The Calgary Flames went down in four to the Anaheim Ducks in the first round of the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs. While Flames’ fans might think that they were screwed, Calgary didn’t seem like a great team to me heading into the playoffs. Their early exit is more or less what I expected, even with neutral officiating, although I would have banked on them surviving at least five games if asked pre-playoffs.
Anaheim going through to the second round of the NHL playoffs sets up one-half of what looks like the ever-so-precious Battle of California in the Pacific Division section of the 2017 Stanley Cup draw. Arguably the NHL’s preferred opponent for Anaheim would be the San Jose Sharks.
The reason I think this is because I think the NHL takes the Canadian fans for granted while looking to make inroads, with playoff results, in the sectors of America where hockey isn’t popular. I think in the northern parts of the USA, hockey is popular enough but it’s certainly not popular anywhere with an arid climate. As I see it, if Edmonton goes out then Oiler fans are far more likely to tune into the playoffs still than those in the San Jose area would be if the Sharks went out. For certain, I see this as a motive for the not-so-neutral NHL to influence games and I think they would want San Jose to stay alive in the playoffs over Edmonton. Hockey requires a bit of a nudge from a higher power to be popular in California.
That’s part of the reason why I think that Anaheim is a huge favorite to make it to the Western Conference Finals, if not win them. If Edmonton manage to survive the barrage of penalties that are being called against them then you have to wonder if they could do the same against the Ducks, a better team than the Sharks. If the Sharks get through then arguably that’s a team that’s only an artificial second rounder, one that has had hope injected into its post-season by seemingly-partisan officiating. On top of all this, Anaheim simply will be the better-rested team in the second round as they get to sit around and rest for several days while their future opponents labor to get to where Anaheim already are. If the Ducks did get some partisan officiating in the first round against Calgary, it can be viewed as helping them get the rest they need even if Anaheim would have won anyway.
In regard to what seems like partisan officiating to me between San Jose and Edmonton, the Oilers gave up 6+ power plays in the regular season 2.4% of the time. So far in the playoffs they’ve given up 6+ powerplays 75% of the time. True believers will say that they deserved those penalties. I think the proper position is that they deserved some of them, but that they are so much better than the Sharks that they can play even-steven hockey even when things are skewed against them.
Whether there is something askew in the playoffs is ultimately a matter of opinion. In that regard, I do sense a growing belief in Canada that Gary Bettman favors the American side of the border’s teams. That’s certainly not a new belief with a lot of people, myself included, but there could be an emerging credibility crisis in the NHL. The ramifications aren’t clear, but right now the NHL officiating is under a microscope.