The so-called “second season” starts tomorrow, so it’s time for the annual playoff predictions.
But first, a digression.
It was nice not writing about hockey this year. It was nice just going to games as a fan, watching them as a fan, reconnecting to hockey as a fan and not a critique or commentator. I think one of the issues of the so-called talking heads is that since they have deadlines whether or not they have material, little things end up getting blown out of proportion because you have to talk about something, and after a while, the little things take on a life of their own and it can all become a bit obsessive. Everyone loses perspective, including the writer and the fans who read them.
The reality? At the end of the season, the Sharks ended up right where they were supposed to: first in the West, Pacific Division champs, and geared for the playoffs. Did the universe become less interesting because nobody obsessed about a soft goal (or was it?) that Nabokov let in sometime in January in a game the Sharks lost in Overtime. I watch the pundits on NHL network and they are still harping on Nabokov as a potential weak link (well, they’re saying that about Luongo, too, in Vancouver) and I sit back and think “man, that’s the best you can come up with?”
And the answer is — well, yeah. Â That’s all they got. The “weak link” of the Sharks was 2nd in wins, 10th in GAA, 6th in save percentage, with ONLY four shutouts. The piker. Yeah, Russia sucked in the Olympics, but that was a group project and it seemed to me the Russian skaters were doing everything but holding Nabokov down and helping the other teams score. So whatever. It’s an axiom of being a talking head that you have to find things to criticize because good news is boring, adn you can never be boring.
That, in a microcosm, is why I was happy to shut up and not prove I had nothing to say this season. The Sharks just went and did what they needed to do. There were no controversies, nobody died, no season ending injuries, no extended slumps, no real MINOR slumps, the team just kind of motored, but at the same time, it never looked too easy and they never seemed to get bored or take it for granted like they did last year. That, of course, makes for boring journalism, which is why you see the pundits running around looking for something to point at as a weak spot. And you can’t blame the ice girls, I guess. Oh, wait. San Jose doesn’t have ice girls (thank you, Greg Jamison!)
Of course, they still have to do it in the playoffs, that much is true. Will they?
Damn good question. We’ll see. I think, however, that if they don’t, it won’t be because of things the Sharks didn’t do, but because of something some other team did better. And there are legitimate worries that as well as this team is put together and as good as it’s been playing — it still might not be good enough. Because ultimately, only one team can win it all, and 29 teams, no matter how good they are, lose.
In the west, to me it’s one of three teams: San Jose, Chicago and Detroit (sorry, vancouver fans. I await your letters…) — and honestly, I can’t choose one as a favorite over the other two. Each has strong points, each has weak spots that can be exploited. It’s going to come down to who stays healthy and who plays their best hockey when they need to. I expect some pretty damn good hockey out here in the west, and nobody’s going to get out of this conference without a fight.
That’s because I think any of the other five teams can take on their opponent and beat them. ANY of the eight could easily take the first round, and yes, while I think San Jose should take Colorado, I don’t think it’s a walk by any means. it might be the match I find easiest to call in the first round, but there are no teams in the west that don’t deserve to be there and won’t put up a fight.
So my western predictions: San Jose (in 6), Chicago (in 6), Vancouver (in 6) and Detroit (in 6).
San Jose’s weak spot: secondary scoring, Joe thornton’s tendency to falter in the playoffs, and Nabokov so far not proving himself in the playoffs. Their strengths: That first line looks killer (on paper), Nabokov looks like he’s in a good groove right now, Patrick Marleau, and Malhotra and Nicholl on the third line bolstering what was always the flawed part of the roster in previous years.
Chicago’s weak spot: unproven goaltending and youth. Their strength? Some really nice key veterans bolstering the kids. These guys scare me.
Detroit’s weak spot: age and jimmy howard being unproven. Their strength? It’s the freaking red wings. This team has a tradition of finding a groove in the playoffs, and their last 20 games? talk about hiding in the weeds and showing up for prime time. They REALLY scare me.
It would not surprise me a bit for Vancouver to go deep, and if they get on a run, they could take everyone else out and exit the west. If the Sharks, Wings and Hawks are my first tier in the west, Vancouver is a 1A. The difference is very narrow here, Canucks fans, but to me, there’s still a difference. But I’ll buy the first round if they prove me wrong and celebrate with yo.
Phoenix and LA? Beware the “mission from god” teams. They get on a run, watch out. they could easily take teams out in the first round, but I’m not convinced they’re ready to get out of the West with the talent in this conference. But they won’t be easy opponents.
Neither will Colorado or Nashville — but I think they’re a bit below the other six teams here.
Coming out of the west? Okay, hold my feet to the fire. I’ll pick — San Jose. Because I must. But any of the top three won’t surprise me and won’t be an upset. I’ll root for any of these teams (except against the Sharks), and if any of these eight make it out to the cup final, I’ll be satisfied.
In the east? Quality isn’t that deep.
I’m picking Washington out of the East, with Pittsburgh as a distant second choice. Buffalo is my dark horse, and ottawa is my choice as most likely to upset the higher seed in the first round. New Jersey has to prove it’s not going to have another playoff fade — sorry, Devils fans, but Brodeur simply hasn’t had it in the gas tank, and that team simply isn’t convincing me it can go deep. First round for New Jersey? yes. But that’s probably it.Me?
So my pick for the cup final? San Jose and Washington, which would be some amazing hockey. But honestly, there’s a good chance that the Sharks will get beat along the way, and a good chance it won’t be any failure by the Sharks, although you can bet the pundits will play it up. It’s what they do. (then again, it’s also possible the sharks DO blow up in the playoffs. if they do, we’ll be sure to talk about it… but I see it as unlikely with this team…)
So to all of the teams in the playoffs, good luck and drop the puck. And we’ll see you at the arena!