Wednesday, April 15, 2015

It's That Time Again

The 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs begin tonight. Obviously, all 16 teams who qualified have a theoretical chance to win it all; but this year the race to the finish line is more open than usual, and all 16 teams have a truly legitimate chance.

Here are some thoughts on what is to come over the next two months, starting with my take on the top three seeds from each conference. It is well-known that I'm a Lightning fan, but for right now I am putting that partisanship on the shelf so I can make these thoughts objective. Here goes:


New York Rangers
Fans in Manhattan have to be feeling excited, because the last time the Blueshirts won the President's Cup they also won the Stanley Cup. They finished with a franchise record 112 points that year, and this year they eclipsed that mark with a new record of 113. Then, as now, their roster featured a number of players in their thirties who had won championships earlier in their careers and were hungry to win another before Father Time caught up with them.

The Rangers have only grown stronger since reaching the finals last year. Henrik Lundqvist is arguably the best goaltender in the world, and incredibly, after he went out with an injury on February 3rd, the Rangers went 17-4-3 with back-up Cam Talbot playing in his stead. This team is for real and has what is needed to break the West's three-year run of Cup titles.

Montreal Canadiens
The Habs probably have the biggest chip on their shoulder of any team this post-season, for they genuinely (and not without reason) believe they would have represented the East in last year's SCF had Carey Price not gotten injured in Game One of the conference finals. Many players in their locker room still believe the hit that injured Price was "accidental on purpose," as Brandon Prust put it at the time.

Montreal's forwards buzz the net relentlessly. Their defensive corps is stout and P.K. Subban is arguably the best defenseman in the league. Price finished with a .933 save percentage and nine shutouts and is expected to win the Vezina. It has been 22 years since hockey's winningest franchise hoisted the Cup, and this year's squad has the goods to put it back on top...

Tampa Bay Lightning
...unless, perhaps, they encounter the Tampa Bay Lightning in the playoffs. Tampa Bay swept Montreal this season and in the process outscored them 21-8. They averaged 3.47 goals per game against Price while the rest of the NHL averaged only 1.96.

The Bolts have that crucial post-season experience that was missing a season ago, and are playing with an edge and sureness that just didn't exist at this time in 2014... Their forward lines are the deepest in the league, deeper even than Chicago's, with legitimate scoring threats throughout the whole roster... Between the pipes, Ben Bishop just put up a second straight stellar season and broke his own franchise record by notching 40 victories between opening and closing day.

However, Tampa Bay has an Achilles heel and it is known as team defense. Beyond the first line, the defensive talent drops off dramatically and opposing players often get left open in the slot. Tampa Bay could make a run all the way to the Promised Land, but all the same, this Achilles heel could cause them to bow out early.


Anaheim Ducks
The Ducks have a Cup to their name and often do well in the playoffs, which makes it odd that nobody outside of Southern California noticed them as they went about winning the West's top seed for this post-season. Maybe it's because they did so one year after the face of their franchise, Teemu Selanne, skated off into retirement along with fellow Finn Saku Koivu.

I follow hockey closely but saw very little of the Ducks this season, so I cannot offer much authentic insight about them. I do, however, know that Ryan Getzlaf can generate points at any time; and I know the addition of Ryan Kesler gives the Ducks a gadflyish presence that was lacking in 2014; and I know that the presence of ten 30-point producers means they should be able to count on the kind of secondary scoring that is essential to playoff success. This squad just might bring Lord Stanley's Cup back to the LA Basin for the third time in four years.

St. Louis Blues
The Blues are the oldest franchise to have never won the Stanley Cup, and it has been 45 years since they reached the finals. After last season's go-for-broke Ryan Miller experiment crashed and burned with a first-round playoff exit, this season did not start with any sense that they would be good enough to make a title run, but like some sage once said: That's why they play the games.

The Blues played strong all year and enter the playoffs having been tough as steel down the stretch, with more than a few prognosticators now picking them to win it all. Their hallmarks are grit, balance, and a roster that seems to present match-up problems for every opponent they face. With 37 goals and 36 assists, Vladimir Tarasenko is on the cusp of stardom, and even though everybody knows who he is, he still might be the most underrated forward in the league.

But is the Blues' goaltending good enough? Brian Elliott and Jake Allen are both good, yet neither established himself as a clear #1 over the other and that is often a bad sign. Is either of them clutch enough to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat when the team is facing difficulty?

Nashville Predators
Last year, when the Preds failed for the second straight year to qualify for the post-season, heads rolled. This year they are back in the playoffs with home ice advantage against the powerhouse Blackhawks in the opening round.

With Peter Laviolette behind the bench; Pekka Rinne in net; Shea Weber patrolling the blue line; a pair of 60-point scorers in 20-year-old Filip Forsberg and 35-year-old Mike Ribeiro; and a whopping ten centremen who are all able to move seamlessly to the wing without missing a beat, this team is for real. It has a good chance to turn the Music City into the third place in the Southeastern U.S. that Lord Stanley calls home.


Chicago Blackhawks:  They've won two of the last five Cups, they missed the finals by just one game last season, and overall they have the deepest roster in the NHL. This team would be the brightest "dark" horse ever to ride the land even if Patrick Kane wasn't expected back for Game One tonight. But he is. Damn.

Vancouver Canucks:  After several years' worth of near-misses and high-profile player departures, wouldn't it seem about right for the Canucks to finally win a championship right when everybody thought their window had closed? And even if Ryan Miller starts off behind Eddie Lack, wouldn't it seem about right for him to finally earn a ring after all those years in Buffalo, plus last year's crash and burn when he temporarily played for St. Louis? After all, he did account for 29 wins this season versus Lack's 18.

Ottawa Senators:  Not every team in the playoffs has equal talent, but each one does have extremely good talent; and when talent levels are close to even, belief can make all the difference in the world. With that being said, watch out for the team from Canada's capital because it enters the post-season on a hot streak and brimming with confidence... and with The Hamburglar standing on his head... and more important than anything else, it enters with a sense of purpose after assistant coach Mark Reeds died of cancer yesterday morning.


Whoever wins the first round series between Nashville and Chicago will go on to represent the Western Conference in the SCF.

If Nashville wins it all, Mike Fisher will have several clutch goals in the SCF and will end up being awarded the Conn Smythe.

However, Nashville won't win it all because this year's champion will come from the East.

If Tampa Bay makes a deep run, its Russian Connection (RW Nikita Kucherov, C Vladimir Namestnikov, and D Nikita Nesterov) will be a big factor and all three of those players will have starring moments. Also, fourth-line centreman Brian Boyle will quietly win a higher percentage of face-offs than anyone else playing for any other playoff team.

If the Rangers win it all, it will be in part because Martin St. Louis lights it up in clutch moments -- and Lightning fans such as myself will need to figure out how we should feel about that.


Obviously, for the Lightning to win the Cup (and for them to finally get around to retiring Dave Andreychuk's number when they raise the banner to start next season).

If my above wish doesn't come true, and if I am wrong about this year's champion coming from the East, then I want this year's champion to be the Winnipeg Jets. Just because. After all, it would be right for a small-market Canadian city to witness the Cup being paraded through its streets while ticker tape rains down.

Since Ottawa fans howled with nationalist rage when Mike Fisher departed for Nashville -- mocking him as "Mike Underwood" because they perceived the move as being done for the benefit of his smokin' hot, country-singin' American wife Carrie Underwood -- wouldn't it be fun to see Nashville face Ottawa in the Stanley Cup Finals?

Despite my soft spot for Winnipeg and small-market Canadian teams in general, if the above happens and Nashville faces Ottawa, I want Nashville to win... and I want Fisher to score the Cup-winning goal, in Ottawa, in overtime... and then I want Carrie Underwood to get down and dirty and do something inappropriate on the air while drinking from the Cup.

Wait. Did I just type that?

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