I'm a pretty big baseball fan, and while I certainly get excited for Opening Day in Major League Baseball, the first pitch of each season doesn't mean that I'm necessarily ready for summer beers and the sounds of bats striking baseballs over the radio on a 70 degree evening.
Quite the opposite, actually. When baseball first appears over the horizon, it only means one thing: The Stanley Cup Playoffs are close, and it's time for the two most exciting months on the sports calendar.
Sure, you can argue that March is the best month on the sports calendar thanks to college basketball, or maybe you think that October is superior, with playoff baseball, the NFL regular season and the start of the NHL and NBA seasons all wrapped into one. There's an argument to be made there, but it's just not the same as mid-April through mid-June.
As one of NBC's really solid promos voiced over the weekend, we won't catch our breath until somebody hoists the Stanley Cup in June. That statement couldn't be more true, and in just a few short days, it all begins. As we prepare for the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs, let's look at a few of the story lines and question marks heading into the postseason.
Will this be the best Battle of Pennsylvania ever?
It's the series everybody in the NHL hoped for -- except perhaps those who both have a rooting interest and value their health. The Flyers and Penguins will do battle in the playoffs for the third time in five years, and there's no doubt the teams will build up quite a bit more hatred for one another as this series likely stretches to six or seven games.
But this year is much, much different than years past for two very big reasons: Jaromir Jagr and Max Talbot.
Two players once beloved in Western Pennsylvania and hated in the eastern part of the state have flipped sides, and frankly, it's been a little weird for all involved all season long. It's only fitting that this all comes to a head in the postseason, and both Jagr and Talbot are expected to have big roles in the drama.
The teams really couldn't be much more different, though. Sure, both teams have coaches of a similar demeanor, and both surely have their star players. But the Flyers are a team that's undergone a dramatic overhaul over the last calendar year, essentially blowing up their core in favor of a new path towards what they hope will be a Stanley Cup.
The Pens, meanwhile, haven't blown up a thing. It's the same dynamic core that's been around for every Battle of Pa. thus far, and it's the same core that could be destined to win another Stanley Cup this year. That is, if they can get past the Flyers in the playoffs yet again.
How good is Nashville?
You might call them a sleeper team, but that's not because they lack talent. Perhaps the Nashville Predators lack the sex appeal of a team like the New York Rangers, the Vancouver Canucks or even their first round opponent, the Detroit Red Wings, but there's no doubt that the Preds are a legitimate contender for the Cup this season.
It all starts on defense for these guys. Shea Weber and Ryan Suter are arguably the best defensive pairing in the NHL, and when you back up a solid all-around defensive unit with a goaltender the caliber of Pekka Rinne, it's extra tough for teams to score. When the game transitions to a bit more of a defensive style in the postseason, that becomes even more difficult.
Yet at the same time, it's quite possible that Nashville has defied the odds a bit so far this season. Their shot differential -- also known as Fenwick -- has steadily been among the worst in the NHL. Since the league doesn't keep (or, at least, doesn't publish) numbers for time of possession, the best proxy we have is shot differential. It makes sense: The more you have the puck, the more you're going to shoot the puck towards the opposing net.
We know, however, that teams trailing in a game will often shoot the puck more often out of desperation. We call these score effects, and to remove them, we look only at shot differential when the score of the game is close. And when it comes to Fenwick numbers when the score is close, the Predators are without a doubt the worst playoff team around.
The numbers read like percentages -- in other words, Nashville controlled just 46.08 percent of shots in close games this season. When you're getting outshot by a wide margin over the course of an entire season, there's a solid chance that you're not going to win many games. Look at the rest of the bottom 10 this season, for example: Not one playoff team in the mix.
So, the question rings out: Just how good are the Nashville Predators?
What's the deal with the Florida Panthers?
There's no way the Panthers can actually win a playoff series this year, right? Not only are they going up against the New Jersey Devils, who finished a full eight points ahead of them in the standings, but Florida finished the season with a shockingly bad minus-24 goal differential. The Washington Capitals -- also members of the lowly Southeast Division -- are the only other team in the postseason with a negative goal differential.
But while the league has ripped on Florida and their awful divisional grouping for failing to put up even close to the number of points as other division winners, it's fascinating that they lost 18 (!) games in overtime or a shootout this season. 11 of those losses came via the shootout -- a 6-11 overall shootout record -- while they put up a 1-7 overall overtime record.
Neither number looks good, but the Panthers have shown an ability to keep games close in regulation. How does this all translate to postseason play, where 4-on-4 overtime doesn't exist and where shootouts definitely don't exist?
What are the chances of a No. 1 vs. No. 8 upset?
Looking back at those shot differential numbers, one thing sticks out pretty strongly: Both No. 8 seeds had better numbers during the regular season than the No. 1 seeds they'll compete against in Round 1. The Los Angeles Kings actually finished fourth in the league in Fenwick while the score was close as compared to eighth place Vancouver, while the New York Rangers 14th to Ottawa's 12th. Will this bear itself out in postseason results?
Last hurrah for Nicklas Lidstrom?
Nicklas Lidstrom still looks like he's 25 years old on the ice, but the Red Wings defenseman could be done after this season. The 41-year-old played on a one-year contract for a reason this season, and while he could easily come back next year and win yet another Norris Trophy, there are no guarantees. Let's enjoy watching him while it lasts.
Can Mike Smith continue to carry Phoenix?
The goaltender is perhaps the single reason the Phoenix Coyotes are Pacific Division champions, and given the jokes that were made at the team's expense when they signed Smith as a free agent last summer, the season he's put together is even more amazing than at first thought.
Smith's career-high save percentage heading into this season was .916, which he put up in 41 games as a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2008-09. With the Coyotes this season, Smith put up a ridiculous .930 save percentage, right up there with the elites in the NHL. In fact, Smith and Vezina Trophy front-runner Henrik Lundqvist each put up the same number, tops among starting goaltenders in the league this season.
He's Mike Smith. He plays for the Phoenix Coyotes. We know how great goaltending can lead a team to a Stanley Cup -- just ask Tim Thomas and the Bruins last year. Can Smith do the same for his club?