Apr 11, 2011 Phil Blackwell Uncategorized
Ah, how timely – a warm weekend. A thermometer that’s actually climbing, people on the golf course, shirt sleeves – they do exist.
So it must be time for the NHL playoffs.
At some point two months from now, a captain will skate over to Gary Bettman and grab that 34-pound piece of silver that is the reason for living, if you believe every single hockey player.
Having seen Chicago’s Blackhawks erase a Stanley Cup drought that dated back nearly half a century, the first inclination is to survey the playoff field and see whose title, if achieved, would be the sweetest.
In this case, that’s easy. Born in 1970, neither the Vancouver Canucks nor Buffalo Sabres have ever gone all the way, despite both going to the finals twice and having passionate fan bases that thirst for a drink from the prized silver.
Of course, the Canucks have a far better chance this time, having achieved the league’s best record in the regular season. No team in the NHL is more complete, despite a fair amount of injuries. Yet Roberto Luongo and the Sedin twins have never proven that they can make a deep playoff run.
By contrast, the Sabres, after a horrible start, had to work hard for four months just to get into the show. No doubt, the sale of the team to Terry Pegula is a vast improvement from the absentee ownership of the past, and will pay off with a Cup – but likely not this year. That is, unless Ryan Miller returns and stops everything.
Then again, just sneaking into the playoffs did wonders for Montreal and Philadelphia a season ago, as the no. 7 and 8 seeds ended up playing in the East final. The Flyers, who won it, did no sneaking this time, staying on top of the conference for most of the season, while the Habs had to sweat it out again.
And where does this leave the poster boys? Thanks to HBO and the Winter Classic, we’ve had our fill of Capitals-Penguins, but Pittsburgh seemed to manage just fine without the sainted Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. Crosby’s return is huge, but the Pens need more. As for Alex Ovechkin and Washington, they appear to be peaking at the right time but, like Vancouver, need to prove that they can go into mid-May, never mind June.
Yet no one in the East has more to prove than Boston, who will get fresh reminders of blowing that 3-0 lead to Philly the moment the playoff puck drops. Even winning a series or two won’t make the Bruins fell safe. Tampa Bay, on the other hand, has a fairly new crew and modest expectations. Look out for the Lightning in 2012, for this will be a learning time.
In the 82nd game 12 months ago, the Rangers were knocked out. Naturally, the Blue Shirts had to wait until the 82nd game to get in, beating New Jersey and watching Carolina squander its last chance against Tampa Bay. No doubt, the TV crowd is relieved to still have the Rangers around, but there’s no indication that it can linger in these playoffs.
Move to the West, and aside from the Canucks’ drama, a lot of focus will be turned on San Jose. The Sharks moved on from its first-round playoff flameouts with a run to the conference finals a season ago, and no one in the NHL has been better since January. A San Jose-Vancouver showdown would be great theater, but when has the playoffs ever followed the script?
Someone on the Western side will surprise. Nashville does not scintillate, but it won’t allow many goals, either. Phoenix still wonders about its future (move them already!) and somehow has kept its focus to return to the playoffs, while Los Angeles didn’t really live up to its high expectations until the second half of the regular season. Anaheim, winners of the title three short years ago, is the biggest West sleeper of all.
Detroit is the most familiar face, though – 20 straight trips to the playoffs, the most in the NHL. Between the experience of Nick Lidstrom and Pavel Demitra and the spare parts they always seem to find, the Red Wings, in six of the last 15 finals, will stay on the short list of Cup contenders until proven otherwise.
And look who showed up as the last team in the field – Chicago. As with the Rangers, the Blackhawks had to go all 82 games to get its berth, and the mere fact that it plays Vancouver (whom it knocked out each of the last two years) puts immense pressure on the Canucks.
Survive the first round, and there’s a real good chance Vancouver and Washington end up with each other in the finals. For all teams with gaudy point totals, it is the first series that’s the toughest, because heavy favorites have everything to lose.
One thing seems guaranteed – a drawn-out ending. Since 1999 (No Goal to us Sabres fans), nine of the 11 championship series have gone six or seven games, with the other two going five. No sweeps anywhere to be found. Right to the end, the Stanley Cup has to be earned – which makes it the best tournament in pro sports.