Posts Tagged ‘Stanley Cup playoffs’
Fresh blood: that’s the easiest way to describe the four teams remaining that still have Stanley Cup dreams on their mind. The San Jose Sharks, St. Louis Blues, Tampa Bay Lightning and Pittsburgh Penguins represent impressive turnover in the NHL’s final four playoff slots with three new teams for 2016.
They are a true representation of the league’s Salary Cap era, but the Conference Finalists in the 2010s were rarely made up of fresh faces. The usual suspects, near dynasties Chicago and Los Angeles, and perennial favorite the New York Rangers in the East, bowed out in the first round.
Replacing Chicago and Los Angeles in the West are two of the most star-crossed franchises in the NHL.
Emerging from the Central Division was the usually disappointing Blues, a squad that has been stuck in neutral over the past few years trying to outlast the Blackhawks, Minnesota Wild and Nashville Predators in easily the league’s toughest grouping. However, this is St. Louis 2.0, a retooled team that combined its prior size, grit and outstanding blue line with new skilled young offensive weapons.
Editor’s Note: This is the second of two pieces hypothesizing what might have happened if the 2004-05 season hadn’t been cancelled.
It is September 2004. NHL training camps have opened for business. The surprising Tampa Bay Lightning are the defending champions. Hope springs eternal across Canada, where the national Stanley Cup drought has reached a seemingly interminable ten seasons. Across the Detroit river, the Red Wings are looking strong. That’s been the case most years of late — every year from 1996 to 2000 the Wings either won the Cup or were eliminated by the Avalanche — but no, this season is special.
A miraculous 11th-hour bargaining session allowed the NHL to avoid a work stoppage, ensuring a full 82-game season. The miracle was in the details. The players’ union agreed to an unprecedented salary-cap structure, taking a small step toward achieving competitive balance among markets large and small. The owners agreed to tweak the rules to improve the style and speed of the game. The era of so-called “clutch and grab” hockey is dead. Speedy skaters can speed without fear of mutilation at the hands of gargantuan defenders. The game is faster and more exciting. More scoring could be in store.
What transpires is only partly predictable.
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Editor’s Note: This is the first of two pieces hypothesizing what might have happened if the 2004-05 season hadn’t been cancelled.
What if I told you that the 2004-05 lockout was just a nightmare and didn’t actually happen?
No, I’m not making an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary, although it’s tempting. At this point, there’s a new documentary about anything remotely significant.
This NHL season will mark the 10th anniversary of the 2004-05 lockout, and I figured it would be fun to imagine what might have occurred if the NHL had the common sense not to cancel an entire season by virtue of labor strife. In case you all forgot, in 2005 the Stanley Cup wasn’t awarded for the first time since 1919. A Spanish Flu epidemic swept across the globe in 1919 and forced the cancellation of the playoffs. That’s a more valid premise than a ridiculous labor dispute.
Anyway, my point isn’t to force anyone to remember the pain of a lost season. It’s to wonder who would have hoisted the Stanley Cup in 2005.
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Twenty years is a long time. It didn’t hit me until this weekend that’s how long it’s been since the Rangers went to the Stanley Cup Finals. I was 10 years old when that happened and although I was somewhat pulling for Vancouver (I liked their logo, and we all did dumb things when we were younger), I remember being happy for New Yorkers when the Rangers won. The celebration was massive. ESPN — ESPN! — showed the victory parade. I’ve only rarely seen a city so grateful to win a title.
That 1994 squad was led by center Mark Messier, defenseman Brian Leetch and goalie Mike Richter and its top-to-bottom depth was impressive. New York ended up winning the President’s Trophy that season and set a team record for points in a season. After easily dismissing the Islanders and Capitals, the Rangers had to gut out a memorable seven-game series against the Devils. Once the Finals rolled around, New York was in control before teasing the Canucks with the possibility of a Game 7 upset at Madison Square Garden. The Rangers won the game 3-2 and the series 4-3.
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The first question: Will the San Jose Sharks ever reach the Stanley Cup Final? After the thrashing they gave Vancouver in the first round, I figured maybe this would be the year. Then they lost in seven games to the Kings and their star goalie, Jonathan Quick. San Jose was stacked offensively with Joe Thornton, Logan Couture and Patrick Marleau, and finally had a truly sharp goalie in Antti Niemi, but for reasons I’ve yet to figure out they can’t seem to get past that final barrier. I’ve asked fans of all sports which is worse, having a team that never makes it far in the playoffs, or one that is consistently right there but comes agonizingly short every time? The consensus was that they both are terrible, but the latter is a lot more painful. It must suck to be a Sharks fan right now.
In the first round, we predicted six of the eight series correctly. The two we were most unsure about were the two incorrect picks – no surprise at all that New York or Los Angeles won.
Now that the second round is here, the picture becomes a little more clear. Only one of the four series will go the full seven games. Which will it be, and who will move on?
The playoffs have been interesting so far. Some teams have surprised me. Others haven’t at all.
The biggest surprise was the play of the New York Islanders. I thought Pittsburgh would wipe the floor with the Isles and that they should feel lucky if they pick up one game in the series. New York ended up staying with the Penguins in almost every game, and lost two heartbreakers at home in overtime. I never thought I’d say this, but the Islanders look as if they are finally turning things around. (Just in time for their move to Brooklyn!)
Another surprise was the performance of the Minnesota Wild. I’m not surprised that they lost to Chicago, but because they got bounced in only five games. Losing their top goaltender didn’t help, but Minnesota’s offense was stagnant the whole series. The Wild also looked terrible in Game 4 as they got shut out at home and handed the Blackhawks all the momentum in the series. Nevertheless, Minnesota looks stable and if they can add another scorer and fix their inconsistency in the net, they should be a force next season.
Speaking of net consistency, here’s Vancouver. The Canucks’ first-round sweep didn’t surprise me at all. They looked flat-out awful against the Sharks. Roberto Luongo started the first two games in net and didn’t look that bad, but then he was pulled for Cory Schneider, who wasn’t an improvement. Vancouver needs to fix its goaltending problem next season, or else they can kiss their fading Stanley Cup hopes goodbye.
Anyway, we’ve said goodbye to eight teams and are now off to the Conference Semifinals. Here are my predictions for the second round.
That’s a reach … or is it?
Frankly, I didn’t know what to make of Vancouver Canucks defenseman Kevin Bieksa’s comments criticizing San Jose Sharks forwards Joe Thornton and Logan Couture of “embellishing” contact in order to draw penalties in Game 3 of their Western Conference quarterfinal series. Here’s exactly what he told the media after the Canucks lost the game 5-2:
Where I live, beards are fashionable. A record store, restaurant, grocery store and boutique knickknack shop that sells bearded garden gnomes were among the local businesses that recently donated a trove of prizes for a moustache/beard contest at my library. Among the contest winners was an international beard-growing champion1. The reality TV series “Whisker Wars” paid attention. By the way, there’s a reality TV series called “Whisker Wars.”
Don’t be fooled by the playoff seedings after a 48-game regular season. There are no shoo-ins here.
Think the short season wasn’t long enough to shake things up? The Maple Leafs are playoff upstarts and the Red Wings are fading. Jarome Iginla is in Pittsburgh and Jaromir Jagr is in Boston. The defending champions brought nearly their entire Stanley Cup-winning roster back into the regular season, yet aren’t favored to get out of the first round.
And yet, amidst the craziness, the best hockey teams on the planet are seeded first in each conference, on a collision course to a memorable Stanley Cup Finals.