This much we know for certain: A heavily favored team will fall to a lower-seeded club in the first round.
It’s inevitable, undeniable and unstoppable.
The playoff upset.
It’s as much a part of the NHL post-season as the Stanley Cup itself. In fact, a No. 1 seed has been upset by a No. 8 seed seven times since 1994. Considering there have only been 28 No. 1-vs.-No. 8 series in that span, it means the lowly No. 8 seeds are winning 25 percent of the time.
Here’s a peek at a couple of series that could go unfavorably for the favorites:
SAN JOSE (No. 1) vs. ANAHEIM (No. 8)
Do you know who the San Jose Sharks, the No. 1 team in the NHL heading into the playoffs, didn’t want to see as their first-round opponent?
The Anaheim Ducks.
And do you know who the San Jose Sharks, the No. 1 team in the NHL heading into the playoffs, have drawn as their first-round opponent?
The Anaheim Ducks.
The California-based rivals are 41-41-8 all-time in head-to-head meetings, with San Jose holding a 4-2-0 advantage in six games this season. But this is no ordinary first-versus-last matchup. Despite never meeting in the post-season, there is plenty of bad blood between the West Coast expansion cousins. And with Chris Pronger, Scott Niedermayer, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Teemu Selanne, Anaheim has the star power to play with San Jose.
Although the Ducks might not have the Sharks’ top-to-bottom depth – especially after trading Travis Moen and Kent Huskins to San Jose at the deadline – and J-S Giguere has not played up to his usual high standards this season, they are just two years removed from being the Stanley Cup champion. The Ducks won’t be intimidated by the Sharks; they’ll be highly motivated.
The key matchup in the series will be how Anaheim attempts to shut down San Jose’s high-flying top line of Joe Thornton between Patrick Marleau and Devin Setoguchi. The Ducks will likely use veteran checkers Todd Marchant and Rob Niedermayer against San Jose’s super-line and you can bet Pronger will be on the ice every time Thornton steps over the boards. Anaheim believes Pronger’s size and toughness are the antidote to Thornton’s superlative playmaking ability – and they might be right as Thornton has yet to conquer his playoff demons.
But if Thornton and the Sharks get past the Ducks, they’ll have cleared a psychological hurdle and move on into the second round with momentum and confidence – a highly potent combination in the post-season.
Another factor to watch is which Ducks goalie starts Game 1. Backup Jonas Hiller outplayed Giguere all season and Anaheim might decide to go with the hot hand early, knowing they can always turn to Giguere if Hiller falters.
It’s a long shot, but don’t be surprised if Anaheim surprises.
NEW JERSEY (No. 3) vs. CAROLINA (No. 6)
In the Eastern Conference, the New Jersey Devils and Carolina Hurricanes are two teams headed in opposite directions, despite the fact the Devils ended up No. 3 in the East and the Canes No. 6.
Carolina won nine games in a row down the stretch before losing its final two contests, while the Devils lost six consecutive times before winning four of their final five games (against mostly non-playoff teams).
Martin Brodeur is rested, but Cam Ward – who, by the way, owns one Conn Smythe Trophy to Brodeur’s zero – might’ve been the best goalie in the East in the second half of the season. New Jersey has instilled a culture of winning in its dressing room, but Carolina is just three years removed from its Cup victory in 2006; the Canes know how to win, too.
Besides top-rate goalies, both clubs boast underrated defense corps and a star forward from the 2003 entry draft (Carolina has Eric Staal, selected second overall; New Jersey has Zach Parise, picked 17th). There’s veteran leadership and playoff grit on both rosters and both clubs ranked middle-of-the-pack in goals per game during the regular season; New Jersey was 15th at 2.90, Carolina was 16th at 2.88.
It doesn’t get much tighter than that.
An interesting side note is the fact that the winner of this series, historically speaking, is destined for a date in the Stanley Cup final. The Devils and Canes have previously met three times in the playoffs; the winning team has advanced to the final every time (New Jersey in 2001 and Carolina in ’02 and ’06).
Sam McCaig is The Hockey News' senior copy editor and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears every weekend and his column, From The Point, appears regularly.
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