If March Madness just ended, then Spring Madness begins tonight, with the two-month ride that is the NHL playoffs. In no other sport is the phrase “second season” more appropriate, and while it would be demeaning to past Stanley Cup winners to call the postseason a complete crapshoot, it is fair to say that what you did prior to this no longer matters and that anyone—down to the lowest seeds in the bracket—can win the Cup if they can put it all together for a good, sustained run. TheSportsNotebook offers its final preview of the 2012 NHL playoffs, with a listing of each team’s odds to win both their conference and the Cup, links to the first-round preview articles we’ve been running the last two days and predictions as to how the bracket will ultimately play out.
Let’s start with the odds. The first number is the team’s chances to make the Finals, the second to hoist The odds are as of this morning at VegasInsider.com.
#1 New York Rangers (21-10, 11-2)
#2 Boston (9-2, 8-1)
#3 Florida (20-1, 35-1)
#4 Pittsburgh (4-1, 19-10)
#5 Philadelphia (7-1, 14-1)
#6 New Jersey (12-1, 25-1)
#7 Washington (16-1, 35-1)
#8 Ottawa (22-1, 40-1)
#1 Vancouver (19-10, 11-2)
#2 St. Louis (3-1, 15-2)
#3 Phoenix (18-1, 40-1)
#4 Nashville (7-1, 14-1)
#5 Detroit (13-2, 12-1)
#6 Chicago (15-2, 6-1)
#7 San Jose (10-1, 18-1)
#8 Los Angeles (12-1, 20-1)
If you scroll through the numbers it’s easy to overlook what I consider the most surprising development and it’s that the Pittsburgh Penguins at 4-1, are the favorites to hoist the Cup. I know they’re playing well right now—their 15-5 record over the final twenty games of the regular season is the best in the league and I know they have Sidney Crosby back. Based on that I certainly consider them a threat to win it all, but Marc-Andre Fleury is not a great goaltender and any team I would see as a favorite at this point would have to be dominant in the net. New York and Boston are such teams, and though I’m biased for the Bruins, I’d have no problem betting them at 8-1 to win the whole thing again.
In the West, I’ve loved Phoenix as a live darkhorse for some time now, thanks to Mike Smith who is the best goalie in the game and should be the league’s MVP. And though the 13-2 price on Detroit just to win the West is attractive, with the Red Wings being healthy for the first time in several weeks. They could easily lose the first series to Nashville—who at 7-1 isn’t a bad in the West themselves—but then again, that’s why the odds are favorable. The prices reflect a belief in a top-heavy West bracket, which almost presumes a chalk Vancouver-St. Louis conference final. I don’t see it that way, and not just because chalk rarely prevails to that extent in hockey. There are good teams in the middle and bottom of this bracket, and if you like to bet, the West is a good spot to do a hedge, and just spread bets around on the darkhorses and just count on one of them coming through.
Enough with measuring teams against the odds. Who’s going to win. Below are the first-round matchups, with links to the series previews. In picking the bracket all the way through, remember that the NHL will re-seed for the second round, with high playing low all the way through.
My first-round picks were mostly chalk, New Jersey being the only lower seed to advance, and they’re only lower-seeded because Florida won a weak division. The Devils are actually a solid favorite to win that series. I don’t like picking chalk, but as we’ll see in a moment I’ll make for up in it the West. My first-round picks would create conference semi-finals of New York-New Jersey and Boston-Pittsburgh. There’s bad blood between the Bruins and Penguins going all the way back to a cheap shot on Bruins’ center Marc Savard that gave him a concussion, effectively ended his career and means Boston doesn’t have the one great offensive player they need. Not that I’m bitter or anything. And I trust the animosity in a Rangers-Devils battle is self-evident. Here’s where I think New Jersey steps it up and springs the upset on New York, with team defense, and the scoring of Ilya Kovalchuk and Zack Parise leading the way. I do genuinely think Boston finds a way to beat Pittsburgh because of better overall defense. That sets up a Bruins-Devils final. I hope I’m not kidding myself, but I like the way Boston righted the ship down the stretch and frankly, if I pick my own team to get this far I’m not picking them to lose to a #6 seed.
Note that lower seeds Detroit and Chicago are favorites to win their series, Phoenix, like Florida, only has the 3-seed because of winning a weak division. Here’s where I’m getting crazy. As outlined in the series previews, I’m picking Los Angeles to shock the world and beat Vancouver thanks to superior defense and the great goaltending of Jonathan Quick. St. Louis barely survives a brutal seven-game war with San Jose. And Detroit and Phoenix also move forward. This sets up series of St. Louis-Los Angeles and Detroit-Phoenix. I’ll take the Blues and Red Wings to advance there, which sets up a series between Central Division rivals. St. Louis fought all year to climb out of Detroit’s shadow after the Red Wings’ record home winning streak of February, and pulled away in the division. To draw a baseball analogy it’s like what happened in the National League Central a year ago, when Milwaukee finally got out of the shadow of the Blues’ baseball neighbor, the Cardinals. The teams still ended up playing in the final round of their respective league playoffs. This spring, St. Louis learns how Milwaukee felt, and it’s the Detroit Red Wings who move forward.
That sets up a Cup Finals of Boston-Detroit. My logic of the Eastern Conference Finals—if you’re going to pick your own team to go this far, you don’t stop now—doesn’t apply here. When the Red Wings are healthy, I think they’re the best, most balanced team in hockey and they have the goaltending that at least matches—if not slightly exceeds Boston. For those reasons, the Cup returns to Motown for the first time since 2008.