bother watching the Stanley Cup Playoffs this year?
Because hockey’s second season is literally Christmas in spring. Whether you’re team is in it or not, nothing beats playoff hockey (except overtime playoff hockey).
So, here is my guide to the first round of this year’s playoffs for the disgruntled Blackhawks fan.
Nashville Predators (53-18-11) vs. Colorado Avalanche (43-30-9)
The lowdown: To say that Colorado is the underdog in this match-up is the understatement of the year. The Avs were the last team to punch their ticket to Lord Stanley’s dance this year. They are basically the Preds from last post-season, getting in on the last day of the regular season and being rewarded for it by facing the Cup favorites, then the mighty Blackhawks. Of course, we all know how that ended.
Do I expect a similar fate for the reigning President’s Trophy winners? If only wishing made it so. But to be realistic, the Avs have no prayer against the deepest team in this tournament, probably in the league. Maybe Colorado had a chance with a healthy Semyon Varlamov going toe to toe with Pekka Rinne, who will probably win the Vezina this summer. But with a d-corps already down an Erik Johnson, Avs backup Jonathan Bernier will have to stand on his head and then some to withstand the highest-scoring defense in the NHL.
Who Should You Root For? Nashville GM David Poile traded for former Blackhawk Ryan Hartman, seeing in him a “playoff type of player”. Hartman should be gritty enough for the brand of playoff hockey that the Preds play, but will he be disciplined enough? That being said, as a Hawks fan, unless you like rooting for the sure thing, there is no valid reason to root for the Preds.
The Avs, for their part, got into the playoffs with a little help from Duncan Keith’s late-game heroics last Wednesday against the St. Louis Blues, so there’s that. Also, they used to call Nathan MacKinnon “hockey Jesus”, so maybe performs a miracle in this series?
My Prediction: Predators in six.
Winnipeg Jets (52-20-10) vs. Minnesota Wild (45-26-11)
The lowdown: If success in the playoffs is measured by experience, the Wild would automatically win this series. This is their sixth post-season in a row. This incarnation of the Jets, for their part, have never won a playoff game ever. Furthermore, this is only the second time that they are playing beyond game #82 since the Atlanta Trashers moved to Manitoba for the 2011-2012 season, the other time being a sweep by the Anaheim Ducks in 2015.
But the Wild are limping into the playoffs. Their number one defenseman, Ryan Suter, will be watching from the press box, recovering from surgery that fixed his right ankle. Their number two, Jared Spurgeon, is skating, but is still a game time decision. If he does play, can his freshly healed hamstring withstand 27 to 28 minutes of ice time?
The Jets, for their part, are FOR REAL. They were the highest scoring team in the Western Conference this season. Their captain, Blake Wheeler, has been firing on all cylinders all season long. Patrik Laine looks like a young, Finnish, billy goat version of Alex Ovechkin right now. Connor Hellebuyck just set the record for most wins by an American goalie in a season. They have Kyle Connor, whose 31 goals was the most by any rookie this season. This team is built for a deep playoff run.
Who Should You Root For? The Jets. Their GM, Kevin Cheveldayoff, used to be Stan Bowman’s assistant GM. Also, Jonathan Toews is from Winnipeg. So is Patrick Sharp. Plus, it’s a frozen hellscape, so people there deserve nice things every now and then.
Also, it’s always fun to see Wild fans lose.
My Prediction: Jets in five.
Vegas Golden Knights (51-24-7) vs. Los Angeles Kings (45-29-8)
The lowdown: Vegas has been the story of the league all year. It just goes to show that you should never underestimate what a team of guys playing with huge chips on their shoulders can do. Say what you will about the pros and cons for a league when an expansion team makes it to the playoffs in its first year. The name of the game is speed now, and Vegas has it in spades. On the other hand are the Kings, fueled back into the playoffs by a resurgent Anze Kopitar and a healthy Jonathan Quick, who just won the second William Jennings Trophy of his career. If Vegas imposes their speed game, look for forwards William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault to lead the assault and run circles around the Kings defensemen. If Los Angeles is able to dictate the pace of the game early using their size, look for Quick to prove why he is the stingiest goalie in the league this year.
Who Should You Root For? Honestly, this one’s a toss-up for me. While I loathe the Kings, I respect what they did in climbing back into the playoffs.
My Prediction: Kings in seven.
Anaheim Ducks (44-25-13) vs. San Jose Sharks (45-27-10)
The lowdown: This is the true toss-up series in the West. The Ducks kind of went under the radar this year, and got hot at exactly the right time during the regular season. With d-man Cam Fowler out and number one goalie John Gibson a game time decision, the Ducks will have to rely on their deep forward corps to run the score up. The Sharks, who will be without Joe Thornton up the middle, will have to answer Anaheim by providing goalie Martin Jones with some goal support. Joe Pavelski and his crew have had some difficulties scoring goals for the most part of the season. The acquisition of Evander Kane during the trade deadline helped shore that up. He has nine goals and five assists in 17 games with San Jose.
Who Should You Root For?: I once said that I cannot root for a team that would give noted goon Rafi Torres a salary. That being said, I actually like the Sharks this year. Besides, I don’t like Ducks fans. They’re a bunch of drunk dilettantes.
My Prediction: Sharks in seven.
Tampa Bay Lightning (54-23-5) vs. New Jersey Devils (44-29-9)
The lowdown: The Bolts, who scored the most goals out of any team this year, ran roughshod over the league almost all season. With Hart Trophy favorite Nikita Kucherov and Norris Trophy favorite Victor Hedman leading the charge, Tampa Bay is the juggernaut in the East. But don’t sleep on this Devils team. They are very opportunistic scorers. Plus, they have a Hart Trophy favorite of their own in Taylor Hall, who just went bonkers during the second half of the regular season. Both teams have a history of being sloppy defensively, so it will have to go down to goaltending. While Bolts goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy leads the league in shutouts (he has eight), he did not have a dominant second half of the season. The Devils, meanwhile, have a goalie situation on their hands. New Jersey rode backup Keith Kinkaid into the playoffs. But, ultimately, that’s what Kinkaid is; a backup. He may find himself way over his head once the series starts.
Who Should You Root For? Devils coach John Hynes insists that his team is not a Cinderella story. I normally root for Cinderella stories. But since he insists that they aren’t, I’ll root for the Bolts on this one.
My Prediction: Lightning in six.
Boston Bruins (50-20-12) vs. Toronto Maple Leafs (49-26-7)
The lowdown: The only two Original Six teams in the playoffs, and one of them will be eliminated by the end of this series. This will also be a rematch from when these two teams met in the first round back in 2013, when the Bruins erased a 3-1 series deficit to win in game seven. I know Phil Kessel is happy in Pittsburgh now, but he is still probably having nightmares of Patrice Bergeron scoring that game winning goal. Now, it’s Auston Matthews that will have to deal with Bergeron and his buddy
Rat Face Brad Marchand. Matthews plays like he is in a video game, but Bergeron shadowing him all over the ice for a series is something that he has never experienced. Also, I feel sorry for Tukka Rask and Freddy Andersen. These two teams can score, and they are gonna be bombarded. It’s gonna be great.
Who Should You Root For? The Bruins are the reason the Sedins will retire without the phrase “Stanley Cup champions” attached to their names. As a Blackhawks fan, that is reason enough to root for the Bruins.
My Prediction: Bruins in six.
Washington Capitals (49-26-7) vs. Columbus Blue Jackets (45-30-7)
The lowdown: The Capitals announced yesterday that their backup goalie Philipp Grubauer will start Game One for them. The series hasn’t even started yet and the Capitals are already second-guessing Braden Holtby. And for good reason. Holtby has a reputation of being hot during the regular season but fizzling when it counts. This season, he fizzled even earlier. On the other had, Columbus is steady with Good Old Bob manning the net. In fact, in my opinion, the Blue Jackets edge the Capitals on offense, defense and goaltending. If Washington wants to come out of this series alive, Alex Ovechkin will have to be a game breaker every night, and he is going to need all the help he can get from Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov.
Who Should You Root For? If you don’t want to root for the Blue Jackets, at least root for this goober:
Damn, I miss that guy.
My Prediction: Blue Jackets in seven.
Pittsburgh Penguins (47-29-6) vs. Philadelphia Flyers (42-26-14)
The lowdown: This is the premiere matchup of the first round of these playoffs. Say what you want about how the playoffs are different now, that sound defense and disciplined play always wins series. I want this to be as nasty and as bruising as humanly possible. I want Jakub Voracek and Phil Kessel going apeshit on each other. I want Wayne Simmonds up on Kris Letang’s grill after every whistle. I want Sidney Crosby and Claude Giroux to be this close to murdering each other on the ice. I want mutually-assured destruction.
Who Should You Root For? The Penguins must never win the Stanley Cup this year at any costs.
My Prediction: Evgeni Malkin is the ultimate game breaker. Once you poke that Russian awake, it’s over. Penguins in seven.