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BIRD'S-EYE VIEW: Stanley Hub Playoffs

Friday, July 31st
BIRD'S-EYE VIEW: Stanley Hub Playoffs

BIRD’S-EYE VIEW: Stanley Hub Playoffs

Blog #21 – July 31, 2020

by John Peterson

Who here missed hockey as much as I did?

It sure was nice turning on the television and watching an exhibition game played in an empty building featuring two teams with no rooting interest. I can’t believe I just typed that sentence, but I meant it sincerely.

The last official National Hockey League games took place March 11. When the Stanley Cup Playoffs officially begin tomorrow, it will have been 143 days since the last games that counted.

Following several months of uncertainty surrounding the ongoing COVID-19 developments, the NHL is ready to jump ahead from a season cut short and allow 24 teams to compete for the greatest trophy in sports. If the league can pull it off, this is going to be a hockey fan’s dream scenario.

Hours upon hours of continuous hockey coverage every day for the next couple of months? Sign me up. I like to have something on TV in the background while I work from home anyway, so it might as well be the Stanley Cup Playoffs reboot.

Last weekend, baseball attempted to start a 60-game campaign with success in most cases. But news of the Miami Marlins’ COVID-19 outbreak while opening the season in Philadelphia, which affected 17 players and coaches, has put the whole operation in jeopardy. Time will tell in the coming days and weeks if it will work.

The big difference is the bubble—or in baseball’s case, lack thereof. Major League Baseball teams are playing in front of no fans at empty stadiums around the United States. They play a non-physical sport, which should suggest an ability to avoid spreading the virus through the game itself. But with travel from city to city and players’ freedom to go out on the town and do as they please, that model might not be sustainable right now. I hope I’m wrong.

On the flip side, the NHL appears to have handled this reboot much better. Following a 14-day quarantine and subsequent testing of all players and staff, the league conducted a short “training camp” before teams embarked to hub cities. Western Conference teams traveled to Edmonton. Eastern Conference teams embarked to Toronto. Every member of each team’s traveling party (players, coaches, staff and media) is isolated in their own rooms and tested regularly.

The NHL sent a press release earlier this week announcing 2,618 COVID-19 tests had been administered so far with only TWO positive tests. That is tremendous news and hopefully provides an optimistic outlook that this is going to work.

So in the interest of a much-needed distraction in the form of sports, let’s sit back and enjoy a high-concentration of hockey action.

Here are five bold predictions for what I’ve affectionately dubbed the “Stanley Hub Playoffs”. Excuse the pun.

#5 – SLOPPY START WITH BIG RATINGS

This prediction may not be a bold one and could almost be perceived as stating the obvious, but it’s worth mentioning. Expect a larger number of uncharacteristic mistakes during the opening round of the playoffs than you’re used to seeing.

A three-week training camp certainly helps bring teams back to speed, but these players will be rusty. Unlike most off-seasons, players haven’t been able to routinely train as they typically would under normal circumstances. Teams split up back in March and were told to return to their families. It takes time to reintegrate systems and the chemistry that teams had late in the regular season.

I’m less concerned about skills and conditioning than I am about team elements that only come with practice and time. There will be a level of sloppiness in the opening round that we’re not used to seeing. But before long, the quality of play will be back to what we’re used to expecting during the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

I also predict huge ratings for the opening round. Hockey fans have been itching for games since everything abruptly paused. Bigger than that, there’s a demand for live action sports that will pull in deprived sports fans all over who maybe wouldn’t typically tune in to hockey’s premiere tournament.

Baseball averaged 4 million viewers per game on Opening Day last weekend, which was up 232% from last season. I expect hockey to see a similar boost, especially given the playoff format.

#4 – THE NUMBER ONE DRAFT PICK GOES TO…

Because of the 24-team playoff format, the NHL’s traditional draft lottery of 15 non-playoff teams was changed to include eight placeholders for the eight teams who lose in the best-of-five Qualifying Round.

The seven teams who missed the playoffs altogether, including the Detroit Red Wings, who had the best odds of anyone, were joined by placeholders representing the eight first round losers. On draft lottery night, it was revealed one of the placeholders won the rights to pick number one overall in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft.

Adding intrigue to an already exciting and unique Stanley Cup Playoffs, each of the eight teams who are eliminated in the Qualifying Round have an equal 12.5% chance to win a second draft lottery for that first overall selection.

Here are my predictions for the Qualifying Round:

#E5 Pittsburgh over #E12 Montreal, #E6 Carolina over #E11 New York Rangers, #E10 Florida over #E7 New York Islanders, #E8 Toronto over #E9 Columbus, #W5 Edmonton over #W12 Chicago, #W6 Nashville over #W11 Arizona, #W10 Minnesota over #W7 Vancouver, #W9 Winnipeg over #W8 Calgary.

In this scenario, the Canadiens, Rangers, Islanders, Blue Jackets, Blackhawks, Coyotes, Canucks and Flames would have an equal shot at winning the lottery for the number one pick.

I randomly drew a team out of a hat from those eight and (drum roll please)…the Chicago Blackhawks will receive the top choice in the NHL Draft, likely Alexis Lafreniere.

Chicago had a 32-30-8 regular season record for 72 points, 33 points better than the Red Wings, who will pick fourth in the draft no matter what. That is a tough pill for Detroit fans to swallow.

#3 – WEARING THE GLASS SLIPPER

Just like during March Madness, we as sports fans love to pick out a team or two who could make a surprise run deep into postseason play. Do we call it “August Madness”? “August Anger” doesn’t really have a ring to it.

Inevitably there is going to be some upsets during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. See last year where the final wildcard into the tournament, Columbus, swept the President’s Trophy winning Tampa Bay Lightning out of the playoffs in the opening round. Before I get to some candidates this year, let me predict the round robin results from the top four seeds in each conference.

East

  1. Tampa Bay
  2. Washington
  3. Boston
  4. Philadelphia

West

  1. Colorado
  2. St. Louis
  3. Vegas
  4. Dallas

In each round, the highest remaining seeds match up against the lowest remaining seeds. Based on my prediction so far, these would be the First Round pairings.

#E1 Tampa Bay vs #E10 Florida

#E2 Washington vs #E8 Toronto

#E3 Boston vs #E6 Carolina

#E4 Philadelphia vs #E5 Pittsburgh

#W1 Colorado vs #W10 Minnesota

#W2 St. Louis vs #W9 Winnipeg

#W3 Vegas vs #W6 Nashville

#W4 Dallas vs #W5 Edmonton

Saving the suspense, I think favorites Tampa Bay, Boston, Colorado, and St. Louis will advance. But I’m picking four First Round upsets, including the experienced Penguins defeating a Flyers team featuring talented rookie goaltender Carter Hart (if you can call that one an upset). I also like the defensively sound Predators, who confusingly had struggles scoring goals during the regular season, to knock off the Golden Knights. I’m also taking Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and the Oilers to take down the Stars in a bit of an upset. The big one you’re probably shaking your head at is the Maple Leafs (on their home ice, albeit with no fans) to surprise the Capitals.

There you have it. Four lower seeds will upset four higher seeds in the first round. Which of those teams is most likely to make a Cinderella run? Any of them could. Depending on matchups, I think it could be Nashville or Pittsburgh, but let’s get to the next bold prediction.

#2 – NO CUP HANGOVER

Looking at the shortened regular season alone, the two teams from the 2019 Stanley Cup Final had no problem with a “Cup Hangover” pitfall in 2020.

The defending champion St. Louis Blues sat atop the Western Conference with a 42-19-10 record and 94 points when things grinded to a halt in March. The runner-up Boston Bruins won the President’s Trophy with a 44-14-12 record and 100 points to rise to the top of the Eastern Conference.

Crazier things have happened, but based on what we’ve seen in the regular season and the players on both of these teams, I have no reason to believe they can’t go deep into the playoffs again. We’ve made it through the Qualifying Round and the First Round, so here’s how things look entering the Second Round:

#E1 Tampa Bay vs #E8 Toronto

#E3 Boston vs #E5 Pittsburgh

#W1 Colorado vs #W6 Nashville

#W2 St. Louis vs #W5 Edmonton

Whole-heartedly, all four of these series are toss-ups. Sure Tampa Bay has a “heavy favorite” vibe over Toronto. Then again, the Lightning looked like a lock last summer when the Blue Jackets showed up and spoiled the party.

Even so, I’m picking Tampa to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals and they’ll face Boston in a juggernaut semifinal series. The Bruins will be too much for the Penguins in a series that goes six or seven games, with no shortage of entertainment. There’s your answer to the first of the Cup Hangover questions.

Here’s where things get crazy. I’m taking Nashville to upset Colorado to advance back to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 2017 when the Predators fell to the Penguins in the Final. They’re going to face Edmonton, who shocks the defending champs in seven games on their home ice in another stunning upset.

Given the circumstances and relative success, we can’t in good conscious call the Blues’ loss a “Cup Hangover”.

#1 – CANADA’S DROUGHT ENDS

Hear me out. This is absurd, unlikely and borderline crazy.

No Canadian team has won a Stanley Cup since 1993, when the Montreal Canadiens defeated Wayne Gretzky, Barry Melrose’s mullet and the Los Angeles Kings. The drought has lasted 27 years. For perspective, several players on the Kalamazoo Wings 2019-20 roster weren’t even born yet when Patrick Roy and the Canadiens lifted the Cup.

The last time there were six Canadian teams still alive at the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs was…1993.

This year has already stamped itself as the weirdest, most unpredictable of my lifetime. 2020 has to be one of the strangest of all-time with everything going on. Who is to say the boldest of bold predictions can’t happen? With 24 teams still alive, Canada has a one in four chance to take home the ultimate prize.

Montreal and Vancouver could win a round or two, but it would take some type of miracle for one of them to be the last team standing. Both, especially the Canucks have a bright future in the coming years, but I don’t see it this time around.

That leaves Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto and Winnipeg.

Although I picked the Flames and Jets to suffer early exits, both of those teams have the pieces to win it all. Don’t be surprised if either pulls it off. Winnipeg is gritty, deep, will outhit anyone and gets solid goaltending from Connor Hellebuyck. Calgary is so strong up the middle of the ice, with superstars Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk producing big numbers on the wings.

Toronto has Austen Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, a defensive corps with potential, and a goaltender in Freddie Andersen that could get hot and win them a series. They’re the wildcard. The Maple Leafs could fall in the Qualifying Round to Columbus with minimal surprise. But they also have the talent to break a Stanley Cup drought that dates back to 1967.

Here’s where we stand entering the Conference Finals:

#E1 Tampa Bay vs #E3 Boston

#W5 Edmonton vs #W6 Nashville

Clearly the Eastern Conference is stacked at this point and the Western Conference is composed of underdogs. But remember, in the last decade we’ve pretty much seen it all, including the Los Angeles Kings winning the Stanley Cup as an eight seed.

I think the Lightning will reach the Final in a feel-good redemption story from their premature exit last year. Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Andrei Vasilevskiy and company, well-coached by John Cooper, will make their third trip to the Stanley Cup Final with a hard-fought, lengthy series win over the Boston Bruins.

McDavid and the upstart Oilers, under the guidance of Dave Tippett, will triumph over the Predators. Edmonton reaches the Final for the first time since falling to the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006.

Here we are. The last two teams standing.

Can Edmonton, the dynasty of the eighties, capture Lord Stanley’s Cup? Can the Oilers snap Canada’s 27-year drought? After all, the NHL chose two Canadian hub cities to host this year’s tournament over Chicago, Las Vegas, Pittsburgh and St. Paul, among other. Edmonton is one of the hubs.

Don’t run me out of town or ask for my head to be examined, but I’m going to say yes. The Edmonton Oilers shock the world and win the Stanley Cup.

Let’s face it. It’s 2020. Would anybody REALLY be surprised at this point?

--

Bird’s-Eye View is a Kalamazoo Wings blog, written by the team’s Director of Public Relations/Broadcaster John Peterson twice weekly. The thoughts, opinions and behind-the-scenes stories are that of the writer alone and not a reflection of the organization as a whole. Fans are welcome to submit questions and ideas for future blog posts to jpeterson@kwings.com. Enjoy!

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