Right after the lost season of 2004-05, Commissioner Gary Bettman hinted that he believed parity was right around the corner in the National Hockey League.
At the time, the Detroit Red Wings were dominating the regular season, but the commissioner truly believed that the league’s talent level would eventually be distributed almost evenly throughout every member club. Most insiders thought he was dreaming and while the Toronto Maple Leafs (a team that fired its GM and coaching staff on Sunday morning), Edmonton Oilers and Buffalo Sabres remain consistently near the bottom of the loop, it’s apparent that any season, any team can reach the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Hey, there are five Canadian teams (out of seven) in the playoffs this spring, at a time when the Canadian dollar has nearly collapsed in comparison to the U.S. dollar. Maybe the salary cap does create parity.
Let’s look at recent history. In 2011-12, upstarts Phoenix (now Arizona), Florida and Nashville made the playoffs. After the lockout shortened season of 2012-13, Columbus, Dallas and Minnesota claimed post-season berths and as we head toward the 2014-15 playoffs with Winnipeg, Calgary, the Islanders and Ottawa in and Boston, Dallas, Colorado, Columbus and San Jose out, it’s fair to say that in any given season, any team can reach the Big Dance – and any other team can be turned away at the door.
After all, last year at this time, the Boston Bruins were the No. 1-seeded team in the East. The Bruins finished the year with 117 points and won the President’s Trophy. This year, the Bruins were ninth in the East with 96 points and are now getting together to clean out their lockers.
That means, of course, that predictions are pretty much worthless at this time of year. Oh, don’t worry, we are going to be idiots and try to predict the outcome of all eight first-round series, but it’s hard to imagine we could possibly get all eight of those prognostications correct. Think about it. There is parity in the NHL. While the New York Rangers won the President’s Trophy and had a tremendous season, they will head into the playoffs only 15 points better than the team they’ll face in the opening round – the eighth-place team in the East – the Pittsburgh Penguins. Anaheim, a prohibitive favorite in the West, was only 10 points better than its opponent, the seventh-place Winnipeg Jets.
“There is absolutely no doubt that the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs is always the best,” said New York Rangers professional scout, Tom Thompson. “You have teams that finished high in the standings expecting to win against teams that were lucky to make the playoffs and now have nothing to lose. The first round is always the toughest, the fastest, the closest and the most exciting. The first round is where the upsets happen. This is always hockey at its very best.”
We’ll start from East and work our way West. The 2015 Stanley Cup Tournament begins on Wednesday, April 15 with 16 teams. In two months, only one will be standing:
Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens
Series A: Montreal Canadiens (50-22-10, First in Atlantic) vs. Ottawa Senators (42-26-13, First Wild Card)
Ottawa went 23-4-4 down the stretch to reach the playoffs while the Canadiens rode the brilliance of NHL MVP favorite Carey Price to a 50-win season. So will it be the consistency of the Habs or the white-hot streakiness of the emotional Sens? Sens goalie Andrew Hammond and rookie rightwinger Mark Stone came in and turned the Senators around after the firing of head coach Paul MacLean. Meanwhile, in Montreal, team leader Max Pacioretty (37 goals this season) and young stars Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher make the Habs a formidable offensive force. The Canadiens also have a tremendous defensive pairing with P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov, but Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson is one of the finest D-men in the game. This will be an outstanding All-Canadian series.
Players to Watch: Max Pacioretty and P.K. Subban, Montreal; Mark Stone and Erik Karlsson, Ottawa.
Season Series: Senators won 3-1.
Our Choice: Ottawa in six games.
Steven Stamkos and Ben Bishop, Tampa Bay Lightning by James Carey Lauder.
Series B: Tampa Bay Lightning (50-24-8, Second in Atlantic) vs. Detroit Red Wings
(43-25-14, Third in Atlantic)
The Tampa Bay Lightning are led by high-scoring Steven Stamkos (43 goals in all 82 games this season), but they are not a one-man show. They also have three emerging stars: Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat. In fact, all three were so good this season, that one or two of them might get a Hart Trophy vote. Fact is, it might be the best young line in hockey. The Red Wings are led by two aging superstars – Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk – but the emergence of young Justin Abdelkader and Darren Helm have made the Red Wings a tough team to beat. Tampa’s two best players might be defensemen Anton Stralman and Victor Hedman. Detroit is led on the back end by Niklas Kronwall and Jonathan Ericsson. In net, the Lightning have 39-win Ben Bishop while Detroit will go with either Jimmy Howard and Petr Mrazek. Neither team has a great power play.
Players to Watch: Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, Detroit; Steven Stamkos and Anton Stralman, Tampa Bay.
Season Series: Lightning won 3-1
Our Choice: Tampa in six games.
Sidney Crosby by Jeff Miller.
Series C: New York Rangers (53-22-7, First in Metropolitan) vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (43-27-12, Second Wild Card)
The Rangers have one thing nobody else has: Henrik Lundqvist in goal. Of course, to be fair, when Lundqvist missed 25 games with a vascular problem, the Rangers went 18-4-3 with Cam Talbot and Mackenzie Skapski in net. Now, however, with Lundqvist back, the Rangers have themselves a President’s Trophy and a good shot at the Cup. The Penguins, meanwhile, are led by Sidney Crosby, (third in NHL scoring with 84 points), and the oft-injured Evgeni Malkin. The Rangers offense will come from Rick Nash (42 goals), Marty St. Louis, Derick Brassard, Derek Stepan and Mats Zuccarello. Nash has eaten the Penguins alive this season. Last spring, the Rangers rallied from 3-1 down against the Penguins to win the best-of-seven Eastern Conference second round series in seven games. This year, New York defeated Pittsburgh 5-0 on Nov. 11 and 5-2 on Jan. 18. In between those two games was a 3-2 shootout win by the Penguins on Nov. 15 and a 4-3 overtime win by the Rangers on Dec. 8. The Penguins didn’t clinch a playoff spot until the final game of the season. The Rangers almost coasted to the regular season title.
Players to Watch: Rick Nash and Henrik Lundqvist, NY Rangers; Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh.
Season Series: Rangers won 3-1
Our Choice: Rangers in five.
Travis Hamonic, New York Islanders (Photo by James Carey Lauder)
Series D: Washington Capitals (45-26-11, Second in Metropolitan) vs. New York Islanders (47-28-7, Third in Metropolitan)
This is a toss-up. Both teams had 101 points and both teams tied in ROW with 40. Washington is thought of an offensive-minded team, but the Islanders outscored the Caps 252-242 this season. The Islanders have a terrific defense led by Nick Leddy and Travis Hamonic, but Washington allowed fewer goals 203-230. While everyone will be watching Alexander Ovechkin (53 goals and fourth in scoring with 81 points) and Nicklas Backstrom (sixth in scoring with 78 points), the Islanders had the No. 2 scorer in the league in John Tavares (38 goals and 86 points). These two teams aren’t what they seem, but what they will be is close. Flip a coin.
Players to Watch: Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, Washington; John Tavares and Nick Leddy, NY Islanders.
Season Series: Tied 2-2
Our Choice: Washington in seven games.
Jason Pominville photo by Jeff Miller.
Series E: St. Louis Blues (51-24-7, First in Central) vs. Minnesota Wild (46-28-8, First Wild Card)
This is a series between a team that finished second in the West and a team that finished sixth, and yet the season series was tied 2-2 and there were only nine points separating them. St. Louis is led by an outstanding offense that includes T.J. Oshie, Vladimir Tarasenko, Alexander Steen, Jaden Schwartz and David Backes, a crew that scored between 55 and 73 points. Tarasenko had 37 goals while Steen (24), Schwartz (28) and Backes (26) each scored at least 24. The Blues are the highest-scoring Western Conference team in the playoffs. Minnesota, meanwhile, was dead in the water in January. They were 12th and done. Then GM Chuck Fletcher acquired goalie Devan Dubnyk and everything changed. The Wild went 28-9-3 after Dubnyk arrived and suddenly, this 12th-place team was sixth and had a legitimate chance to make some late-April noise.
Players to Watch: Vladimir Tarasenko and Alexander Steen, St. Louis; Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, Minnesota.
Season Series: Tied 2-2
Our Choice: St. Louis in six games.
Jonathan Toews and the Chicago Blackhawks by James Carey Lauder.
Series F: Nashville Predators (47-25-10, Second in Central) vs. Chicago Blackhawks (48-28-6, Third in Central)
When the Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in 2010, they started their run by eliminating the Nashville Predators in six games. They’d certainly love to do it again. The Hawks are in the playoffs for the seventh straight year but they will start the playoffs without their scoring star Patrick Kane (broken collarbone). However, after Kane was injured, captain Jonathan Toews took the team on his shoulders and carried them to 102 points and the playoffs. The key to the Hawks is its brilliant defense, led by Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith. Nashville is blessed with one of the best goalies in the game, Pekka Rinne and he’s blessed with an outstanding defense led by Shea Weber, Roman Josi and young Seth Jones. Amazingly, Nashville’s top forwards were rookie Filip Forsberg and the aging Mike Ribeiro. Who woulda thought?
Players to Watch: Shea Weber and Filip Forsberg, Nashville; Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith, Chicago.
Season Series: Blackhawks won 3-1
Our Choice: Chicago in five games.
Ondrej Pavelec, Winnipeg Jets.
Series G: Anaheim Ducks (51-24-7, First in Pacific) vs. Winnipeg Jets (43-26-13, Second Wild Card)
These two teams finished 10 points apart in the standings and while Anaheim won all three games between the two clubs, a couple of the outcomes were close. Anaheim won 4-3 in overtime in Winnipeg on Dec. 7 and then won 4-1 in Winnipeg Dec. 13. Then on Jan. 11, the Ducks beat the Jets 5-4 in a shootout in Anaheim. The Ducks have been superior all year, but not by much. The Jets aggressive forecheck did not stop the Ducks from scoring this season and in all three meetings, the Jets goaltending was suspect. If Winnipeg expects to win this series, it will have to find a way to shut down Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry and that might be easier said than done. For Winnipeg, goaltender Ondrej Pavelec must step up (Pavelec produced three straight shutouts in the final week to get the Jets into the post-season) and the Jets Top 7 forwards – Blake Wheeler, Bryan Little, Andrew Ladd, Mark Scheifele, Drew Stafford, Mathieu Perreault and Michael Frolik – must be at their best. This series is Anaheim’s to lose.
Players to Watch: Dustin Byfuglien and Tyler Myers, Winnipeg; Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf, Anaheim.
Season Series: Ducks won 3-0.
Our Choice: Winnipeg in five games.
Series H: Vancouver Canucks (48-29-5, Second in Pacific) vs. Calgary Flames (45-30-7, Third in Pacific)
The Pacific Division was relatively weak this season, but that doesn’t mean a series between two Pacific teams separated by only four points all year won’t be spirited. In fact, the Flames and Canucks hate each other and we’ll see that in spades this week. Not surprisingly, the last three times the Flames and Canucks have met in the playoffs, the winner of the series eventually reached the Stanley Cup Final. Calgary is led by the big line with veteran Jiri Hudler, rookie Johnny Gaudreau and 20-year-old centre Sean Monahan. For Vancouver, it’s all about the Sedins, Henrik and Daniel, along with a number of unheralded, but-hardworking forwards – Radim Vrbata (30 goals playing with the Sedins), Alexandre Burrows, Jannik Hansen, Derek Dorsett, Bo Horvat, Chris Higgins and Nick Bonino. On defense, the Canucks are led by Dan Hamhuis, Alexander Edler, Kevin Bieksa, Luca Sbisa, Chris Tanev and Yannick Weber. Calgary lost its best defenseman, Mark Giordano, for the season with a biceps injury, so Kris Russell, Dennis Wideman, T.J. Brodie and Deryk Engelland will have to be at their best. The Flames have played better than their roster all season long. They’ll have to keep it up this April.
Players to Watch: Henrik and Daniel Sedin, Vancouver; Johnny Gaudreau and Jiri Hudler, Calgary.
Season Series: Tied at 2-2.
Our Choice: Vancouver in seven games.