Why does college basketball get to have all the fun?
There's something magical about the first four days of the NCAA tournament every year. Are you one of the people who enjoy the rounds of 64 and 32 more than the rest of the bracket and gradually tune in less and less, almost forgetting to watch the national title game? There's a reason for that. The earlier rounds produce the upsets, the Cinderella stories that steal our hearts.
The home stretch of the NHL season has produced a few exciting Little Teams That Could, too. Which have the best potential to pull insane upsets come April, should they squeak into the bracket? A few come to mind immediately, one of which makes analytics advocates wet themselves, another of which is out to steal your Royale With Cheese.
The Flames epitomize the Cinderella concept. They've gotten no respect all season because few if any important statistical metrics explain their success. They're among the league's weakest teams in Corsi Close and Fenwick Cose or, as the NHL officially calls them now, Shot Attempts Close and Unblocked Shot Attempts Close. The Flames lost all-world defenseman Mark Giordano to a torn biceps tendon. They're supposed to be a rebuild team, with Sam Bennett waiting to join Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau as franchise cornerstones up front. But here they are, still very much in the Western Conference hunt, way ahead of schedule. The 2013-14 Colorado Avalanche and 2012-13 Toronto Maple Leafs had bad possession numbers and crashed back to Earth their next seasons, but that doesn't change the fact their luck held out long enough for them to reach overtime in Game 7 of the first round. It's happened two years in a row, so what's to say Calgary can't defy the (really, really ugly) numbers?
How they can do it
The Flames don't attempt enough shots on net, sure, but they win games for a reason. Coach Bob Hartley gets every drop of use out of his defense corps, letting each of them join the rush, and Kris Russell and Dennis Wideman have played their best offensive hockey of the year since Giordano went down. Russell is the NHL's most prolific shot blocker by a huge margin. That's partially a product of Calgary allowing so many attempts, but that tool of his translates well to the grinding playoff style. The Flames have tremendous speed up front, especially in the top unit featuring Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Jiri Hudler. Monahan has developed shockingly fast, flashing offensive ability, two-way skill and leadership reminiscent of a young Jonathan Toews. Johnny Gaudreau wins championships wherever he goes, from Boston College to the 2013 U.S. world junior squad. Goaltenders Jonas Hiller and Karri Ramo aren't world beaters but can get hot for extended stretches. Mikael Backlund, one of the most underrated 200-foot centers in the game, could smother an opponent's top line in a playoff series.
Who could they upset?
The vastly superior Blues have gotten the early-round yips two years in row, but that was against Los Angeles and Chicago. Nashville's edge in goaltending and defense should keep it safe from the Flames. The vulnerable team? Vancouver, all the way. The Canucks have little secondary scoring and will start (a) Eddie Lack, who has zero playoff experience or (b) Ryan Miller, who struggled last year and will be just back from knee surgery. The Flames are just one point away from drawing that matchup and would have an excellent chance to win the series.
Cinderella's stepsisters beat her down with chores and tore apart her dress to keep her from attending the ball, right? The Senators have hit one roadblock after another, and each seemed to galvanize them rather than weaken them. They've been a better team since firing coach Paul MacLean. Clarke MacArthur's injury and Kyle Turris' disappointing transition to No. 1 center duty post-Jason Spezza gave way to a new top line of Mika Zibanejad, Mike Hoffman and Bobby Ryan. Zibanejad has taken strides toward becoming the high-end offensive weapon he was always supposed to be, while Hoffman has been the biggest surprise scoring sensation among NHL rookies this year. They've been a much better fit with Ryan, the team's top forward. Craig Anderson's injury should've ended Ottawa's slim playoff dream, too, but instead gave way to Andrew 'The Hamburgler' Hammond's historic 11-0-1 run. The more the hockey gods beat the Sens down, the more the Sens spring back up with their collective middle finger wagging.
How they can do it
Maybe Anderson aggravating his hand injury was a blessing. Maybe it doesn't matter, as coach Dave Cameron can't ignore Hammond's numbers (11-0-1, 1.35 goals-against-average, .956 save percentage). The team has 23 of a possible 24 points when Hammond plays, so it's obvious the key to an upset – and making the playoffs at all, for that matter – lies in Hammond's streak continuing. He must stay this hot. It's a tall order, but who expected this run to last half as long as it did? On top of Hammond's play, the Sens are young, fresh and fast. They kill penalties well. And they still have the best offensive defenseman in the sport in Erik Karlsson. His puck-carrying ability can take over a game the same way Patrick Kane's can from the forward position.
Who could theyupset?
Ottawa's path is tougher than Calgary's because Ottawa has little chance of climbing up into its own division. Montreal, Tampa Bay and Detroit are too far ahead in the Atlantic, meaning the Sens can only really make the post-season as a wild card. That means facing an elite top seed like Montreal or, in a crossover match, the Metropolitan-leading New York Rangers. Montreal is riper for an upset since it has poor possession numbers, but it's highly unlikely. The Sens need the New York Islanders to shake their funk and catch the Rangers. If Jaroslav Halak isn't healthy in time, the Isles would have to start Michal Neuvirth. Ottawa would have the best chance against them. It appears the Sens won't make it to round 2 but, then again, they're practically unbeatable when Hammond starts thus far.
Feels unfair to call Boston an upset team. But, hey, the Bruins hold the No. 8 seed in the East, four points up on the Senators, who have a game in hand. And the two teams play tonight. The B's are no lock to even make the playoffs and thus warrant Cinderella treatment. Yes, this season has been a rocky plunge for a team that won the Presidents' Trophy with the NHL's best record a year ago. We've seen (comically premature) calls for coach Claude Julien and GM Peter Chiarelli's heads, lapses in focus from goalie Tuukka Rask and injuries to crucial cogs Zdeno Chara and David Krejci. Yet it's the Bruins we're talking about, here. They still have the talent, experience and team cohesiveness to earn that same "all they have to do is get in" tag reserved for the Kings and Blackhawks. A test: declare the Bruins "finished," then put them in a Game 7 overtime against any team in the East. Are you not at least a little nervous for that other team?
How they can do it
Krejci has to return his partially torn MCL, ideally in time for a few regular season games to get himself back into game shape. He deserves a mulligan for last year's dud performance in the playoffs. Krejci has typically been a spring maven, clutch and effective at both ends of the ice. Much has been made of Chara's decline at 38, and while it's a very real thing, Dougie Hamilton's breakout really helps. He's emerged as a stud blueliner and takes some pressure off Chara. Also, while it's not a good thing to know Rask needs rest for "general soreness," it's encouraging to see the Bruins rest him a bit so he's fresh for the stretch run.
Who could they upset?
The Habs and Bruins are once again on a collision course, and seeding doesn't matter much in their rivalry. Lower-seeded Montreal knocked off Boston last season. In 2011, the lower-seeded Habs pushed the Bruins to overtime of a Game 7. Wouldn't it be fitting for Boston to play the upset role with the seeds reversed this season? It's hardly a reach considering how poor Montreal's possession game is. The Canadiens depend on Carey Price and allow far more shot attempts than they generate. A good possession team like Boston, which will only get better when Krejci returns, constitutes a dangerous matchup for Montreal.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin