When it comes to predicting the future, I'll never be confused for Nostradamus.
For example, a younger version of me figured we'd all be driving flying cars by now, thought New Coke was a great idea that would really take off and assumed my hairline would never recede. Wrong, wrong and, sadly, very wrong. Sigh.
So. when I dusted off the old crystal ball back in early January to try and get a sense of how the 2021 NHL season might shake out, I admittedly didn't have high hopes. This unique 56-game campaign seemed harder to call than usual, with compacted, division-only schedules, no traditional home-ice advantage due to few or even no fans in buildings and ongoing pandemic-related protocols which could (and, ultimately, did) wreak havoc with some teams.
If ever there was a year for an 'anything-can-happen' outcome, this seemed to be it. To be honest, drawing names out of a hat or requesting the services of Maggie, the monkey TSN used to bribe with bananas for playoff prognostications, seemed like safer bets.
With the sprint to the Stanley Cup getting underway today, the moment of truth has arrived. And it's not nearly as bad as I expected.
Let the record show yours truly correctly called 13 of the 16 teams that will get to compete for the cherished silver chalice. The only three I figured would be hitting the golf course by now were the fourth-place New York Islanders (I had them 5th in the East), fourth-place Montreal (I had them 5th in the North) and my biggest whiff, second-place Florida (I had them 6th in the Central).
The trio of teams that let me down in their place were Philadelphia (predicted 4th, finished 5th in the East), Vancouver (predicted 3rd, currently 7th in the North with four regular-season games left due to COVID-19 outbreak) and Dallas (predicted 3rd, finished 5th).
I had two of the four division winners correct in Toronto and Colorado, along with three other teams in their exact order of finish (Edmonton, Vegas and Nashville).
I also tabbed Connor McDavid winning the scoring race (he did) and being the runaway Hart Trophy winner as league MVP (he will be). And my predictions that Cale Makar would win the Norris as top defenceman and Andrei Vasilevskiy the Vezina as top goalie will at least be close. Makar is fifth in scoring among blue-liners on the best regular-season team in the league, and Vasilevskiy led all goalies in victories with 31.
Eat your heart out, Maggie!
Unlike that smug primate, I'm not about to rest on my laurels. No, I'm here today to look ahead at how the next two months are likely to go down, starting with the eight compelling first-round matchups and continuing all the way through to the celebratory end.
As you'll see below, I'm sticking with my four pre-season picks to emerge from each division in Edmonton, Boston, Tampa Bay and Colorado. Because if it ain't broken, why fix it, right?
(1) Toronto vs (4) Montreal
PREDICTION: Toronto in 5. The Maple Leafs are the deepest team in the division, and should be able to cope with ongoing concerns about their goaltending. Of course, whether they can escape the weight of crushing expectations is the biggest question, but I say they do it, and with relative ease in the opening round against a Montreal team that peaked in the first few weeks of the year.
(2) Edmonton vs (3) Winnipeg
PREDICTION: Edmonton in 5. Sorry, Jets fans. But I just don't see a Winnipeg team that limped to the finish line being able to flip a switch and shut down the two "superfreaks" in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, who ran wild on them all season in winning seven of nine games. And the iffy status of injured winger Nikolaj Ehlers makes the chances of an upset even more dicey.
(1) Pittsburgh vs (4) New York Islanders
PREDICTION: Pittsburgh in 6. You know Barry Trotz will have his team primed for the playoffs, but I like what I've seen of late from a Penguins club which won a very tough division. Sid the Kid looks ready for another lengthy spring run.
(2) Washington vs (3) Boston
PREDICTION: Boston in 7. This should be a tremendous series, with all kinds of storylines including Zdeno Chara vs. his old club. This one is the closest thing to a toss-up for me, but my hunch is telling me Bruins. Barely.
(1) Carolina vs (4) Nashville
PREDICTION: Carolina in 6. It's always dangerous to face a team that had a late-season surge to get into the playoffs, but that's what Carolina will face in red-hot Nashville. Still, I think the Hurricanes are as solid as any team in the league this year and will find a way, even though it won't be easy.
(2) Florida vs (3) Tampa Bay
PREDICTION: Tampa Bay in 7. This is the non-Canadian series I'm looking forward to the most. The first-ever all Florida postseason match-up should be a doozy, and there's plenty of bad blood brewing between the clubs following two regular-season meetings last week that had fisticuffs and brouhahas galore. I'll stick with the reigning Stanley Cup champs, especially with news that injured stars Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov are expected to be in the Game 1 lineup.
(1) Colorado vs (4) St. Louis
PREDICTION: Colorado in 5. The Avalanche are absolutely loaded, with an elite group of forwards and young defencemen that is going to make them a handful for years to come. They fell short of lofty expectations last season, and I believe they'll come out this year and right that wrong fairly quickly. The Blues are an experienced bunch and know how to win this time of year, but they've bitten off more than they can chew this time around.
(2) Vegas vs (3) Minnesota
PREDICTION: Vegas in 6. One prediction I never would have seen coming was the Minnesota Wild becoming "fun." But, thanks to 25-year-old rookie Kirill Kaprizov, one of hockey's dullest teams has quickly become one of the most exciting. They'll be a tough out for a deep Golden Knights team, but I still see the Sin City crew emerging to set up a juicy second-round series against Colorado that fans were deprived of last year.
(1) Toronto vs (2) Edmonton
PREDICTION: Edmonton in 7. McDavid beats Matthews in an all-time great series. One tiresome fan base rejoices. One tiresome fan base mourns. The rest of Canada is just tired.
(1) Pittsburgh vs (3) Boston
PREDICTION: Boston in 7. Sorry, Sid. Your bid for a fourth Cup will have to wait, perhaps, forever.
(1) Carolina vs (3) Tampa Bay
PREDICTION: Tampa Bay in 6. Experience trumps inexperience. But make no mistake, the Hurricanes will be back.
(1) Colorado vs (2) Vegas
PREDICTION: Colorado in 6. Take the "over." First one to 10 goals each game wins?
(Match-ups determined by regular-season record as teams re-seeded 1 vs 4, 2 vs 3)
(1) Colorado vs (4) Boston or Edmonton (Boston would be #4 in this scenario if Edmonton gets at least one point vs Vancouver in their final regular-season game this afternoon)
Prediction: Colorado in 6. The Denver-based dynasty-in-the-making can't be stopped.
(2) Tampa Bay vs (3) Boston or Edmonton (Boston would be #3 in this scenario if Edmonton loses in regulation to Vancouver this afternoon)
Prediction: Tampa Bay in 6. That regular-season salary-cap circumvention disguised as using long-term injured reserve for Kucherov and, later, Stamkos pays off as their quest for back-to-back titles continues.
STANLEY CUP FINAL:
(1) Colorado vs (2) Tampa Bay
PREDICTION: Colorado in 7. I'm sticking with my pre-season pick of the Avalanche as they dethrone the reigning champs in a terrific series that has no shortage of offence.
Just like Maggie would do in her natural habitat, I'm going out on a bit of a limb here by putting these predictions in the public domain. If I carry my regular-season momentum over to the playoffs and hit on most of them, remember where you heard it first.
If I don't, then forget everything you just read. I blame the monkey.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.