It’s time for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, featuring the return of the "Winnipeg Whiteout" in Phoenix and the Return of the Rat in south Florida, following the first-ever division titles for Phoenix and Florida.
For the Coyotes, it’s the franchise’s first division crown since the final season of the World Hockey Association in 1978-79, when the original Winnipeg Jets captured its third AVCO World Trophy in four seasons before floundering in the NHL for 17 seasons until its relocation to Arizona.
The Panthers, which once played for the Stanley Cup in 1996 before getting swept by the Colorado Avalanche, own one of the poorest records in league history, but gained a No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference as the champion of one of the NHL’s weakest divisions.
Both teams pose an interesting risk to those wagering on the quest for Lord Stanley’s cup.
Newcomers to postseason play quite often fair poorly as underdogs, especially college football teams heading to a bowl game for the first time after lengthy droughts. However, in hockey, it’s not always so clear-cut.
In the NHL, division titlists are guaranteed the top three seeds, but based on points, both the Coyotes and Panthers should be ranked sixth in their respective conference. Thus, they will hold home-ice advantage over first-round opponents with more points.
In this column, we’ve often talked about the fantasy idea that home ice means an actual advantage. With that in mind, here is a preview of all eight opening-round series, and why Phoenix should fall to Chicago and Florida gets bumped off by New Jersey.
Conversely, despite all of the upsets, only one bottom-four seed has won the Cup since the league went to its present seeding system in 1993-94 – the 1995 New Jersey Devils, which were "only" a fifth seed.
Lower teams have played for the Cup; none actually won it. Thus, don’t go crazy over-betting the dogs. Wait until Games 3 and 4 for the better teams to go on the road at better prices.
New York (1) vs. Ottawa (8): The Rangers power play is questionable, while the Senators can score. Sounds like parlay heaven, if you’re on the right side: Rangers/UNDER vs. Sens/OVER.
However, the goaltending matchup looks too one-sided, so take NYR’s Henrik Lundqvist over Ottawa’s Craig Anderson despite the Blueshirts losing the season series, 3-1.
Perhaps Ottawa should go with 6-foot-7 rookie goalie Ben Bishop, who beat New York, 4-1, in early March. Pick: Rangers.
Boston (2) vs. Washington (2): Another pairing where the clear dog took the season series, 3-1. The Caps’ Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green are back from injury, while Alex Ovechkin seems back to normal.
However, Ovechkin plays too much 1-on-3 hockey and the Bruins defense is as good as anyone’s – they did win the Cup with physical toughness.
Again, which goalie would you prefer? It’s Washington’s Michal Neuvirth (or Braden Holtby) vs. the Bees’ Tim Thomas (or Tuukka Rask or the rejuvenated Marty Turko). I love to take dogs, but not here. Pick: Boston.
Florida (3) vs. New Jersey (6): My grandmother knows the Southeast Division is a complete fraud and is going with the Devils. Even if this is the swan song for G Martin Brodeur, another series win should allow him to play past age 40 (on May 6). It’s just another piece to his Hall of Fame resume.
Oh, wasn’t New Jersey coach Pete DeBoer fired by the Panthers last season? Then again, with DeBoer, Florida is making its first postseason appearance since 2000, so maybe it was justified.
Unless the Panthers (2-3-5 in last 10) win a series of 1-0 and 2-1 games, this easily looks like a potential Devils sweep (max five games). Pick: New Jersey.
Pittsburgh (4) vs. Philly (5): People have been talking about this potential playoff pairing for a month – this will be a series non-hockey fans can get into, as only four teams recorded more points than these two intrastate rivals, but the seeding system means one of the best teams in the league goes home early.
The Flyers’ two-man forecheck has caused the Penguins headaches all season. They were also 5-0 in the Pens’ new building until Saturday’s meaningless regular-season finale.
No intimidation factor here. Both teams know each other, etc., etc. Just play the road teams at plus-money (although a short price) and hope the series goes seven. It should. Pick: Pass.
Vancouver (1) vs. LA (8): The reason neither of these teams will win the Cup is clear: they do not possess the physicality needed. Sure, L.A. tried using "playoff hockey" to close the season in a home-and-home with San Jose, but look what happened: they lost twice to miss winning its first division crown in 21 years.
Plus, the Canucks offense can score, even without Daniel Sedin (concussion); the Kings are still struggling, especially with Jeff Carter out of the line-up – he is the bigger loss.
You know I am a life-long Kings fan, but really, this assignment is too high a hurdle to climb, even for Vezina Trophy finalist goalie Jonathan Quick. Pick: Vancouver in 5.
St. Louis (2) vs. San Jose (7): The Sharks woke up just in time to make the playoffs, then only looked good because L.A. pissed them off.
The Blues have a proven, disciplined defense, a confident goalie, and know how to take the pressure off when opponents start to buzz.
Look for San Jose to take a game in St. Louis this weekend (plus 130 or better!), then take the Blues over the balance of the series. Pick: St. Louis.
Phoenix (3) vs. Chicago (6): The Whiteout in Glendale, Ariz., will make it tough on the Blackhawks to score. Conversely, the Coyotes can only win on the road with defense.
Simply bet the UNDER each time and ignore the side. You can’t rely on any road wins in a series that should go seven. If you do play a roadie, it’s Chicago, a team with more points from a better division – but when will they win that one needed game in the desert? Pick: Pass.
Nashville (4) vs. Detroit (5): Which team has the veteran leadership and experience? Detroit. Which team is playing better hockey? Nashville.
Which team is healthy? Detroit. Which team has healthy players you’ve never heard of? Nashville.
Which team can win at home? Both (but especially Detroit). Which team can win on the road? Based on the statistics, it’s... Nashville in 7.