It is now anybody’s tournament, anybody’s Stanley Cup. With the ouster of the Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks and the Los Angeles Kings, there will be a new champion for the first time in four years. All the teams left in the playoffs have never won the Stanley Cup or haven’t won it in a long time with the exception of the Pittsburgh Penguins who are trying to get back to the level they were at – at the level that had been foreseen for them – in 2009.
During the first round, I took the stand of “show me” – prove it to me that you really have improved, that you have righted the ship, that you can win the big one, that you are over the hump. Well several teams did just that, making me look bad. Some of the results have far-reaching implications and may lead to serious consequences in the off season. Others were just routine wins and losses. So before moving on to my predictions, I’ll give my usual analysis about who won big and who lost big, both for players and teams.
Players – Biggest Winners
There are no players who were big losers in the first round, but several players deserve an extra pat on the back.
1. Joe Thornton (and Patrick Marleau)
Over the years I’ve probably berated Joe Thornton more than any other player because under his leadership, San Jose has never come close to the playoff results that have been predicted. But now in the twilight of his career, he has pulled off a huge upset of a team that I predicted would repeat its pattern of the previous four years and win the Stanley Cup. I don’t care how much Joe and Patrick actually contributed. They both deserve to take a well-earned bow for this.
2. Martin Jones
Jones took away the Los Angeles Kings’ biggest edge, their biggest weapon, former Conn Smythe Trophy winner, goaltender Jonathan Quick. By outplaying Quick or at least playing him equal, Jones played the crucial part in giving whatever hopes the Sharks had of pulling an upset, a chance to come true. This result establishes himself a playoff caliber goaltender, a huge boost for his career and gives hope for the Sharks in the future.
3. John Tavares
Tavares had never won a playoff round and to lose to untried Florida would have been a huge setback not only to the Islanders but for also his career. To never win a playoff round would start to haunt him and the critics would start to question his capability. He desperately wanted to establish his Islanders team as a potential Stanley Cup champion, a team that could win in the playoffs and this result is a good starting point.
4. Matt Murray
When Marc Andre Fleury was removed from the Pittsburgh roster by a concussion, Murray stepped up and gave Pittsburgh the type of steady goal tending that the Penguins have so sorely lacked in the playoffs since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009. The result has been that Pittsburgh was finally able to beat the New York Rangers, who had been consistently eliminating them from the playoffs in recent years. If Murray continues his fine play, Fleury will be history in Pittsburgh.
Players Under The Gun
You’re playing for it all in this next round against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Alexander, and I mean everything. Not only the chance to move on in the playoffs, not only the chance to win the Stanley Cup, but the implied rivalry that has been around with Sidney Crosby since you both arrived in the league at the same time as best player in the league; your status as best Russian in the NHL against Evgeni Malkin; the fate of your veteran players on Washington especially long time pals and teammates Brooks Orpik, and Nicklas Backstrom; the status by which you will be remembered in the NHL when you retire; your future status with the Russian national team; the meaning of the successful season your Washington Capitals have had this year; and possibly your very future with the Washington Capitals.
You may be piling up the individual records but as a team man you’ve been a horrible flop. Your Washington Capitals are notorious chokers in the NHL playoffs just like your Russian national teams in the Olympics. Crosby and Malkin can retire right now having won the Stanley Cup, with Malkin getting the Conn Smythe Trophy as most valuable player, and Crosby winning two Olympic Gold Medals to your none. There is only one constant in both situations: you. If you really are a champion, the great player you and everybody else claimed you are, you could not get a tougher opponent or a more direct challenge to prove it. You’re staring down the barrel of a gun. You will be competing against the two players you are most compared with and if you don’t look good against them, your status in the NHL is going to take a deep fall no matter how many individual feats you pile up in the future. You have never even been to the third round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The ball is squarely in your court this round. No other player in the NHL has so much pressure on him in this round as you do. Because if you don’t make it to the next round this time after the season the Capitals have had, all your achievements this year will mean nothing and it is doubtful that ANY team will become a champion with you as its leader.
Teams – Biggest Winners
1. Pittsburgh Penguins
Ever since 2009 when the Penguins won the Stanley Cup they have been floundering in the playoffs. General Manager Ray Shero tinkered incorrectly with the chemistry of the team and now both he and coach Dan Bylsma are gone. Still worse, most of the playoff losses were to teams with inferior talent. When Pittsburgh drafted both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, they were expected to win many championships, not just one. Has the ship finally been righted? Pittsburgh roared down the home stretch, moving up from 7th to 2nd, and then dispatched impressively, the Rangers, a team that had beaten them consistently in the playoffs in recent years. Are the Penguins finally back and ready to reclaim the future predicted for them? Beating a nemesis convincingly was a good way of making believers.
2. St. Louis Blues
St. Louis was in the same position as Pittsburgh, having to prove themselves against a long time nemesis. Actually the St. Louis victory was even more impressive because it was against the toughest opponent in the first round, defending champion and three time Stanley Cup winner Chicago who had beaten St. Louis consistently in the playoffs. St. Louis was desperately trying to reach the level of the Blackhawks (all be it without core player Patrick Sharp) and Los Angeles Kings and now that both main rivals are gone, they have a great chance of getting back to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since 1970.
3. San Jose Sharks
They are not supposed to be here. Anachronistic San Jose, still led by long time playoff floppers Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau somehow managed to beat and impressively too, Los Angeles Kings, who if the recent pattern held true, were scheduled to win the Stanley Cup again this year. But the key figure for San Jose was probably goaltender Martin Jones who managed to be the equal and even superior of former Conn Smythe Trophy winner Jonathan Quick. His emergence provides great hope for San Jose’s future. But does his emergence now make the Sharks this year’s team of destiny? They pulled off the biggest miracle of the first round. Based on that, are there more to come?
4. Nashville Predators
The Predators have won some first-round matches in the past but the Ducks might be the best team that the Predators have ever eliminated, a sign that they are on the way to becoming a true Stanley Cup competitor at last. It was also the first time that they won a seven game playoff series. This is a young team on the way up and the door is wide open for them to advance farther than they have ever been in this year’s playoffs.
Teams – Biggest Losers
1. Minnesota Wild
For a long time Minnesota could not make the playoffs and then added native Minnesota hero Zach Parise and other free agents to really contend for the Stanley Cup. They managed to beat teams on the same level as themselves like Colorado but could not compete with real Stanley Cup caliber teams like Los Angeles and Chicago. Now they have lost to unproven Dallas. The results are plain. The amount of talent on Minnesota is not enough and not good enough. They might make the playoffs and win the odd round against lesser teams but they are far from being a true Stanley Cup contender. This team needs a major retooling in the off season to become a true contender.
2. Los Angeles Kings
The pattern was Chicago wins; win the Stanley Cup; off year while Chicago wins; win the Stanley Cup; off year while Chicago wins; they were supposed to win the Stanley Cup again this year. Clearly management thought that by adding past Stanley Cup winners Vincent Lecavalier and Milan Lucic they had rebuilt this team to be a winner again. What really hurt was that the Kings’ best weapon, the one edge they thought they had over everybody, former Conn Smythe Trophy winner, goaltender Jonathan Quick was played equal or even out-played. When that happens, the Kings do not have enough talent to make up the deficit. It will not be that difficult a task, the Kings are not that far away, especially as long as they have Quick, but management has to add more to bring the Kings back to the winners circle.
3. Anaheim Ducks
I know I said in my first round predictions that Anaheim-Nashville was not a mismatch and that an upset could occur but this was a bitter setback for the Anaheim Ducks, the team who in recent years came closest to breaking through the Chicago-Los Angeles Western Conference monopoly. It is one thing losing to established Stanley Cup champions Blackhawks-Kings, but it is quite another to lose to up-and-coming Nashville no matter how good a team the Predators are especially when you have home ice advantage, at one point led 3-2, your two main rivals have been eliminated, and you had the advantage of being a battle-hardened veteran team that knows the ropes. This defeat is particularly damaging to the career of coach Bruce Boudreau. He is a good coach but when all things are added up, he has never been to a Stanley Cup Final, let alone win the big one. This is the type of defeat that might make management feel that the Ducks are just spinning their wheels under Boudreau and not progressing. There could be changes both at the coaching level and in the team during the off season.
1. Tampa Bay-New York Islanders
It could happen, the New York Islanders beating Tampa Bay. As long as they are on the ice to compete, it can. Ask San Jose. But it won’t happen this time. Finally winning a playoff round was a huge step for the Islanders who had not won for eons. At least they are over that hump. But they are facing a far different caliber opponent in Florida’s other team, seasoned Tampa Bay Lightning that made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final last year and put up a good struggle against champion Chicago. The best thing the Islanders have going for them is the hunger of John Tavares. But it will not be enough against Tampa Bay which has far more talent and experience. Now that their two toughest rivals, Chicago and Los Angeles have been removed and the Stanley Cup is now anybody’s trophy to win, Tampa Bay will not blow their best chance to win the Stanley Cup to such a lesser team in experience and talent. The Lightning will win in 6 or 5 games.
Pity poor Washington. These are the two most desperate teams in the Eastern Conference and it is all summed up in the names of their two biggest stars, Sydney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin who entered the NHL at the same time and were supposed be equal rivals for the rest of their careers. But there is a big divergence in their careers. Crosby has won a Stanley Cup and two Olympic medals while Ovechkin has won nothing except individual trophies, and has not even been to a conference final. And there is reason to doubt whether Ovechkin has really been the best Russian player during this period and the player who has supplanted him is none other than Evgeni Malkin, who is also lining up against him in this round. Since the end of the 2009 season, these two teams have been the worst chokers of the Eastern Conference, often losing to teams of much lesser talent. But at least Pittsburgh has won one championship, though that is far from what was predicted for them. For the Capitals to win, they must get great goaltending from Braden Holtby and get to Pittsburgh goaltender Matt Murray. The best thing the Capitals have going for them is coach Barry Trotz who managed to get them to win a gritty 1-0 game in game 6 in Philadelphia, the type of lesser team the Capitals have lost to so frequently in the past, just when the Flyers were starting to smell the Capitals’ blood. But Pittsburgh has far more talent than lowly Philadelphia and has been red hot since the middle of March. I believe in Barry Trotz but I don’t believe in brittle Ovechkin, Brooks Orpik, and Nicklas Backstrom and Trotz will not be enough this time. Pittsburgh will win in 6 or 7 games and then there needs to be a deep rethink in Washington about winning with this core of veteran players, especially winning with ANY team that has Ovechkin as the leader. As in the previous round, Washington is playing for its future.
3. Dallas-St. Louis
This is a very tough series to call. It pits the long-time-trying-to-prove-it-to-everyone St. Louis Blues who seldom ever make the Conference Final against the newly put together, up-and-coming Western Conference champion Dallas Stars. Let’s start putting the series factors together and see what comes out.
Regular Season Winner: Dallas 2-1 with two games in overtime
Home Ice Advantage: Dallas
Beat tougher opponent in the first round: St Louis
Team with most players who have won the Stanley Cup before and know how to win the big one: Dallas
Desperation Factor: Should be St. Louis, if it is not, they deserve to lose.
Coaching: St. Louis Ken Hitchcock who has won a Stanley Cup, ironically with Dallas. Lindy Ruff is a good coach but he has never won the big one.
Hex Factor/Choker Habit: St. Louis
At least on paper better offence: Dallas
At least on paper better defense: St. Louis
I’ll go with St. Louis because they should have a better defense, at least on paper, they should play more desperately, and Ken Hitchcock has won the big one. But St. Louis always chokes, especially in this round, and Dallas has a wide edge in players who have won the big one before. Ugg, I even feel like changing my mind. However St. Louis did finally manage to beat the Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks. But long time Blackhawk Stanley Cup champion Patrick Sharp is now playing for Dallas… I’d like to duck picking this match but since I have to choose I’ll take St. Louis in 6 or 7 games but it won’t be a surprise or upset if Dallas wins.
4. San Jose-Nashville
This is the Cinderella series, a battle of two teams who beat superior opponents in the first round, but both are coming from opposite directions. The Sharks are led by veterans who may be having their last hurrah, their last chance to win the Stanley Cup while the Predators are a young, up-and-coming team. For both teams this should be a desperate series because the Predators have never been to a Conference Final and Sharks have seldom reached it during the Thornton-Marleau era, so this is the best chance each team has had for reaching new ground. Nashville won the regular season series, 2-1. At the coaching level, it is pretty even; Nashville coach Peter Laviolette who has won the big one with Carolina, against San Jose coach Peter DeBoer who took underdog, under-talented New Jersey to the Stanley Cup Final and has already pulled off a major upset in the first round with the supposedly over-the-hill Sharks. San Jose has home ice but that meant nothing in the last round to the Predators. The key to this series is San Jose goaltender Martin Jones. Was that just a flash-in-the-pan performance when he outplayed maybe the best goaltender of the Stanley Cup playoffs, Los Angeles Kings Jonathan Quick, or is he the real thing? He will have to be just as good against Nashville goaltender Pekka Rinne for the Sharks to have a chance to win. This is also the round where San Jose traditionally chokes. I will take youth over age in this unique battle of the underdog teams with Nashville winning in 6 games. Either way, it will be a Cinderella team in the Conference Final and possibly in the Stanley Cup as well.