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.
The first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs saw my original 2015 Stanley Cup pick, St. Louis, collapse at the hands of Minnesota, while my choice in the east, Tampa Bay, essentially stole its first round series from Detroit. However, I did correctly predict both series in two of the four divisions and five of eight series overall. Considering the parity in the current NHL, 62.5% isn’t too bad! Take out the coin flip Central Division, which pitted four potential Cup winners, and I batted 83%.
With how impressive Minnesota was in the first round, it would be easy to jump on the Wild’s bandwagon as this year’s new Cup threat, but I think I’ve seen the light on Anaheim. The Ducks are not the NHL’s best team, or even close to the most analytically sound team, but they are also not playing in the stacked Central or Metropolitan Divisions; instead they enjoy a spot in a surprisingly weak Pacific Division. For that reason I think they will be the last team standing when the dust clears on the 2015 postseason. Continue reading “2015 NHL playoff predictions: Round 2 and beyond.”
The NHL is down to its final four teams, and I’m left with as many questions as answers.
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.
May is my favorite time of year. College hockey wrapped up a few weeks ago, the AHL playoffs are under way and most importantly, the NHL playoffs have begun.
Just a few months ago, amidst the constant bickering and endless debate over a new labor agreement, I didn’t think any of us would be watching playoff hockey. Now that it has begun, I have a feeling it’s going to be just as unpredictable as last year. Did anybody see Los Angeles and Phoenix battling for a bid in the Stanley Cup Finals, or New Jersey getting on an impressive roll at the right time? As I write this, six of the eight opening NHL playoff series have begun, so I’m a little behind. So before Game 2 starts, here are my first round predictions.
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.
A trend is building in the NHL and it’s a good one. Long-suffering franchises will either win their first title or their first in many decades. It started with the Blackhawks in 2010, continued with the Bruins in 2011 and now, the Kings have finally hoisted the Stanley Cup after 45 years of mostly ineptitude.
Not every hockey season in Los Angeles was a bad one – the Kings reached the Stanley Cup Finals in 1993 and have made the playoffs quite a few times – but many ended at the bottom of the Western Conference. Or in bankruptcy.
A woman checked in to a gym in Glendale, California, about 10 miles north of Staples Center, on a recent morning. “The Kings are in the playoffs for first time since 1993,” she told the clerk at the front desk. “Can you believe it?”
Mercifully, the clerk let the error go uncorrected. “I know,” he said. “I was 3 then.”
I’m sitting on at least a dozen good anecdotes from the Kings’ bandwagon, but that one is my favorite. There was a naive charm to their exchange. On one hand, Los Angeles has one of the biggest and fastest teams in the NHL, one that subdues opponents with an aggressive forecheck, superior goaltending and timely scoring. On the other hand, the team has inspired an affection that’s rather cute and innocent, sort of like Mickey Mouse, en route to the Stanley Cup final.
The puck drops on the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs in a few hours. The cast of characters includes some new faces (Brian Elliott), some familiar faces (Sidney Crosby), and some faces that are just plain old (Nicklas Lidstrom).
AllPuck.com breaks down each of the first-round series, and offers its first prediction for a Stanley Cup champion.