Like many people, I love cheering for an underdog. There’s something rewarding about backing an unlikely team against popular opinion, not to mention that an underdog’s success feels like our own success by proxy as we all see ourselves as underdogs in some way. Seeing a sports team unexpectedly defeat a superior opponent makes us believe that we can defeat those who we see as superior than ourselves.
But that’s getting too introspective and making me look like I have an inferiority complex. Let’s take a look at all eight of the first round playoff series and why each of them will assuredly be an upset (and also why they absolutely won’t).
Please note: I’m treating the Phoenix Coyotes and Florida Panthers as underdogs. Sure, they’re the third-ranked team in each conference and have home ice advantage, but that is only by virtue of winning the Pacific and Southeast Divisions. Both finished with fewer points than their first round opponent and I refuse to see them as the favourite. That doesn’t mean they won’t win, because they definitely will.
The Ottawa Senators will definitely beat the New York Rangers
Why they will win: The Senators were the biggest surprise of the season. Predicted to finish last in the NHL, the Senators turned a highly-potent offence into a spot in the playoffs. As reward, they get to face the East’s first place New York Rangers. Here’s the thing: the Senators won the season series against the Rangers, going 3-1-0 and outscoring them 13-8. The only team the Rangers have performed worse against is the Penguins.
Ottawa has averaged 2.96 goals per game, 4th in the NHL, boasts the NHL’s top-scoring defenceman in Erik Karlsson and the 4th top scoring forward in Jason Spezza. Their offence will be very difficult to stop.
Why they definitely won’t: Henrik Lundqvist will be very difficult to beat. The dreamy-eyed, perpetual Vezina candidate was his usual stellar self this season, posting top-five numbers in SV%, GAA, shutouts, and wins, leading the Rangers in third overall in goals against. This season, however, he has offensive help: the Rangers had 9 players who scored in double digits in goals, including 41-goal scorer Marian Gaborik. They’re also one of the hardest working teams in the league, with a game particularly suited to the playoffs. The Rangers are simply the better team.
The Los Angeles Kings will definitely beat the Vancouver Canucks
Why they will win: It is damnably difficult to score goals on the Kings, who are the second stingiest team in the NHL, allowing just 2.07 goals per game. The only team to allow fewer was the St. Louis Blues. Jonathan Quick has been one of the leagues’s best goaltenders, leading all goaltenders with 10 shutouts and finishing second and fifth in GAA and SV%, respectively. Quick has been so good and so important for the Kings that he has received not just Vezina buzz but has also been mentioned as a potential Hart candidate.
People will, of course, point out that they also score the second fewest goals per game at 2.29. But take a look at their offence since February 23rd, when they acquired Jeff Carter: the Kings have scored 63 goals in 21 games, an average of exactly 3 goals per game, which would place them 3rd overall in the NHL, ahead of the Canucks. Despite the Canucks winning the season series, the Kings were only outscored 8-7, with three of those games happening prior to the Jeff Carter trade. And the Kings have outshot the Canucks 142-118.
Why they definitely won’t: The Canucks just won their second Presidents’ Trophy, won the season series against the Kings, finished 4th in the league at 5-on-5 and the powerplay, and 6th on the penalty kill. Their scoring depth, particularly on defence, completely outclasses the Kings. The Kings have 6 players in double digits in goals compared to 9 on the Canucks, who have three defenceman with more points than Drew Doughty, the Kings’ leading scorer on defence. The Canucks are simply the better team.
The Washington Capitals will definitely beat the Boston Bruins
Why they will win: Sure, the Capitals barely squeaked into the playoffs and will face the defending Stanley Cup Champions, but they won the season series over those champions, 3-1-0. The Capitals were also missing their number one centre for half of the season: Nicklas Backstrom missed 40 games after Rene Bourque’s dirty elbow to the head. He’s back and healthy, just in time for the playoffs.
Alex Ovechkin appears to be hitting his stride as well: over the final 16 games of the season, Ovechkin scored a point-per-game and had a streak last month where he scored 9 goals in 7 games. The fact that the once-mighty Capitals offence has struggled this season absolutely terrifies me, as it seems like they are due. And, for once, the Capitals don’t have the weight of expectation on them.
Why they definitely won’t: Let’s take a look at the goaltending matchup, with both Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth injured. It will be Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask versus Braden Holtby and Dany Sabourin. Let’s just take a moment and laugh at that. Then consider their crazy offensive depth: they have 6 players with 20+ goals and 6 with 50+ points. Then consider their Zdeno Chara. The Capitals don’t have one. The Bruins are simply the better team.
The San Jose Sharks will definitely beat the St. Louis Blues
Why they will win: The Sharks have long been a team of underachievers, but rarely the underdogs. This season, they’re both, finishing 7th overall and avoiding 8th by virtue of beating the Kings in the final game of the season. They still have a lot in their favour: Joe Thornton is still an elite playmaker, Logan Couture, Patrick Marleau, and Joe Pavelski are all still 30+ goal scorers, and Dan Boyle is still one of the best offensive defencemen in the league.
The Sharks will have a healthy Martin Havlat, who is entering the playoffs on a 4-game scoring streak. Havlat has 28 points in 26 games in his last two trips to the postseason. The HP Pavilion is also one of the loudest buildings in the league and the Blues have struggled on the road. It will be very difficult for the Blues to walk into San Jose and come away with a win.
Why they definitely won’t: Except, the Blues have already won twice in San Jose and swept the season series with the Sharks. The Blues have had their number all season, outscoring them 11-3, with two shutouts. Speaking of shutouts, the Blues’ two-headed monster in goal, Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliot, has been the NHL’s best goaltender. Yes, I’m counting them as one person. The Sharks should count themselves lucky they’ll only face half of that person each game. The Blues led the NHL in fewest goals against by a massive margin, making it highly unlikely that it was a fluke. The Blues are simply the better team.
The Florida Panthers will definitely beat the New Jersey Devils
Why they will win: Just like at the start of the season, everyone is writing off the Florida Panthers. They’re the worst team to make the playoffs since the lockout. They’re a bad hockey team. Their success means the entire playoff format should be scrapped.
The Panthers fought hard to earn every point, picking up 18 points in overtime and shootout losses rather than losing outright. Their rag-tag group of free agents coalesced into a team in remarkably short order, with former second line players adapting quickly to first line duty and Brian Campbell regaining his form, finishing third amongst NHL defencemen in scoring, setting a career-high in points.
The Panthers have cup-winners in Mikael Samuelsson, Brian Campbell, Tomas Kopecky, and Kris Versteeg, proven playoff performers like Sean Bergenheim, and have gotten solid goaltending from Jose Theodore. They also won the season series against the New Jersey Devils, going 2-1-1, and they’ll be facing a fading star in Martin Brodeur, who has struggled in the playoffs of late.
Why they definitely won’t: The Devils are better in essentially every facet of the game: they score more goals, they allow fewer goals, and they have better special teams. They also boast the 5th leading scorer in the NHL in Ilya Kovalchuk and boast a bevy of other potent forwards, like Zach Parise, Patrik Elias, David Clarkson, and rookie Adam Henrique. It’s also awfully hard to ignore the Panthers’ minus-24 goal differential. The Devils are simply the better team.
The Phoenix Coyotes will definitely beat the Chicago Blackhawks
Why they will win: Mike Smith flourished in Phoenix, posting the best statistics of his career. He finished with the third best save percentage in the NHL, while the goalie he replaced, Ilya Bryzgalov, finished 33rd. So maybe Dave Tippett, one of the best coaches in the league, had something to do with it. Still, you can’t argue the results. Smith has given up just 2 goals in his last 5 games.
The days are gone of the Coyotes struggling to score, as ageless wonder Ray “The Wizard” Whitney put up 77 points, and they got goalscoring throughout the lineup, with 9 players in double digits in goals. The Coyotes won the season series with the Blackhawks as well, going 3-1-0. There’s no reason why the same won’t be true in the playoffs, particularly with the Blackhawks’ remarkably shaky goaltending situation.
Why they definitely won’t: The Blackhawks are an explosive offensive team, with Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, and Patrick Kane leading the way. Then there’s surprising rookie Andrew Shaw, a mid-season call-up who has scored 23 points in 37 games. And don’t forget Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, who remain one of the NHL’s best duos on defence. Oh yeah: Jonathan Toews may potentially be recovered from his concussion in time for the first game of the playoffs. The Blackhawks are simply the better team.
The Philadelphia Flyers will definitely beat the Pittsburgh Penguins
Why they will win: The Flyers won the season series over the Penguins, 4-2-0, and have done their best to get under the skin of their best players, seeming to succeed more often than not. The physical style of the Flyers will wear on the Penguins over the course of a 7-game series.
While Ilya Bryzgalov struggled at times this season, he’s been in a zone since the beginning of March and appears to be getting hot at the right time. The Flyers also have a potent offensive attack with a lot of depth: 11 players finished in double digits in goals. Claude Giroux was third in the league in points-per-game and who knows what Jaromir Jagr is capable of? The Flyers finished second in the league in goals-per-game this season and have the capability to score in bunches.
Why they definitely won’t: The team the Flyers are second to in goals-per-game: the Penguins. The players Giroux is third to in points-per-game: Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. When the Penguins are healthy, they’re nigh-unstoppable. They’re healthy. The Penguins are simply the better team.
The Detroit Red Wings will definitely beat the Nashville Predators
Why they will win: Let’s start with the fact that they’re the Red Wings, the gold standard for consistent success in the NHL. Pavel Datsyuk is one of the best players in the league, then you add in forwards like Henrik Zetterberg, Valtterri Filppula, Johan Franzen, and Jiri Hudler and you have a frightening team to face offensively. 11 players scored goals in double digits for the Red Wings this season and Niklas Kronwall, Nicklas Lidstrom, and Ian White provide offence from the backend.
The Red Wings are a deadly team at even-strength, leading the league at 5-on-5 by a wide margin; when the whistles hit the pockets in the playoffs, they’ll thrive.
Why they definitely won’t: The Predators have been a hardworking defensive team for a long time and that hasn’t changed: Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, and Pekka Rinne are still the backbone of the team, leading the Predators to 5th in the league in goals against. The only thing they were missing was a gamebreaking offensive talent. Oh, hello there Alexander Radulov! Getting home ice advantage was essential for the Predators. The Red Wings were incredible at home this season, but they were terrible on the road, going 17-21-3. The Predators are going to be hellish to play against. The Predators are simply the better team.