If there's a team the Toronto Maple Leafs should try to emulate next season, it's the St. Louis Blues.
Not so much the toughness, or the decision to retain good hockey player Alex Steen, or the committment to team defense, mind you. Mostly, it's the way the Blues made sure to make the playoffs before they completely forgot how to play hockey.
The Blues closed out the season with their sixth straight loss on Sunday, and in so doing, handed the Central Division title over to the Colorado Avalanche, who finish with the same number of points -- 111 -- but hold the regulation and overtime wins tiebreaker.
Embarrassing. But relinquishing the Central isn't the end of the world. The Blues can survive not winning the division. They may not survive the punishment, however: a first-round matchup with the Chicago Blackhawks.
All eight NHL playoff first round matchups are now set. Here are the battles out West:
• Anaheim Ducks vs. Dallas Stars
• Colorado Avalanche vs. Minnesota Wild
• St. Louis Blues vs. Chicago Blackhawks
It's actually pretty incredible what's happened out West, and it goes beyond the Pacific only sending three teams to the postseason. Looking at the four matchups, it seems like a cruel cosmic joke that, of the Blues, Blackhawks, Sharks and Kings, thought by many to be the elite four of the Conference, only two will survive to the next round.
And frankly, it's really not all that unlikely that the two Wild Cards make it through in their place. Both of these matchups are upsets waiting to happen.
The Kings, Blackhawks, Sharks and Blues may not be the Western Conference's top four teams in terms of points, but they remain the top four in even-strength Corsi and Fenwick percentages with the score close (tied or within a goal). In other words, these teams, more than any others in the Western Conference, play the game in their opponent's end. And while this doesn't guarantee victory, it does suggest it. On any given night, it's probably safe to say that a hockey team is much less at risk of being outscored when the puck spends most of the evening 200 feet from their net.
Meanwhile, the Division champions, the Ducks and Avalanche, are mediocre and abysmal possession teams, respectively. Both Wild Card teams should be jumping for joy right now to have drawn them. Anaheim's a 49.8% Corsi team, good for 14th in the NHL. Their opponent, Dallas, sits at 51.8%. In other words: if you're hoping to spot the first-round upset, this is as good a bet as any.
But Colorado, too, is seriously tempting fate. With a Corsi percentage of 47.3%, 25th in the league, behind teams like the Islanders, Hurricanes, Panthers, and Jets, they're not quite as formidable an opponent as their record would suggest. They know it, too. Patrick Roy boosted Semyon Varlamov as a Hart candidate last week, largely because Varlamov has allowed the Avalanche to win a handful of games in which they've been outplayed.
Fortunately, the Wild aren't a strong possession team either, but they are slightly better than Colorado. They don't have goaltending that absolves their sins, however, which is why they're the second wild card and not the division champion, and why they likely won't be making it through to round two.
I expect many to scoff at this early assessment, and that's fair. It is a little one-dimensional. But a cautionary tale before you dismiss it outright: back in 2011-12, the Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup as an eighth seed, surprising many, save the stats crowd, who had been pointing to LA's superior possession metrics down the stretch and pegged that team as the dark horse. This is the same crowd that had been warning of the Maple Leafs' collapse (and general badness) all season long. There is something to these metrics.
Over in the Eastern Conference, all four matchups were set Saturday.
• Boston Bruins vs. Detroit Red Wings
• Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Columbus Blue Jackets
• New York Rangers vs. Philadelphia Flyers
The only thing left to determine out East: where that second Atlantic series starts. The Canadiens jumped ahead of the Lightning for second in the division with their overtime win over the Rangers on Saturday, but a Lighting win Sunday night over the Capitals will give Tampa home-ice advantage.
It has to be a win. One point will leave the two teams tied, but Montreal holds the ROW tiebreaker.
The East seems a lot less wacky than the West. The Bruins are the best team in terms of points, and the best team by the possession metrics. It's more than reasonable to assume they'll be the team that makes it out of the Conference.
The upset to watch for would be in the Metropolitan Division. The second-best team in the East playoffs by team Corsi? The New York Rangers, who finished with points in 8 of 10. If they can get past Philadelphia, I wouldn't hesitate to pick them to upset the Penguins. Again, when you spend most of the night in the other team's end, you're likely to get more bounces. And when the goalie you're shooting at is Marc-Andre Fleury, who's still trying to shake the notion that he's a pumpkin turned into a golden carriage and the playoffs are his midnight, things look even better.
Granted, all of this is speculation. Lord knows you can't predict anything in the playoffs, even if these metrics have a pretty decent track record. The postseason is played at a lawless place, governed by magic, luck, and narrative, where little goes the way it should. That's what makes it so much fun, and that's why we watch the games.