Why I prefer the 1st round of the NHL playoffs to the NBA’s – and a mini preview
For those with hockey blinders on, the NHL playoffs start Wednesday. The NBA is by far my favorite sport – But if talking strictly of the 1st round, I actually prefer the NHL’s – mainly due to the parity and “anything can happen” factor of it. My issue with the NBA’s 1st round is that there is only a few favorites who matter – Chicago, Miami, Boston, the LA Lakers, the Oklahoma City Thunder, etc. – and these teams are too good to play each other or lose in round 1. For me the NBA playoffs really start in Round 2 and 3 when teams who can win a title start squaring off, like when Boston presumably plays Miami and LA or San Antonio play Oklahoma City. But Round 1 is full of both foregone conclusions like the Chicago vs Indiana, or series like Orlando vs Atlanta that may be competitive but will ultimately be meaningless as it contains no true contenders. There will be some good series and one of the contenders may get a scare, but for the majority of them the 1st round is a warm up. Of the 8 series, there’ll be luck if 2 or 3 have real stakes.
But in the NHL playoffs the gap between the top and bottom seeds is smaller – and all 8 series can go either way. In fact last year we saw an 8th seed beat a 1 seed when Montreal beat Washington and a 7th seed make the Finals in Philadelphia. Every series has intrigue and go 6 or 7. Furthermore teams are more likely to win in another team’s building, as opposed to the NBA where the home court team is a heavy favorite. The result is games that really do feel 50-50. Underdog victories and dark horse runs actually exist in the NHL playoffs – and everyone loves an underdog story. Since every team feels they have a chance to make a run to the conference finals or Finals (and they do) and every elite team can be knocked out, the stakes for every series is higher. Increased stakes for every series also leads a bit of March Madness – Where numerous games can be going off at once. When 2 important games wrap up on a night, there’s another 2 starting. In the NBA there might be 1 important game on a night – at least in the 1st round.
There is also other allures to the NHL playoffs. The sudden death overtimes is a signature, as are the goalie standing on his head performances. The physicality gives it a “war” like dimension. The fans are great.
However, an argument can be made for the NBA’s meriotcracy. Ideally, the best team should win a playoff series for sports to make sense. I’d argue the intensity of the later rounds of the NBA mean more to me as a result. As for meriotcracy, fans of hockey would argue the team who plays the best wins, it’s only the gap between the teams that is smaller. Even Montreal last year figured out how to shut down Washington defensively and expose lack of playoff caliber structure – they deserved their victory. Plus despite numerous cinderella runs, almost every Stanley Cup winner this decade has been a high seed and pre playoffs favorite.
Here’s a mini preview of the 8 series:
1 Vancouver Canucks vs 8 Chicago Blackhawks – The marquee matchup of the 1st round. Vancouver had by far the best regular season in the league, Chicago is last year’s champion and just happens to be the team who beat Vancouver the last two years. Look for stars like the Sedin twins on Vancouver and last year’s Playoff MVP Jonathan Toews on Chicago, who has the “don’t want to play this guy in a series” conch until the Blackhawks lose. Vancouver has the better team but I’m taking Chicago, I think they have a mental edge over the Canucks and if the series starts well for them they’ll snowball.
Prediction: Chicago in 7
2 San Jose Sharks vs 7 Los Angeles Kings – San Jose has been the prevalent “playoff choker” team post lockout, this is the 6th straight year they’ve been near the top in the regular season, but only advanced past the 2nd round last year. LA is still a young team and would be a much bigger threat to make a run if didn’t have so many injuries. Look for former MVP Joe Thornton who has the ‘doesn’t show up in the playoffs’ monkey on his back for San Jose, and star defensemen Drew Doughty on the Kings. Most years San Jose plays as well as they should until they run into a favorite in a later round, I expect the same will happen here.
Prediction: San Jose in 6
3 Detroit Red Wings vs 6 Phoenix Coyotes – Detroit are the NHL’s mirror of the San Antonio Spurs, putting up winning seasons like clockwork with smart, disciplined play all anchored by one of the best defensivemen of all time in 40 year old Nick Lidstrom – the result being 4 Cups since 97 and a playoff berth for an ungodly last 19 years. Phoenix is one of the league’s best defensive teams but have almost no offensive weapons, their MVPs are defensemen Keith Yandle and goalie Ilya Bryzgalov. Detroit beat Phoenix in 7 in last year’s 1st round. Won’t be an easy series again, but the best team in the Red Wings should win.
Prediction: Detroit in 6
4 Anaheim Ducks vs 5 Nashville Predators – Anaheim has probably the best line in the league with Ryan Getzlaf, MVP frontrunner Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan but lack depth and defense. Nashville is their contrast – they rely on defensemen, goaltending and league best coaching. Watch out for goalie Pekke Rinne and defensemen Shea Weber. Nashville is due, this is their 6th playoff appearance in the last 7 seasons – they’ve lost in the 1st round every year so far and remain without a playoff series win in their history. I believe this is their most complete team to date and I’ll take them to finally advance – with defense and physicality winning over the offensive starpower and shallow blueline of the Ducks.
Prediction: Nashville in 7
1 Washington Capitals vs 8 New York Rangers – Washington lost as the 1 seed last year, but implimented a more defensive, structured style in response which led to early struggles but late domination. Alex Ovechkin is the league’s biggest star and most noticeable player with package of size, speed and skill. The Rangers rely on good defense and goaltending from Henrik Lundquist, like Montreal last year. Washington beat New York in 7 in their 1st round matchup two years ago. Like San Jose, if Washington crumbles mentally I expect it’ll be later in the playoffs. Their talent should be enough to advance here.
Prediction: Washington in 6
2 Philadelphia Flyers vs 7 Buffalo Sabres – Philadelphia has the most talent in the league and have the physicality that translates to the playoffs – they are the defending Eastern conference champions and are better on paper this year. Look out for 6’7 hall of fame defensemen Chris Pronger and grit forward Mike Richards, both of whom are on that “Don’t want to play them” team. Buffalo relies on their goaltender Ryan Miller and smart defensive play. Like last year I expect Philadelphia will prove their talent in the face of regular season inconsistency.
Prediction: Philadelphia in 6
3 Boston Bruins vs 6 Montreal Canadians – Another marquee matchup, renewing one of the league’s oldest rivarlies. Tension took a step up between the teams this year when Bruins defensemen Zdeno Chara laid a hit that almost killed Montreal defensemen Max Pacioretti earlier this year. No really, he should be dead. Look up Chara Pacioretty on youtube if you haven’t seen it, but keep your squirm goggles on. The league didn’t suspend Chara (in my opinion the right decision) and naturally Montreal fans went Rodney King riots insane. Montreal’s best player is goalie Carey Price. Last year the offensive hero during their Eastern Conference Finals run was Michael Cammeleri. Boston is the better team but expect an emotional and long series.
Prediction: Boston in 7
4 Pittsburgh Penguins vs 5 Tampa Bay Lightning – Pittsburgh is missing its two superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to injury, but played well the last half of the season anyways due to defensemen, depth and smart play. Defensemen Kris Letang and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury are probably their most valuable players left. Tampa has two major offensive stars in Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis and not much else. I’m not crazy about either team but I’ll take Tampa due to their offensive talent and players who can be relied on to produce
Prediction: Tampa in 7
Finals prediction: Detroit over Philadelphia in 7
Why Detroit? They play on both ends, they don’t beat themselves by making mistakes, and they have to motivation to win one more time before Lidstrom retires. Philadelphia has the most talent in their conference and have a physical style of play that translates to the playoffs.