The first round of the NHL Playoffs are set. As a Canadian I can't help being a little sad that no teams from my country are represented, but sadly that just means that the hockey will be better this year - we invented hockey, but our teams are all terrible at it. Without the Canuck influence, what we have are eight pretty compelling playoff series - or, more accurately, seven compelling series and Nashville and Anaheim. For the most part the higher seeds are deserving favorites, and this seems like it could be more of a chalky first round than we often see. There are two series, though, in which you can argue that there is at least a bit of value in the underdogs. Here's a look at each ( odds to win the series are from BetOnline):
San Jose Sharks (+130) vs. Los Angeles Kings: The last time these teams met in the playoffs, in 2014, the Kings not only won but went on to win the Stanley Cup. That's what a lot of people will focus on.
They'll also look at the fact that the Sharks are chronic playoff underachievers. Those are true, but what I am as interested in is that the Sharks were up 3-0 in that 2014 series before their epic collapse. They also beat the Kings three times in five games this year - and lost in overtime in a fourth. And the Sharks have a starting goalie in Martin Jones who is very good and a backup in James Reimer who is conveniently hot right now.
Are the Kings the better overall team? No doubt about that, and they have much more playoff experience to draw on. The gap isn't wide, though, in this very wide-open year in the Western Conference, and if the Sharks can win one of the first two games to steal away home-ice advantage then anything can happen.
The Kings have played under Darryl Sutter for a long time now, and they have had a lot of success. In his past gigs - San Jose and Calgary - his message has started to get really old for players, and the results have faded. It's far from impossible that what has worked so well for him in two other deep playoff runs could be less effective here. At the very least you have to argue that the odds here are fair for the Sharks.
Philadelphia Flyers (+245) vs. Washington Capitals: I love underdogs, so I am always going to be drawn to the biggest underdog on the board - at least for a closer look. Washington had a magical regular season and are the class of the conference. Since 2003, though, President's Trophy winners have won the Stanley Cup just twice and have lost in the first round four times. In other words, dominating the regular season does not necessarily mean that a team will dominate the playoffs.
Now, make no mistake - the Capitals are by far the better overall team here. They don't come into the playoffs as the hottest team in the league, though - they lost six of their last nine games. They need to flick a switch to get back into serious play mode - and that doesn't always happen. Philadelphia, meanwhile, has been in playoff mode for a couple of months already because they have been in a serious dogfight to even get this far. They have fared very well in the face of that pressure, too - 15-5-3 in their last 23 games. We know they can handle this pressure.
We also know that the Flyers can hang with the Capitals - they beat them twice in four meetings this season. The Flyers also have added motivation here - their beloved owner, and the founder of the franchise, Ed Snider, died right after the regular season ended after a battle with cancer. The team will have an extra layer of motivation heading into these playoffs. And then there is Dave Hakstol. The Flyers coach is an NHL rookie - not just as a coach because he never made the NHL as a player. That could be a concern - he has no idea what to expect here. He is an exceptionally talented coach, though, and has clearly managed to get his team to buy in and believe despite his inexperience, which is far from the norm. He's tactically brilliant and won't be intimidated here. For all of his experience it's not like Barry Trotz has consistently dominated in the playoffs, either. At the very least, coaching is a wash in the series.
We have seen Washington come into the playoffs with massive expectations in the past only to flounder and underwhelm. It's a new head coach, and seemingly a new mindset, but the core of the team is still significantly consistent, and that makes me a little uneasy. The Capitals are by far the more likely winner, but there is some value in the Flyers at this price.
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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