RANGERS: The Rangers yield practically nothing to the opposition. Boasting one of the most skilled and savvy blueline corps in the NHL, New York is always safe with players such as Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal and Dan Girardi on the prowl. The fact Keith Yandle hasn’t even been mentioned yet speaks volumes of the talent back there, and even if you get through two of those players, you still have to deal with Henrik Lundqvist, the backbone of the franchise. ‘The King’ always gives New York a chance to win, and last year’s appearance in the Stanley Cup final wasn’t enough to slake his thirst for glory. Needless to say, the penalty kill is also a strong suit. Up front the Rangers have speed and skill to burn, headlined by forwards Rick Nash, Derek Stepan, Mats Zuccarello and past Cup champion Martin St-Louis. Chris Kreider and Carl Hagelin also have some wicked afterburners.
PENGUINS: The Penguins score well in many metrics historically important to playoff success. They’re top-10 in goals against, power play, penalty kill and 5-on-5 scoring. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin remain two of the NHL’s elite players, and Crosby in particular heated up down the stretch. Marc-Andre Fleury was tied for the NHL lead in shutouts and was having quite the season in net, while first-year coach Mike Johnston has utilized his fast-paced style with a nod to defensive responsibility. The Pens have been a better possession team with Johnston at the helm despite injuries/illnesses to key players Crosby, Malkin, Olli Maatta and others. And if you believe in good storylines, the last time Pittsburgh won the Cup was in 2009 when Dan Bylsma was a rookie coach (albeit as a mid-season replacement). Pittsburgh has the weapons to do it. Now it’s just a matter of execution. Read more
BLUES: St. Louis is stacked at every skater position. Take a gander at the deep, skilled forward corps. The usual groupings of David Backes between Alexander Steen and T.J. Oshie and Jori Lehtera between Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko give the Blues two first lines. Paul Stastny had 10 points in seven playoff games last spring – and he centers the third line. The Blues have no weaknesses up front, especially since Tarasenko has become the elite scorer they’ve lacked for years. Assuming Kevin Shattenkirk returns from abdominal surgery on time, St. Louis has tremendous blueline depth, too. He’s the puck-mover of the group, Alex Pietrangelo is the do-it-all Clydesdale, Barret Jackman the veteran muscle and Jay Bouwmeester the smooth-skating minutes eater. The Blues have one of the league’s cloudiest goaltending situations, but Brian Elliott or Jake Allen can steal games when hot.
WILD: Strong drafting and development, coupled with an aggressive slew of signings and trades, have made Minnesota one of the NHL’s deeper teams at forward. The Wild throw offense at opponents via Zach Parise, Jason Pominville, Mikael Granlund and Thomas Vanek. They also have good brawn on the wings thanks to Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle and freshly acquired Chris Stewart. This team won’t be pushed around. The Wild get strong two-way play from a trio of Finns whose games are tailored to the grinding playoff style: Mikko Koivu, Erik Haula and Sean Bergenheim. Ryan Suter gives Minnesota 30 minutes of impeccable blueline play per night. The Wild have also gotten surprising offensive contributions from Marco Scandella and youngster Mathew Dumba. Ultimately, winning comes down to Devan Dubnyk. Minnesota’s climb from outside to inside the playoffs correlates directly to his meteoric rise. Read more
Who can forget Ray Bourque’s big moment June 9, 2001?
His Colorado Avalanche had just won their second Stanley Cup. He’d won his first at age 40 after 22 stellar, Hall-of-Fame-worthy seasons. It seemed the entire sport was cheering for him. When Avs captain Joe Sakic finally hoisted the chalice, everyone watching around the world knew who was getting it. It’s impossible not to get chills watching this, which ended up being Bourque’s final moment on the ice as a player:
Assessing all 16 playoff teams for 2014-15, we pondered who each team’s Bourque is. What non-captain will get the first Cup pass on each squad? It could b a sentimental favorite like Bourque or someone with whom the captain has a personal connection. You know who Henrik Sedin would pass it to.
CANUCKS: Henrik and Daniel Sedin are back as marquee NHLers. When Vancouver’s secondary scoring dried up in the second half, the Sedins played their best hockey, cycling the puck like they did in their glory days. The likes of Nick Bonino never did wake up on the second line, but behemoth Zack Kassian clicked with the twins and started scoring, which let coach Willie Desjardins keep sniper Radim Vrbata on the No. 2 unit. Stud prospect Bo Horvat blossomed on a grind line with Ronalds Kenins and Jannik Hansen. Horvat had some handy big-game experience as a teenager, from the world juniors to multiple Memorial Cups. Alexander Edler played his best ‘D’ since losing his confidence in the 2011-12 playoffs. He and Chris Tanev form the team’s top pair. Ryan Miller may not recover from his knee injury in time for the playoffs, but Eddie Lack outperformed Miller in relief, anyway.
FLAMES: The Flames win by playing a classic rope-a-dope style – starting out sluggish, falling behind early, lulling the opposition into a sense of security, then coming back and winning in the third period. In reality, none of that is planned. But what cannot be denied is the fact Calgary had the best goal-differential in the third period and was among league-leaders in come-from-behind victories in the final frame. The hardworking Flames have done a complete transformation in just a few seasons – growing from the dump-and-chase Brent Sutter approach to a layered east-west attack that starts from a mobile D-corps. It’s not uncommon to see T.J. Brodie or Kris Russell charge the net or a Dennis Wideman or (injured) Mark Giordano digging in the offensive corners. Calgary receives scoring from all four lines and has one of the best shooting percentages in the league. Read more
PREDATORS: Replacing coach Barry Trotz with Peter Laviolette transformed Nashville from a counterstriker into an attacking team. The result was the Preds’ best goal production in four years. They lack a superstar up front, but rookie Filip Forsberg has flashed that kind of ability. The rest of Nashville’s forwards provide offense by committee. A more aggressive approach has made Nashville a better possession team and thus better defensively, as opponents can’t score without the puck. The Preds are relatively faceless up front, but it’s the opposite from the net out. Goalie Pekka Rinne bounced back from his 2013-14 hip problems with a stellar year. Nashville’s greatest strength: its blueline, led by superstar Shea Weber, who does everything well. Partner Roman Josi remains a secret stud. Seth Jones, Ryan Ellis, Cody Franson and Mattias Ekholm round out a versatile top six that oozes puck-moving ability.
BLACKHAWKS: The uber-experienced Blackhawks are loaded with multi-championship players, from Jonathan Toews to Marian Hossa, and the majority of their 2013 Stanley Cup roster is intact. They don’t panic under pressure, as they showed last year rallying from a 2-0 series deficit in the first round to knock out St. Louis. Chicago keeps teams off the scoresheet so well because its deep D-corps, led by Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, pushes play toward the other team’s net. The Hawks crack the NHL’s top three in Corsi Close a third straight season. Goaltender Corey Crawford only has to be good and not great. The Hawks score a lot at even strength because of their tremendous depth. One of Antoine Vermette and Brad Richards is the third-line center for the playoffs. Coach Joel Quenneville can deploy championship-caliber checkers Andrew Shaw and Marcus Kruger as low as the fourth line. Read more
CANADIENS: Who’s kidding whom? When your goaltender is putting together a historically dominant season worthy of Hart Trophy consideration, it’s a generally accepted principle that he is the key to your hopes. You can dismiss the Canadiens all you want, but goaltending is still an enormous part of the game in the playoffs, and the Canadiens have one of the very best in the NHL. Combine that with a team that transitions from offense to defense quickly and is one of the most opportunistic in the league and it can provide a formula for playoff success. Whether it’s their historical mystique or their goaltending, the Canadiens have an uncanny ability to get into the heads of their opponents and crush their hopes before they have a chance to gain any steam. Yes, the Canadiens are top-heavy in terms of talent, but that top is as good or better than anyone else’s.
SENATORS: The Senators have relied on their youthful vigor and a group of kids who have turned out – at least in the short term – to be much better than expected. Anyone who thought Mike Hoffman and Mark Stone would be in the Calder Trophy conversation at the beginning of the season, go directly to the front of the class and collect your gold star. As they showed in their late-season run, the Senators are a team that plays on emotion. Andrew Hammond provided the Senators with outstanding workhorse goaltending and a feel-good story around which the entire organization could rally. If the Senators can harness that energy and carry it into a playoff run, who knows how far a team of guys who are too young to realize they shouldn’t be doing what they’re doing can go? Oh yes, and it helps they have the most dynamic offensive defenseman in the game today in Erik Karlsson. Read more
CAPITALS: Scoring was never a problem for the Caps. Keeping the puck out of their net was. But new coach Barry Trotz and his beefed-up blueline (enter Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen over the summer) are producing results. Washington is now a top-10 team defensively, jumping up from the bottom third last year. The team’s possession numbers are better as well, so Trotz’s defensive rep pays dividends at both ends of the ice. In Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, the Caps have one of the most terrifying twosomes, but more weapons have been added, including young Russian Evgeny Kuznetsov and trade deadline acquisition Curtis Glencross. The power play is still deadly, and with multiple D-man options (John Carlson and Mike Green being the most prominent), opponents don’t get a rest if the top unit fails to convert. Goalie Braden Holtby has also been better than ever.
ISLANDERS: The Islanders, one of the best possession teams in the NHL, can head into the playoffs confident knowing the past three Stanley Cup winners have all ranked top-three in unblocked shot attempts (USAT). When the Isles are on their game, they’re jumping into passing routes and rushing up the ice or breaking up enemy incursions with active sticks. In captain John Tavares, New York has a potential Hart Trophy winner, and depth on Long Island hasn’t been this good in decades. The squad even has what has become known as the “best fourth line in hockey” in Casey Cizikas, Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck, all swift shift disturbers who bang, crash and disrupt. On the back end, the addition of Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy – Cup winners with Boston and Chicago – has brought leadership and skill to a unit that always seemed to be a guy short in the past. Read more
Should a team be defined only by a championship it wins? Can’t a fan have memories of great moments without a title?
It’s spring, and flowers are sprouting, baseball training camps are in full mode, basketball and hockey teams are thinking playoffs and pro football is planning mini-camps.
The Rangers, one of hockey’s best, are poised to go deep into the playoffs, and their fans probably will be heartbroken (again) if they don’t come up with a Cup. But once upon a time, just getting into postseason play was heartwarming.
These days l recall the 45th anniversary of the greatest big-league sports event I covered during my long tenure as a sportswriter with The New York Times. Read more