By Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Anything can happen. It's true. Two years ago, the seventh-seeded Philadelphia Flyers and eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens met in the Eastern Conference final. In 2006, the eighth-seeded Edmonton Oilers came within a win of the Stanley Cup.
Just get in. You can win.
But that doesn't mean your odds are good if you’re a low seed. Despite the salary cap and the parity in the NHL, the playoffs are still a world of favorites and underdogs. There are no flip-a-coin shootouts to pad win totals. There are no loser points to keep things close. There are marathon overtimes and seven-game wars of attrition to separate the best from the rest. Though David can take down Goliath, make no mistake: David better aim his rock just right.
Forget going all the way. Only one bottom-four seed has won the Cup since the league started seeding one through eight in each conference in 1993-94, and that was a fifth seed, the 1995 New Jersey Devils.
It's hard enough to get out of the first round. Despite the tremendous runs by those Flyers, Habs and Oilers that stick in our memory, seventh and eighth seeds still rarely survive their opening series. The NHL has staged six Stanley Cup tournaments since the salary cap was introduced in 2005-06, so there have been 12 examples of each seed – six of each in the East, six of each in the West. Only three No. 8 seeds (25 percent) have won in the first round. Only two No. 7 seeds (16 percent) have.
The wild cards are the fifth and sixth seeds. Seven fifth seeds (55 percent) have won in the first round. Six sixth seeds (50 percent) have. But the middle matchups are always the most competitive in a seeding system, and the NHL awards division winners the top three seeds in each conference, pushing superior teams down in the order. Both third seeds had fewer points than the sixth seeds this season. Who's the underdog?
"The parity is so close in the game," said Nashville Predators general manager David Poile. "The cliche is, anybody can beat anybody on a given night. Well, I think that's true for the playoffs also. The season is one thing. But in terms of saying the eighth-place team can beat the first-place team this year, absolutely. I think there's a lot of teams that have a chance to win the Stanley Cup this year."
A chance, yes. But how big of a chance? The games will be tight and the series will be exciting, but in the end the cream will rise.
Why the underdog can win: The Sens can simply outscore 'em. Led by electrifying defenseman Erik Karlsson, they move the puck up ice with speed and put it in the net with frequency. They went 3-1-0 against the Rangers in the regular season, winning the last two games by a combined score of 7-1. Picked by some to finish last in the league, they have won as underdogs all season. No expectations. No pressure.
Why the underdog is still the underdog: Though the Rangers' scoring depth is a question mark and the power play is a big problem, their defense is far better than the Senators'. Blocking shots is mandatory under coach John Tortorella, and when a puck does leak through, it still has to elude elite goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. The Rangers have been playing playoff-style hockey all season. That could catch up to them in the long run, but it shouldn't in the first round.
Odds of an upset: Realistic.
Pick: Rangers in 7.
Why the underdog can win:Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green are back from injuries. Alexander Ovechkin is back to being Alexander Ovechkin. The Capitals went 3-1-0 against the Bruins during the regular season, and they have played some of their best hockey down the stretch. The last few years, the Caps have struggled in the role of the favorite. Now they have a chance to surprise people by knocking off the defending Stanley Cup champions, whose goaltender, Tim Thomas, doesn't look like the same guy who won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs' most valuable player last year.
Why the underdog is still the underdog: The Capitals aren't the type of structured team that frustrates the Bruins, like the Canadiens did the past two years. Bruce Boudreau couldn't instill enough discipline, so he was fired. Dale Hunter took over as coach, but he hasn't exactly molded the Caps into a hardnosed, mentally tough machine. They have injury problems in goal, too. The Bruins are proven, they're deeper and they have the personnel – Thomas, Zdeno Chara,Patrice Bergeron – to neutralize offensive stars.
Odds of an upset: Decent.
Pick: Bruins in 6.
3. Florida Panthers vs. 6. New Jersey Devils
Why the underdog can win: By the underdog, we mean the Devils, but only because of the seeding – and because of the fun fact that their coach, Pete DeBoer, was fired by Florida after last season. The Devils finished with 102 points, the Panthers 94. The Devils had a plus-19 goal differential in the regular season, the Panthers a minus-24 – by far the worst among playoff teams. The Panthers staggered to the finish, going 2-3-5 in their final 10 games, and made it because of their league-leading 18 loser points. Like we said, no loser points in the playoffs.
Why the underdog is still the underdog: The Panthers made the playoffs for the first time since 2000, ending the NHL's longest playoff drought. Stephen Weiss is a great story, a Panthers draft pick competing for the Cup for the first time. But amid the mishmash of players acquired by GM Dale Tallon, there are plenty of guys with playoff experience. They have several Cup rings. They know what it takes and won't be happy just to be here.
Odds of an upset: High.
Pick: Devils in 5.
4. Pittsburgh Penguins vs. 5. Philadelphia Flyers
Why the underdog can win: The Flyers aren't going to be intimidated by the Penguins. At all. They didn't want home ice. Until Saturday's season finale, when they rested goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov and leading-scorer Claude Giroux, the Flyers were 5-0-0 in Pittsburgh since the Penguins opened their new arena, the Consol Energy Center. These were the second- and third-best teams in the East in the regular season, these are blood rivals, and this means war.
Why the underdog is still the underdog: For all the Flyers' scoring, the Penguins have Sidney Crosby, and Evgeni Malkin, and James Neal, and Kris Letang – not to mention goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, a Cup winner who has proven he can perform under pressure. The Flyers have Bryzgalov, whom they signed to solve their perpetual goaltending woes even though he had back-to-back awful playoffs for the Phoenix Coyotes. Bryz has been better lately, but one bad goal, and he might have to find more peace in his soul to play in that city.
Odds of an upset: Hu-MAN-gous big.
Pick: Penguins in 7.
Why the underdog can win:Jonathan Quick. The simplest formula for an eighth seed to upset a first seed is to have a goaltender who can steal the series. Quick carried the Kings to the playoffs and is capable of carrying them through the first round – especially if the Canucks' leading goal-scorer, Daniel Sedin, remains out with a concussion. The Canucks will start out with Roberto Luongo in goal, and we all know what goes with that. Expected not to lose, he can be the goat but not the hero.
Why the underdog is still the underdog: The Kings were the second-worst offensive team in the NHL. They improved after adding Jeff Carter, but he missed the last five regular-season games with an ankle injury. Even if he returns as expected, no one knows how effective he will be. Quick has a lot to prove in the playoffs after first-round exits the past two years – one of them against Vancouver – and if Luongo falters, the Canucks have Cory Schneider. He posted a better save percentage than Quick did in the regular season (.937 to .929).
Odds of an upset: Moderate.
Pick: Canucks in 6.
Why the underdog can win: The Sharks were the only team that made the conference final in each of the past two years. They improved on paper in the off-season, and even though they didn't show it on the ice, they got their act together down the stretch when in danger of missing the playoffs. Like the Capitals, they have not succeeded as favorites and can now relish the role of the underdog. Their top players have far more playoff experience than the Blues.
Why the underdog is still the underdog: What has that playoff experience gotten the Sharks? A lot of disappointment, and this could be the biggest one yet – one that leads to more dramatic changes in the off-season. The Sharks went 0-4-0 against the Blues in the regular season. They didn't score a goal in two games in St. Louis, where the Blues went 30-6-5. The Blues can match the Sharks physically. They can wear them down with their depth, pace and structure. They can frustrate them with the stingiest defense in the league.
Odds of an upset: So-so.
Pick: Blues in 5.
3. Phoenix Coyotes vs. 6. Chicago Blackhawks
Why the underdog can win: The Blackhawks were four points better than the Coyotes during the regular season – while playing in a much tougher division – and they still have the core that won the Cup two years ago. The Coyotes haven't won a playoff series since moving from Winnipeg in 1996 – and maybe they never will. The NHL still hasn't been able to sell the team it bought out of bankruptcy 2-1/2 years ago. The Coyotes brass has hinted there could be good news soon. But is that just because they don't want a repeat of last year? As the playoffs began, a report said the Coyotes would relocate after elimination. It was wrong, but it still sabotaged them.
Why the underdog is still the underdog: Captain Jonathan Toews has been skating but has said he still has concussion symptoms. So why is he skating, let alone trying to come back? The power play has been a mess all season, and the goaltending does not match up. Corey Crawford and Ray Emery have been shaky for Chicago, while Mike Smith led the Coyotes to the first division title in team history. The Coyotes went 20-6-5 after Feb. 1. They won their last three meetings with the Blackhawks. Maybe Phoenix will pull it off – a playoff victory and a franchise sale.
Odds of an upset: Good.
Pick: Coyotes in 7.
4. Nashville Predators vs. 5. Detroit Red Wings
Why the underdog can win: These are the Detroit Red Wings. This is their 21st consecutive season in the playoffs, and they haven't lost in the first round since 2006. Key players who were hurt are now healthy – Nicklas Lidstrom,Pavel Datsyuk,Johan Franzen,Jimmy Howard,Jonathan Ericsson. The Predators have won only one playoff series in their history, and all of their late-season additions upset the chemistry while adding to the pressure. They aren't used to high expectations.
Why the underdog is still the underdog: The Wings scored only nine goals in their final six games, and now they have to face the league's top defense pairing in Shea Weber and Ryan Suter and one of the league's top goaltenders in Pekka Rinne. The Wings' special teams are uncharacteristically weak. The Predators bolstered their penalty kill with Gill and Gaustad and boosted their offense with Kostitsyn and Radulov – and they already had decent offense and a top power play. This was a tight series during the regular season, and the difference might be the home-ice advantage the Predators effectively earned March 30 with a victory in Detroit. The Wings went 31-7-3 at Joe Louis Arena this season, but 17-21-3 on the road.
Odds of an upset: Strong.
Pick: Predators in 7.