Monday, April 4, 2022

Weekend rankings: There are somehow no favorites in the East, plus the Zegras stuff, a Flames slump, some Oilers question and more

I’ve come to a conclusion about the Eastern Conference: There are no favorites.

I mean, there are, he said, contradicting his own premise in the second sentence of the piece as all great writers do. There are teams that are more likely to win than others; it’s not just eight playoff teams with exactly equal odds.

But there aren’t favorite favorites, if you know what I mean. There’s no Colorado here, looming above everyone else and frightening coaches. There’s not even a Calgary, lurking around as second option that starts to feel like a first option if you squint.

Instead, the East is eight teams that have all been locked into playoff spots since December, and there’s maybe one of them that doesn’t feel like a legitimate Cup threat. That would be the Capitals, who’ve been up and down since a strong start and weren’t able to upgrade their goaltending at the deadline. If you want to write them off as serious contenders then you probably could, as long as you can ignore the presence of the greatest goal-scorer of all time and a core that won it all just four years ago.

Other than that? Good luck. We all know what the Lightning can do. We’ve been pushing the Panthers and Hurricanes all year long. The Bruins are a veteran team that knows how to win in the postseason and has been red hot for a month. Playoff demons aside, the Maple Leafs will be dangerous if they get even league-average goaltending, and scary if Jack Campbell happens to get hot again. The Rangers are making believers of everyone. The Penguins, as confusing as they can sometimes be, keep on rolling despite rarely having a full roster.

Who’s your pick from the group? You’re basically scratching lottery tickets at this point, because any of those teams would feel like a worthy (and not especially surprising) Stanley Cup finalist. And when everyone feels like a legitimate contender, that means there’s no favorites. Everyone is close enough that we don’t know anything. The other rankings have all eight East teams in their top 12, including seven of the top nine spots, and I’m not sure you can really argue it unless you’re a bit higher on the Wild. And as Dom pointed out in 16 stats, all of the contenders are legitimately good.

So what does that mean for the East down the stretch? Does seeding matter? Home ice? Will it all come down to who happens to be healthy, and whose goalie gets hot at the right time? Did I just reverse-jinx this whole thing, and now the Capitals are going to sweep everyone? Maybe, sure, but maybe not, and I have no idea. Neither do you. We’re going to wait to see how it plays out, and then pretty much whatever happens, we’ll all nod wisely and say “Sure, I saw that coming” because we are liars.

It’s going to make for a fascinating spring. If you love a good upset, I’m not sure the East is your conference, because there can’t really be any when all the teams are so close. But if you’re one of those fans whose idea of a great postseason is one where the chaos door swings wide open, it will be great. Eight teams, seven series, three rounds, and absolutely zero idea what’s going to happen next.

That’s probably not a great way to lead into a power rankings section that supposed to be about predicting who’ll win the Cup, but it’s too late now and I don’t do rewrites, so here we go…

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