The Stanley Cup Playoffs begin Wednesday, and while it is considered an incontrovertible truth that the Cup is a better entertainment than the NBA Playoffs, it is also its own hot mess in uniquely weird ways, starting with this.
Put simply, Bob Cole cannot retire yet, and to put this in perspective for the rest of you, hockey play-by-play is to Mike Emrick (who is gold) as Mike Emrick is to Bob Cole, and with so many broadcasters who revere him, one of them could show the gumption to make him work longer. He is clearly retiring too soon at age 85, but Chris Chelios played until he was 82, so surely Cole has more words in him. Maybe he could work from home, even with a couple of pops in him after dinner. I would absolutely stream him doing Canucks-Senators with half a load on.
Which brings us to the next issue—rooting interest. If you have a soul (and reading this web site, I am relatively sure that you don’t, having sold it your junior year in college for some really bad weed and test answers from a struggling English professor), you want a Canadian team to win, preferably Winnipeg. The Jets have had what can only called two checkered histories, the one that sent them to Arizona and the one that delivered them from Atlanta, and now that they are established as more than just a flash in the pan, why not them? The smallest town in the league should get a parade just because it should, better still if it is snowing on the day of the parade, and the vision of watching Dustin Byfuglien drinking from the Cup while holding it with one hand would sustain us all through the warm days ahead. Oh, we’d take Calgary or even Toronto, but Winnipeg is … well, it’s Winnipeg, and that beats every other explanation.
But you’re not reading this for Mark Scheifele updates or Patrik Laine-is-the-Connor McDavid-you-can-see longforms from Katie Baker or Paul Maurice’s latest disgusted look, but because you have your own favorite team, so we’ll do this the cheap and easy way, and go series by series. Plus, we’ll only do the first round so that Comrades Petchesky and Theisen can use the same weaselly gimmick for the second round.
Having a wider margin between itself and the second-best team than anyone since the Cheat Code Canadiens of 1977, the Lightning are considered near-mortal locks to win their first Cup since 2004. They are loaded everywhere, are one of the top 10 scoring teams in league history, and their fifth line would be better than most teams’ second. Compared to that, Columbus is kind of a ball of unhappy, from the stereotype of John Tortorella to the how-quickly-can-I-get-out-of-here Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, and barely fought off Montreal for the final spot in the East.
What the experts think will happen: Lightning in three.
What will happen: Lightning in five.
What should happen: Lightning in seven, because every time a series doesn’t produce a seventh game, a child’s pet gets sick.
The clearest proof that the league has screwed up their playoff format is that this would be the most entertaining conference final. The Bruins are better, don’t have to carry the weight of a nagging nation shrieking “52 YEARS!” like an adrenalized nine-year-old, and are a typically ornery Bruin team that makes Don Cherry come as close as a man can come to audibly ovulating. Brad Marchand is still a badger on crank, David Pastrnak is utterly without ruth on the power play, and Zdeno Chara will be the league’s next 82-year-old defenseman. The Leafs are a fascinating team that is just now leaving Next Big Thing status and heading into Let’s See Something Now.
What the experts think will happen: Leafs in seven, because the experts root for narratives.
What will happen: Bruins in six because better is just better sometimes.
What should happen: Seven games with four overtimes, and your choices for the winning goal are Patrick Marleau and Charlie Coyle.
The defending champs face the Bunch Of Jerks (copyright pending) in a series where purists will be outraged either way. The Caps spent a long time trying to remember why they won a year ago, then did, and raced past the field, including the goofy Islanders, for the right to play a stealthily good Carolina team whose owner just shuttered the Alliance of American Football and tossed everyone’s cardboard boxes out in the snow. You know all the members of the Ovechkin family, but are about to learn about Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen and Justin Williams and Jordan Staal and Jaccob Slavin and Jack Adams candidate Rod Brind’Amour and the Storm Surge and the Cheaters Never Win chant, plus the Canes have the added motivation of wondering if Tom Dundon will close the franchise on a whim like he did the AAF. It won’t be enough, but I wish it were because a Carolina-Winnipeg final would be great fun and (wait for it) a spectacular ratings disaster at the same time.
What the experts think will happen: Caps in five.
What will happen: Caps in six.
What should happen: Canes in seven, doing an adaptation of The Red Wedding after winning to the angry howls of Caps fans still upset that general manager Brian MacLellan couldn’t find a way to keep Bryce Harper.
The Isles have partially moved out of their Brooklyn mistake back to the ghostly haunt of the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum with no particular effect in the team’s greatest strength, the interchangeable Robin Lehner–Thomas Greiss goaltending transformer. Lehner has the better save percentage and will probably begin the playoffs as the guy, but head coach Barry Trotz has enough faith in his defensive structure (they were the second-best team in the league for people who like to bet unders in hockey) that he won’t mind changing in mid-game two or three times if need be. The Isles’ most enjoyable watch is center Mathew Barzal. In rebuttal, the Penguins have Sidney Crosby.
What the experts think will happen: Penguins in five.
What will happen: Penguins in six.
What should happen: Islanders in seven, just to see Gary Bettman yank off his own head.
The Flames have been the best good-news story of the season outside of Raleigh, while Colorado has just been plain old weird throughout, having to hit the turbos to survive Arizona (yes, that Arizona) down the stretch. Calgary’s most important player has been, is and will continue to be defenseman Mark Giordano, but the irritating (in good ways) possibilities of Matthew Tkachuk, Johnny Gaudreau, Derek Ryan, and Sean Monahan, plus the postseason potential offered by James Neal after a crummy season and the bend-backwards-but-snap-back-into-place goaltending of Mike Smith and David Rittich have made them the best team of an underwhelming division. Colorado is that weird counterpuncher that finished fifth in its division but got Gabriel Landeskog back just in time to join Nathan MacKinnon and Carl Soderberg and superb goaltending from Philipp Grubauer to create your classic tough out. The ‘Lanche could win this if Grubauer is willing to shoot a middle finger at all the probabilities, but that’s not the way to bet.
What the experts think will happen: Flames in six, because Canada.
What will happen: Flames in six, because Giordano.
What should happen: Flames in seven, because Edmonton’s inability to fully weaponize around Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl will be sufficient cause for them to be shamed again by the kids down Highway 2. Hurray radiated misery!
Pekka Rinne vs. Ben Bishop. It’s more complicated than that, of course, but as I suspect this will be the hardest series on the untrained eye and the most difficult to find on your tablet, phone, or Etch A Sketch, a lot of analysis here (or whatever the hell this is supposed to be) is probably wasted on the uninterested.
What the experts think will happen: Predators in five because when they are right, they are damned right.
What will happen: Predators in five because the experts are damned right every once in a while.
What should happen: Predators in seven because how would the two extra games harm you? Shut up and watch, or shut up and don’t watch. The choice is entirely yours.
This was supposed to be the best first-round series because it was the one that was surest to happen for the longest time, plus the Sharks got Erik Karlsson and the Knights got Max Pacioretty and both teams were clearly Going For It. Then Vegas turned into Arizona for much of the last half of the season and San Jose turned into New Jersey for the last month, and now this looks like a potentially great series that went off the boil. Marc-Andre Fleury, who could teach charm to Steve Bannon, might be back, which is good news for the Knights’ goaltending inconsistencies, while Martin Jones never went anywhere, which has been bad news for the Sharks goaltending consistencies. Maybe San Jose beats their history if Karlsson has fully healed from the mother of all groin pulls (he played Saturday against Colorado), but even if he does, the Sharks will have to score a lot to win, and not just in this series.
What the experts think will happen: Knights in six because all the people who trusted the Sharks in October now tell you that they never trusted the Sharks.
What will happen: Sharks in six, for no earthly reason whatsoever because there’s always one team that cheats the reaper when it probably shouldn’t.
What should happen: Knights in seven, on the road, with the seventh game looking a lot like their last regular season game in which both teams decided to beat the hell out of each other.
And this will be the best series—that is, if Winnipeg can pull its head out in time to make it one. The Blues have been the second-best team in hockey since general manager Doug Armstrong resisted the temptation to sell off all the living bodies and promoted ridiculous-good goaltender Jordan Binnington instead. It’s not just him, mind you. Craig Berube, the living embodiment of the interim coach when he was hired, has galvanized the roster to such an extent that a lot of people who should know better think the traditionally underachieving Blues might be the best hope for anyone who doesn’t want Tampa to have a parade. Winnipeg is still better (Scheifele and Laine can make the dead twerk, and Blake Wheeler is still concrete-solid), but the Jets have spent last few months being less than the sum of their parts while St. Louis been the opposite.
What the experts think will happen: Blues in seven because recency bias is cool.
What will happen: Jets in seven because recency bias blows.
What should happen: A best-of-13 series, and let the rest of the world hang.
And now, as an extra bonus, NBA playoff analysis.
Warriors in three because this festive anticlimax cannot end soon enough.
Ray Ratto wants Bob Cole to do his eulogy.