A couple of days before the start of the playoffs, Anaheim Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau suggested, contrary to conventional wisdom, that there's almost no correlation between how a team finishes the regular season and begins the postseason.
"I've been on teams that have won 10 in a row going into the playoffs and I've been on teams that have lost five in a row, and the opposite of what you think is going to happen, happens," Boudreau said.
You wonder if Boudreau had a feeling something could go wrong in the Ducks' first-round playoff series against the Nashville Predators. The Ducks were everybody's darling going into the playoffs. Sensational down the stretch, they went 29-8-4 in the second half to overcome a 16-point deficit and reel in the Los Angeles Kings for top spot in the Pacific Division.
On the final day of the regular season, they shut out the Washington Capitals, which made them Jennings Trophy winners, for the best defensive record in the NHL. They were the first team since the 1984-85 New York Islanders to finish the season with the best power-play and penalty-killing units in the league. Every statistical measure seemed to go in their favour, and yet two games into their series with the Predators, none of that has mattered.
The Predators made the playoffs as a wild card in the Western Conference and are playing really loose, with a nothing-to-lose attitude. The Ducks, by contrast, look tight. They've been undisciplined, and on consecutive days, Boudreau has taken them to task for taking too many unnecessary penalties, which forces them to use the likes of Ryan Kesler and Jakob Silfverberg in penalty-killing situations and prevents them from going to the attack.
Predators goalie Pekka Rinne had a mediocre regular season by his usual high standards, but it is clear, he is aware he can salvage a so-so season with a strong playoff. The Ducks have greater depth in goal, but Rinne's been better than John Gibson, and now Boudreau has to decide whether to switch to Frederik Andersen, their starter last year, when they went to the seventh game of the third round against the Chicago Blackhawks.
The Ducks got defenceman Kevin Bieksa back for the second game, but in the opener, with Bieksa and Clayton Stoner out, they became the first playoff team since 1991 to dress six defencemen, all under the age of 24. The Ducks' future looks bright; their depth is impressive, but none of it matters if they can't get out of the first round – and they'll have to win four out of five to do so.
The one thing Anaheim lacks is a premier No. 1 defenceman, a Drew Doughty type to rely on when things go a little sideways. Hampus Lindholm is one of the better young defencemen in the NHL, but he's not in that position yet. The team that does have a Doughty, the Los Angeles Kings, is just as vulnerable as their Southern California neighbours.
They were down 2-0 to the San Jose Sharks, heading into Monday's third game of their first-round playoff series here. The Sharks managed to score on the first shot on goal in each of the first two games. Playing with the lead has calmed them down and forced the Kings to chase the game, which isn't necessarily suited to their style of play. L.A. tends to be better when protecting leads or wearing down opponents in tied games, by making them blink first. L.A. isn't playing bad exactly – coach Darryl Sutter made the point Monday morning that the first two games were close and could have gone either way – but this is tempting fate. These Sharks look far more resilient than the ones that collapsed two years ago in the first round, losing four straight to the Kings after winning the first three.
Sutter elicited a laugh Monday when he also noted that "we've already played an 82-game round" – meaning the regular season – which produced a four-point gap in the standings.
The line is so fine and the margins so thin, the sort of mini-slump you can recover easily enough from in the regular season can be fatal in the postseason, no matter how good you looked going into the playoffs.