- Craig Custance
There’s going to be one upset -- at least. That’s just how the NHL postseason works. It’s a league of parity, plus one of these teams battling to get in will just keep on rolling against a team that’s been coasting for weeks. Really, once you establish the 16 playoffs teams, you might as well eliminate the seedings next to their names.
Last year, lower-seeded teams in the Ottawa Senators, New York Rangers, Detroit Red Wings, San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings all won their first-round series, with the lower seeds winning more games than the higher seeds overall in that round. Two of those upsets were No. 7 seeds (Ottawa and Detroit) beating the No. 2 teams in their conferences. The No. 3 team in the West (Vancouver) didn’t even win a single first-round game.
That’s the beauty of the NHL playoffs.
So as the playoff races enter their final games, the race for the final spots should be just as interesting to the fans of the contenders as it is to those teams vying for a spot because history suggests one of them is going to pull off a first-round upset.
Which is the most likely wild-card candidate to pull of a first-round upset? Here they are in order:
1. Detroit Red Wings
With the way the Red Wings are playing right now, you have to wonder if Mike Babcock’s approach to the regular season is similar to his approach to an Olympic tournament, because as he did with Team Canada, he has the Red Wings playing their best hockey at the perfect time. In this case, he’s doing it without some of his biggest horses. When I posed the question of which bubble team they’d least like to face, scouts didn’t hesitate.
“Start with the Wings,” said an Eastern Conference scout. “They definitely can [win the round]. You could argue they’re playing their best hockey of the season. They seemed to have gotten a lot of confidence.”
Young players like Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar, Riley Sheahan, Luke Glendening and Tomas Jurco have been instrumental in helping Detroit surge into a playoff spot, and in the process proved they can compete at the highest level. That’s invaluable experience as Detroit’s regulars get healthy.
“I won’t go back to what I was before,” Tatar said when we chatted recently. “I knew I can play at this level. I feel better. I’m not sure how the [production] will go because you won’t get the minutes you will now, but the game won’t change for me. I know what I can do.”
Many of these Red Wings don’t have NHL playoff experience, but they believe their experience in winning a Calder Cup last year in the AHL helps provide framework on what to expect, and they don’t expect to go in and roll over if they make the playoffs.
“You go in and anything can happen,” said Glendening, who signed a three-year extension over the weekend then scored his first NHL goal. “You have to go in with a positive attitude. You’re ready to take on anyone you face.”
To put themselves in playoff position, the Red Wings have beaten high-end playoffs teams like the Pittsburgh Penguins, Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning, further bolstering their case as an upset candidate.
There are concerns on defense, with the loss of Jonathan Ericsson an often overlooked injury, but one that is as big as any because of Detroit’s lack of depth on defense. That was something Montreal was able to expose on Saturday in the Canadiens' win over Detroit. Both Henrik Zetterberg and Ericsson are possibilities to return in the first round. In the meantime, the youth and talent up front makes Detroit a tough draw for either Boston or Pittsburgh if the Red Wings make it.
“They’re really good players. Because they won a championship in the AHL they understand ... the grind, what it takes to win a championship,” said one longtime scout.