Put on your sweaters, grab a case of Labatt, and throw away your razors, after 1,230 games, it’s time for the Stanley Cup Playoffs! Growing up in Michigan meant two things for me: 1. I worshipped the Red Wings, and their eternal playoff streak. 2. I considered myself an honorary Canadian. Those two factors turned me into the hockey loving goon that I am today. My Wings are back in the tournament for the 24th straight season, but there’s also 15 other teams vying for Lord Stanley’s Cup. Before we preview this year’s participants, a quick recap of last year.
The Los Angeles Kings somehow topped their 2012 cup run by becoming the first team in NHL history to advance to the Finals after winning three consecutive seven game series. The Kings beat San Jose, Anaheim and Chicago, setting up a Tupac vs Biggie like matchup when they faced the New York Rangers in the Final. The Rangers had two seven game series in their opening two rounds before taking down Montreal in the Eastern Finals to reach their first Cup Final since winning in 1994. In a 5 game final, the Kings won 3 of their 4 games in Overtime, including their 2OT thriller in Game 5 to win their second cup in three years. It also led to Kings center Anze Kopitar providing us with one of the best trophy photos ever.
Now to 2015.
The Kings aren’t even in the playoffs to defend their crown, due to their atrocious 3-15 record in overtime this season, as well as some internal unrest between the players and head coach Daryl Sutter. For the first time since the 2006-07 Carolina Hurricanes, the reigning champion won’t be defending their title, which adds a level of intrigue to the next few months. Now I know that hockey is a bit of a niche sport compared to the NFL or NBA, so here is a quick primer of the teams and why you should or should not cheer for them.
New York Rangers – 53-22-7, 1st in Metropolitan
The Rangers felt like they were wronged with how they lost last year’s Stanley Cup final, they spent this year exacting their revenge on opponents, winning the President’s Cup Trophy with 113 points and recorded a league high 53 wins, both setting new franchise records (FWIW: The team whose records they broke, were the 1994 Stanley Cup Champion Rangers). What’s most impressive is they spent a third of their season without their star goalie – Henrik Lundqvist. Lundqvist took a puck to the throat and sprained a blood vessel on Jan. 31 vs Carolina. During his 25 game absence, the team went 18-7. The team is 3rd in Goals/Game with 3.02, led by Rick Nash’s 42 goals. Martin St. Louis, Chris Kreider and the team’s other forwards don’t have stats as gaudy as Nash’s, but the team found ways to win. A favorable matchup with the Penguins in the first round, followed by facing either the Capitals or the Islanders gives the Rangers a simple path to the conference finals.
Cheer Them: If you like watching good old fashioned hockey, and they are an original six team, which is always a good thing
Boo Them: If you don’t like cheering for the favored team or just are against New York sports teams.
Anaheim Ducks 51-24-7, 1st in Pacific
The Ducks have been a consistent threat ever since the team won their first cup in 2007, only missing the playoffs twice in that span. Led by captain Ryan Getzlaf and new addition Ryan Kesler, the Ducks may finally be able to break their streak of disappointing playoff exits after successful regular seasons. The Ducks play the Winnipeg Jets in the first round, and while the Jets matchup favorably, it should be pretty easy goings for the Ducks until the second round, where they will play the winner of the Canucks/Flames matchup. That may prove more difficult, but if the Ducks play solid, consistent hockey, they very well could win the West.
Cheer Them: They have devoted fans, and Ryan Kesler hosts a hilarious parody of Between Two Ferns called Between Two Zambonis.
Boo Them: They dropped all connections to their awesome origin roots in 2006, a sin that is unforgivable to anyone who has watched The Mighty Ducks.
The Dark Horses
Tampa Bay Lightning – 50-24-8, 2nd in Atlantic
The Lightning have had an up and down run during the Steve Yzerman tenure, reaching as far as the conference finals in 2011, and missing the playoffs in 2012 and 2013. The Lightning comfortably ended the season second in their division thanks to strong play from all-world center Steven Stamkos and the steady glove of Ben Bishop in the crease. It’s been five years since Yzerman left Detroit for Tampa, and fittingly, the Lightning play the Red Wings in the first round. This may be the hardest series to read, but if the Lightning do top Detroit, they should be able to take down the winner of Ottawa/Montreal as well. Tampa leads the league in goals per game with 3.2 this year, and considering the Red Wings nightmarish season between the pipes, that favors Tampa well. However, goalie Ben Bishop has yet to play postseason hockey and he may be nervy at first against a battle tested team like Detroit. Tampa Bay’s cup window is just opening, but in a questionable Eastern Conference, they need to seize the moment and try to win now.
Cheer Them: If you like rooting for teams built the right way between drafting, free agency and consistent play
Boo them: If you’re a Red Wings fan, or hate the idea of Florida hockey.
Washington Capitals 45-26-11, 2nd in Metropolitan
In the name of Trotz, Orpik, and Niskanen, the Capitals are a pretty good team. New head coach Barry Trotz and the two new blue liners (Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen) to beef up the Caps formerly leaky defense. Combined with workhorse goalie Braden Holtby, who started 72 games this year (and went 41-20-10 with a 2.22 goals-against average and a .921 save percentage doing so) and the league’s most potent scorer in Alex Ovechkin, the Capitals are hoping to make some noise. It all could hinge on Ovechkin, whose playoff performances have varied from absolute brilliance (2009) to Houdini-esque disappearing acts (2013). Washington has a favorable draw with the Islanders, and if they conquer them, they probably play the Rangers in the second round. The Capitals have been steady if unspectacular, but who knows, maybe Ovechkin finds his stride, and the team reaches their first conference finals since
Cheer them: You love watching a team that dominates on the powerplay (league leading 25.3%) and has a strong, skilled defensive unit.
Boo them: You have a disdain for the DC area, or are disheartened by a soviet born player in our nation’s capital (I’ve been on a big binge of The Americans lately, so maybe I’m just paranoid)
St. Louis Blues 51-24-7, 1st in Central
The Blues enter the playoffs this year in better condition then last year, having won five of their last six. The issue for St. Louis is the team starts hot, but falls off and exits early. Two years in a row, they have won their opening two playoff games only to lose the next four. They hope this will be the year that changes. The second best team in the west by record, had strong overall season on all fronts, ranking top five in: goals for, goals against, and powerplay, in addition to ranking seventh in penalty killing. They go up against the comeback kids, the Minnesota Wild. These teams have a lot of experience as division rivals, but I think this is the year the Blues can turn it around. They face the winner of Nashville and Chicago, which will provide sterner opposition. The Blues road to the cup is not easy, but it starts with winning their first playoff series since 2012.
Cheer them: You enjoy strong offensive forwards like T.J Oshie, Vladamir Tarasenko and Alexander Steen
Boo them: The Blues are kind of like the Philadelphia Eagles in that they have strong regular seasons and crash out in the playoffs (only two playoff series wins since 2001) also, the people that cheer for this team are probably Cardinals fans, who are terrible.
The Hawks have won two of the last five Stanley Cups, and were a goal away from another final last year, but spent this year trying to rediscover their identity. Star forward Patrick Kane going down to injury hurt them the most. He was leading the league in scoring when he got hurt on February 25th, but has been cleared to return for their opener vs the Predators. Goalie Corey Crawford has quietly had the best season of his career (32-20-5 record, 2.27 GAA and .924 save percentage) and was a co-recipient of the William M. Jennings trophy alongside Carey Price for allowing the fewest goals on the year (189). The Blackhawks experience, and a first round playoff matchup with relatively inexperienced Nashville favors them to advance to a matchup with the Blues or Wild. If the Blackhawks heat up at the right time, and Kane resumes his scoring ways, the ‘Hawks could make another deep run this year.
Cheer Them: Despite the team’s checkered history prior to the Quennville-Toews-Kane era, Chicago is a fine hockey town, and another original six club
Boo Them: Ask any “fan” under age 30 who Alexi Zhamnov is, if they don’t know, they are a shameless bandwagon hopper. Also, their iconic sweaters can be seen as a bit racist.
The Second Hottest Team in Hockey
Minnesota Wild 46-28-8, 4th in Central (Wild Card 1)
The Wild’s season has been a great story. Less than 90 days ago, the squad sat 12th in the conference. Coach Mike Yeo’s practice meltdown went viral and it looked like the team would not carry the success of last year’s playoff run in to this season. Then GM Chuck Fletcher acquired goalie Devan Dubnyk from the Coyotes and the rest was history. Dubnyk started every game for the Wild until their second to last game of the season, and the team nabbed a wild card spot, tying an NHL record by winning 12 straight road games to finish the season. They face division rival St. Louis in the first round. The Wild have already had an improbable road to the playoffs, and could make the second round again this year considering their hot streak. However, it would be the stuff of legend for this squad to go from the basement to the conference finals in under five months.
Cheer them: It’s hockey in Minnesota
Boo them: It’s hockey in Minnesota
The Canadians – There are 5 teams from the Great White North featured in this year’s playoffs, I doubt any of them will win, but O CANADA!
Montreal Canadiens 50-22-10, 1st in Atlantic
Carey. Flippin. Price. He will be the lasting memory for hockey fans when they think of the 2014-15 Habs squad. Price is having a season that is worthy of Hart trophy consideration – a record of 44-16-6, 1.96 GAA and a .933 save percentage. Price’s 44 wins are a new franchise record, his save percentage ranks 3rd all-time among goalies who started at least 50 games in a season, behind only Dominik Hasek and Tim Thomas. What is Price’s reward for his year? The Habs face the hottest team in hockey in the first round, the Ottawa Senators, who they are 1-3 against this year. Two years ago, the Canadiens won the division and were upset by Ottawa, so they are on alert. If star forward (and former Michigan Wolverine) Max Pacioretty can return from injury and score goals, along with Price being Price, the Habs can go far. If not, they may be crying into their poutine before April ends.
Cheer Them: They are historically the most successful team in hockey, but haven’t hoisted a cup since 1993. Also Carey Price is pretty likable and hoisting the cup would cap his incredible campaign.
Boo Them: They are in Quebec, and Quebec is full of French-Canadians who don’t even want to be a part of Canada, so if your anti-francophile, don’t root for the Canadiens.
Ottawa Senators 43-26-13, 4th in Atlantic (Wild Card 1)
The Sens are the hottest team in hockey, finishing on a run of 21-3-3. There also is the growing legend of Andrew “The Hamburglar” Hammond, the rookie netminder is 20-1-2 since making his debut Feb. 18 against the team’s first round opponent – the Canadiens. If you’re a fan of good goaltending, the Senators vs Canadiens matchup is going to be great hockey. The Senators also feature Norris trophy candidate Erik Karlsson, the most dynamic defenseman in hockey. They are a pesky young team on a hot streak that could upset Montreal and at least give the winner of Detroit/Tampa a fight.
Cheer Them: If you like rooting for young teams without too many stars, also, their fans throw hamburgers on the ice for Hamburglar.
Boo Them: I mean, unless they are playing your team, or you dislike the city of Ottawa, there’s not much to hate about them.
Vancouver Canucks 48-29-5, 2nd in Pacific
The Canucks had a quietly solid season, finishing second in the Pacific division. As a team, they were Top 10 in Goals, Powerplay and Penalty Kill. After a few good, under the radar seasons in the desert with Arizona, winger Radim Vrbata impressed all year long, scoring 31 goals to go with 32 assists. The goalie situation is what has hockey fans curious with the start of the postseason. Ryan Miller has been out since February with a sprained knee but could return for the playoffs. In Miller’s absence, Eddie Lack has played well in Miller’s and considering Miller’s playoff woes as of late (2.70 GAA and .897 save percentage in the Blues first round exit last year) it may present first year head coach Willie Desjardins with a dilemma – Trust the embattled yet experienced veteran? or stick with the hot hands in Lack? The Canucks have a difficult first round matchup with divisional rival Calgary, and if they take care of the Flames, have to face Anaheim, so a tough road lies ahead for the 2011 Western Conference champions.
Cheer Them: The Sedin twins are two of the most likable guys in hockey, Coach Willie Desjardins ascended from coaching in the WHL, to being an NHL asst. coach, to the AHL to the NHL within ten years.
Boo Them: Remember when the team lost the Cup in the 2011 Finals in Game 7 to Boston? That riot was out of control.
Calgary Flames 45-30-7, 3rd in Pacific
The Flames were left for dead as recently as February, when most thought they would try to tank to earn the right to draft Connor McDavid this coming summer. Instead, the team shouldered the load after losing team MVP and (then) Norris trophy candidate Mark Giordano and won their way into the playoffs, going 12-6-3 down the stretch. The team has been paced by a mix and match of youth and veteran presence. Rookie Johnny Gaudreau has lived up to his “Johnny Hockey” nickname, second year forward Sean Monahan had 31 goals and 31 assists, while at age 31 Jiri Hudler had an impressive 76 points to lead the team (good for 8th in the league.) The Flames face divisional rival Vancouver in their first postseason trip since 2009. The teams matched up last in 2004, when the Flames beat the Canucks to face the Lightning in the Finals. The Flames are a dynamic team that could make some noise. They should beat Vancouver and can at least give Anaheim a push in the second round.
Cheer Them: There isn’t a lot else going on in Calgary, so they love their hockey team. Rallied from adversity and defied the odds to make the postseason for the first time this decade.
Boo Them: You are a jilted Atlanta Flames fan who didn’t get over your team skipping town in 1980.
Winnipeg Jets 43-26-13 5th in Central (Wild Card 2)
For the first time since moving from Atlanta, the Jets made the postseason, bringing playoff hockey back to Winnipeg for the first time since 1996, and the fans are excited. The Jets did this in an unlikely fashion – they traded disgruntled star forward Evander Kane to the Sabres for a plethora of veterans in return. The Jets roster is a collage of role players from other contenders that have made new names for themselves as stars in Winnipeg – Drew Stafford, Lee Stempniak and Mathieu Perrault all were on teams that had better fortunes than Winnipeg in seasons past, but have created a new, playoff ready unit under head coach Paul Maurice. Their path begins with facing the top seeded Ducks in the first round. While it is unlikely they can pull off an upset against such an experienced squad, the fans in the MTS Center will create a rowdy environment for at least two games that will make things difficult for Anaheim.
Cheer Them: Because for a town that had it’s hockey team taken from them in 1996, this was an event nearly twenty years in the making. The fans and players are elated for playoff hockey to be back in Winnipeg.
Boo Them: You are a jilted Atlanta Thrashers fan who didn’t get over your (second) team skipping town (again) in 2011.
The Participation Trophy Recipients – Thanks for Playing, It’s Not Your Year
Detroit Red Wings – 43-25-14, 3rd in Atlantic
A few people would think it’s blasphemous to pick against your own team, but I would be astonished if the Red Wings reached the divisional round, let alone got out of their first round matchup. The team was playing incredibly well into March, and then the wheels came off. After going 15-6-2 to start the new calendar year, the Wings had a miserable 5-8-2 record in March. Jimmy Howard has struggled since returning from injury, and young Petr Mrazek will be in net for Game 1 of their series vs Tampa. The team has not won back to back games since late February. However, you cannot discount the team due to their immense expereince, and the fact some of the younger players won a Calder Cup with Grand Rapids. The team ranked 2nd on the Powerplay, and Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist combined for 56 goals. This is not the worst Wings team to make the playoffs in the past few years, but there is a sense of doubt surrounding them. Beat Tampa Bay in the first round, and they could prove dangerous. If their late season sluggishness follows them into the playoffs, the Wings will be on the golf course before May.
Cheer Them: The Detroit Red Wings are the most successful club in the NHL of the past two decades, and one of the best in league history, yet don’t have the stigma of teams like the Yankees despite winning all the time. They build from within, and have one of the most iconic sweaters in the sport.
Boo Them: Stop reading this blog.
Pittsburgh Penguins 43-27-12, 4th in Metropolitan (Wild Card 2)
The Penguins backed their way into the playoffs this year, but it earns them a chance at revenge against the Rangers. After leading their second round series last year 3-1, the Penguins lost three straight, costing then Coach Dan Bylsma and GM Ray Shero their jobs. Pittsburgh is 4-9-2 in their last fifteen games, which doesn’t bode well for their matchup with New York. The last two years their sticks also went quiet as they only scored 3 goals in their final three games against New York last year, and 2 goals when Boston swept them in the 2013 Conference Finals. Don’t expect this less than stellar Pens squad to bring another cup back to Pittsburgh.
Cheer them: Don’t
Boo them: Sidney Crosby’s infinitely punchable face is all the reason you need.
New York Islanders 47-28-7, 2nd in Metropolitan
This year was the team’s last playing in Nassau Coliseum on Long Island, as the team moves to Brooklyn this coming fall. They will hope to make a long playoff run to give their long suffering fans something to remember the building by. Led by John Tavares, who is one of the best players in the league, the Isles have been steady for most of the year. They tripped up towards the end of the season, which could be troubling for their playoff hopes. They play the Capitals in the opening round, coincidentally, the team who they last won a playoff series against in 1993. If the Isles take care of Washington, it would likely set up an all-New York matchup with the Rangers. While I don’t see them making it past the second, a subway series would be a fitting sendoff for the Coliseum.
Cheer Them: Much like the Mets, the Islanders are the red-headed stepchild to the Manhattan-based Rangers, so they are an underdog at all times
Boo them: like the Rangers, they are a New York sports team, and that coliseum is a complete dump.
Nashville Predators 47-25-10, 2nd in Central
What do you do when you fire the only coach in franchise history? Undergo a transformation of playing style and change from a counterattacking squad to an offensive machine. New head coach Peter Laviolette brought an attacking style that rewarded the club with the most goals they’ve scored in four seasons. Aside from rookie forward Filip Forsberg, the Predators greatest strength lies from the back forward – Goalie Pekka Rinne’s return from injury and strong play from the defense, led by captain Shea Weber, earned the team their first trip to the playoffs since losing in the second round in 2012. They go up against division rival Chicago, whose playoff experience strongly favors them despite being the lower seed. Nashville also has to face a returning Patrick Kane, back from his clavicle injury suffered in late February. The Predators must protect the Bridgestone Arena if they are to beat Chicago, and if they do, a date with the Blues or Wild awaits them.
Congratulations, you made it all the way through. Choose your team, cheer for them loudly, and embrace the coolest sport on earth. It’s the tournament for the best trophy in sports – the only one you can drink out of. Watch as much hockey as you can, because it’s the cup.
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