April 8, 2012
Five story lines in the first round
By Chris Stevenson, QMI Agency
We are about to embark on the most fun fortnight on the NHL schedule.
The two weeks that make up the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs are the most compelling drama of the season, with doubleheaders almost every night and that wonderful feeling of not knowing where to look because you don't want to miss a thing.
The first round promises upsets.
It promises what appear to be two incredibly close-matched series in the cruel 4 vs. 5 seedings in each conference, the outcome of which mean two teams that have bonafide and justifiable Stanley Cup aspirations will be on the golf course well before they or their fans had ever hoped.
There will be stars who deliver, stars who flounder, unexpected heroes and guys who put up zeroes.
Will there be another goaltender who can go on a run like Jaroslav Halak did two years ago with the Montreal Canadiens, leading them to upsets of the top-seeded Washington Capitals and then the Pittsburgh Penguins, vanquishing two great talents in the game -- Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby -- in the process?
Maybe it will be Halak again, this time with the St. Louis Blues.
There hasn't been a repeat Stanley Cup champion since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997-98 and six different teams have won in the salary cap era, three from the East (Carolina, Pittsburgh and Boston) and three from the West (Anaheim, Detroit and Chicago). Since Detroit won in 2008, they've alternated West-East for the last four years, so is the West due this year?
Can this year match the drama of last year, when the Boston Bruins won three seven-game series to capture the Cup and both the Bruins and the finalist Vancouver Canucks faced elimination in Game 7 overtime of their opening rounds?
We can only hope.
History tells us they are going to happen and in this salary cap era, where the gap between the great and the humbled has never been closer (OK, except for the Columbus Blue Jackets), it's a wonder they don't happen more often. Since the lockout season, three No. 8 seeds have prevailed in the first round (Edmonton in 2006, Anaheim in '09 and the Montreal Canadiens in '10). Last year, the eighth-seeded Chicago Blackhawks took the Vancouver Canucks to overtime of Game 7 in the opening round. With the eighth-seeded Ottawa Senators having a great record in New York against the Rangers, it smells like another upset could be in the air.
Jobs on the Line
After years of promise and unrealized potential, it's going to be interesting to see what happens with the Washington Capitals in the East and the San Jose Sharks in the West. They are two franchises that have teased us with their regular-season success, but have disappointed in the post-season. Caps general manager George McPhee fired his coach during the season, shifting the target to his back, you would think. In San Jose, the Sharks haven't been able to take the step to the Stanley Cup final after losing the last two years in the conference final. Can Doug Wilson survive as Sharks GM if they come up short again?
The Elephant in the Room
It seems inevitable these days that the post-season narrative at some point will be hijacked by a franchise relocation story. Last spring, it was the Atlanta Thrashers moving to Winnipeg on the eve of the Stanley Cup final. This spring, it looks like we will get a final determination on the future of the Coyotes in Phoenix, where the City of Glendale is dithering over the $25 million it committed to cover the NHL's losses this season. It's also going to be interesting to see if the return of the Florida Panthers to the post-season for the first time since 2000 can revive that franchise and stifle rumblings it could also be on the move.
The Nashville Predators are a team that's done it right. A modest payroll (26th in the league), building through the draft and loyalty to coach Barry Trotz and general manager David Poile -- the only guys to occupy those positions with the club ---make the Predators a model of how to build a franchise. They've made some big moves this year, trading for defenceman Hal Gill and forwards Paul Gaustad and Andrei Kostitsyn, but have a killer matchup in the first round against the Detroit Red Wings. There won't be a city in the playoffs more tuned up for the playoffs than Nashville.
It is the topic few in the league will address publicly for fear of having commissioner Gary Bettman dip into their wallets (just ask Edmonton Oilers coach Tom Renney, the latest to stroke a cheque for $10,000). But talk to coaches off the record and they will tell you the standard of officiating has been slipping. "I think they're getting back into that philosophy of not wanting to make a call that decides a game," said one. "I thought we had decided a penalty was a penalty, but I don't think that's the case anymore." It will be interesting to see how tightly things are called in the playoffs. And that coach is right: a penalty should be a penalty.