Sunday, April 12, 2015

My 100% ACCURATE 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs Predictions

(*) WARNING: Actual predictions may not be 100% accurate. 

Ah, that glorious springtime rite known as the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Such unforgettable experiences we’ve had over the years, no?

The curse of McSorley’s stick. Mark Messier’s guarantee. The blood and guts of the Avs and Red Wings rivalry. Yzerman’s O.T. game winner against the Blues. Brett Hull’s controversial series-clincher in ‘99. J.S. Giguere’s unbelievable run in ‘03, and his agonizing game 7 loss against the Devils. The game 6 no-goal that was a goal in Calgary. The Pittsburgh faithful chanting “Let’s Go Pens!” as the Wings celebrated on their home ice. Vancouver FINALLY getting past Chicago, only to wind up setting their entire city on fire. And of course, last year’s thrilling, high speed Kings and Blackhawks Western Conference Finals, which might just be the best damn seven game stretch in League history.

The 2015 National Hockey Leagues postseason puts us in an unusual position. With Los Angeles underachieving all year round, this is the first playoffs season since 2007 that the reigning Stanley Cup Champions have not returned to defend their crown. Interestingly enough, it's also the first time since 2007 that the ex-Atlanta Thrashers have made the playoffs, and the first time in two decades that the city of Winnipeg will see any kind of playoff hockey whatsoever. Over on the Eastern Conference side of things, we've got your usual cast of perennial contenders -- your President's Cup-hoisting Rangers, Ovechkin's Caps and Sid Crosby and the kids in Pittsburgh -- as well as some fast and furious upstarts (Tampa Bay, Ottawa and the resurgent Islanders) ready to test their meddle against heavy hitters like Detroit and Montreal. Over in the Western Conference brackets, top-seeded Anaheim looks to stave off young, hungry challengers like Winnipeg and Calgary while the surprising Nashville Predators look to hold their own against Chicago and Minnesota. And in the wings wait eternal bridesmaids St. Louis and Vancouver, whom after several seasons of stagnation, look to turn the summer of '15 into the dream season long-suffering fans have fantasized about for decades.

It's how Nate Silver AND the Son of Sam got started, I do believe...
With the second season set to begin shortly, I decided to take my stab at the Stanley Cup Playoffs. I mean, why let dorks and dweebs over at ESPN and Bleacher Report corner the market on guesstimations masquerading as journalism, right? Rest assured, though, that these aren't just shots in the dark on my part. I actually did quite a bit of stats-digging when it came time to make my picks, cross-analyzing all 16 playoff squads across a hefty list of criteria, including the expected stuff (goals per game and goals allowed average) as well more nuanced figures, such as the team's respective win percentage after scoring the first goal AND being outshot throughout the game. A quick and dirty spreadsheet is to the side, if you REALLY care about amateur metrics.

Of course, the great thing about hockey is that the games are played on ice and not paper. Sure, the hard data MIGHT give us a bit of an indication of how things turn out from here until June, but with first round upsets so common, we might as well be working with a blank slate. Thusly, consider my picks a nice amalgamation of numbers-driven observation AND gut instinct -- ostensibly, the ONLY way you can really make Stanley Cup Playoffs predictions, anyway.

Round One Eastern Conference Match-ups

Montreal Canadiens vs. Ottawa Senators

With Carey Price between the pipes, it can be argued that Montreal has the absolute best goaltender in the playoffs. However, the Ottawa Senators have pretty much dominated the Habs all season long, taking three out of their four regular season match-ups. Granted, the Candiens do have a lower goals allowed per game average, but the red hot Sens are actually posting a higher goals-per-game average. Max Pacioretty is a bad dude and all, but Andrew Hammond is looking all shades of  '04 Khabibulan as of late -- with their speedier lines, I envision Ottawa slowly but surely chipping away at Montreal's defense, with the Sens' goalkeeping being just good enough to carry them to the second round. 


Detroit Red Wings vs. Tampa Bay Lightning

The Red Wings may not be the instant, presumptive champion locks they used to be, but with Zetterberg and Datsyuk in the line-up, they remain constant scoring threats. Unfortunately, the Detroit D isn't exactly a championship caliber unit this year, with Jimmy Howard nowhere near the goaltender Ben Bishop is. Ultimately, its Tampa Bay's potent offense that seals it for me; I just don't see the Wings having enough oxygen in their tanks to win a war of attrition against Stamkos, Kucherov and Johnson. 


New York Rangers vs. Pittsburgh Penguins

First round upsets happen all the time in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but there's no way I am taking a banged-up Pens squad in this one. Yeah, Malkin and Crosby can still put a lot of pucks in the net, but their defense really concerns me. Overall, Lundqvist has just been a more consistent goalie than Fleury all year round, and the Rangers have had no problem dispatching the Penguins in their regular season match-ups. With quite possibly the best overall defensive unit in the playoffs -- not to mention some front line players who can flatout fly-- I just can't imagine Pittsburgh getting past the Rangers here. 


New York Islanders vs. Washington Capitals

This is definitely the most difficult first round game to pick in the Eastern Conference. The Caps have played very well down the stretch, and the numbers -- from goals allowed per game to face-offs won to penalty-killing percentage -- favor Ovechkin and company. That said, the plucky Islanders defense has really made an impression on me, and I think Halak stands a better chance in a seven game series than Holtby. Tavares is no doubt a hell of an offensive player, but at the end of the day, I think it will be the Islanders' roughness and tenacity in the pipes that gives them the advantage here. 


Round One Western Conference Match-ups

Anaheim Ducks vs. Winnipeg Jets

The Cinderella Jets no doubt make for a feel-good story, but across the board, they're just not as good a team as the Ducks. Offensively and defensively, this series favors Anaheim, and while Winnipeg might be able to steal one away, I just don't think Pavelec can hold his own against Getlzaf, nor do I envision Andrew Ladd serving as any kind of series-long threat against Anderson. 


Vancouver Canucks vs. Calgary Flames

This year's Flames squad reminds me A LOT of the 2004 team that was one blown call away from taking home Lord Stanley. The trifecta of Hurdler, Giordano and Gaudreau is certainly one of the best front lines in the playoffs this year, and I'd consider Jonas Hiller a much more reliable goalie than Ryan Miller at this juncture. The Sedin brothers and Shawn Matthias are offensive powerhouses, without question, but I think Calgary is just the speedier team, with a stabler defensive core. It should be an entertaining slugfest no matter what, but all things considered, I think it's a bar room brawl that's Calgary's to lose. 


St. Louis Blues vs. Minnesota Wild

The Blues are a high scoring unit with one of the best power play goal percentages in the League. The Wild, however, are an excellent defensive team with one of the best penalty killing squads in the playoffs. I see this series playing out a lot like the Flames and Canucks series, with St. Louis having a fair amount of success crowding the net, but not really doing enough damage to take Backstrom out of it. Conversely, I definitely think Suter, Vanek and Parise are fast and ferocious enough to take the wind out of Brian Elliot, and from there, I see the Blues sinking fast. 


Nashville Predators vs. Chicago Blackhawks

The Preds have fought hard as hell all season long, only to run headlong into Chicago -- a team that has pretty much blistered them throughout the regular season. Mike Fisher and Filip Forberg have played valiantly, but Pekka Rinne just doesn't have the toolkit to survive an onslaught by Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Brad Richards. Corey Crawford may not be the best goaltender in the League, but unless he puts on an all-time-classic collapse, he really won't have to do too much between the pipes to escape from the first round. 


Eastern Conference Semi-Finals Match-ups

Ottawa Senators vs. Tampa Bay Lightning

This ought to be a hell of a series. Both teams play similar styles of offense, and the defensive cores are fairly well-matched. Ultimately, the decisive factor here is consistent play, and with the Big Three in Tampa Bay, you pretty much know what you're going to get, night-in and night-out. As impressive as the Senators' run has been these last two months, I'm not sure just how much mileage they can get out of Bobby Ryan and Mike Hoffman. The Lightning O is going to keep the pressure up all series long, and eventually, "The Hamburglar" will crack; unfortunately for Tampa Bay, it looks like it's going to take seven games before they're able to do precisely that. 


New York Rangers vs. New York Islanders

This really seems like a series the Rangers should waltz through, but the Islanders have given them all they could handle during the regular season and then some. With Rick Nash and Martin St. Louis, the Rangers are clearly a better offensive squad, but they've played pretty lackluster against the Isles throughout the year. Although the Rangers picked up the last two regular season games, they did not do so easily, and I see the postseason scrum being equally contentious. I wouldn't at all be surprised to see the Islanders take a 2-0 series lead, but ultimately, I just don't think they are deep enough offensively to really best the Rangers in a seven game stretch. The Rangers will take a while to get warmed up, but once they do, the Isles will have little left to respond with. 


Western Conference Semi-Finals Match-ups

Anaheim Ducks vs. Calgary Flames

In years past, the Ducks have had some major second-round difficulties with lightning-quick offensive juggernauts, and this year, I don't see their fortunes changing all that much. Here, I see Andersen slowing down considerably after a fairly facile run against the Jets, and Calgary will surely capitalize on it. Expect no-names like Sean Monahan and Brandon Bollig to shine in this series, while the Ducks' more recognizable front-liners stumble. It won't be the pretty, but at the end of the day, I feel the Flames have enough fuel left to blaze by the Ducks, who falter early in the series and never recover. 


Minnesota Wild vs. Chicago Blackhawks

If the Wild were up against the Ducks or the Flames, I would really like their odds. Unfortunately, they're playing against arguably the best managed team in professional hockey, and while I think they have enough juice and moxie to win a game or two, they're just not on the same level as Chicago. I think Backstrom will record one shutout, but I just don't seeing him being able to hold up in four victorious efforts against the 'Hawks. The first few games should be interesting, but once Backstrom gets broken, it's all over except for the crying in St. Paul. 


Eastern Conference Finals

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. New York Rangers

The Rangers can put a lot of points on the board. The thing is, when they can't find the net, they have an unfortunate tendency to break down defensively, and when they aren't clicking, they end up allowing the opposing team to score five or six goals. Expect the Rangers to win early, low scoring contests, maybe going up 2-1 against the Lightning in 1-0 and 2-1 games. Eventually, however, the Tampa Bay scoring juggernaut will crank up, and from there, I see the Rangers crumbling. I see Lundqvist reaching the point of no return in game 4, with Tampa Bay just pouring on the points in the next two games. And the worst part? They punch their ticket to the Finals center-ice at Madison Square Garden.


Western Conference Finals

Calgary Flames vs. Chicago Blackhawks

Of course, the Calgary carriage has to turn back into a pumpkin at some point, no? As fast and potent as their offense is, the Blackhawks are just as good and defensively BETTER, and while the Flames might be able to steal a game or two away early, this is a series that just favors the Blackhawks across the board. With better goaltending and penalty killing, the Chicago offense won't have to do too much to clinch their third Stanley Cup Finals appearance in six years, even if doubts about the steadiness of Corey Crawford emerge halfway through the series. 


Stanley Cup Finals

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Chicago Blackhawks 

imagine portions of this series will play out very similarly to last year's Western Conference Finals ... all offense, with the team with the LEAST porous goaltending surviving to fight another day. Momentum-wise, I think this series favors Chicago, as Tampa Bay will likely be spent from their hard-fought battles against Ottawa and The Rangers. The turning point will probably be game three, with the 'Hawks blanking the Lightning 4-0. Tampa Bay will return and force an overtime game 4, but despite their best efforts, they won't have the firepower left to surmount the Chicago onslaught. I expect Tampa Bay chalking up a flukey game 5 win, but that's just to give them false hope -- two days later, they get creamed at St. Pete Times Forum, 5-1, as Chicago once again hoists Lord Stanley; a sight all the more heartbreaking when top playoffs goal scorer Stamkos is named the year's Conn Smythe winner. 


So yeah, nothing too adventurous in terms of picks on my part. A lot of people have the Rangers as the odds-on favorite, but  the President's Cup winner almost never wins Lord Stanley, too. The Blues and Ducks always find a way to collapse, and as much as I want to push the button on one of these upstarts like Calgary and Tampa Bay, I reckon I'm just going to have to go with consistency, and really, there isn't a team in the playoffs this year as offensively and defensively reliable as the Hawks. Strangely enough, not that many analysts seem to be picking them this year, which is probably another reason why I selected them -- sometimes, the obvious pick is just so damned obvious, nobody else really realizes how obvious it is.

As a Kings fan, I don't have much of a vested interest in this year's playoffs, but I am nonetheless excited. There are some really interesting match-ups on both sides of the brackets, and it just seems like the upset potential this year is especially high. There's really no telling what to expect out of this year's playoffs, which really makes the annual rite so intriguing and enjoyable ... and hells a popping, would I ever laugh my ass off if it came down to an Ottawa Senators and Winnipeg Jets championship finale.


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