I recently had a friend who isn’t a big sports fan tell me something about sports that stuck in my mind: “Beware the narrative.”
I pondered that for a moment. Actually, quite a few moments, and then realized he simply found the most effective way to verbalize what’s been my approach to analyzing sports for years. It’s all about motivation, hunger, who wants it more, and psychology in sports. The talent levels across professional leagues are actually quite negligible, but it’s the culture and the psychology that separate the men from the boys. So, you ask, how does this mini history lesson relate whatsoever to an article about the NHL playoffs?
Two words: Clear path.
Among the many reasons teams struggle to make the leap from good to great is because they can’t beat certain teams. It’s not just physical, but mental too. Fortunately for the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues — my two pre-playoff Stanley Cup picks — there will be no such mental gymnastics that will need to be performed anymore. There were likely two teams that were going to keep the 107-point Bruins from getting to the Finals this year — the Capitals and Lightning — are both are out of the picture early. For the Blues, a team that has never reached the Cup final, a few of the Western blue bloods are also gone, leaving a possible remaining path of Dallas and San Jose. Both of those teams carry just as much if not more playoff baggage than their St. Louis counterpart.
Are people surprised that the Lightning and Capitals are out? Not me. Yes, I picked both to get by in the first round, but also had both losing in the second round. To me, Tampa is not the least bit shocking because they were set up to fail. A record-setting team based around a high-flying offense? Those teams never win when it counts. They may get there, but they don’t get it done in the end. And for the Capitals? Yes, they were the defending champs. Yes, the mental hi-jinx was supposed to be gone. But you know who else was gone? T.J. Oshie and Barry Trotz. And you know what else has long been true of the Caps? They rarely perform well in the playoffs (the term used to be “never perform well,” but that NARRATIVE had to be slightly tweaked after last year).
And so it is that the Bruins enter Round 2 as the odds-on favorite to bring the City of Champions its third parade in a span of eight months. The long-suffering Blues enter Round 2 as the team to beat in the West. Did it start out this way? Was it supposed to play out in this fashion? Of course not, unless you dig a little deeper into the NARRATIVE.
So, with that diatribe behind me, let me make some picks on the heels of a 4-4 first round effort (and in case you were wondering, here is what my official NHL bracket looks like, with the only inconsistency from my first-round picks on DraftAmerica being the Vegas/San Jose series):
(A2) Boston vs. Columbus (WC2)
It’s so easy to lose sight of the fact that, lost in the glow of Tampa’s historic year, the Bruins entered the playoffs tied for the second-most points in the NHL. A city that refuses to lose is trying to make history, and the Bruins should comply. Best yet for them, they will not have to face a Bolts team that turned the tables on them last year in this round, winning four straight after Boston took the opener. Instead, the Bruins get to face a Columbus team riding a delirious high after winning its first-ever playoff series, doing so in the fashion of a sweep that no one could have expected. The Blue Jackets have been red-hot of late, but you have to feel like it’s going to be hard to recapture that emotion and energy, especially after the long layoff that they’ve had. And is this inexperienced team really good enough to beat Tampa Bay and Boston back-to-back? Something tells me that this will not be a happy homecoming for John Tortorella. Prediction: Bruins in 5.
(M2) New York Islanders vs. Carolina (WC1)
So the Capitals are out of the playoffs, and Barry Trotz is still standing. I wonder how satisfying that must be for Trotz, who did not get his due compensation after guiding the long-suffering (in the playoffs, anyway) Capitals to glory in 2018. The Isles’ sweep of Pittsburgh felt like much less of an upset than Columbus’ sweep of Tampa did, which is why I like this “clear path” narrative for New York here. Sure, it would have been fun to see Trotz coach against the Caps in a playoff series, but now his red-hot Isles get to take on an inferior Carolina team who, like Columbus, is going to have a hard time recapturing the emotion of knocking out the defending champs. Pick: Islanders in 6.
(C3) St. Louis vs. Dallas (WC1)
Again, it bears repeating that the Blues have never reached the Stanley Cup finals. They’ll take on a Dallas team that they beat in 2016, a Dallas team that is somewhat similar to St. Louis in that it turned things around after a very ominous start. The Blues look a lot more like the team that won 11 straight at one point this year (a streak that was stopped by Dallas, interestingly enough) and should take care of business after grinding out a series win against a strong Winnipeg club. Pick: Blues in 6.
(P2) San Jose vs. Colorado (WC2)
Oh, how badly I want to take the chic underdog team here, but can the Avs repeat what they did against Calgary? This Sharks team showed some surprising heart (surprising to me, anyway) by rallying from 3-1 down to beat a Vegas team that suddenly looked like a good bet to return to the Cup finals. San Jose has the more experienced team and a very good coach in Peter DeBoer, although Jared Bednar is not too far behind. It’s hard to see San Jose not powering through this round after being able to overcome so much adversity against Vegas, which would set up a rematch of the 2016 Western Conference finals between the Blues and Sharks. Pick: Sharks in 7.