I've been having a hard time deciding if I should watch the NHL playoffs this year. It's a bit of an issue of too much of a good thing. I feel like I could watch every game, and probably enjoy it, and get into it, even though the Leafs are not involved. But then I realise that my girlfriend has been counting the days to the end of the regular season, looking forward to the three extra nights per week when we can watch something on tv together (instead of me watching the game on my laptop and headphones, and she watching Grey's Anatomy on the bigger screen--it's not quite "quality time" you could say), or even go out into the increasingly warming nights and enjoy Montreal (at least until the cop cars start burning).
I don't know yet if I will watch or not. I may end up watching the Habs-Bruins series, because that is something she would watch. But of course I'd have to cheer for the Bruins, so maybe that's not the best way to get closer...Anyway, if I do get into the playoffs, I will want to have clear rooting interests, or at least I want to have some investment in the games, so I've joined the PPP Playoff Prognostication Pool. Here are my picks and why.
A word on my scale of hatred. Since the Leafs are not in, my usual biases do not come into play, but it is fair to recognize that I feel more or less strongly about some teams more than others. So I've assigned a level of "hatred" to each team: low, meh, or high. Low means I probably actually like the team, inasmuch as a non-Leaf team can be liked. If I were an objective hockey fan, I would say nice things about them. I'll pretend to be that objective fan here. Meh means meh. I don't really care. High hatred means that I actively want them to lose. As you'll see, this is reserved only for a couple teams, mostly because no "fake" teams (Atlanta, Carolina, Florida) got into the East playoffs. As for the West, well, you'll see what I have to say about that...
Washington vs. Rangers: Caps in 6.
Washington Capitals. Hatred level: low. I admit, I am an Alexander Ovechkin fan. I like his heated stick routine, I like that his severed head pops up in high school lockers, I like that he plays like Mike Brown with about a million times more skill. I want to see him win a Cup because the celebration would be awesome. I think the Caps will win because they have the second lowest goals against in the East, and one of the most dangerous scorers in the world.
New York Rangers. Hatred level: meh. I might hate them more if Glen Sather wasn't so inept. I kind of like Marian Gaborik, but I am hard-pressed to name any other Rangers, other than Henrik Lundqvist. He's the only reason the Rangers have a shot here, but he hasn't really carried them in the playoffs before. I don't see why that's going to start this year.
Philadelphia vs. Buffalo: Flyers in 6.
Philadelphia Flyers. Hatred level: low. Again, a sordid admission: the Flyers are the kind of team I hope the Leafs will become. They have a glut of young, skilled forwards, some big, hard role players, a stud defenceman, and suspect goaltending...ok, maybe that last part I don't want for the Leafs so much. How to put this? "Surprising" goaltending got them through last spring, and it seems like they've solidified that position with Bobrovsky.
Buffalo Sabres. Hatred level: meh. The Sabres are kind of like the kid who lives on your street that you see every day but you don't really know his deal. Are they a good hockey team? Are they mediocre? Does it all come down to Ryan Miller? Will video scouting help in the playoffs? I think the Sabres are probably a decent collection of professional hockey players who do their job adequately. But that won't be enough to beat the Flyers.
Boston vs. Montreal: Bruins in 6.
Boston Bruins. Hatred level: meh. This meh is more of an averaging out of low and high hatred. Low because I respect Tim Thomas for having a ridiculous year. I love Tomas Kaberle and I want him to do well. As long as he's not rag-dolling someone on the Leafs, Chara is a premier defenceman in my book. This is a good team, though their D kinda drops off after those first two. The high hatred for the Bruins comes in because they are an Original Six rival and you never like to see rivals do well. Except when they are playing...
Montreal Canadiens. Hatred level: very high. The Habs get a special grade. When you live in Montreal, you can not avoid the Habs, or, more precisely, their fans. I have told this story before, but I will tell it again. When I moved here, I was willing to adopt the Habs as a "second" team of sorts. Basically give them a low hatred level and cheer for them when they were not playing the Leafs. Their fans killed it for me. Passionate? Yes. But that doesn't mean knowledgeable. I know I get irrational when it comes to the Leafs, but I can usually take a step back and acknowledge my team's failings. In recent years, I've not have much of a choice about that. The Habs are an old, small team, with a couple bright spots, including their goaltender, who does have the potential to steal a series in the playoffs. The likelihood of that happening against the Bruins, however, is low.
Pittsburgh vs Tampa Bay: TB in 6 (I need to change my picks on the spreadsheet...can someone tell me how to do that?)
Pittsburgh Penguins. Hatred level: meh. Again, this is a bit of an average, more than a real apathy towards them. I like Crosby, too. I know, that's weird, you're supposed to pick one, but Ovie and Sid are two different types of players. I like what Crosby brings. That said, they've won already, and while I do prefer small dynasties to minority governments (think about that metaphor), I'm bored with the Pens. I can't see them doing any damage without their top two guys.
Tampa Bay Lightning. Hatred level: low. I'm a coach. It's about 50% of what I spend my time doing. So I appreciate a good coach. The thing with coaching that most people don't get though, is that it is almost all motivation. There are no real innovations in tactics in hockey, at least none that would last much longer than a couple games. Once other teams get the video, the surprise element is removed and you are back to the only important part of strategy and tactics: execution. That's why I like Guy Boucher. The Tampa Bay Lightning have had the same core of top line players (substitute Stamkos in for Richards) for the last decade almost. They've won the Cup and they've finished last. What's the difference? A coach who can motivate these guys. Does it have something to do with them being French Canadian, et Guy aussi? Peut-être. But that doesn't matter. All that matters is that he gets his players to execute. That's why they will win this series.
Vancouver vs Chicago: Hawks in 7
Vancouver Canucks. Hatred level: meh. This is another aggregate mark, although it does feed into the whole "anti-rivalry" meme, that Toronto fans just don't care about the Canucks, while Nuckleheads go wild every time the Leafs do anything. I actually really like and respect the Sedin twins. I watched a Manitoba Moose game this year and quite enjoyed the work of goaltender Eddie Lack. I feel really sorry for Sami Salo. I will admit though to feeling some hatred towards the fans and their seeming sense of entitlement (though I know mine will be far worse when the Leafs are this good). Also, I think Luongo seems like a dick. There's no rationality in hockey fans, folks.
Chicago Blackhawks. Hatred level: low. As I mentioned above, I'm a fan of dynasties. I would like to see Chicago repeat. One benefit would be to show they could do it without Kris Versteeg. Again, irrationality alert: I really liked him when he was with the Hawks, and I was excited when he came to Toronto, but then he broke my heart by playing below my expectations for him, and also came off as a douche in interviews. Chicago has the same core as last year (Toews, Kane, Sharp, Seabrook, Keith, Campbell). I think they will get it done.
San Jose vs LA: Sharks in 5
San Jose Sharks. Hatred level: meh. I want to cheer for Joe Thornton, I really do. But not for Heatley. Anyway, this is the series that no one will watch. Not for any reason other than it will be on late and there's too much hockey on already. Too bad because these are two good teams.The Sharks experience and Stanley Cup-winning goalie will carry them through.
LA Kings. Hatred level: low (post-Gretzky/Frasier era). This is another team I hope the Leafs can manage to emulate, in that they are young and talented and have made the playoffs. That said, the loss of Kopitar may be too much to bear. We'll see if Drew Doughty can shoulder the load. I totally forgot about him when doing my playoff pool last night. I should have picked him because if the Kings do advance, it will be on his young, but metaphorically broad, shoulders.
Detroit vs Phoenix: Coyotes in 6.
Detroit Red Wings. Hatred level: low. This is a good team. I was very impressed with them when I watched the Leafs win streak end against Detroit. They are getting old, yes, but they are so skilled that the slow-down of age affects them less, I think. Babcock is another master motivator. He's a bit of a different mould than Boucher, in that I think Boucher is more of a nice guy that you do things for, while Babcock is someone you do things for "or else." But he doesn't have to play bad cop with this group, because they have bought into his system. The big question is in goal, and that might just be where the Red Wings fall short this year.
Phoenix Coyotes. Hatred level: meh. Ok, here we go. I don't really care about this franchise, and I would probably care more about them if they moved to Winnipeg. I know we are not supposed to hold that opinion here because the guy who does the Howling blog is a nice guy and all, but look: I don't expect anyone else to give a crap about the Toronto Maple Leafs. You can tell me they suck, you can tell me they will never win. I expect it. That doesn't make you a jerk. I get that losing a franchise entirely is not the same as missing the playoffs. As a person, I would feel bad for the fans of that team. But as a hockey fan, who grew up in the 80s, a team in Winnipeg means more to me than a team in Phoenix. Sorry. It's irrational hockey fandom+irrational nationalism at its best. As for the actual team on the ice, this was the hardest series for me to pick because both teams have big upsides. I think Bryzgalov is the difference and the Yotes take it.
Anaheim vs Nashville: Ducks in 7.
Anaheim Mighty Ducks of Anaheim California Angels. Hatred level: meh. I tend to not mind the Ducks because they have some good young players, as well as a couple old guys who are feel-good stories. I picked Selanne in my playoff pool. The guy is a machine. This is another series that probably won't get the attention it deserves, but hey, that's what happens when you put hockey in Nashville.
Nashville Predators. Hatred level: meh. Who? This franchise is stuck in a rut. They compete, they make the playoffs, they lose in the first round. There's not much history to riled up about, they don't really have a marquee player (Shea Weber is a marquee player, but I guess I mean marquee forward), they play hockey in the South: it all adds up to meh. If anything will win them this series, it will be Pekke Rinne's tending.
Stanley Cup winner: Boston Bruins.
Conn Smyth winner: Tim Thomas.
I just have a feeling. It's probably wrong. But so far this has been Tim Thomas' year, and if he keeps a .938 SV% in the playoffs, it will be very hard for the Bruins to lose.