First Round Upsets: Monte Carlo Scenarios

In a Monte Carlo model a data input is run through a series of unpredictable interrelated equations. After several runs the outputs’ tendencies become more apparent and point to a likely outcome, but that doesn’t mean that outliers are impossible. First round NHL upsets work the same way. They are unlikely but inordinately plausible because a good team will often coast towards the finish and will face a hungry team with nothing to lose and no pressure on them. This is enough for at least one Monte Carlo output where the favorite loses. Top teams tend to have balanced scoring, but in the playoffs the one 45 goal scorer on the eighth seed is more likely to break the stalemate than the five 25 goal scorers on the top team. Also, give any underdog three days to prepare for the top dog and, in league with the above factors, they have a punchers chance.

There are two top four teams (the top two seeds in either conference) that feel primed to be upset.

The Red Wings have easily won their perennial quest with the Avs over who is the NHL’s most overrated team. The Wings are plenty good, but no team benefited more from the new emphasis on inter-division play than they did. They got to play the Hawks, Jackets, and Blues a combined 24 times. To their credit they feasted on these also rans, going 21-1-2 for a total of 44 points. Absent these lay ups they are 60-16-8 and if you extrapolate that winning percentage through the rest of the season they are 53-21-8 for 114 points, still very good but not better than the other top teams. Subtract the goals scored against their weak divisional foes and they are down to about 2.8 per game, so the Wings are not quite the offensive juggernaut that they seem on paper. They feel like a team that has grown too accustomed to winning with a proficient but not hungry effort that could lose to a team on a roll. If San Jose has stayed in the eighth seed I would have picked them in a heartbeat. The Oilers, however, have not done anything to differentiate themselves this season. Sad as it is, Peca has never been the same player since getting cheap-shoted by Darcy Tucker in 2003. I can only imagine two in ten scenarios where the Wings lose: a complete choke job or else a bevy of injuries. Wings in 5.

Listen to the Hurricanes announcers and you will hear the proud and magnanimous satisfaction of one who has finally gained respect. It means something when Toronto, New York, and Detroit come to Raleigh now and it never really did before even after the Fluke of ‘02. The Canes have earned it, they’ve joined the elite long term and that is the goal they were playing for this season. Their game is interesting because the chance that either team can score is always higher than usual. They are prolific finishers because other teams eventually crack under that pressure. But the soft passes out of the defensive zone that forwards speed up to, and the dash down the wing and throwing the puck in front of the net model feels like a style that a coach can dissect with enough preparation. The Canes do not have quite the tenacity or rugged defensemen to win an along the boards series. The Canes ho-hummed their way down the stretch and even though the Habs choked a bit at the end they still were the more cohesive team and had the better play in goal. I can see 5 scenarios where the Habs win this one and five where the Canes win, so the eleventh one that actually happens will have to be the tiebreaker. You heard it here first: Habs in 6.

The Rest:

Dallas versus Colorado
Jose “Propecia” Theodore is the Alexei Kovalev of goalies: tons of talent, one spectacular season, and now peaks of brilliance in between seas of above-averageness. The Stars have more depth, more grit and a better goalie. Time for Woody Paige to begin his Rocky Mountain oysters summer with his pygmy goat. Stars in 5.

San Jose Sharks versus Nashville Predators
With Vokoun this would be a great series; the Predators were my pre-season pick as the Western Conference dark horse and have a good mix of skill, veteran savvy and work ethic. The Sharks have the talent to score on anyone; a good-enough defense, a hot goalie and a capable back up. In some future year genetic testing will mean that Vokoun can never get any kind of insurance because he is likely to be indisposed at crucial times thus leaving his colleagues in the lurch. For now, Sharks in 4.

Anaheim Ducks versus Calgary Flames
This has all the chops of a great series. The Ducks have a more dynamic offense, but the Flames have the best all around player. The Flames are hard to play against, but the grit of players like Salei, Vishnevsky and especially Selanne has always been underrated. The Ducks have the best veteran defensemen in Niedermeyer and the Flames have the best young defensemen in Phaneuf. Both teams have goalies that have earned accolades. Time for honesty though, would the Flames be given as much credit as they have if they had not clawed their way to the Finals in ’04? I don’t think so and the breaks won’t let them get on a roll this time—the breaks have never been kind to the team that loses in the Finals. Each game will be tough and probably decided by one goal (not counting ENGs), but when it all comes down to dust it’s the Ducks in 6.

Ottawa versus Tampa Bay
The ‘Ning’s forwards are championship caliber and their defense is good enough to get the job done, and they possess some of the hard to kill quality of a defending champion. Too bad they are stuck with two backup goalies. The Sens do look ripe for the picking; Emery would be bad on an average team, but this is the perfect series for them. Ottawa has too much firepower for the TB goal keeps. Sens win the first two easily. The “Ning gut out game three, lose game four in OT and then fold like colored paper in an origami class in game 5. Sens in 5.

Buffalo versus Philadelphia
Other than goaltending the one thing that separates Philly from New Jersey is that Philly has no continuity. In NJ a star player – Broten, Gilmour, Mogilny, Niuwendyk – will come and go but a definitive line will stay. For a long time it was Holik-McKay-Whoever. Now it’s Madden-Pandolfo-Whoever. If the Flyers had that sort of intestinal fortitude they might be able to clench their teeth through this one while awaiting Forsberg’s groin to heal. Instead, every year their team is different. Right now they play with spirit with Forsberg, and meekly without him. If Forsberg is close to 100% they have the edge. If not, they do not. No goals through the side of the net this year. Buffalo in 6.

Rangers versus New Jersey Devils
NJ is for Vendetta. the Devils have extracted revenge on Ottawa and Pittsburgh. Now it’s time to add the Rags’ smarmy scalp to the mantelpiece. I was worried that the Devils were due for a fall once their streak was broken, but seeing them come back against Montreal convinces me that they have filled the leadership void left by Stevens and Niedermeyer and have the sand to rebound from a tough loss. Quietly, Gomez has become one of the best players in the league metastasizing from a passer to a scorer, passer, trap breaker, back checker, pest and clutch player. He is on the verge of being Mike Madono circa 98-01. Say what you will about injuries and the flop at the finish, but being below .500 since the Olympics indicates that the Rags started reading too many Larry Brooks columns and got full of themselves; they’ve lost what made them good through 60 games. The Devils can out tough them, out discipline them, out coach them and have a better goaltender. The only unknown key in the series is Colin White. If the groin is worse than advertised than Jagr could roll and the momentum could shift. The first game will be more crucial than usual and if the Devils lose it we could be in for a long series. If they win it then a sweep is not out of the question. The absurd favorable calls the Rags got in the past had more to do with Messier et al than with them being
the Manhattan team. The Devils have the veteran winners now. Regardless, there is no BS skate in the crease rule this year to serve as the flimsy veneer for rigged officiating. Devils in 5.