Usually at this time of year is when you start to hear a lot of discussion concerning teams in and out of the playoff picture. One of the most consistent points brought up is that by American Thanksgiving 80% of the teams in the playoffs will be the same come spring (I just thought I would mention that at Canadian Thanksgiving 100% of the teams are in the playoffs.). I found myself thinking about this a lot this week. A lot can happen within a season; significant injuries to a star player, an inexplicable winning/losing streak. Although we try to quantify the game of hockey through stats (and advanced stats), sometimes the game itself is just so volatile that it is really hard to predict outcomes. So I decided that throughout the rest of the season, I will be looking at who is in the Playoffs at: the quarter, the half, three quarters, and the end of the season. For the fun of it, I will also make a prediction as to what teams will win the first round matchup and my reasoning. OK, here are the standings as they played out after each team had played 20 games:
- All tie-breaks were done using the NHL sanctioned system (Points, ROW, wins between teams, goal differential)
- There is a special case below between Calgary and LA where they break every tie breaking procedure, so I decided to go with regular wins as the final tie-breaking procedure.
- I will list the points of each team, as well as an explanation of the tie-break if need be.
1: Toronto has a better ROW than Ottawa and Florida.
2: Vancouver is ranked above Anaheim based on greater number of ROW.
3: Calgary is ranked higher than Los Angeles tie every single tie-breaker given by the NHL. For the purpose of this article, I am going to award the 3rd division playoff spot due to having a greater number of regular wins.
President’s Trophy: Pittsburgh Penguins
Note: Home Ice Advantage is to the left.
For those of you unaware, the way that the NHL determines playoff matchups is with a “Wild Card” system:
The top three teams in each division will make up the first 12 teams in the playoffs. The remaining four spots will be filled by the next two highest-placed finishers in each conference, based on regular-season record and regardless of division. It is possible for one division in each conference to send five teams to the postseason while the other sends just three. – NHL.com
With that out of the way, here are the playoff matchups at the 20 game mark in the season:
Pittsburgh vs. Toronto
Head to Head: 2-1 Pittsburgh
This matchup is very interesting to me, if not for anything else, because it so closely resembles the exact same type of matchup as the Toronto/Boston series that went to 7 games two seasons ago. After a couple of solid post-seasons (culminating in a Cup in 2009) Pittsburgh has been shaky in the post-season recently. Although there is a certain swagger to the Penguins this year that they seemed to be missing in years past. The Leafs on the other hand, can be a wildly inconsistent bunch. If they can shake the Penguins off their game plan early, they may be able to steal one on the road. The problem is the Penguins are proving more and more that they can play almost any style, and they have the pedigree to do it.
Prediction: Penguins win in 6.
Montreal vs. Boston
Head to Head: 2-0 Montreal
These are one of those matchups that the League must just be salivating over. These two teams have made no bones about it, they hate each other, which makes for a very exciting series. Even a season ago, I would probably have rated Montreal as the underdog in this series. Boston has been a dominant presence in the East for about 4 seasons now, and they looked prime for repeat after 2011. The thing is, I honestly think Montreal is in Boston’s head. It is honestly weird how that can happen, but it is like an infection. Montreal has been built into a team that seems to be developing into the real deal.
Prediction: Canadiens win in 5.
Tampa Bay vs. Detroit
Head to Head: 1-0 Tampa Bay
For hockey aficionado’s, this matchup is too perfect. Detroit brought Stevie Y up to the greatest of heights, and then began schooling him as a GM, only to set him free into the Everglades of Florida. Now Detroit represents the present “old guard” of the NHL (although much of their team is a number of upstart players that have made their way through the Red Wings system), while the other represents the current future of the NHL. Datsyuk and Zetterberg have been wowing the league for over a decade now, while Stamkos and Co. are finally hitting their stride. I feel like last years sweep at the hands of Montreal was a much needed lesson for the Lightning. While Detroit may finally be showing signs of wear after losing to many wheels in the cog. Plus Pavel and Henrik are entering their Golden Years (if they aren’t already there). I feel like the series against Boston last year revealed more about Detroit than they were ready to admit. Nonetheless this will be a hard fought series that goes the distance.
Prediction: Tampa Bay in 7.
NY Islanders vs. NY Rangers
Head to Head: 1-0 NY Rangers
This is another one of those matchups that I would imagine the league would be excited for. Although the Islanders have been whittled down to a league punch line for too long, this is the kind of matchup that could prove beneficial from an exposure point of view. They are moving to Brooklyn next season, and a strong showing in the playoffs could really help kick start the buzz before they get there. The thing is, I’m not sure which Islanders team will show up. They have definitely drawn notice from fans so far, and they look for real. I just can’t help but think that most teams need some playoff seasoning before they can really tilt their hand. On the other hand, I do think the Rangers may have played a little bit above themselves last year, and they have been the mark of inconsistency this year. I just can’t help thinking that the experience of a largely unchanged Rangers team will trump the Isalnders, but I think it will be an exciting series.
Prediction: Rangers in 6.
Nashville vs. Minnesota
Head to Head: No games played yet.
Nashville is a battle tested crew. They have been doing it the hard way for such a long time, that its really nice to see them coming out on top for different reasons. They are still a team rooted in defensive responsibility, on the other hand, Laviolette is a coach known for up-tempo offensive systems. It is looking to be a perfect marriage for the time being, and Rinne had found his game again. Minnesota is one of the better teams in the league, and the have proven to be one of the harder teams to play against as well. They big difference in this matchup is the goalies. Nashville has a proven commodity in net and Minnesota seems to be struggling with a goaltending carousel at the moment. I feel like that might make all the difference in the world.
Prediction: Nashville in 7.
Vancouver vs. Los Angeles
Head to Head: 1-0 Kings
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. The Los Angeles Kings limp towards the end of the regular season looking nothing like the dynamic and unbeatable team that won the Cup in the 2 of the last 3 seasons. Then the playoffs start and dammit, how did we draw the Kings?
Prediction: Kings in 6
The Canucks are very much looking like a version of the team that have been for the better part of a decade. I think getting Luongo and Schneider out of town was much needed for the Canucks, and last year was likely a blip on the radar. That being said, I don’t think any team wants to play the Kings right now.
Anaheim vs. Calgary
Head to Head: 1-0 Calgary
This is an interesting matchup because of Jonas Hiller. There are a lot of other storylines, but I feel that to be the most intriguing. For whatever reason, he fell out of favour in Anaheim. I would say that he has helped Calgary in a very large way become one of the bigger surprises of this season. Calgary is really supposed to be in the middle of a rebuild right now, but they are playing a brand of hockey that can breed success if the circumstances are right. There is obvious buy in to whatever it is that Hartley is selling. The Ducks, however, are proving to be a forever dangerous team. Perry and Getzlaf are All World players, and there are reasons for their successes. As well, Kesler is a fantastic addition to a team that could be primed for a deep run, as long as Hiller lets them.
Prediction: Anaheim in 5.
St. Louis vs. Chicago
Head to Head: 1-0 St. Louis
More than likely the winner of this series will find itself in the Western Conference Final. Although Chicago is very much considered one of the teams to beat, I can’t help but think that St. Louis is really just waiting for its moment. I have long maintained that the reason that St. Louis just can’t seem to get it done in the post-season has a lot to do with how they approach the game. They seem to play the same game in the playoffs that they do during the regular season. I feel that makes them predictable. This year they are getting a very different look thanks to players like Tarasenko taking a big step forward. Look at the Stanley Cup winners in any given year, (especially LA). They just seem to find another gear that brings them right through the first two rounds. You could really see that during the Chicago/LA Western Conference Final. Chicago was just owning the Kings at first, and then the Kings found their groove again. There was really no rhyme or reason to it. I feel Chicago is more ore less the same team as they were last year, and maybe they need to retool their roster a little to go for the title of Dynasty.
Prediction: St. Louis in 7.
Cover Photo Credit: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images