Oct 10, 2011 Phil Blackwell Uncategorized
You might find this hard to believe, given the Red Sox fallout (get over it already), but in Boston this week they actually had a happy sports-related moment. For the first time in 39 years, the Bruins franchise got to raise a Stanley Cup banner.
They were decidedly less pleased in Vancouver three months ago when the Canucks lost Game 7 of the championship series at home, the ensuing riots a disgraceful scene. Whether the team gets over that disappointment will be a big theme as the 2011-12 season starts.
This is a good time for the NHL, even with the off-season news that included the deaths of three young players and concerns over head injuries in the wake of the Sidney Crosby concussions.
With the NBA in the same serious labor trouble that hockey went through in 2004-05, perhaps it’s time for the men on ice to step into a larger spotlight. Add to it the move of the one-time Thrashers from indifferent Atlanta to passionate Winnipeg, and the picture improves.
Boston went to a Cup summit where much more talented Bruins teams of recent decades (think Bourque, Neely) did not. There’s much talk of a hangover, but it shouldn’t be too serious, since only the Buffalo Sabres offer a genuine threat in the Northeast.
Ah, the Sabres, who began play with a pair of wins in Finland and Germany. Terry Pegula has put all kinds of his own money into the enterprise, and demands nothing less than a parade in June. It helps Buffalo that, in the division, Montreal still searches for goals, Toronto is not quite ready to threaten (although the Leafs are better, really) and Ottawa is starting from scratch.
The entire Atlantic situation pivots around when Crosby returns to Pittsburgh. Once that happens, the Penguins become instant favorites, vaulting past Philadelphia, who still is unsettled in goal despite its strength everywhere else. The Rangers are building the right way (at last), which will pay off long-term, while New Jersey lapses into old trap habits and the Islanders, despite a bevy of young talent, remain stuck, perhaps waiting for a new home other than Uniondale.
To really find the new-home theme, turn to Winnipeg, where the Jets are back, though stuck in the Southeast this season. If nothing else, the Jets will get sellout crowds, lifting the team’s energy, which the players will need after the long road trips.
Competition-wise, in the Southeast it’s Washington and Tampa Bay, followed by everyone else. Maybe this is the year the Caps put everything together, or maybe the Lightning follow up its strong spring playoff run. Carolina won’t be a pushover, either, and Florida might get a few people riled up with all the free-agent signings and trades they made.
Every time the Red Wings and Blackhawks play, it’s required viewing. The Central narrative revolves around whether Detroit’s decidedly veteran crew can put together one more glory run, or whether Chicago is fully over the 2010 Cup hangover and can get back to hockey. Steadily rising Nashville will still defend you all week long. St. Louis is convinced it’s ready for a playoff return. Columbus doesn’t have the depth to make the favorites worry.
What helps the Canucks get over last June’s sick feeling is the fact that the Northwest is the NHL’s weakest link. Colorado, Calgary, Edmonton and Minnesota are all in various building phases. Of them, perhaps the Wild is best suited for a playoff push, but that would require Minnesota to do something novel like putting the puck in the net. The Flames aren’t that far away, either, but the Avalanche and Oilers are depending on lots of young players to pull through in a hurry.
San Jose still is the class of the Pacific, and is no longer a playoff flameout. Now the Sharks just have to go all the way to silence remaining doubters, and like with Washington, it might be their time. Los Angeles is solid playoff material, as is Anaheim, while Phoenix manages to overachieve despite all sorts of off-ice drama over a possible (inevitable?) move. Dallas lags behind all of them.
We’ve had a decade of relative parity in the NHL. Starting in 2001, nine different franchises have won the 10 championships – Avalanche, Wings, Devils, Lightning, Hurricanes, Ducks, Penguins, Blackhawks and Bruins have been intimate with Lord Stanley, with only Detroit getting the Cup twice.
Add to it finals appearances for Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa, Philadelphia and Vancouver, and it’s 13 teams making it to the last series in that timeframe. Buffalo, Toronto, Dallas, San Jose, Montreal and Minnesota have reached the conference finals, too.
Here, if you’re good, and you get to the playoffs, it’s not impossible to dream of long beards and free-flowing alcohol from the big silver chalice. So it is now, in America and Canada alike, as the National Hockey League gets to skating again.