Unpopular opinion: once a team clinches their spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, then every single game they play from that point on is MEANINGLESS. Mats Zuccarelo said himself after the game against the Flyers on Sunday, yes they were trying to win, but most importantly they were trying not to get hurt. It drives me insane to hear people tell me that the Rangers have been playing so poorly lately and it’s a bad sign for the playoffs. It’s not the best sign, but when you have enough points to be in first place in the other division in your conference, are arguably the best road team in hockey, and can see that the goal has clearly been to get the team healthy and prepared to win series in the playoffs, it honestly doesn’t concern me at all. Let Nash rip some clappers to stay on top of his game, let McDonagh get healthy, then bring on the Canadiens baby. You can’t achieve the chemistry needed to win games in the NHL when you’re playing to not get hurt, but you also can’t win playoff series if your players are hurt and you’re changing your lines that were performing well in the weeks leading to the playoffs. After already clinching first place in the Atlantic, the Canadiens lost Emelin in a (you guessed it) meaningless loss to the Sabres last night. Now, Emelin is no superstar, and with the way hockey reports injuries, no one really knows how long he’ll be out. But Canadien fans can’t be happy that one of their top 4 defensemen went down while being used more than necessary down the stretch, and Rangers fans should be ecstatic that their team understands the importance of staying healthy at this point in the season. Maybe the Canadiens will finally realize that their veterans and stars don’t need to be playing 20+ minutes in their last two games, but I’m sure Emelin wishes they realized that before he went down.
Anyone who has ever watched a full season of hockey knows that playoff hockey is a completely different animal from the regular season anyway. The NHL is also known for having the President’s Cup winners take early exits, and watching teams that just barely snuck in take runs at the real prize. The last team to win their division and also win the Stanley Cup was the Blackhawks in 2013. The year before that the Devils and Kings were 6 and 8 seeds respectively in their conferences, and the Kings ended up winning it all after entering as the second wildcard in the West.
So don’t try to tell me “but we can get a better seed” or “these games are important for getting home ice.” Seeds are only important if your only goal is to go far in the playoffs, not to win a cup, and if you don’t plan on being able to win at least one game on the road then you’re in trouble to begin with. That’s a fact. This isn’t the NFL where you can go one-and-done and have (elite) Joe Flacco win a super bowl after a broken coverage hail mary gets him there, or the MLB where the wildcards only get a one game play-in and you can fall to a team with only one dominant pitcher in round one. This is the NHL where every team that gets in plays a seven game series. If you’re scared of facing the Caps in round one, guess what? YOU HAVE TO PLAY THEM EVENTUALLY TO WIN THE CUP! Some Masshole on Twitter got in an argument with the other day and said, “but the Caps could get knocked out by another team before we (the Bruins) have to play them you idiot!” So I responded, “would you rather play the team that you thought was who you thought was the best going in, or a team that got hot?” He played right into my hands and said, “I wouldn’t want to play the hot team.” Then he was absolutely oblivious to the fact that he just proved my point in that a team will have to get hot to beat the Caps if they are indeed the best team in the NHL. Didn’t even give me a potentially valid reason like “one of their superstars could get hurt against another team before they play us” or “another team has a better match-up against the Caps, then we have a better match-up against that team.” I can at least see that thought process, but if that’s what you’re praying for then you’re either an asshole rooting for injuries, or you’re hanging on the unrealistic belief that every team that is slightly better than yours falls to a weaker team before you have to play them.
Another fact: in a seven game series, the better team at the time wins 90% of the time. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some crazy puck bounces that sneak past a goalie and decide a game or two of the series. However, that same 90% of the time, the team that gets the advantageous bounce was the team dominating puck possession and putting the pressure on the other team the entire game. The other 10% of the time, the better team still has SIX GODDAMN GAMES to make up for it. This just further proves my assertion that in order to win the cup, you’ll have to play the best teams in the league to win it all, regardless of how easy your first or even second round match-ups are.
So, if your team has clinched a spot by now, enjoy the last few games stress-free, hope your coach is smart enough to keep the players conditioned but also to not take risks by overworking them, and start gearing up for April 13th. If your team is still fighting for a spot, enjoy these last few games too because the playoffs have essentially started for you and I envy you.
To clarify, seeds do matter when you’re trying to bet futures and set yourself up for the opportunity to hedge. So, I’ll hold off on picks until all of the match-ups are set and can see if any other teams who have already clinched are stupid enough to take the risk and have a good player get injured in these meaningless last games.
Image taken from: https://sportspress.co/2016/04/11/nhl-playoff-predictions/