Well we’ve come to the end of another entertaining NHL season and from my point of view there is no surprise about the final outcome. There is no surprise that the Pittsburgh Penguins successfully defended their championship. Before the playoffs started, I said in my predictions for the first round that Pittsburgh was the team to beat in the east and Chicago was the team to beat in the west. So my east prediction was ho hum and the west an electric shock. But what did the whole thing mean? This article tries to make sense of what happened in the NHL from April to June. Before I get down to business I must take a moment to congratulate myself and pat myself on the back. I finished 12-3 for the playoff rounds, predicted Pittsburgh was the team to beat in the east. If Chicago had played up to expectations, I might have done even better. So before recapping, I’ll put away my wizard’s hat until next year…
The only surprise about the Penguins repeating as champion was how strong and how good this team is. They won without their best defenseman, Kris Letang playing a single playoff game. They won with their best goaltender Matt Murray missing three quarters of the playoffs. And they won with their best player Sidney Crosby missing one game with a concussion. Baring injury or the unexpected, the Penguins can win a few more in row. By a country mile, they are already the team to beat for next year.
The early exit of the Chicago Blackhawks to a team they never lost to before in the very first round, in the minimum four games, including two shutouts on home ice had to be the biggest upset and shock of the whole playoffs. It is true that the core of this team that has won 3 Stanley Cups since 2010 is starting to age, but much better was definitely expected. What really hurt this team is that all the new players who are expected to lead the way in the future showed absolutely nothing, a bad omen for the future of this team. A team that I expected to be Pittsburgh’s main challenger has now got lots of doubts hanging over its head.
Under talented Ottawa upsetting the New York Rangers and then nearly pulling off an equal upset of Nashville’s elimination of Chicago by taking Pittsburgh to a 7 game semi-final.
Honorable mention: St. Louis which lost a lot of top talent in the off season and then by trades winning a playoff round and then putting up a good struggle against Nashville.
That guy everybody saw in the Pittsburgh dressing room after the Stanley Cup victory who was on the floor kissing every Penguin toe he could get his lips around was really General Manager Marc Bergevin of the Montreal Canadiens. Bergevin stood to lose his life either by lynching or by honorable suicide before the mob got to him because he made P. K. Subban the scapegoat for Montreal missing the playoffs the year before and traded him to Nashville. If the Predators had won and Subban won the Conn Smythe Trophy which nearly happened, his worst nightmare would have come true. Kissing a few Penguin toes are small tokens of gratitude for sparing him the fate of what could have happened if Nashville won the Stanley Cup. He still isn’t off the hook. Montreal fans will still remember the trade next year. For now at least, his life is spared.
Best Playoff Series
Gutsy under talented Ottawa taking powerful Pittsburgh to a Game 7, double overtime thriller. If Pittsburgh’s other more talented opponents had put out the same effort, they might have pulled off an upset.
Most Unfortunate Series
Columbus, which has always had attendance problems and has never won a playoff round, had to play the one team, Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins, that they probably had no chance of beating. Columbus gave their fans the finest regular season in their history, but any attendance gains certainly got discouraged by the usual first round defeat. Columbus fans needed to see progress that could be measured by a playoff victory over anybody. Sure it was champion Pittsburgh, but hockey patrons are still going to stay away from the box office and say, “Same old Blue Jackets…”
Best Opponent Wasn’t There
The playoff series during the Crosby-Malkin era between Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay was tied 1-1. Last year, with Pittsburgh even healthier than this year and Tampa Bay missing star forward Steve Stamkos for every game except the last one, the Lightning took Pittsburgh to a 7 game semi-final. This year, Tampa Bay General Manager Steve Yzerman signed all his star players, clearly expecting to win the Stanley Cup. But again Stamkos got injured early in the season and the Lightning never recovered and missed the playoffs. With this year’s Chicago debacle, Tampa Bay may be the only team with the talent when it is completely healthy to really challenge Pittsburgh in the immediate future. Pittsburgh has never beaten Tampa Bay when it has had a healthy Stamkos for a full playoff series. With a healthy team, expect the Lightning to be back in the playoffs next year.
The Usual Stanley Cup For Wheel Spinners…
Once again the eastern champion Washington Captials met the western champion Minnesota Wild for the Stanley Cup of wheel spinning, a regular occurrence for the past half-decade. Inglorious Minnesota was put out easily in the first round by underdog St. Louis with the extra spice of the Blues being coached by ex-Wild coach, Mike Yeo. The main culprit is Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher who has never added any significant talent to his roster since he signed Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. Poor Yeo had to stomach this do-nothing improvement by Fletcher until he was inevitably fired. Minnesota’s easy exit to underdog St. Louis, coached by Yeo, is the lowest playoff blow yet.
In Washington’s case, you cannot blame the General Manager Brian MacLellan who signed T. J. Oshie last year and Kevin Shattenkirk this year. The real culprits are a group of players led by Alexander Ovechkin who consistently fail to rise to the occasion in the NHL playoffs and in Ovechkin’s case, internationally as well with Russia. Pittsburgh played without its best defenseman Kris Letang, had to use the erratic Marc Andre Fleury as its goaltender, lost Sidney Crosby for one game with a concussion, and still beat the Capitals who had all the advantages. Pittsburgh won three games in Washington, its home away from home. Ovechkin, by his own admission was playing poorly and was demoted to the third line in despair by coach Barry Trotz, who like all other Washington and Russian coaches, cannot make a winner out of him. The so-called Crosby-Ovechkin “rivalry” is a dud. The score in playoff meetings is Pittsburgh 3 Washington 0. There are 3 Stanley Cups, 2 Conn Smythe Trophies, 2 Olympic Gold Medals, and a World Cup championship for Crosby to none for Ovechkin. For the first time I’m reading articles about Washington finally trading the underachieving Ovechkin who has never risen to the occasion. The Capitals can also probably trade the equally uninspiring Brooks Orpik, Nicklas Backstrom, goaltender Braden Holtby, and new guy Shattenkirk who was supposed to put Washington over the top as well.
Compare this with under talented Ottawa who chased Fleury from the nets and then took Pittsburgh with their best goaltender Matt Murray to double overtime in the 7th game in Pittsburgh instead of being shut out in the 7th game on home ice in Washington by backup goaltender Fleury.
The Predators biggest victory of the playoffs may have been off the ice. Before this playoff run, nobody really has called Nashville a hockey town. But like the agonizing Tennessee Titan Super Bowl loss, the Predators caught the imagination of most of the city. In previous years, there has been talk of Nashville losing money and even about its survival. Hopefully now, being a Predator fan will be fully ingrained in this city in the future. There is already talk of awarding Nashville an outdoor stadium game sometime soon. If the Predators keep icing competitive teams, they will increase their following, and a once hockey-ignorant city will become as knowledgeable as the best of NHL cities.
- New York Rangers
On the very day of their defeat by Ottawa, the Rangers were awarded next year’s outdoor Winter Classic game against the Buffalo Sabres.
Welcome Back Strangers
Edmonton Oilers, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Columbus Blue Jackets who have seldom made the playoffs recently finally made it back to the post season. Edmonton won a playoff round, Toronto played credibly against Washington and the unfortunate Columbus had to play the best team in the playoffs in the first round. Hopefully they will be able to build on what they accomplished this year.
Are You A Stanley Cup Goaltender?
Carey Price can win the big one internationally when he plays for Canada but cannot win more than one playoff round for Montreal. This year he was put out in the first round by the equally puzzling Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers. Ironically in the World Cup, Price defeated his old teammate, Jaroslav Halak of Team Europe who took the Canadiens farther in the Stanley Cup playoffs than Price has ever done.
Also on this list is the horrible Braden Holtby of the Washington Capitals. Going to head-to-head against erratic backup goaltender Marc Andre Fleury of Pittsburgh, he actually turned in Fleury-like playoff performances of 3 goals on 19 shots and 3 goals on 14 shots. Like his other teammates who I have noted above, he never rises to the occasion when he is needed most.
The Flip Flop Man
Lundqvist beats tough Montreal, then loses to under talented Ottawa and then beats tough Canada in the World Championship Final. Jekyll-turned Hyde-turned Jekyll.
Who Can Beat Pittsburgh Next Year?
Actually assuming the correct additions, subtractions, injuries, trades and draft choices take place the teams with the best chances seem to be…
- Tampa Bay
This assumes that Steve Stamkos finally doesn’t get himself injured, Tampa makes a good draft choice and/or an astute trade and the new goaltending tandem replacing Ben Bishop works out.
Under talented Ottawa drafts and trades for more talent at forward who play with the same inspired enthusiasm and dedication as this year’s team did in the playoffs.
The Ducks continue to improve under their old Stanley Cup winning coach Randy Carlyle. The add more talent by a good draft and astute trades to finally being able to beat Nashville and make the Stanley Cup Finals. And goaltender John Gibson who showed promise this year continues to develop.