Spring Madness starts tonight. The NHL playoffs combine the length of the NBA postseason with the anything-goes feel of the NCAA Tournament. A lot of leagues talk about their playoffs being a “second season”, but the NHL truly lives it.
There’s a chaotic fluidity in the bracket that makes it unsurprising for a 1-seed to lose in the first round or to see the worst team in the field make a run to the Finals. Both of those happened last year, with Chicago’s early exit and Nashville’s surprise run each foreshadowing reversals of fortune that would continue throughout this season. And while each development was a surprise on its own, the basic notion that such things can occur is a part of life for sports fans each spring.
But amidst Madness there is a thread of stability. There was in college basketball, where a wild tournament ride ended with the chalky result of Villanova winning it all. Similarly, if we shift the NHL conversation away from who can go on a run of two or three rounds, or what highly touted favorite might bite the dust before anyone even gets settled in, then the picture becomes clearer.
In 22 of the last 25 years, the team that ultimately hoists the Cup in June has been among the top eight in the league—or the top half of the playoff bracket. That’s more generous than any other sport and in no way diminishes the “Madness” quality of the postseason, but it does allow us to sharpen the focus when it comes to looking at potential champions.
The oddsmakers in Las Vegas have noticed as well. The following eight teams are all priced comparably, ranging from odds of 9-2 (Nashville) to 10-1 with the numbers increasing incrementally. Then there’s a sudden dropoff to the ninth team on the board, which posts at 22-1. Incremental change resumes and we reach a high of 30-1 (Colorado & New Jersey).
Here is a look at The Eight, from their odds to the strengths and weaknesses:
Nashville Predators (9-2): They have the best record in the NHL. They took the Pittsburgh Penguins to six games in last year’s Finals. They have the best goaltender in the league in Pekka Rinne. They have a flamboyant defenseman in P.K. Subban and a good offense. It’s easy to see why the Preds are the favorite. The fly in the ointment is that they ranked in the lower half of the league in both shots and shots against. Playoff hockey is a different animal, but if that trend holds, it’s tough to see how Nashville wins it.
Tampa Bay (6-1): The best team in the East also has recent Finals experience, getting there in 2015 before losing to Chicago. That Lightning team was supposed to be on the brink of their own dynasty, but the next two seasons were rough. The same core group from ‘15 is here. The offense is the best in the game. Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos are the headliners, but there’s more offensive depth here than on any other team. Andrei Vasilevsky can do it in goal. They’ll have to shore up the defense and kill penalties better if they’re going to win it all.
Boston (6-1): Boston has the best overall balance of any team in hockey. They’re the only team in the field to rank in the top 10 in all of the following important categories: Goals, goals scored, shots taken, shots allowed, power play conversion and penalty kill. That pretty well covers everything and they were just a point behind Tampa Bay. It all hinges on goaltender Tuuka Raask, who has been good enough to win a Vezina Trophy (2014), yet had his ups and downs this year and has been spotty in the playoffs.
Vegas (7-1): The Golden Knights are aiming to become the first expansion franchise to win a championship in any professional sport. They were obviously helped by a generous roster-stocking policy and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury split duties during Pittsburgh’s back-to-back runs of 2016-17. William Karlsson’s 43 goals this season were third-best in the league. Their balance is similar to Boston’s, but you have to question whether they have enough standout strengths to win four straight playoff rounds. Fleury also had to be bailed out by Matt Murray at different times the last two years. It’s all on Marc’s shoulders this time around.
Pittsburgh (17-2): This is really an act of disrespect to the two-time defending champs to have them priced even this low. They’ve shown cracks this year—Murray has not had a good regular season and the penalty kill is suspect. But this franchise knows as well as anyone that regular season stats can go out the window and Murray is a proven playoff winner. In the meantime, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Kris Letang are still in the house. I’d rush to the betting window to get those 17-2 odds.
Winnipeg (17-2): The Jets are one of the most intriguing teams on the board. They’re the only team to finish in the top five in both offense and defense. Patrik Laine scored 44 goals this season and led an offense that steadily attacked the net. Kyle Connor, at 21-years-old led a supporting cast that produced four more players with 20-plus goals. Goaltender Connor Hellebuyck’s 92.4% save rate is close to the top. But talk about a lack of a playoff resume—this franchise has never won a series much less hoisted a Cup.
Washington (10-1): Over the last two years, championship-starved fan bases for the Eagles, Astros, Cubs and Cleveland Cavaliers have had their moment. Is it finally time for the Washington Capitals to join them? Alex Ovechkin continues to churn out goals, leading the league with 49 and will probably win his fourth MVP award. The Caps are a little more under the radar then was the case the last two years and that probably helps. What doesn’t help is uncertainty in net. Braden Holtby did not have a good season and will open the playoffs on the bench. I think that’s a mistake.
Toronto (10-1): A proud hockey town looks for their first Cup since 1967. They open the playoffs against Boston and as a Bruins fan, I can only say that the Maple Leafs terrify me. The Mitch Marner/Auston Matthews combo is as exciting as any young duo in the game. Nazeem Kadri scored 32 goals. Toronto attacks and they are well-coached. Mike Babock, the architect of three Finals teams, including the 2008 champs in Detroit, has been in Toronto the last three years. But at a time of year that belongs to goalies, Frederik Andersen has had big problems in the biggest games.
THE FLY IN THE OINTMENT
The Los Angeles Kings have won two of the last six Stanley Cup. In both of those, they were outside the top eight in regular season record. The only other franchise to pull that off in the last quarter-century was the 1995 New Jersey Devils, and that was a strike-shortened year where they only missed the top eight by a point. If you want a darkhorse, someone that can be a fly in the ointment to the favorites, the Kings are clearly the place to start looking.
That’s not just because of history either. The history is recent enough (2012 & 2014) that the key components of those teams are still in place. Anze Kopitar’s 35 goals and 57 assists make him as valuable a player as there is in the bracket. Dustin Brown is a good scorer. Drew Doughty is an excellent passer from his defensemen spot. And Jonathan Quick is still in net, anchoring a defense that gave up fewer goals than anyone in the league. That’s no small thing under any circumstances, but especially significant at a time of year when goals are at a premium.
So you have a great defense and championship-toughened players, including at the most important position in sports (yes, a goalie influences his team’s chances of winning more than a quarterback). Combine that with 25-1 odds and it’s hard to not at least find Los Angeles worth watching.
MORE HISTORY LESSONS
Thus, history clearly teaches us that if we look at the top eight teams, plus the Kings, we have an almost certain chance of identifying the champion in a bracket that’s complete chaos. But there’s something else history teaches and it’s that when I go public and identify a fact like this, the exact opposite occurs.
So in that spirit, the fan bases in Columbus, Philadelphia, New Jersey, Colorado, Minnesota, Anaheim and San Jose can take heart. Columbus’s Sergei Bobrovsky is a goalie who has yet to put it together in the postseason, but has championship talent. Philadelphia…well, maybe the Flyers can just ride the momentum of their home city as it gobbles up championships. Anaheim and San Jose play in the first round, so at least one of them is guaranteed to advance. Minnesota goalie Devan Dubnyk didn’t have a great regular season, but is another netminder with championship talent.
At least one of these teams will make some serious noise, but the history lesson is clear that they won’t win the Cup. Which, since I pointed it out, makes it clear that one of them will.
TAKE A STAND
Now that I’ve spent over 1,500 words talking my way around both sides of every issue and every team, here’s what I would actually predict.
I’ll take Pittsburgh and Los Angeles to reach the Finals. Not simply as a betting proposition, but because I think the value of having championship players is going to be felt in a postseason where there’s no heavy favorite. And I’ll pick the Penguins to three-peat. Matt Murray finds his groove again and the great offensive vets in front of him won’t be stopped.
I would go further and pick a first-round upset, but what I just predicted automatically means saying I’ve got Los Angeles over Vegas in what should be an outstanding series to watch. On the Eastern side, I think Boston-Toronto is the most compelling. You can say it’s my New England bias on display and that may be true, but I find it hard to see a clear advantage anywhere in this series.
And finally a word of support to the good hockey fans of the D.C. Beltway—while the Bruins are my first love, I’m rooting for the Capitals in any matchup that does not involve them and Boston. I share NFL turf with Caps fans, being a Redskins fan myself. I think Washington fans are highly underrated when it comes to hockey and if Boston can’t win the Cup, I hope the Caps finally reward their long-suffering supporters.