We've reached the end of a decade, so it's time to consider who was the best championship team over the last ten years. But since it's also the start of the 21st century, we can go one step further. So, over the next few posts, we will be working our way towards naming the Team of the Millennium. We've had 9 Stanley Cup champions, thanks to the 2005 lockout, but only room for 8 in a nice clean bracket. So, we'll start with a play-in game between the 2000 Devils and 2001 Avalanche. After that, we'll pair off matchups, pitting oldest against most recent. After 3 rounds, we will have identified the best team of the decade, and of 21st century (so far).
2000 NJ Devils -vs- 2001 Colorado Avalanche
It's stifling defense against a powerhouse offense, in a classic clash of styles. Seeing how the Avalanche actually beat essentially the same Devils team in 2001, it would be hard to justify anything but a Colorado victory in round. So let's move on to the big Show.
Avalanche in 7.
2001 Colorado Avalanche -vs- 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins
This would have been a wildly entertaining series to witness. On one hand, you have a 1-2 punch at center featuring Sakic and Forsberg, complimented by the scoring of Hejduk and Tanguay up front, with Bourque and Blake running the show from the blueline. On the other side is the 1-2 punch of Crosby and Malkin, with a mixture of scoring from the likes of Guerin, Staal and Talbot, backed up by Gonchar on the D. The difference here may have come down to goaltending. And that's where Colorado gains the advantage. Fleury has proven himself to be a worthy netminder, but he hasn't approach Patrick Roy territory (unless you're talking about character and class, in which case, he blows him away). The bottom line is that the Penguins were a surprise to make to the playoffs, a surprise to get past Washington, and a shock to come back against the Redwings. The Avalanche were favored to win the Cup in 2001, and they delivered. Advantage Colorado.
Avalanche in 6.
2002 Detroit Redwings -vs- 2008 Detroit Redwings
When you win the cup as often as Detroit does, you're inevitably going to have to face yourself sooner or later. And who better to upset the Redwings in Round 1, but the Redwings. But which one? Let's start in net: Both teams started their Cup runs with Dominic Hasek in net. The difference is in 2008, Hasek was old, fragile, and on the decline. He was quickly replaced by Osgood, who was spectacular. As good as he was, however, he wasn't up to Hasek in his prime. The goaltending edge goes to the 2002 squad.
On defense, the 2009 squad was more well-rounded, featuring Brian Rafalski, Brad Stuart, and Niklas Kronwall opposite the 2002 lineup with Fredrik Olausson, Steve Duchesne, and Jiri Fischer. Lidstrom was equally effective as a 32 year old as he was at age 38, so that's a wash. Advantage here goes to the 2008 Redwings.
So it comes down to offense, and possibly, coaching. Here is where the 2002 Redwings shine. Yzerman, Larionov, Shanahan, Hull, Fedorov, Robitaille and a young Datsyuk comprised one of the greatest offenses ever. The only key additions the 2008 lineup had over this one were Zetterberg and Franzen. While those are key pieces, they are nothing compared to the 2002 Wings. Add in Scotty Bowman, and it's apparent that 2002 was the better team.
2002 Wings in 5.
2003 NJ Devils -vs- 2007 Anaheim Ducks
This is the toughest of the four series to call. Yes, the 2003 Devils proved they could beat Anaheim in the finals already, but the 2003 Mighty Ducks and the 2007 version are completely different animals. Even the team name changed. So put that aside and consider the facts.
The 07 Ducks had one of the greatest top 2 defensive stars ever, with Niedermeyer and Pronger on the same roster. However, the Devils weren't too shabby either, considering they also featured Niedermeyer, this time with Stevens and Rafalski for support. We'll call that even and move on.
Although on the surface, it's safe to say that Brodeur would be favored over Giguere, remember: Giguere actually captured the Conn Smythe in 2003, besting Brodeur head to head. The 2007 run for Giggy was equally impressive, once again leaving us with a deadlock at this position.
Both teams featured dominating shut-down 3rd lines. So, this series also comes down to the stars on offense. At which point, the Ducks show a slight edge. You have to believe that Getzlaf, Perry, MacDonald, Kunitz, and Selanne would have found a way to score. And it seems reasonable to think that the Ducks could have effectively contained the likes of Elias, Nieuwendyk, Langenbrunner, and Gomez.
Ducks in 7.
2004 Tampa Bay Lightning -vs- 2006 Carolina Hurricanes
These two teams were geared towards offense, but approached it in different ways. The Lightning were a classic 2 line team, relying almost entirely on Lecavalier, Richarads, and St. Louis to do the scoring (which they obviously did well). Beyond that, there was the occasional contribution from Fedotenko, Stillman, and Boyle. On the other side, the Hurricanes were one of the most well-balanced teams of the decade. It's hard to nail down which was the top line, when they had Stall, Cole, Whitney, Stillman, Weight, Recchi, Williams, and BrindAmour pitching in equally throughout the run.
Neither team produced much of note from the backend. It was done more from committee. Goaltending wise, both teams relied on hot runs from a goalie who entered the playoffs with question marks. Khabibulin and Ward both got hot at the right time, and followed up their playoff glory with subpar seasons.
All told, it seemed in 2006 that nothing could stop the Hurricanes. In 2004, it seemed that most of the better teams got eliminated early, and the Lightning defaulted into the Championship.
Hurricanes in 5.
Coming up next… Round 2 featuring:
2001 Colorado Avalanche -vs- 2007 Anaheim Ducks
2002 Detroit Redwings -vs- 2006 Carolina Hurricanes