I find that from every occurrence in hockey, analysts will draw one of two universalizing and entirely contradictory conclusions: either that the game is the predictable outcome of systems with a liberal sprinkling of occasionally small sample sizes to spice things up, or that the game is complete chaos and basically we know nothing.
The Stanley Cup playoffs exemplify these principles; either a team goes on a hot streak and defies expectations, or one of the league’s few elite teams goes all the way. Everything is deliberate and careful, or the Hockey Gods bless the Chosen Ones. In either scenario, the analysts (I’m including myself here) are able to point to the result and nod knowingly. We knew something like that would happen.
The Kings are the perfect example. Last year absolutely nobody was picking them to win the Cup. Everyone knew they were good, sure; maybe everything would align, just as it did, but I don’t think they were being talked about the way people talk about the Penguins. They won it all, and now they’re included among those elite teams. Chaos turns into a sense of structure. Only the truly deserving ever win, and we know that, because when we win we retroactively talk about why they’re truly deserving.
But now, the East is turning everything on its head again. Ottawa handily defeats Montreal because Montreal is an overachieving team that didn’t have the mental fortitude or team system for playoff hockey. Then Ottawa is handily defeated by the Penguins because the Penguins are a class above in talent. Now the Penguins are being destroyed by Boston, and the analysts are struggling to understand why. I saw some picking the Pens to sweep Boston. The narrative thread of fish being eaten by bigger fish is fraying.
So what does this matter to Senators fans? Well, as we all know by now, expectations are everything. Back when the Senators were dominating the regular season, anything short of a conference final was considered a disappointment. Players were traded and coaches fired after extremely successful seasons ended without a Cup. (Al Vignault nods silently and John Tortarella nods then throws a desk chair through a window.) These past couple of years, just being invited to the dance has been enough. But now there’s an expectation: is Ottawa on a linear path to greatness? Are they ready to elevate their game yet again, to go from “bubble playoff team” to “elite contender”? Is it ridiculous to even presume that these things happen so predictably? Next year we could see Ottawa with none of the injuries finish second last overall, for all we know.
We should watch the Pens-Bruins series closely this year. A team that is probably as stacked as any I’ve ever seen is being handled, and easily. It’s as if two careful, intentional systems were placed across from one another and produced only chaos. It’s fascinating, and it’s hard to know what we can learn from that series, except that even under the best of circumstances–two generational talents, incredible scorers up and down the line-up, a deep defense, veterans everywhere–we’re all subject to the cruel randomness of this weird, wacky sport.