In the Spring of
1992, after saving my paper route money for weeks, I skipped school one day,
woke up at 3AM and camped outside of Greengate Mall to be first in line for
playoff tickets. Roughly one week later,
I sat with mixed emotions, front-row tickets in hand to Game 5 of the Stanley
Cup Finals, as I watched my favorite player, Ronnie Francis, dismantle the
Blackhawks in Game 4. I was left holding
a meaningless ticket to a game that would never be played.
Now, 21 years later,
if all goes to plan, the Penguins and Blackhawks seem all but certain to meet
once again in those Stanley Cup Finals.
If all goes to plan. Which it
obviously never does in the NHL playoffs.
Which is why predicting what will transpire over the next 2 months is
perhaps the most challenging task a hockey writer can undertake. Of the 8 opening round series, only the Pens
and Hawks can be thought of as heavy favorites to advance. Each of the other 6 series could be decided
on a coin flip. And as I witnessed up
close in 1993, even an unbeatable Penguins squad could in fact lose to an
Pittsburgh Penguins (1) vs New York Islanders (8)
Speaking of which…
could it happen again? Could the most talented team in hockey
stumble in the opening round against an Islanders team that is seemingly just
happy to be there? Despite the fact that
history is on the Islanders side, it's just not going to happen this time
around. The '93 Pens were built on raw
talent alone and had below average
goaltending in Tom Barrasso, particularly in 1993. While Fleury's performance last year was
strikingly similar, he seems to have righted the ship. And even if he is distracted by becoming a
new daddy this week, Pittsburgh can safely turn to veteran Thomas Vokoun and
barely miss a step. Make no mistake. With all the talent and grit added to an
already talented and gritty team, the one thing that can mess up the parade
plans in Pittsburgh is goaltending.
On the other side of
the rink, the Islanders are in fact a fun team to watch. With John Tavares officially arriving as a
legit superstar this season, and with the team boasting a variety of speedy
forwards that can turn a game around in seconds, it should be an entertaining
series to watch. Against any other
opponent in the East, New York would have a fighting chance. But against this all-star team, they should
just be happy to be there.
Montreal Canadiens (2) vs Ottawa Senators (7)
The Habs defaulted
into the Division Champ slot, despite a late-season collapse. The hockey world was drooling over a certain
Montreal-Toronto first round matchup, but will have to "settle" for
the first Senator-Canadiens playoff meeting since the 1920's. This one has all the makings of an epic
storyline and could easily go either way.
On one hand, Montreal took an impressive storybook rebound season and
scarred it with some downright awful play as the final weeks played out. They had just enough to hang on to the #2
seed, but left plenty of questions, starting with the mindset of Carey Price. If he falters, as he clearly did in the final
weeks, the Habs have no one to lean on.
This is where a guy like Jaroslav Halak would be a nice card to play.
The Senators are the
team that won't give up or go away no matter how many people believe they will
or should. Despite losing their most
significant pieces, the Sens persisted and played a team game to keep themselves
from sliding. Kudos to the coaching
squad and the leadership of Alfredsson to get them here. Now what are they going to do with it? In a series like this, it will likely be
decided by goaltending. In which case,
with recent history in mind, the edge clearly has to go to Ottawa.
Washington Capitals (3) vs New York Rangers (6)
As the Kings
demonstrated last season, getting hot at the right time can be all it takes to
roll your way through the NHL playoffs.
A month ago it seemed impossible that the Capitals would even qualify
for the post-season. Today, it's not
uncommon to hear predictions of their first Stanley Cup party. The turn around has been awesome to
behold. Mike Green, Niklas Backstrom and
Alex Ovechkin have turned the calendar back a few years and are once again a
trifecta of skill that no team seems capable of answering. So can Lundqvist be the one to end this run? Of all the series, this one may be the most
difficult to predict.
The Rangers are a
very different squad than the one that started the season with high
expectations, only to fall upon hard times very quickly. The team clearly missed the elements that
left in the off season, such as Prust and Callahan. Callahan is back now, which helped New York
compile 10 wins in April to salvage the season.
However, without Staal in the lineup, the Rangers may not have enough to
shut down the top unit of the Capitals.
Then again… there is Lundqvist.
Boston Bruins (4) vs Toronto Maple Leafs (5)
It's hard to fathom
how the Bruins fell to the fourth seed.
Despite playing in a division that sent 4 of 5 teams to the playoffs,
Boston clearly was the team to beat in
this group. They faltered greatly in
April, and struggled to score goals.
With just a week left in the season, Milan Lucic was watching games from
the press box. These are not good signs
for a team preparing for battle. They
will face a team with whom they share much recent history. Kessel, Seguin, Rask, Hamilton… the
storylines surrounding trades will be told, but the bottom line here is that
the Leafs look good right now and the Bruins do not.
Toronto brings an
imposing lineup of forwards, including the unstoppable-when-healthy
Lupul/Kessel combo. Youngster Nazim
Kadri was one of the biggest surprises of the season, blossoming in the wake of
the coaching/GM changes to find his way into the top 25 for points in the NHL
this season. James Reimer has also
surprised many, giving the Leafs no reason to sell the farm for a shot at
Luongo at the deadline. That may change
this summer if he falters, but for now, the Leafs look like a good bet to
advance to Round 2 for the first time in many, many moons.
Prediction: Leafs in
Chicago Blackhawks (1) vs Minnesota Wild (8)
Congrats to the Wild
for making the playoffs.
Prediction: Hawks in
Anaheim Ducks (2) vs Detroit Redwings (7)
Congrats to the
Redwings for… no. I can't bring myself
to complete that sentence. Though,
truly, just to be there for the 22nd straight season is something to behold. But will it be enough to get them past the
most underappreciated good team in the NHL right now? The Ducks have put together an amazing
rebound season, but have received very little attention in the wake of
Chicago's epic winning streak in the West.
Nevertheless, this is a very good team having a very good season. The Ducks are rolling three quality lines and
getting scoring from each. Selanne and
Koivu, while playing on the third line, have combined for 20 goals alone. Francois Beauchemin has re-emerged as a
top-end and potential Norris Trophy nominee defenseman. Anaheim also has 2 top-notch goalies on their
hands should they need to choose. And I
haven't mentioned the resurgence of captain Ryan Getzlaf.
The Wings have
pulled off the unthinkable by clawing their way into the 7th seed, despite the
decimation of their defense. And they
did it with impressive defense. Jimmy
Howard put up perhaps the best season of his career, at the most needed
time. But make no mistake. This team belongs to Zetterberg and
Datsyuk. It's on them to determine how
far the story can continue.
Vancouver Canucks (3) vs San Jose Sharks (6)
There are a hundred
ways to break down this series, but no matter how you approach it, it comes out
a tie. On offense, the edge has to go to
San Jose. Thornton, Marleau, Pavelski,
Havlat, etc. hold a slight edge over the likes of the Sedins, Kesler, Burrows
and newcomer Roy. The difference maker
here may end up being defenseman turned winger Brent Burns. On defense, Vancouver can boast of the
advantage. San Jose parted ways with
Douglas Murray to make room for more speed and agility, but leaves them in envy
of the like of Edler, Bieksa, and Hamhuis.
In net, it's a tie. Niemi put up
a quietly outstanding season, while Vancouver can turn to either Luongo or
Schneider as the mood fits. Either way,
it's looking like a good series and a tough one to call.
While the Canucks
have more or less rolled towards another division title, the Sharks have been
on a roller coaster ride. They started
the season on fire, fell flat on their faces in March, and dominated in April. At least they're hot at the right time.
St. Louis Blues (4) vs Los Angeles Kings (5)
If these teams
played 100 more games this season, they would probably still finish within a
point or two of each other in the standings.
Both teams boast of significant depth, great goaltending, and a bit of
grit, which should make this the most interesting series to watch in the
The Blues enter the
playoffs in complete control on defense.
Elliot is stopping everything, thanks in large part to the stacked
defense and stifling system that Coach Hitchcock brings wherever he goes. No team can match the 3 pairings on the blue
line that St. Louis can serve up. Up
front, the Blues can roll their lines with ease, with scoring threats on the
ice at all times.
The Kings will have
a tough go at defending their crown, but come with basically the same set of
weapons that dominated last spring.
Their top two lines can match up evenly with anyone in the West, but
they do get a little thin in terms of scoring beyond that. On defense, Drew Doughty could ultimate be
the factor that gets them past the first round.
STANLEY CUP PREDICTIONS
uncomfortable going with the crowd with my picks. After all, I did name the Sabres as my
pre-season selection to hoist the Cup.
However, in this case, I can find no plausible piece of evidence to
suggest that anyone can defeat the Penguins in a 7-game series. All that's left to be decided is the name on
the other end of that history. To me, it
will come down to the Central Division.
Hawks or Blues. Ultimately, I see
St. Louis getting to the finals.
Penguins over Blues
in 5 games. MVP honors this season will
go to the Real Deal James Neal. With
Iginla, Malkin, Crosby, and Letang finishing 2nd through 5th in voting.
SORTING THROUGH THE ODDS
If you're still
reading, most likely, it's because you're about to fill out your selections for
a playoff pool. So while you've gained
nothing by reading one more article picking Pittsburgh to win it all, I will
offer up my rankings from 1-16 of the teams in terms off their likelihood to
hoist the Cup in 2003:
1. Pittsburgh -
could sit their top power play unit for the game and still be the most talented
team in the league
2. St. Louis - depth
wins in the playoffs and this team has no weak line. Deep at offense. Deep at defense. Deep in goal.
3. Chicago - that
winning streak happened for a reason.
This team is the most talented in the West. If Crawford can stay hot, they have a shot.
4. Toronto - time
for crazy. The Leafs just feel like a
team ready to make a run. I see them
reaching the Conference Finals and becoming the only team to give the Pens a
5. Anaheim - this is
a different team since Boudreau took over last year.
6. Boston - if they
survive the opening round with the Leafs, it will be by rediscovering the
scoring. If that happens, they will make
7. LA - they are the
defending champs. All comes down to
8. San Jose - Their
biggest test may come in the opening round.
This team has to feel like the window is nearly closed.
9. Vancouver - see
above. If they can overcome San Jose,
they have a shot at advancing.
10. New York Rangers
- if they do go a few rounds, Lundqvist will be the hands-down MVP
11. Washington - if
they can keep the magic rolling, this is a talented group of players
12. Ottawa - go
ahead, keep doubting them. If they go
far enough, they may just add Spezza at some point.
13. Montreal - all
14. Detroit - the
streak is a alive. Just be happy with
15. Minnesota - back
in the playoffs for one week.
16. New York
Islanders - sorry about that first round draw.