The Stanley Cup Playoffs! The greatest time of year for hockey fans as the players embark on the toughest postseason known to man. Defeating a team four times out of seven is tough enough, then do that three more times to reach the end! Gretzky said it best: After losing to the New York Islanders in the 80’s, he passed by the winning dressing room and was surprised at how quiet they were. He expected jubilation, champagne, and a rowdy party to be erupting. But after the Islanders had won their fourth Cup in a row, they had nothing left in the tank. They were too battered and bruised to jump for joy. Too emotionally spent to do anything else but enjoy that it was finally over. Gretzky took that lesson to heart and his Oilers finally won their first Cup the following year.
This current NHL era has no dominant dynasty like the Oilers and Islanders of the past. The top eight teams in the West all breathed a sigh of relief to see the Kings fail to make the playoffs. With their two Cups in the past three years, they were the obvious favorite, but ironically, all of that winning seems to be have caught up to them, preventing a final push.
Chicago is in and has been almost as dominant as the Kings lately, yet their most talented scorer is coming off a broken clavicle. And that seems to be the story of this year's playoffs. Every team has its holes. Player salaries have risen faster than the salary cap and it seems like every team has had to cut corners somewhere on their roster. The team that gets the most bang for their buck will most likely move on. Expensive stars must live up to their paycheques, and a few young/cheap players need to play above their contract to provide that extra punch.
Without a clear cut favourite, the playoffs become even more exciting. In years past, your home team may squeak into the playoffs. You watch the games with a tempered excitement. Sure “anything” can happen, but seven-game series have a way of weeding out teams that aren’t “true” contenders. But this postseason, there is a sense that anyone can win. And that makes for great watching.
15 Can Bruce Boudreau exercise playoff demons?
The Anaheim Ducks had to be one of those teams relieved when the Kings were eliminated from playoff contention after being embarrassed in Game 7 last year against the eventual champs. Bruce Boudreau has consistently led high-scoring teams into the postseason, constantly near the top of the standings. For the second year in a row, Boudreau's Ducks are at the top of the Western Conference and for the third year in a row, is in the postseason.
However Boudreau is 3-6 in playoff series in his NHL coaching career and his teams have always come up short, never going beyond the second round. With a one-two punch of Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler at center, expectations are higher than ever in Anaheim and an early playoff exit would be seen as a huge failure.
14 Can the New York Islanders end their series drought?
The New York Islanders surprised many this season, and even though they're not going into the postseason on a roll, there is still some optimism on Long Island. In what is the Islanders' farewell of Nassau Coliseum, they'll want to end their 22-year drought without a playoff series win.
Jaroslav Halak has had playoff success in the past and the Islanders acquired players like Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy for this reason. Both have Stanley Cup rings. The Islanders have flown under the radar with Washington's late season push, but we'll see soon if they can resurface.
13 Can Devan Dubnyk steal some series for Minnesota?
Mike Yeo was on the hot seat this season until Devan Dubnyk, a career journeyman, was made Minnesota's starting goaltender. Since being traded from Arizona earlier in the year, he's emerged as a Vezina candidate (just behind Price and Rinne).
After Minnesota's surprise run last year, their hopes will lie with Dubnyk. If he can keep up his regular season pace, this is a Wild team that has the potential to upset some teams, beginning with St. Louis, whose goaltending situation is unclear. Mind you, the Blues are favorites against Minnesota, but Dubnyk's play this season makes it possible for Minnesota to surprise some people.
12 Will Mark Giordano return for Calgary?
Mark Giordano was the clear cut favorite for the Norris Trophy earlier this season before going down with a torn biceps tendon. Giordano is expected to be out for the remainder of the season unless the Flames go far. Calgary opens against Vancouver and the Flames have still managed well without their best skater. Calgary had a winning record without Giordano and were able to eliminate the Kings in the process.
They've gotten used to life without Giordano for now, but if they're able to squeak by Vancouver, they'll need Giordano to have any chance against the Blues and Ducks of this world.
11 The return of playoff hockey to Winnipeg
The Jets returned to Winnipeg in 2011, bringing NHL hockey back to Winnipeg after a 15-year absence. Now, the Jets have ended another drought, with playoff hockey returning to the city for the first time in 19 years.
The Jets open against the Ducks, who are the more talented bunch, but you wonder if Winnipeg's size and physical play can wear down the Ducks in a seven-game series.
No matter how far the Jets go, it's going to be a real treat to watch a Winnipeg playoff crowd, if only for a few games.
10 Detroit vs. Tampa
Has the student become the master? Steve Yzerman showed the league how to properly make the transition from player to GM, using the excellent resources at The Red Wings University of Hockey. He apprenticed with the most successful franchise since the 90's, building his skills and experience patiently before taking the helm of an NHL team. With Yzerman's new team sitting ahead of his old team in the standings, a playoff matchup is a gift from the hockey gods.
Another ex-Wing Valteri Filpulla is having a great year with the Bolts and should be looking forward to making a difference in this series.
Detroit's old guard of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg are looking to prove they still have enough gas in the tank to win their team a series.
We haven't even mentioned electrifying superstar Steven Stamkos looking to make his mark as a serious playoff performer. Stamkos and co. can't wait to take the next step from regular season darlings, to playoff warriors.
9 Can Pittsburgh rebound as the underdog?
It looked like Pittsburgh had finally added enough pieces in their top six to round out the roster. With the core healthy for most of the year, they were cruising along nicely. But key injuries to defensemen seriously derailed the Pens, causing them to barely limp into the playoffs. With the formidable Rangers in their way, fans have to wonder if their Pens stand much of a chance.
The Rangers are arguably the favorite in the East and look poised for a deep run. New York is coming off a President’s Trophy regular season and seems to be built for the playoffs. With Rick Nash finally having a superstar worthy season, the Penguins might have too much working against them.
However, Malkin and Crosby are two of the best on the planet, and you can never be too surprised at what these two pull off. If Fleury was ever going to steal a series, now is the time.
The Penguins haven't ever really been an underdog in the Crosby/Malkin era. Perhaps they'll relish with the decreased expectations this spring.
8 Is Tampa Bay for real?
It was refreshing to see a new face near the top of the East, and Tampa stuck around for longer than probably most thought. Steve Yzerman’s shrewd drafting, trades, and signings have transformed this franchise in a very short time. Tampa boasts one of the best attacks in the league, along with solid D and goaltending. They also play an entertaining form of hockey, and if they win the Cup it would be great to see the copycat NHL take Tampa’s lead.
But the playoffs have a steep learning curve. It’s very common for a team to lose before they can win, and regular season success is no guarantee of even getting out of the first round. However, this season feels like a transition year. As Boston and Los Angeles watch from the outside, it seems like any of the 16 now have a chance.
No one will blame the Lightning if they don't go deep this year, but if they do, it will legitimize them as a powerhouse.
7 Can Carey Price carry a team missing its top scorer?
Carey Price turned in a truly MVP-worthy season, giving Montreal a chance to win almost every game he started. He elevated the Canadiens' average roster to sit near the top of the East for most of the year. Price is so solid and reliable that he makes it look easy. He’s rarely caught out of position and doesn’t need to flop around for the highlight-reel saves. While his style may not seem impressive, his cool as a cucumber personality on the ice instills confidence.
With a solid-enough team and arguably the best goalie in the league, Montreal looked poised for their deepest run in years before losing Max Pacioretty to injury. A goal-machine on a team that doesn’t have a plethora of goal-scoring talent could be a back-breaker for Montreal.
Can Price carry his Habs just a little more until Pacioretty returns?
6 The return of Patrick Kane
Chicago was humming along, and at times, easily looked like the best squad in the league. When their roster finally clicked they looked unbeatable. But losing Patrick Kane to a serious injury was obviously deflating news. His prognosis was terrible, not being expected to return until late in the playoffs.
He’s their most talented scorer, able to bust open games single-handedly. He’s already proved his postseason worthiness with a Conn Smythe in their last Stanley Cup outing. Without Kane, it brought Chicago down a few notches from Cup-favorite to sit closer to the rest of the pack.
However, Kane shocked everyone and is apparently cleared for Game 1 of the first round versus Nashville! Will he truly be at 100%? He is an elite talent, but it can take some time to get up to speed. If Kane can hit the ice running, Chicago should be the Cup favorite once again.
Nashville has dropped off slightly from their early-season dominance, which could pave the way for a third Staney Cup run for this young yet seasoned Chicago core.
5 Just how good is Andrew Hammond?
This season has seen some incredible goaltending stories already, but Hammond probably received the most attention for his incredible late-season run. With Ottawa looking fairly mediocre for most of the year, he was a white knight in their quest for the playoffs. He needed a miraculous streak to pull the Sens back into contention, and that’s exactly what he did. But will this play continue? No one expects the same type of records of course, but he can’t fall too far off if the Sens have any hopes of winning a round or two.
Hammond will match up with another goaltender who constantly plays with a team on his back, perhaps even more so. And with Pacioretty out for the Habs to start the postseason, he has even less room for error.
This series will most likely be a good old-fashioned goaltenders duel.
4 Will Ovechkin and Trotz prove a deadly combination?
I was excited for Ovechkin’s first few playoff attempts, but after seeing his “independent” style continually fail, I quickly lost faith that he could lead a team to the promised land. Cringeworthy videos of him quitting on plays that turned into goals and his issues with coaches pushed him further from the title of best in the world.
However this season has sparked my interest. New coach Barry Trotz has gotten through to the great 8, with Ovechkin buying into the team concept and playing his best hockey in years. His increased commitment to defense has done nothing to hinder his goal-scoring either. Ovechkin has dominated for stretches of the season, with several writers giving him the MVP.
Can Ovie and Trotz keep it up in the postseason? Will Ovechkin stick to the system if they lose a game or two? Will their system be the key to unlocking the Eastern Conference and finally getting these two a shot at the Cup?
I can’t wait to find out.
3 Is it finally the St. Louis Blues' year?
The Blues have flirted with elite status for a few years now. Their roster is deep, tough, and is built for playoff hockey. Their group of forwards is loaded with talent, though lacks a true superstar. Paul Stastny was brought in to play that role, but like the Blues, he’s always been a notch below elite. Could this be the year he and his Blues reverse that image?
Their defense is top-notch, and they’re well coached by a Stanley Cup winning coach in Ken Hitchcock. Having learned their lesson in postseasons past, they seem more than ready to go all the way.
Not too many teams win the Cup with a platoon in net though. The Blues have jockeyed between Jake Allen and Brian Elliot all season and coach Hitchcock won't even reveal who's starting Game 1! Will this be an issue going forward? Only time will tell.
2 Will the Rangers finish what they started?
Since falling short in last years Cup Final the Rangers have been chomping at the bit to get another shot. They haven’t yet shown signs of fatigue from playing four rounds of playoff hockey but could it be an issue further ahead?
New York had masterful stretches throughout the regular season, at many times looking like the best squad in the league. Their +60 goal differential was dominant, leading the league by a wide margin (Tampa was second with 51). Coach Vigneault loves a tough, grinding team, and he has been the perfect fit on Broadway.
Henrik Lundqvist is one of the top three ‘tenders around but his team still put out an impressive record when he was down with injury (18-4-3).
The only thing stopping New York last year was Los Angeles, and they won’t be there this time. It could be time to start spreadin’ the news, as a Cup could be coming back to the Big Apple.
1 Just who the heck is going to win this thing?
This year is so darn exciting because it actually feels like anyone can win! The salary cap has ensured that every team has it's weaknesses. If a team or goalie gets hot at the right time, anything could happen.
Patrick Kane's return to Chicago should give them the edge in the West, yet St. Louis, Anaheim, and Nashville have looked dominant as well, and upstarts Minnesota and Winnipeg are perfect candidates for an upset.
The East is wide open. New York is their version of Chicago, with the smart money on a second Cup Final featuring the Blueshirts. However, Tampa is looking to make some real noise, while Washington and the Islanders are fantastic dark horses.
The playoffs are here, no one can predict who will win, but we're definitely going to see some fantastic hockey!