Oh, Canada. Five teams in the playoffs, two made it a little farther on, then — none. America wins the Cup again!
So, this is the decline every year. The second round never lives up to the hype of the first, and the third might just be the nadir of the playoffs. I suppose this is dependent on whether or not one has a rooting interest, however my last bastion of fandom (albeit, a tenuous one in Minnesota) was severed in the Division Finals. My only remaining interest falls with my bracket(s), one of which is doing significantly better than the other. Can you guess which one? I should go random every year. In any case, as hockey begins to wane in the middle of spring and real life takes over, I have to remind myself to cherish what’s happening here. After all, once the middle of July rolls around, I’ll be counting the days until players are back on the ice. We’re in the middle of the playoffs — only halfway to the Cup. It’s time to enjoy some fantastic hockey from the four
best last-standing teams in the NHL!
Canadiens vs. Lightning: Revenge of the sweep. This was supposed to be historic, the only time a team swept by another gets to return the favor the following year. But Montréal, they don’t like to quit. After a close Game One, they laid an egg, getting absolutely wrecked by the Lightning’s stellar offense. After Tampa went up 3-0, things started to change. The Habs responded to the Game Two rout with one of their own, putting up a 5-0 score at one point. They rode the home crowd in Five to another win, a heartbreaker for Tampa with a late tie broken by Montréal. The Lightning team that closed out the Habs in Six is one their next opponent in New York should fear. The younguns — Johnson, Kucherov, and Palat — what a line they’ve been. Six goals in round one for Johnson, six in round two for Kucherov. And not just padding in the blowouts; these kids score when it matters. Tampa Bay has something very special going on here and I’d like to see them ride it to the end.
Rangers vs. Capitals: Oy. What happened Washington? Wait, dumb question. You’re the Capitals. You lead series, pushed by star power and outstanding goaltending, have several chances to close, then… collapse. It’s been seventeen years (!) since their last run to the Conference Finals, beating my Sabres in six in my first taste of playoff tragedy as a kid. But these Capitals, they felt different. I thought this was their year. They were the last standing Cup Virgin, but instead we’re treated to another repeat Conference Finals appearance for the New York Rangers. This was a decent series; better than I expected it to be. To reiterate, the goaltending was outstanding. I would say that Lundqvist vs. Holtby was the matchup of the year. The games were close, to an almost absurd degree. Seven games, all one-goal decisions. Four with a score of 2-1. Two games went to overtime. Any of them could have gone either way. In fact, the Capitals could have won in Five if not for late-game and overtime heroics from the Blueshirts. Game Seven was the same story with the Caps putting on immense pressure in overtime only to lose of a lost faceoff play. I’m thinking this doesn’t exactly bode well for New York in the next round, however they certainly have some kind of momentum and despite hitting the seven game mark, will have two days to rest. But again, poor Capitals. They’ve certainly suffered enough, haven’t they? Don’t worry though, they’ll get a shot at revenge next year when these teams face off against each other for the sixth time in eight years, no doubt.
Blackhawks vs. Wild: Oy, again. The buzzsaw Wild lost their teeth against the rising Hawks. I guess I should have seen it coming, but I can’t help myself in picking against the establishment. I won’t make that mistake again. (See below, where I make that mistake again). Minnesota was my team going forward. Sorry, Wild. I really believed in you. Or, I didn’t believe in Chicago. The Blackhawks are the team every other team in the NHL should aspire to be. The Los Angeles Kings were the model for a brief period, but their time has potentially come and gone. Chicago has been a legitimate contender every year since 2008, without fail. They’re rolling here and Minnesota could not handle their stunning depth. The Wild offense that eviscerated St. Louis was neutered, failing to score anything meaningful. When they did rally from a 3-0 first period deficit in Game One, it was incredible to watch; when the Hawks pushed over the hump and scored a deciding goal, no fight came of it from the other end. From there, the Wild were deflated. They never led in the series. Never. It’s really too bad they can’t avoid Chicago in the Central Division playoffs — every year since they’ve returned to the playoffs it’s been the Hawks waiting for them and it never ends well. Maybe next year, Wild. After all, the Blackhawks are clearly heading for salary cap hell this offseason. If they win the Cup, it will only be worse for them.
Ducks vs. Flames: Luck has finally run out for the Calgary Flames. Hell, it almost ended sooner with a stunningly brilliant turn of justice and hockey karma bringing the fiery ones victory in Game Three. How amazing (in the awe sense, not the good one) was it that not only did history repeat itself, but it was the history that stole Calgary’s 2004 Stanley Cup finding its way back into the confines of the Saddledome. Incredible. As someone whose potential championship was also stolen by the indifference of the league and its rules, I feel for you, Flames fans. That is to assume, though, that the Flames had any chance against the juggernaut Anaheim Ducks. Holy smokes did the Ducks look good. Starting with that beatdown in Game One, even letting Calgary get a snack goal at the end to set up a Game Two shutout. Brilliant gamesmanship, if unintended. I have a strangely positive feeling toward this Ducks team. Maybe it’s the new jerseys. Maybe it’s Ryan Kesler, who has obtained 2011 levels of beast-mode and who I still miss in Vancouver. Maybe it’s destiny; the Ducks were Columbus’ trade deadline partner this year, which turned out well for the Kings twice in the recent past. I don’t know. As a Sharks fan now, I really shouldn’t like them, but if the Ducks win a second Cup, I’ll take that as a jab at the more hated rival Los Angeles Kings, which trumps the animosity toward Anaheim in my eyes. But enough about that. How about those Flames? Good show. You’ll get a promotion for this! From underdog and enemy of analytics to possible contender and model of perseverence. The fact that they made it to the second round without captain and probable Norris Trophy candidate Mark Giordano is ridiculous. If the Flames are ascending, one can only hope that the Oilers hit their resurgence as well. Alberta’s been an easy stop of late — time to make it the Province of Death again. (Side note: Happy to see their provincial government flip to the left, somehow. Times are a-changin’)
What’s on the docket for the Conference Finals? I have high expectations for these series:
M1. New York Rangers vs. A2. Tampa Bay Lightning: There’s always a storyline. Barely 14 months ago, these teams traded captains — Ryan Callahan for Martin St. Louis, the latter ending an acrimonious feud with management stemming from the Winter Olympics and nearly willing his new team to a Stanley Cup. The former? He just had an emergency appendectomy and might not play. So, this is Martin St. Louis versus Tampa Bay. What kind of reception will MSL receive at Amalie Arena? He helped bring them their only Cup to date and nearly got them there again in 2011. I think time has healed those wounds some, but what do I know about the atmosphere in west Florida? I picked the Lightning to get to the Cup Final — my bracket has them playing Washington, which was an easy win in my eyes. Against New York, I’m slightly less sure of that outcome. The Rangers are a complete team. They’re deep as hell, they’ve got the best remaining goalie in the playoffs, and they have no shortage of guys who can score. Tampa Bay is in much the same position, just younger. Their young stars, well, see above. Ben Bishop has been lights out when it matters, in the same vein as King Henrik. Even Tampa’s defense, a perceived weak spot, has been tremendous. As much as I’d like to pick the Presidents’ Trophy winners and top seeded Rangers, I’ve still got a feeling about this team from the (other) Bay Area. Lightning in five. If last round’s series between Tampa and Montréal was any indicator vis-à-vis the season series, the Rangers don’t have any hope here.
2014-11-17; TBL 5, NYR 1
2014-11-26; NYR 3, TBL 4
2014-12-01; TBL 6, NYR 3
NYR: 0-3-0 — TBL: 3-0-0
P1. Anaheim Ducks vs. C3. Chicago Blackhawks: This is interesting; the Kings are on the outside watching their counterparts in Orange County pushing toward a second Cup. Who stands in their way? Why, it’s the Western Conference Final regular Chicago Blackhawks, playing a team from Southern California for the third straight year. The Hawks have a 1-1 record in their last two series, whereas the Ducks are returning for the first time since they won their only Stanley Cup in 2007. This is the first meeting of these teams in the playoffs. Think all of these extra long seasons are going to finally affect the Blackhawks? I mean, they should eventually, right? I can’t think of anything really special to note here. Both teams are excellent, deep, high scoring with solid defense and streaky goaltending. The Ducks have home ice; the Hawks have the winning experience. Every fiber of my being is leaning toward Chicago, but I really really don’t want it to be them in the Final again. And again, as I noted above, I would love for the Ducks to win another Cup just to spite the Kings. I’ve picked against the Hawks every series this year, and I’ve been wrong every time. Ducks in seven. Enjoy your Stanley Cup Final, Chicago.
2014-10-28; ANA 1, CHI 0
2014-11-28; CHI 4, ANA 1
2015-01-30; CHI 4, ANA 1
ANA: 1-2-0 — CHI: 2-1-0
The East played the longer series in Round Two at six and seven games, with a sweep and a fiver coming out of the West. This bodes well for another Western Stanley Cup Champion. However, we’re not there yet. Still 8 to 14 more games to go before then. I hope it’s 14. My love of Game Sevens, at least ones my team isn’t playing in, is widely known. Then again, I wouldn’t mind if the Duckies swept the Hawks right out of their own building in a week.
Final Four Fun Facts & Frivolity Field: The Final Four has again rotated out two teams. Chicago and New York carry over from last year — Anaheim and Tampa Bay are fresh blood. The Cup Virgins are dead. New York has the longest Cup drought at 21 years and counting. Tampa follows at 11, then Anaheim at 8, and obviously Chicago at 2. Chicago has the most Cups with 5, followed by New York with 4. Tampa Bay and Anaheim each have one.
Since the league has been 30 teams, only four have won their first Stanley Cup (Tampa Bay ’04, Carolina ’06, Anaheim ’07, Los Angeles ’12). In that time, only four more have lost a shot at their first Cup, with half of them eventually winning (Carolina ’02, Anaheim ’03, Ottawa ’07, Vancouver ’11). That’s not a lot of new faces in recent history. I long for the day when the Final Four consists of nothing but Cup Virgins. There are still 12 teams with no Cups. That’s almost an entire playoff field! Make it happen, NHL!
‘nother update. Really digging that Division Final symmetrical fade and advancement. Bracket’s really coming together now. I definitely prefer the team logos next to each other, no question.