March Madness is sadly…finished. Your brackets were toast thanks to that South Carolina team. The Masters is over, and Major League Baseball just started, but we’re only about 5% into the season. You crave something to replace March Madness.
The best part of the NCAA Tournament is the opening weekend. The upsets, the buzzer beaters, the drama, the passion, the sense of urgency. Every second and every possession, matter. It’s exhilarating. The Sweet 16 and Final Four are epic, but not nearly as fun as the opening round. What if I told you that you could get six more weeks of that March Madness feel? Oh, and it happens every night of the week, not just four days on the weekend. Welcome…to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Hockey is a sport that should be embraced by Americans and young people. There is speed and hard hitting action. The action never stops unless the puck is in the back of the net, controlled by the goalie, or in the stands. Changes happen on the fly, so the action keeps going. No other sport does this. Hockey has the athleticism and toughness of football that everyone loves. The main difference is that the players are doing it while flying around on ice with razor blades on their feet. Fighting still exists and has a role in the game. A well timed fight can get momentum back on your side and help you win a game. It only costs you five minutes in the penalty box or possibly an early shower if you are a real jack ass. Fighting is far less common in the playoffs because you don’t want to give the other team any momentum, you don’t want to sit in the box for five minutes, and you REALLY don’t want to break your hand on someone else’s face and miss a game, maybe more.
Hockey can be a tricky sport to pickup, but picking it up in the playoffs is the perfect time. The games are easier to find on TV and if you can find someone to watch the game with if you want to learn about the game. The NHL even embraced the notion of a bracket and you can fill your own hockey bracket it out and win some prizes. We will breakdown the Western and the Eastern Conferences and help you decide what team to cheer for, what to expect, and even what sweater (aka jersey) to buy. Let’s start with the West.
Here’s a link to the opening round schedule.
The Chicago Blackhawks
This is the most popular one. It’s easy. They are fun to watch. I’ve written pieces on them before.
They are the most hated team by “true hockey fans” because so many people have hopped on the bandwagon. It’s a lot like the Miami Heat fans when LeBron was there, or the Golden State Warriors fans you never knew existed. A lot like the Warriors, or even the Cubs, the Blackhawks are loaded with talent and excitement. They have skilled forwards that move the puck and create scoring chances. The defense is quick and keeps the other team off the board. They are what every hockey team tries to be. It’s the lowest hanging fruit in hockey. Patrick Kane is fun to watch, and this is the team with the most sex appeal.
Matchup: Nashville Predators. This is the best matchup for the Blackhawks. They should win in five.
Likely long term outcome: Playing in June for a Stanley Cup
Jersey to get: NOT PATRICK KANE. Go with Hjalmarsson, Keith, or Hossa.
The Nashville Predators
They boast one of the best players in hockey in PK Subban. The man is an absolute beast and he is one of the best defensemen in the game. He hits like a linebacker, and has the speed and finesse of a wide receiver. He’s just good. In a league that needs marketable stars, PK should be one of them. Offensively they don’t have the superstars that the Blackhawks do, but have depth and experience. James Neal and Mike Fisher are excellent, even if they aren’t Kane and Toews. Oh, and Mike Fisher is married to Carrie Underwood – so he’s got that going for him.
Matchup: Blackhawks. The worst possible matchup for the Preds. COULD it happen? Yes. WILL it happen? No.
Likely long term outcome: Out in the 1st Round.
Jersey to get: PK Subban...if you can handle the yellow.
The Minnesota Wild
The Wild are a team that have made the Playoffs each of the last five years, but haven’t reached the Conference Finals since the 2002-03 season. The Wild have a world class goaltender in Devin Dubnyk, but they also lead the West in goals scored with 266 over the season. They are a deep, solid team that knows how to win. They don’t have the sexiness of the Blackhawks, but Minnesota IS hockey. They call themselves “the State of Hockey” and for good reason. It’s a damn joke that the Stars left town for Dallas, but the Wild have a gorgeous arena in St. Paul that is specifically built for hockey, a rabid fan base that is yearning for a chance to hoist the cup, and a number of the players have played for the Iowa Wild. So if you’re from Iowa, this should be your team. Also, if you absolutely hate the bandwagon Blackhawks fans, this is a good team to chose. Though, the other teams also hate the Blackhawks.
Matchup: Blues. This should go the full distance, but Minny has home ice advantage in Game 7.
Likely long term outcome: 2nd round loss
Jersey to get: Devan Dubnyk – the stud of a goalie.
The St. Louis Blues
This is the other team to chose if you hate the Blackhawks, but be warned, they will break your heart. They do this….annually. They have a great regular season and get a top seed in the Central Division. They usually look great in the first round, but fall flat on their face in the second. It doesn’t matter who they play, they just find a way to lose. They are what the St. Louis Cardinals would be if they didn’t have their devil magic. They don’t have the sexiness of the Blackhawks, but they just have a team full of good hockey guys. The fan base is great, but just a notch below Chicago and Minnesota in rabidness. St. Louis has been red hot coming into the playoffs, but are facing off against the also red hot Wild. The Blues have a history of falling on their face in the playoffs, and that continues to be the norm.
Matchup: Wild. Blues blow a lead and lose in OT in game 7.
Likely long term outcome: 1st/2nd round heartbreak
Jersey to get: Paul Stastny. Everyone’s got Tarasenko, be different. Pauly Walnuts is a gritty two-way center. He just looks like a hockey player.
The Anaheim Ducks
The Ducks consistently win the Pacific Division with a mix of grit and finesse. A team that started off as the Mighty Ducks based on the Disney movies is now one of the most consistent franchises in hockey. They had a rough patch early in the season, but still ended up winning the Pacific Division, though only by two points over the Edmonton Oilers. The forwards are deep and the defense is the mark of consistency. They don’t boast the big names like PK Subban, but guys like Fowler and Bieska are the type of guys you can depend on night in, and night out, to keep the other team off the scoreboard. They might be the least sexy team in the playoffs.
Matchup: Calgary Flames. Calgary has a ton of speed, but the defense of the Ducks will keep them in check and the forwards will score JUST enough to win. Ducks in 6 in typical Duck fashion.
Likely long term outcome: Game 7 Loss in the Western Conference Finals
Jersey to get: NOT COREY PERRY because f- Corey Perry. Go with one of the Ryan’s. Ryan Getzlaf or Ryan Kesler are great choices as long as you avoid the orange jerseys.
The Calgary Flames
If you want to be really cute, call them the Cal-gary Flames, like Barry Melrose does. This is also a young, flashy, exciting team to watch. They do not have the star power that the Oilers or Blackhawks have, but they still have plenty of skill. They play a very fast-paced game, and are fun to watch. If you like the style the Blackhawks play, but refuse to be a part of THAT bandwagon, then this might be your team. The logo is sweet, and the fan base is nuts. Johnny Gaudreau was dubbed “Johnny Hockey,” and unlike Johnny Football, Johnny Hockey is actually good at his sport. He’s also good at life, which Johnny Football, is not. Gaudreau deserves to be a household name with all of his talent. This team may lack the name brand and sex appeal of the Blackhawks, but they are fun to watch, and the sky’s the limit with their potential. There is a lot of risk and possible reward with this team. Think of them as a good 12 seed.
Matchup: Ducks. One of the most exciting teams vs. the least exciting team. It could go either way. Heart says Flames, head says Ducks.
Likely long term outcome: Heartbreaking loss in 1st or 2nd round.
Jersey to get: Johnny Gaudreau or Dougie Hamilton
The Edmonton Oilers
They used to be great when Grtezky was there. Since then…not so much. They’ve recently been the laughing stock of the NHL, and constantly getting #1 draft picks. Much like the Cleveland Browns, they’ve missed on most of these. Then they got Connor McDavid. The term game changer doesn’t even begin to describe Connor. He’s a once in a lifetime talent – the Steph Curry of the NHL. He’s fast and skilled, can skate, shoot, and do it all. He leads the league with 100 points and 70 assists. Oh, and it’s only his second season in the NHL, and he played in only 45 games last year because of an injury. He is THEE superstar the NHL needs to market to compete with LeBron and the NBA. He’s a reason to watch the game even if you don’t care who is playing. Edmonton has a long hockey tradition and he put them back on the map. He is to the Oilers, what Kris Bryant is to the Cubs. The sex appeal is high with this team.
Matchup: Sharks. Edmonton hasn’t been in the playoffs in a while, and the Sharks played for the Cup last year. The Sharks are the one Wild Card team Edmonton didn’t want. Sharks win in 5 or 6.
Likely long term outcome: Lose in 1st or 2nd round.
Jersey to get: Connor McDavid in the blue/orange. He’s a God among insects.
The San Jose Sharks
First of all, they have the best mascot. Secondly, they have one of the greatest logos in all of sports – the shark biting a hockey stick in half. It’s been around since the team started in the early 90’s. The teal color might not be for everyone, but they have black jerseys and white ones that are a little less in your face. If you like Star Wars, this is your team. Joe Thornton and Brent Burns are famous for their beards and looking like Chewbacca, and their play on the ice is as impressive as their beards. They have a great ad to explain their beards.
Brent Burns is fascinating because he can play forward or defense. There aren’t many guys in the history of the NHL that have done that, and none of them have done it as well as him. He’s an All-Star at either position. Joe Thornton is an old veteran trying to drink from Lord Stanley’s Cup. Then you got some great skaters in Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski, and Patrick Marelau. They are probably the most exciting team in the Pacific. Their sexy level is high.
Matchup: Oilers. They have the best player in the game…and no playoff experience. 20 annual 1st round draft picks have to pay off eventually, right? Wrong. Sharks win easy.
Likely long term outcome: Western Conference Finals/Stanley Cup Finals
Jersey to get: Brent Burns. Though, you have to make a Chewbacca noise whenever you see someone else wearing a Burns jersey. Go with the teal too – or the black ones are sweet.
Check back tomorrow for the preview of the Eastern Conference.