Friday, May 14, 2010

Unpredictability is the new black

After tonight's game seven between the Bruins and Flyers, all the conference finals match-ups will be set in both hockey and basketball. However, to say the match-ups are surprising is a bit of an understatement. I'd have predicted Iron Man 2 for this year's best picture winner before I would have guessed these conference finals games.

Now usually hockey is schizophrenic anyways. A hot goaltender can carry a mediocre team for weeks in the NHL playoffs. That has never been more true than this year. The eight seed Montreal Canadiens toppled the top seed Caps in the first round in a seven game series. But that wasn't enough for them. They decided to do the same to the defending champion Penguins in the second round. Now, the bottom seeded Canadiens are waiting for their conference finals opponent, all while riding the coat tails of goalie Jaraslov Halak. This is a bit unexpected. The lowest seeded team beating the top seed, as well as the defending Stanley Cup Champion is enough of a story, but Halak wasn't even Montreal's top goalie heading into this season. That distinction belonged to Carey Price. Price was obviously unseated during the regular season and Halak carried that momentum with him all the way He still has it. He doesn't want to give it up.

If an eight seed making the conference finals wasn't unpredictable enough, the winner of tonight's game will also be one of the bottom seeds because this is a six vs. seven battle. That is right. The three lowest seeds in the eastern conference are the last three standing. The one, two, and three seeds didn't make it out of the first round.

But this rabbit hole goes deeper still. The Boston Bruins are also riding a tremendous goalie through the playoffs who wasn't their go-to net minder coming into the season. Tuuka Rask has been amazing all year after taking over for Tim Thomas, who was amazing last year. Goalies year to year seem about as quirky as middle relievers. But the Bruins' opponent also has a goaltender story for this game seven. The Flyers regularly scheduled goalie, Brian Boucher, got hurt during game six and left. Michael Leighton replaced him, led the Flyers to the victory, and now looks to be the starter for game seven.

Oh, by the way, the Bruins led this series 3-0. They won the first three games and lost the next three to force the deciding seventh game. I'd tell you how often that has happened in the history of the National Hockey League, but I don't have access to the Elias Sports Bureau.

The west has not been full of surprises like the east. The top two seeds both advanced. However, that in and of itself is a bit unexpected. The San Jose Sharks have finished near the top of the NHL for a number of seasons now, yet always manage to screw their season up come playoff time. This is the year, the unpredictable season, where the top seed that always loses, managed not to.

Now when it comes to the NBA playoffs, there is obviously no goalie momentum to ride. In fact, basketball is definitely the most predictable of the four major American sports. Eight seeds don't advance. Upsets are uncommon. The team with the best player usually wins. It is often very simple. That's what makes the 2010 playoffs a little odd. The Boston Celtics won. They were supposed to be too old, too slow, too worn down. It was too late for them. They also did not have the best player coming into the series: all bad signs. But they pulled it out, often very convincingly. And LeBron James didn't seem like the best player. Now, with an eastern conference finals match-up against the Orlando Magic, I'm not sure what to expect. The Magic steamrolled through rounds one and two. They didn't lose a single game, two sweeps. But the Celtics looked young again. The Celtics will make this a good series I expect, a series in fact, I would not have expected to happen a couple weeks ago.

The western conference finals is unpredictable in the sense of the Suns being there. This Suns nucleus had never beaten the Spurs. Not only did they beat them this year, they beat them down, swept them. The Lakers, on the other side, also come in after sweeping their previous opponent. Including the Magic's sweep, these three teams have been waiting around watching the Celtics - Cavs series just like the rest of us.

As for what happens during all these conference finals games, here is my guess: something unpredictable.

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