That was easier than expected. All eight teams wrapped up clinching spots at the end of March. Columbus and Detroit had good runs until Boston and Washington went on winning streaks. Then the big name teams acquired at least one major player by the trade deadline.
Just because all eight spots closed early, doesn’t mean the playoffs will be easy. Far from it. The east is the deepest of the two conferences. The Sunshine State, Carolina and the New York Rangers have their hands full despite being favorites. It’s time to break down which four teams have the best chance of moving on to the second round.
#8 Washington Capitals v. #1 Florida Panthers
Nothing like starting off with the President’s Trophy winners. The Panthers have six scorers of 20+ goals in the regular season, one being a regular season MVP finalist. Florida lost less than five games since Philadelphia Flyers captain Claude Giroux was acquired at the trade deadline. Goaltenders Sergei Bobrovsky and Spencer Knight improved after last season’s humiliating first round loss to Tampa Bay. The unit is faster and more physical. They just need to win more series.
Washington and everyone else outside the Sunshine State are relieved Alex Ovechkin will return for the playoffs. If there’s any chance for the Capitals to win the series, the league’s third place all time goal scorer will be a major reason. Goalies Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov aren’t reliable and shouldn’t be trusted against the league’s best offense. The Capitals have to win high-scoring games early in the series, or else face early elimination.
Prediction: Panthers win series 4-1
#7 Boston Bruins v. #2 Carolina Hurricanes
Gone are the days where the Bruins could toy with the fledgling playoff Hurricanes. Carolina’s become a big bad while Boston’s aged. Frederik Anderson’s game seven pains against the Bruins should be exorcised with a more competent defense and reliable, physical playmakers on offense.
The Bruins roster is still top four on goals allowed while eight players scored double digit goals, but Carolina was not only the best team in goals against, they were the best penalty-killing team on the ice. The Hurricanes are loaded with playmakers and their main worry could be how fast they can get Boston out of the first round to rest up and deal with division rivals.
Prediction: Hurricanes win series 4-1
#4 Tampa Bay Lightning v. #3 Toronto Maples Leafs
Somewhere the hockey gods and goddesses are laughing themselves silly. Toronto finally shakes off playing an original six team in the first round of the playoffs and instead draw the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning. Leafs fans must be sick.
Yes, Toronto beat Tampa Bay in all but one meeting in the regular season. However the Lightning won a decisive regular season finale as if it were a playoff game. Despite some wear on the franchise stars, Tampa’s hungry for a three-peat and a dynasty, something not done since the early 1980s New York Islanders won four straight. This year’s Lightning team is just as talented if not nastier in attitude and physical play. Don’t expect the series to go all seven games.
Prediction: Lightning win series 4-1
#6 Pittsburgh Penguins v. #5 New York Rangers
If you had told any hockey fan or analyst this would be the most even and entertaining series of the four in the eastern conference at the beginning of the season, you’d be silenced or shoo’d away. This is the lone series out east where the predicted winner is a toss-up. Both Pittsburgh and New York have great coaches who dealt with roster issues mixed with up-and-down play throughout the season.
On paper the Rangers have more talent and depth. They’re number two in goals against and boast a 50+ goal scorer. The Penguins however hit their stride at the right time and played better than New York through major roster tooling and injuries. Both looked even in their nationally televised games against each other and won a good number in third periods. Blowouts will be rarer than in the other three.
The deciding factor is depth. New York adding Frank Vatrano (who’s been red-hot since he was traded for) ensures the series could be even after four games. Don’t be surprised if the Rangers tire Pittsburgh into a game seven.
Most of the remaining four teams in the west made their series fun and long. Dallas and Phoenix had more experience than the younger teams in New Orleans and Minnesota. The losers still earned a lot of respect even if they fell short. Golden State regained prominence and could be the team to beat in order to represent the west. Two of the remaining four will advance to the conference finals. Time to break down which of the two have the best chance to escape the second round.
#4 Dallas Mavericks v. #1 Phoenix Suns
The easiest matchup to break down and predict in the whole second round. Dallas won a four game series against a Utah Jazz team that bumbled and collapsed. The Mavericks led two games to one without franchise star Luka Doncic. Two states out west, Phoenix parried New Orleans and ultimately proved they were the better team despite some injuries and off-nights.
Unlike New Orleans, Dallas doesn’t have multiple options outside their franchise star. Spencer Dinwiddie, Jalen Brunson and Dorian Finney-Smith compliment Doncic well, but the Suns are better coached and have the depth to counter the Mavericks.
Prediction: Suns win series 4-1
#3 Golden State Warriors v. #2 Memphis Grizzlies
Two of professional basketball’s best teams square off in one of the best series in round two. The guard duos of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson versus Ja Morant and Desmond Bane will be watched in both anticipation and fascination.
Despite Memphis winning the regular season matchup three to one against Golden State, the Warriors didn’t have all their star players on the court in at least three of those games. Golden State eliminated Denver early for added rest and to watch ways they can expose Memphis in certain situations, especially lead changes.
While both guard duos are even in scoring, depth at center and forward determines who advances to the conference finals. Draymond Green, Jordan Poole and Andrew Wiggins have the advantage over Dillon Brooks, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Xavier Tillman Sr. It’s hard to see how Memphis counters the more experienced playoff team with more quality players.
Prediction: Warriors win series 4-2
Western Conference first round playoff picks record: 3-1
Despite eight great teams and four fun matchups, the eastern conference first round ended fast. Philadelphia is desperate to reach the championship and feels they have a lot to prove. Boston is the hottest team on both sides of the ball. Miami and Milwaukee prove why they were the last teams to make the championship round the last two years. Two of the remaining four will advance to the conference finals. Time to break down which of the two have the best chance to make the conference finals.
#4 Philadelphia 76ers v. #1 Miami Heat
The 76ers and Heat have a lot in common; both have underperformed despite talented rosters, coaches Erik Spoelstra and Doc Rivers had tensions with certain players the past few months, and both have a chance to make the championship despite holding themselves back. It’s fitting one team has to advance to the conference finals despite ups and downs.
The most important factors in this matchup are coaching and depth. Rivers is notorious for losing second round playoff series, highlighted by failure to adapt to opponents with multiple superstars while Spoelstra is not. Bench depth is something Philadelphia doesn’t have past Matisse Thybulle. Miami has Victor Oladipo, Tyler Herro, Markieff Morris and Duncan Robinson. All four range from starter if necessary to critical minutes.
The series comes down to Tobias Harris and Joel Embiid playing better than P.J. Tucker and Jimmy Butler. Tucker’s one of the most valuable players to have in decisive series. We’ll know which duo stands out after game two.
Prediction: Heat win series 4-2
#3 Milwaukee Bucks v. #2 Boston Celtics
We knew the winner of the Celtics-Nets series would make a fun and physical matchup against Milwaukee in round two. Brooklyn-Milwaukee went to seven games in round two last year. That could happen with Boston-Milwaukee this year with Khris Middleton diagnosed as out the entire series.
The simplest way to break down this series comes down to who stands out in all five positions. Middleton’s absence gives Jayson Tatum an advantage whereas the older Al Horford cannot contain Giannis Antetokounmpo one-on-one. Brook Lopez and Serge Ibaka give Milwaukee the edge at center over Daniel Theis and Robert Williams. This series will be won by which guard duo steps up in second halves: Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown or Jrue Holliday and Wesley Matthews.
There’s no doubt the Celtics are the hotter team and will give the Bucks all they can handle. Boston however hasn’t been tested by a competent playoff team and face defending champions that adjusted deep in their series last year. The Celtics have to prove they can adapt against veteran champions with poise. It’s hard to see that happening with how the Bucks were built.
Prediction: Bucks win series 4-3
Eastern Conference first round playoff picks record: 3-1
The 2021-22 NBA regular season ended with anticipation for a deep eastern conference playoff race. Philadelphia star Joel Embiid became the first player born outside North America to win the scoring title in a season. Despite discontent, the Miami Heat are the number one seed in the east. While the Chicago Bulls faltered after the All-Star break, Toronto and Boston are two of the hottest teams in the league. Four talented and elite teams will advance to the second round. Time to break down which four have the best chance.
#6 Chicago Bulls v. #3 Milwaukee Bucks
The easiest matchup to predict. The Bucks won all three regular season matchups against Chicago, two by over 20 points. It’s possible the Bulls get lucky and win one game because the offense makes all the shots. Keep in mind Milwaukee’s the reigning NBA champions. This series won’t get past a game five with the defensive efforts of Jrue Holliday and Khris Middleton combined with a better offense that’s more physical near the rim.
Prediction: Bucks win series 4-0
#8 Atlanta Hawks v. #1 Miami Heat
Atlanta’s clinch of the eighth seed officially gives the eastern conference all divisional first round playoff matchups. The top two teams in three point percentage have to adjust on defense and play better in the paint if they expect to advance to the second round.
The injury to Hawks center Clint Capela opens a new set off issues outside of his free throw shooting in close games. Heat center Bam Adebayo should dominate both on defense and offense, something most fans and analysts weren’t thinking much on before Friday’s play-in game. Forwards P.J. Tucker and Jimmy Butler already outmatch John Collins and De’Andre Hunter.
Miami’s overwhelming advantage at forward and center puts more pressure on Atlanta star Trae Young to create more on offense and to take more shots. That’s not a good strategy against a better coached Heat team.
Prediction: Heat win series 4-1
#5 Toronto Raptors v. #4 Philadelphia 76ers
The first quality series in the east to start play this weekend features the NBA’s only Canadian team against an up-and-down Sixers squad with the league’s scoring leader and MVP candidate, who’s paired with a former MVP. Philadelphia’s predicted to make round two because of their talented roster and veteran coaching staff. Many expect a quick advance for the 76ers, but those analysts and fans overlook Toronto’s advantages.
Nick Nurse again should be a candidate for coach of the year. Many who follow the league didn’t expect Toronto to even get a playoff spot this high, let alone make it past the regular season. Coach Nurse deploys odd lineups at times putting four forwards or three guards on the court against specific opponents. Nurse knows while his roster may not have the star-power Boston or Miami does, they can out-play a lot of teams.
Philadelphia is one of them. The Raptors beat the 76ers in three of their four meetings, the recent one a comeback down by double digits. People also forget that both Toronto and the province of Ontario is still pro-vaccination and social distancing. Defensive stud Matisse Thybulle will not play in Canada because he’s not fully vaccinated. Newcomer James Harden can’t play defense at an elite level and Joel Embiid will be double-teamed in most situations. The Raptors will shock the world again by making the second round.
Upset Prediction of the first round: Raptors win series 4-2
#7 Brooklyn Nets v. #2 Boston Celtics
The best matchup in the eastern conference’s first round. Both teams played their best basketball before the regular season ended. Despite Boston beating Brooklyn in all but one game, the Nets didn’t have consistency until New York lifted the vaccine mandate. After it was lifted, Kyrie’s helped establish a rhythm for the team and Kevin Durant’s playing on an elite level.
Coach Ime Udoka has done a great job improving the playing styles of Tatum, Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown. A year ago, everyone said Boston should move on from the three stars. It’s apparent the franchise needed a new voice and for someone to take the team to the next level in order to get back to the finals.
It’s possible for Brooklyn to win a few games versus Boston, but the Celtics are a complete team. Since point-guard Ben Simmons’ playing status could further complicate matters, team defense could sputter against a hungrier unit who’s proven to beat the Nets in a lot of ways.
Prediction: Celtics win 4-1
Original Season Playoff and Play-in Picks Record: 8-2
The 2021-22 NBA regular season ended with anticipation for a thrilling western conference playoff race. Denver star Nikola Jokic became the first player in NBA history to record 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 500 assists. Dallas and Utah were plagued with drama involving who would step up and lead besides their franchise star. No one can underestimate the growth Memphis has undergone while Phoenix has lost under 45 games since COVID-19 disrupted play. Four deeply talented and elite teams will advance to the second round. Time to break down which four have the best chance.
#5 Utah Jazz v. #4 Dallas Mavericks
A lot of people will judge this series by who loses. If it’s Dallas, star Luka Doncic will face heat because he can’t lead the Mavericks past the first round. If Utah loses, it’s because there are locker room problems, Quin Snyder is an ok coach, and they choke when it’s a prime moment to move forward. Both teams want to prove critics wrong.
Let’s start with some basics. Dallas’ second leading team scorer and rebounder was traded mid-season. Doncic will be out game one of the series. Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell looked great against a Memphis Grizzlies team without Ja Morant to clinch their playoff spot, but Utah barely won the Northwest despite nine losses in March.
The series is up for grabs and anything can happen. While I personally don’t base stats (because it’s playoffs and anything can happen), the Mavericks have a lot more issues to address if Luka gets shut down by Rudy Gobert or Mitchell one-on-one. Doncic missing game one could determine who wins the series early.
Prediction: Jazz win series 4-1
#6 Denver Nuggets v. #3 Golden State Warriors
It’s been a cruel, one year since Jamal Murray was on the court. The last time he was, Steph Curry broke Wilt Chamberlain’s Warriors scoring record. Monte Morris is the most reliable guard the Nuggets have versus a rising Klay Thompson. The return of Thompson and Draymond Green are important since Curry should be eased back into the starting lineup, returning for game one.
The added return and expanded role of Jordan Poole could make a difference and be another reason Curry gets needed time off while Green, Andrew Wiggins and Otto Porter Jr. hold down the Golden State defense. If the Nuggets’ forward trio of Aaron Gordon and Jeff and JaMychal Green sputter on offense, this series could end before the Splash Brothers find rhythm.
Prediction: Warriors win series 4-1
#8 New Orleans Pelicans v. #1 Phoenix Suns
New Orleans is one of the hottest teams in the NBA. Their reward is playing the league’s best Phoenix Suns, who won a franchise record 64 games. While not fair, we know records don’t mean anything in the playoffs.
Despite the nice story of Willie Green, Monty Williams and Chris Paul all being on the New Orleans Hornets at one point, Williams is the superior coach. Paul still exceeds expectations in his late 30s and both Devin Booker and DeAndre Ayton are playing their best basketball.
There is good news for the Pelicans. Despite being swept handily by Phoenix, they added C.J. McCollum at the trade deadline and could have Zion Williamson at some point in the first round. The Suns haven’t faced a better prepared and stronger starting roster since the trade deadline. Phoenix will win, but the series won’t be boring.
Prediction: Suns win 4-1
#7 Minnesota Timberwolves v. #2 Memphis Grizzlies
This will be one of the nastiest first round series in either conference. Memphis establishes a high scoring physical presence many teams struggle against. Minnesota is hot-and-cold with their shot selection and perimeter play. Regardless of disadvantages, both teams play hard and will establish a bully tone early and often.
Shooting guards Desmond Bane and D’Angelo Russell should have career games with the number of points their teams put up (both average 116 a game), while Patrick Beverley and Ja Morant will be physical and competitive at point guard. Steven Adams is the strongest person in the NBA and has to take on the best athletic center in Karl-Anthony Towns. These three matchups should be watched by fans and analysts to see who become the deciding factor/s. Forwards Dillon Brooks and Anthony Edwards should have their share of opportunities to prove how valuable they’ll be in future series.
The Grizzlies have a major advantage over the Timberwolves: playoff experience. Memphis gave Utah everything they could handle last year and almost took the number one seeded Jazz to seven games. The Wolves are inexperienced and need more time to develop with their new head coach. It’s time the young Grizzlies take the next step.
Prediction: Grizzlies win series 4-3
Original Season Playoff and Play-in Picks Record: 6-4
What a fun first half of the season. Most stadiums have fans in full attendance back. The incumbent champion Milwaukee Bucks sit in third place in their division behind two teams who haven’t made the playoffs since last decade. While the MVP race is down to three players, coaching and managing is more important than ever. The second half is set up for a fun and intense finish.
Here’s what we’ve learned throughout the first half of this year’s NBA regular season.
The East is Milwaukee or Miami’s to lose
Brooklyn this, Philadelphia that. Let the big boys get their credit. The Bucks got better at the trade deadline acquiring Serge Ibaka from Los Angeles. This is Ibaka’s best chance to win a second championship before retirement. For anyone wondering, the trio of Giannis-Middleton-Holiday are much better this year than last.
If there’s any team that can take Milwaukee out, the Heat have the best chance. Miami plays most of their second half at home. Kyle Lowry and P.J. Tucker are great compliments to Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo. Their defense bests all but a handful of teams in the NBA.
Treatment of Nate McMillan came back to bite the Pacers where it hurts
Remember when Indianapolis thought coach Nate McMillan couldn’t win playoff series and fired him after four seasons? Turns out the Pacers were wrong in every department. Since McMillan’s firing, the Pacers are 54-78 with two coaches and no playoff appearances.
It gets better. Indianapolis traded most of their talent because the roster reached its max potential. They unloaded Torrey Craig to Phoenix, Caris LeVert to Cleveland, Domantas Sabonis, Jeremy Lamb and Justin Holiday to Sacramento and cut Tristan Thompson (who’s now in Chicago). Earlier this week it was reported Myles Turner could be moved when the season ends.
The Pacers can drone on about young talent and re-tooling, but it’s obvious this is a re-build. Sabonis was the star but Indianapolis went as far as he could take them. There’s no big name in the Hoosier State that impresses better teams like Chicago or Milwaukee. At least Atlanta’s in a better position with coach McMillan.
While they’re still cubs, Memphis will be big, bad bears in a few years
The Grizzlies hired the right coach in Taylor Jenkins and drafted the right players. The development of not just Ja Morant, but Desmond Bane and Brandon Clarke provide a core that will be tough and nasty on defense while prolific on offense. Memphis is number one in rebounds and tied for first in points scored per game, winning 41 of their 82 games the first half of the season.
The Grizzlies need to take the next step and win a playoff series or two to be considered a true contender. While the west will be determined by Phoenix and Golden State, Memphis plays a pivotal part in who advances to the second round and conference finals. No matter what, they’ll be fun to watch.
The Top 30: Time for one view for each team. The view can range from improvement to an easier transition during the second half of the season.
Atlanta: The Hawks came a long way from last season’s All-Star break. While they’re not out of the play-in race, one wonders if they can beat anyone besides Toronto. If Brooklyn ascends back into the top five, the Hawks have a better chance of getting the seventh or eighth seed. They have to improve defensively if that’s to happen.
Boston: Despite a nine game winning streak, Boston’s sixth in the east with Toronto a game and a half back. Brooklyn’s earlier spiral hasn’t stopped Celtics criticism. Brad Stevens should’ve been let go before Ainge left.
Brooklyn: Lost in the Ben Simmons-James Harden trade is the Nets’ acquisition of Seth Curry. Curry can play point-guard much better than Simmons in home games while transitioning into a reliable shooting-guard on the road. Philadelphia may regret that part of the trade, but it won’t mean anything if the Nets crater in the playoffs.
Charlotte: On one hand the Hornets are one of the funnest teams to watch and revitalize interest from casual viewers. On the other, they’re stuck in a play-in situation despite tying with Memphis scoring the most points per game. The Hornets are a young team so they’ll get a pass this season, but keep this in mind if they’re in the same position next year.
Chicago:DeMar DeRozan is in the regular season MVP talk regardless of what fans and analysts think of Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid. Look at where the Bulls are in the standings, their schedule and statistics and reason how he couldn’t be.
Cleveland: Last year the Cavaliers had a hot start but faded quick. Management found the right players to add in the offseason signing Lauri Markkanen and acquiring Caris LeVert at the trade deadline. Cleveland’s a top five team in the east because they’re building the right way. That’s something Boston could learn from.
Dallas: The trading of Kristaps Porzingis to Washington highlights an ail: there’s no number two player behind Luka Doncic. Mavericks management is succeeding in self-sabotage.
Denver: Nikola Jokic is having another MVP caliber season but it won’t matter since point guard is again a long-term issue. There’s still time for the Nuggets to make the right moves after the season, but Jokic should have input on who to add.
Detroit: While a lot of talk is on Cade Cunningham’s solid rookie season, Jerami Grant’s positioned himself to be a key player in the Pistons rebuild. You never want to see rookies be alone in a team’s ascent, but you don’t expect a player in his seventh year in the league to be the team’s leading scorer either.
Golden State: If the Warriors don’t end up in the finals or conference finals, it’s because general manager Bob Myers didn’t trade for a center/big man. It’ll be more painful if the Bucks repeat because of their trade for Serge Ibaka, a player who would’ve fit in coach Steve Kerr’s system.
Houston: Coach Steve Silas deserves better and should get another opportunity to coach a talented team when the Rockets move on. They’re the Miami Dolphins of the NBA.
Indiana: The wildest of the Pacers’ moves was firing Nate Bjorkgren in favor of Rick Carlisle, who stepped down in Dallas to re-evaluate where to go next in his career. Indianapolis is tearing down for a full re-build, but why hire a coach who’s won a championship when you can stick with the coach you had before and have a possibly better draft position? Front office doesn’t appear to know what they’re doing.
Los Angeles Clippers: Tyronn Lue’s an upgrade at coach. You read that right. He’s surpassed Doc Rivers’ coaching last decade. No Kawhi Leonard or Paul George and the Clippers got better at the trade deadline at the eighth spot. Lue is coach of the year and the Clippers could be championship bound next season.
Los Angeles Lakers: While the team is unwatchable and underwhelming, it’s horrifying to watch how Anthony Davis has regressed after winning a 2020 bubble championship ring. One has to wonder how much he has left after this season.
Memphis: One of the key trades general manager Zachary Kleiman made was with New Orleans last season, bringing in Steven Adams. Adams is one of, if not the strongest center in the league yet doesn’t lash out at opponents. He’s the right mentor to players such as Morant and Bane.
Miami: Eerily similar to last year’s first half analysis. Both the Heat and Bulls are managed well and are the top two seeds in the east. Despite the schedule being closer to home, they’ll be tested when the second half hits with games against the Knicks, San Antonio, Chicago, Milwaukee, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Houston and Phoenix. If they come out of those games with at least five wins, that’ll be a problem for the rest of the east.
Milwaukee: If you ever want to know how slim the margin for success can be in the NBA playoffs, look no further than last year’s analysis of the Bucks. If Kevin Durant’s foot is behind the three-point line in game seven’s second round playoffs, Mike Budenholzer is not coaching in Wisconsin, there’s no championship, and the Bucks aren’t the favorite to repeat. Giannis Antetokounmpo is averaging under 30 points a game and the defense is much better, all while Brooklyn’s been hit or miss. Sports is a strange world.
Minnesota: Continuing with the strange world of sports, the Timberwolves are in the bottom half of the league in field goal and three point percentage but are top five in points scored. They’re three wins over .500 and find ways to win games. Even if they’re in the play-in round, that’s a sign they can get past two of the other three teams.
New Orleans: How big was the Zion Williamson pick? If his career continues with injury problems, the NBA has to decide if the team needs to be sold or be under league protection. It could be a failure of epic proportions.
New York: Like last year, truly unexpected. There aren’t words to describe their season outside of wild.
Oklahoma City: The Thunder have their guard duo in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh Giddey. Now they need to figure out who their forwards and centers will be. With draft picks and money to spend, they’ll be interesting to watch the next few years.
Orlando: Despite a hard schedule in February, the Magic’s first three games after the All-Star break are against the Rockets and a double-header versus Indiana. All three games are at home. This will tell us where in the re-build Orlando is.
Philadelphia: Joel Embiid may be the front-runner for MVP this season but the Sixers need to find other players who can score. James Harden’s debut should help but Tobias Harris, Matisse Thybulle and Tyrese Maxey need to step up.
Phoenix: Despite a historic season, the Suns will be the most relieved if the Golden State Warriors fall out of the playoffs before the conference finals. Back in 1976, the Suns dethroned the top seeded Warriors in seven, but lost in the finals. While it’s been almost fifty years, the Warriors would love to return the favor, especially since they lead the regular season series two games to one.
Portland: Blazers and Seattle Seahawk fans are interested in what Portland does this offseason. C.J. McCollum’s trade to New Orleans was shocking on a lot of levels, and it could be a warning that a re-build is coming. Seahawk fans have dealt with news headaches regarding trades with Russell Wilson, but their coach Pete Carroll said re-tooling the team could take a few years. Management is planning something and no one knows what’s in store.
Sacramento: There are teams that no matter what they do, no matter who they add, no matter the stats or efforts, they’re just awful and hard to watch on a regular basis. The Kings are one of those teams.
San Antonio: It’s clear coach Gregg Popovich wants the all-time wins record. The Spurs have nothing else going and the roster is in worse shape than Oklahoma City’s.
Toronto: Most underrated team all season. Third in the Atlantic division and seventh in the east. Again, Nick Nurse should be in the coach of the year conversation, because how else would a team in the bottom five in shooting percentage be primed for a playoff run?
Utah: Despite blowing a win to the Lakers, the Jazz recovered well in February, losing only that game. Their play in March will show us how legitimate a contender they are.
Washington: The Wizards went from a hot 20 win start to having jokes made about David Duke Jr. dunk on them. That’s the current state of the franchise.
What a fun and memorable first half of the season. The divisions and conferences are back to alignment with a 32nd team added to the league. While the Seattle Kraken aren’t having the historic season as the Vegas Golden Knights, there are a lot of memories, records and accomplishments. The second half is set up to have one of the funnest and intense finishes we could witness this decade. Here are the top takes as All-Star weekend closes.
The eastern conference is stacked with Stanley Cup contenders
The Tampa Bay Lightning are just one of many teams in the east that look poised for a deep playoff run and possible championship appearance. Tampa isn’t even the top team in Florida. The Panthers lead the east and NHL with 69 points, even with coach Joel Quenneville gone. Yet both teams could be vulnerable if more experienced teams get hot in March.
The Boston Bruins, Carolina Hurricanes and Pittsburgh Penguins are in positions where they’ve gone through ups and downs but have veteran rosters to make more of a push when the playoffs near. Boston needs Tuukka Rask to be the stabilizing presence in net while Pittsburgh needs everyone healthy at the right time. Carolina needs to play a consistent brand of hockey on defense in order to keep their division lead in the Metropolitan.
Last but not least, the New York Rangers and New York Islanders are teams no one wants to face after the All Star break. Since 2022 began, the Rangers have lost to only two teams in playoff contention (Vegas Golden Knights and Carolina Hurricanes), while shutting out the Tampa Bay Lightning, winning a high-scoring game against Toronto, and a complete victory over the Florida Panthers. Gerard Gallant’s team is playing their best hockey at a critical time. The Islanders are climbing up in the standings and will be a hard team to knock out if there’s a second half surge. They’re the team no one wants to face in the playoffs.
The move from NBC has been a success for both ESPN and TNT despite drastic changes
Many wondered how both ESPN and TNT would handle the transition of hockey coverage after NBC’s last aired game in summer 2021. The plusses outweigh the minuses when it comes to coverage, advertising and educational takes.
ESPN started the season airing a double-header featuring the current champion Tampa Bay Lightning followed by the inaugural game for the Seattle Kraken. Most of the broadcasters need work and are rusty with NHL action. Thankfully commentators such as Kevin Weekes and Brian Boucher help ease the transition. The games have been a boost for ESPN+ and should get better when playoffs arrive.
The winner so far is TNT. Retaining a good number of the NBC commentators and broadcasters gains a quick but familiar audience. The network’s gem is in the studio. TNT found a way to lure The Great One as they wanted the hockey equivalent of Charles Barkley: funny, educational, and not afraid to speak his mind. In their first telecast, Barkley was brought in for a smooth and hilarious welcome. Many have tweeted and posted about looking forward to Wednesday night hockey on the network after the first two broadcasts. Having Liam McHugh as the host sets the tone every pre-game, intermission and post-game. Audiences don’t just laugh, they learn a lot about the game, the stars, teams and coaching philosophies. Plus, having an extra sports night between Tuesday and Thursday night basketball games ensures this program will be on for at least a decade.
The league must do better with social issues
This is not the season Gary Bettman intended when it came to hot button topics such as COVID-19, racism and sexual assault. The league entered the season excited for fans to be back in stadiums and a 32nd franchise joining play. While refreshing, the negative headlines on serious issues hold back the league’s promising increases.
The Brad Aldrich-Kyle Beach Chicago sexual assault allegations have mired play not just in the Windy City, but Joel Quenneville’s job in Florida. Then Rocky Wirtz made the wrong headlines when he ranted at reporters Wednesday night before the Blackhawks lost to Minnesota.
Another hot button issue is the league’s handling of racism on and off ice. The NHL has to address diversity issues in the pros and below. One solution is to ostracize those using racial taunts combined with harsher punishments. Black, Indigenous and Asian players are crucial to the league’s developed style of play. There needs to be more than a commemoration of the first black NHL player with genuine efforts on long-term reform.
Last but not least, the COVID issue hasn’t been handled well. The NHL ruled asymptomatic players can not be tested and is easing other parts of their protocols. Despite good intentions, Canada’s still under quarantine, meaning a certain number of fans can’t go to games. While it’s frustrating, the virus is mutating faster with worrying side effects after two years. Easing pressure is going to make players sicker especially near the playoffs.
32 Takes for 32 Teams
Time for one view for each team. The view can range from improvement to an easier transition during the second half of the season.
Anaheim: Turns out my playoff prediction on the Ducks was a year too soon. They’re fun to watch but also play well when needed. The goalie duo of John Gibson and Anthony Stolarz can be enough for a playoff run. They need to pass the second half test in order to clinch a spot. Either way, the re-build is working.
Arizona: While the Brian Flores story pertains to the National Football League, the Coyotes should keep an eye on that situation. Many believe they’re hockey’s version of the Cleveland Browns, boldly stating this offseason they’ll trade with teams in salary cap trouble during a long rebuild. The Arizona Cardinals though could be in this lawsuit Flores is filing and if that happens, the Coyotes have to go about their plan in subtler, simpler ways that don’t spell trouble for the NHL.
Boston: Linus Ullmark isn’t the answer the Bruins thought they solved in net. What happened to Jeremy Swayman splitting starts with Ullmark? While the return of Tuukka Rask helps (I think?), Boston can’t lose ground to a Metropolitan team needing a second half surge (looking at you Long Island).
Buffalo: Thankfully this team’s been better since Don Granato was named head coach. Despite no Owen Power (still at Michigan) and Jack Eichel (traded), Peyton Krebs, Kyle Okposo and Tage Thompson are developing into reliable, solid players. Whatever strange rebuilding/tooling Buffalo chose could work, but chances of things finally clicking together in a deep Atlantic division run slim.
Calgary: If the Flames were in the Central, they’d be in fifth place behind St. Louis. They’re fourth in the pacific despite some hot streaks. Darryl Sutter’s getting the most out of this team but a serious fan can see it’s a matter of time before a re-build’s coming.
Carolina: Finally a team that has an actual chance at the championship. Last year’s analysis was about the goaltending. Frederik Anderson is playing at a Vezina-type level this year, and the Hurricanes are still scoring in bunches. Carolina has to win the Metropolitan for a top seed and finish their first round matchup fast for a real shot at the Stanley Cup.
Chicago: No other team has been as embarrassing as the Blackhawks this season. There’s a good case to start over from scratch when the season ends. No one would blame the incoming general manager if that’s the plan.
Colorado: Tis the season where everyone’s enthralled with Connor McDavid, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the championship beliefs of the Colorado Avalanche. Focusing on the latter, there’s a true concern in net for the Avs. Darcy Kuemper hasn’t played to expectations general manager Joe Sakic had when he executed the trade with the Coyotes. Kuemper has a better defensive unit up front but Colorado’s still playing high scoring games. This could be another second round exit.
Columbus: 41 points at the midway point is a lot for a team many expected to be at the bottom of the Metropolitan. What management has to decide is whether to be competitive every game or a true contender moving forward.
Dallas: The Stars are a disappointment with this much star talent. In net, Jake Oettinger is ok while Braden Holtby looks close to retirement. The offense is hit or miss outside of Joe Pavelski. A coaching change would be the right move to wake this team up.
Detroit: While most knew the Red Wings’ hot start wouldn’t last, they’ve hung around the playoff conversation most of the season despite a mostly young, inexperienced roster. General manager Steve Yzerman may be ahead of schedule with this rebuild. It’s also impressive and understated that despite Tyler Bertuzzi playing eight less games than the other starters, he’s second in team goals with 22.
Edmonton: General manager Ken Holland threw Zach Hyman and Evander Kane onto this mess and said they can contend for the Stanley Cup. Despite their offense, the Oilers are plus one in goal differential. Even if Dave Tippett’s team makes the playoffs, they’ll be a quick out. No easy solutions here.
Florida: The Panthers’ two weak spots are playing on the road and defense. In order to be a favorite past the second round of the playoffs, they have to be a consistent and gritty winner on the road. They’re already close to surpassing Tampa.
Los Angeles: Imagine how good the Kings would be if they weren’t third to last on the penalty kill. Somehow they’re two points behind a lackluster Vegas team. Here’s hoping Todd McLellan doesn’t preside over another second half collapse.
Minnesota: If you asked me today who the top team in the west is, it’s the Wild. From the hiring of Dean Evason to careful building of the roster around Kirill Kaprizov with Mats Zuccarello and Ryan Hartman, to the trust and development in Cam Talbot and Kaapo Kahkonen, there’s no weak spot on this team.
Montreal: No team will be happier once the regular season ends than the Canadiens. Here are the players that have played few/no games this season: starting and backup goaltenders Carey Price and Jake Allen, captain Shea Weber, Joel Armia, Jonathan Drouin, Christian Dvorak and free agent acquisition Mathieu Perreault. Firing general manager Marc Bergevin mid-season was reactionary. At this point, use players in the minor leagues.
Nashville: Maybe John Hynes was a good hire to replace Peter Laviolette. The Predators have two 20 goal scorers, a starting goalie with a .927 save percentage, top 15 in goals scored and a top ten power-play unit. They’re also the most aggressive team, leading in penalty minutes with 564. They have a great shot at the final four in the west and maybe a conference championship if these numbers stay.
New Jersey: The Devils have an interesting way of tanking while trying to stay competitive. Their goalie situation is the main reason for a sunken season. The Devils won’t win many games if MacKenzie Blackwood or Jonathan Bernier aren’t in net.
New York Islanders: It’s not often something like this is true, but the Islanders are lower than expected because of one whole month of playing on the road…and that was the first month of the season. Despite being one of the three teams to score less than 100 goals by the All-Star break, they’re second in goals against. Barry Trotz is the reason this team isn’t top three worst in the league. Expect a much better second half.
New York Rangers: Hilarious that after all the years of goaltending being the staple of the Rangers playoffs chances, it’s goaltending that will determine how far New York goes in the playoffs. It’s almost as if…owner James Dolan was in the right to fire John Davidson and Jeff Gorton.
Ottawa: Regardless of up-and-down play, D.J. Smith is developing the roster carefully. Drake Batherson is the Senators’ best player. Brady Tkachuk is a true captain and fighter, and Tim Stuetzle is a super-star in the making. This team will be a problem when the core players hit their mid-20s.
Philadelphia: It’s wild that when defenseman Ryan Ellis got injured, the defense and then the team fell in disarray. When Brian Lawton discussed how close teams are to the playoffs each year (minus a few), he meant this type of situation. If Ellis played until this past week, we’re having different conversations about general manager Chuck Fletcher, former head coach Alain Vigneault, Claude Giroux’s offseason and the roster moving forward.
Pittsburgh: The Penguins would be the fifth seed if the playoffs started today and that’s without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. They’ll be a headache for any of the top teams in the east that won’t clinch a top three seed.
San Jose: Same situation as Philadelphia. The Sharks would be higher in the standings if Erik Karlsson and Kevin Labanc stay healthy. It’s safe to say the Ottawa Senators won the Karlsson trade. Then the decision to release Evander Kane is a factor when the Sharks can’t score more than two goals a night.
Seattle: General manager Ron Francis bungled every bit of Seattle’s expansion draft outside of the goaltending and defensemen picks. We all understand the need to build gradually but he lowballed the draft so bad they’re the worst team in the worst division. The cherry on top is Carolina doing phenomenal since Francis left.
St. Louis: A Blues-Wild conference finals would be a thrilling watch and is possible since they’re the most consistent and deepest teams in the west. Even if Ville Husso cools and Binnington returns in net, the Blues are still top ten in defense and offense. Here’s hoping we get that matchup.
Tampa Bay: Despite the target on their back, the Lightning will be the favorites for a three-peat until someone knocks them out of the playoffs. No one else is on their level.
Toronto: Until the Maple Leafs find a way to win a first round playoff series, don’t waste energy or thoughts regarding where this team is. We’ll find out when the regular season ends.
Vancouver: The Canucks are bottom five in scoring and have the worst penalty kill in the league (69%), yet they’re just outside the playoff bubble. The hiring of interim Bruce Boudreau makes sure the players go back to playing the game in a simple way without doing too much. At the end of the day, wins mean more than stats to any team trying to make the playoffs.
Vegas: A very underwhelming first place team. Best summarized with this stat-line: top five in scoring but five players have scored 10+ goals, one of which was a low risk free agent signing. Perhaps the Jack Eichel debut will reinvigorate and bring a new layer to a team we’ve seen play better.
Washington: The Capitals are in a lose-lose situation. Alex Ovechkin got the contract wanted but the defense and goal-tending won’t get Washington far in the playoffs. There’s talk Washington could land a goalie such as Marc-Andre Fleury; but Fleury would either want quality years to end his career or Chicago foolishly believes they can still compete with their current roster for a deep playoff run. The Capitals may not have the trade pieces available.
Winnipeg: Deep down we knew when Paul Maurice stepped down, the Jets would crumble. They miss depth players Mathieu Perreault and Mason Appleton on offense. They’re sixth in a loaded central division with long-term issues on defense to address. The run was nice, but it’s time to break the roster up.
Wildcard weekend was rarely competitive in the NFC. Tampa Bay and Los Angeles easily won their games. San Francisco provided audiences with the best and closest game capped with a dramatic finish. The remaining four (the Green Bay Packers had a week off) teams have a great shot at getting to both the conference championship and the Super Bowl. Even with a battered 49ers team in the picture, no team is an easy out. It’s time to analyze which two teams have the best shot at making the next round.
#6 San Francisco 49ers v. #1 Green Bay Packers
Another fun playoff rivalry involving the 49ers. They’ve manhandled Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers three times since last decade. However a lot’s different since the 2020 conference championship in Santa Clara.
The Packers are a more complete team with defensive coordinator Joe Barry calling plays. Under Barry’s defense, Green Bay surrenders under 22 points per game. They’ve been good at stopping the run and getting after opposing quarterbacks. This presents a unique problem to San Francisco; running the ball 30 times knowing Packer quarterback Aaron Rodgers could turn the game against them early or trusting an inexperienced Trey Lance or injured Jimmy Garappolo behind center.
Those aren’t good options for a four quarter playoff game. Rodgers is getting receiver Randall Cobb back this Saturday and left tackle David Bakhtiari is 100%. San Francisco’s best pass rusher Nick Bosa is still recovering from the concussion he suffered Sunday. At their best the 49ers can keep the game close and at worst Green Bay can run away with the score by halftime.
Prediction: Packers win 30-20
#4 Los Angeles Rams v. #2 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Another rematch from earlier this season features two teams on the cusp of history. The Rams have a chance of being the first football team to win a championship based in Los Angeles and the second straight team to host a super bowl while the Tampa Bay Buccaneers want to be the first team to repeat title wins since the Patriots in the mid-2000s.
For Tampa to win Sunday, they have to run the football consistently. Offensive linemen Tristan Wirfs and Ryan Jensen will play hurt and that means making room for runningbacks is the best option to keep both in the game without additional flare-ups. The combination of Le’Veon Bell, Giovani Bernard, Ronald Jones II and Ke’Shawn Vaughn is enough to keep the Rams front seven off-balance. The Bucs have to stick to the gameplan and not deviate, otherwise it’ll be open season on quarterback Tom Brady.
The Los Angeles offense may be in a tricky situation. Runningback Cam Akers is back and it creates more balance and less pressure on quarterback Matthew Stafford. Tampa’s defense isn’t good to run against. The Buccaneers have most of their secondary in Antoine Winfield Jr. and Jordan Whitehead back. Outside of four big play receivers, the Rams don’t have enough depth to take on a Tampa secondary at full health. Combined with Stafford’s ability to throw an interception returned for a touchdown every other week, it’s hard to see how this offense can be consistent in a stadium many teams struggled in this season.
Wildcard weekend wasn’t competitive in the AFC. Kansas City, Buffalo and Cincinnati controlled their games and won with few scares. The remaining four (the Tennessee Titans had a week off) teams have a great shot at getting to both the conference championship and the Super Bowl. Even with an inexperienced Bengals team in the picture, no team is an easy out. It’s time to analyze which two teams have the best shot of making the next round.
#4 Cincinnati Bengals v. #1 Tennessee Titans
Cincinnati again plays the opener of the playoff round, this time on the road in Nashville. Thankfully their defensive front stays intact as Josh Tupou and Trey Hendrickson return from last Saturday’s injuries. Tennessee gets their top offensive player Derrick Henry back after a foot injury ended his regular season on Halloween.
These teams mirror each other. Both have excellent receivers, a solid running game, shaky offensive lines, but better defenses that have stepped up when needed. Eli Apple has been a good number one cornerback for Cincinnati while Kevin Byard and Amani Hooker are a good safety tandem on Tennessee.
This game comes down to who wins up front on the defensive and offensive lines. The Bengals may play the line of scrimmage more with two hurting defensive linemen starting. That means Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill can set Henry up to create more options. The passing game opens and Cincinnati’s offense could get baited into making mistakes. The Bengals and coach Zac Taylor have a lot to be proud and thankful for this year, but a more experienced playoff team ends their season playing a more complete game.
Prediction: Titans win 27-23
#3 Buffalo Bills v. #2 Kansas City Chiefs
When the Bills last saw Kansas City, the Chiefs offense was anemic and dependent on big plays to score. Those days seem over as Kansas City has adapted and extended possessions. There are still issues on defense and an up and down running game, but quarterback Patrick Mahomes and tight-end Travis Kelce still find ways to score.
The Buffalo offense has been up and down since their Sunday night regular season matchup. There were struggles running the ball without quarterback Josh Allen, becoming one dimensional. The winter season has brought a shift, with the Bills winning every important game from clinching a division title to a home-field thrashing of the rival Patriots last Saturday night.
The biggest factors are how physical both defenses can play and Tyreek Hill’s health. Referee John Hussey calls fair games and penalties when needed. Therefore, the Bills defense can play bully ball like they did in the regular season, giving time for Jerry Hughes, Greg Rousseau and the remaining front seven more time to get to Mahomes. If Hill isn’t feeling 100% with his ankle, it could be a while before the Chiefs offense finds rhythm.
The 2021-2022 NFL regular season is over. 14 teams in two conferences (seven in each) have a shot at winning the Vince Lombardi championship trophy. The new playoff format features an extra team, one bye week for the top seeded team in each conference, and a Monday night playoff game. Everyone wants to know which three teams in the NFC advance to the divisional round, so here are the best bets come Sunday.
#7 Philadelphia Eagles v. #2 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The first conference playoff game on Sunday, this matchup shouldn’t be overlooked. Philadelphia started the season at 2-5, but won seven of their last ten. The incumbent champion Buccaneers have been injury and drama plagued all season.
Tampa’s list of injuries helps the Eagles keep this game close. No Lavonte David ensures Philadelphia will run the ball until the Buccaneers stop it or trail late. No Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown or Leonard Fournette might be a problem if the score is close. Regardless, Tom Brady excels in the playoffs…even if his weakness is playing another NFC East opponent.
Prediction: Buccaneers win 30-28
#6 San Francisco 49ers v. #3 Dallas Cowboys
One of if not the best playoff rivalry returns Sunday afternoon. Both teams have great defenses, strong running games and better offensive lines. San Francisco Dallas could be the best game of wildcard weekend, highlighted by coaches who have turned their teams around.
Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn has been the right hire. He’s fixed an atrocious secondary and brought the best out of Dallas’ young linebacking core. Micah Parsons is in the defensive rookie and defensive player of the year conversations. DeMarcus Lawrence has improved on the right end and Trevon Diggs is a turnover machine. Despite the success, Dallas hasn’t played up to their competition at times and faces a head coach in Kyle Shanahan who’s gone through lows and turned things around.
One of the best gems pointed out this week by 49er fan Nick Gamulo was Dallas’ defense under Dan Quinn playing more of a cover three. San Francisco starting quarterback Jimmy Garappolo succeeds when playing against this type of defense, completing 73% of his passes. Dallas’ front seven is ranked 24th against the run, while 49er runningback Elijah Mitchell averages almost five yards a carry. Watch for both of these to play a pivotal role.
San Francisco’s use of receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk factor into how the Cowboys defense defends at the line of scrimmage. Expect Shanahan to take advantage of weaknesses Diggs has in one on one coverage and run up the middle versus a weaker defensive front.
Upset prediction of the week: 49ers win 30-20
#5 Arizona Cardinals v. #4 Los Angeles Rams
The first Monday night playoff game to be played this century, part three of Cardinals Rams should end wildcard weekend with style. Both franchises split in the regular season, winning their games on the road. Both teams are in different directions; Arizona faltering after 10-1 start, and Los Angeles rising at the best time despite a loss Sunday to San Francisco.
Both teams get critical players back. J.J. Watt returns for Arizona’s front seven. The Cardinal pass rush hasn’t been the same since Watt was injured, gradually becoming a non-factor. The Rams get runningback Cam Akers back at full health. This helps take pressure off quarterback Matthew Stafford and not having an unbalanced passing attack every time coach Sean McVay’s offense goes on the field.
The deciding factor is Sean McVay’s record v. Arizona and head coach Kliff Kingsbury overall. McVay lost his first game to the Cardinals this season, beating them every time before and since. Arizona can improve in the offseason knowing they’re a better team that just needed the playoff experience.