(Editor’s note: The Blues were our pre-season pick to win the Stanley Cup and when it came time to put together our Playoff Preview edition late in the season, we saw no reason to change. Of course, then they went out and lost six in a row to close the regular season. Are we nervous our Cup pick could go out in the first round? That’s an understatement. But we still believe. And a big part of that belief comes from what Ryan Kennedy explored in his cover story for the Playoff Preview issue: the Blues have learned from their tough lessons. Here is that story.)
Since his star turn for team USA at the Sochi Olympics, T.J. Oshie hasn’t had much time to soak in life as a real American hero. Along with all the fame he got stateside for his shootout heroics against Russia, he welcomed his first child, Lyla Grace, into the world. “It’s been a little bit of an emotional roller coaster,” he says. “But all for the best, I guess besides leaving the Olympics with nothing to show for it. Having my baby girl was the best moment of my life, hands down.”
In the professional arena, there is one thing that could come close, of course: finally bringing a Stanley Cup to St. Louis, the only still-functioning franchise from the 1967 expansion cohort yet to win the title.
The St. Louis Blues played for the Cup in their first three years of existence thanks to an unbalanced NHL that had the expansion teams in one division and the Original Six in another. Despite the presence of future Hall of Famers such as Glenn Hall, Doug Harvey and Jacques Plante, the Blues were bludgeoned all three times, winning zero games in sweeps to Montreal (twice) and Boston. As the years went on, no manner of star power could get the team back to the final, and that includes vaunted names such as Brett Hull, Al MacInnis and even Wayne Gretzky.
Here’s an easy way for the NHL to make even more money: hold a post-season tournament for all non-playoff teams to determine the Stanley Cup of Hope.
The inspiration for the idea comes from the Kontinental League, which started the Nadezhda Cup (a.k.a. Cup of Hope) last season for teams that missed the playoffs. The, er, “winner” takes home around $600,000 and gets a top pick in the KHL draft.
It’s an out-there idea, for sure, and I’m not necessarily endorsing it, but let’s indulge it for a moment.
With all due respect to Andy Williams and, well Christmas, we all know that this really is the most wonderful time of the year. For hockey fans, there is no better two weeks on the calendar than the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The pace is frenetic. There are always a couple of shocking upsets. Overtime games abound. Pacing yourself and dealing with little sleep, particularly on the nights when the San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings play, is paramount.
When the league came up with its current playoff format that puts more of an emphasis on divisional play and geographical rivalries, this is exactly what it had in mind. And I wouldn’t be surprised if NHL chief operating officer John Collins, the marketing genius who has transformed the league into a big-time, event-driven cash cow, wasn’t in on the planning.
Because what the NHL has done has taken a page from March Madness with its new playoff bracket system. Who had ever heard of a playoff bracket before this season? Prior to this spring, doing playoff brackets were too unwieldy because you always had to wait until the rounds were over to untangle the seedings and move on to the next round. Now it’s nice and tidy. We know that regardless of upsets, the winner of the Boston-Detroit series will play the winner of the Montreal-Tampa first round set, and so it goes.
As I posted on Twitter Monday, I’m picking two series sweeps in Round 1. But there’s a chance two more go the minimum.
Sweeps are killjoys, though, so let’s hope for longer, and therefore much more exciting, series. But the possibility remains that at least one team, or more, will be on the links within a week.
Here are the most likely series sweeps in Round 1:
Florida won the draft lottery last night, meaning the Panthers get the first crack at an interesting field with a lot of variation in it. A lot goes into a draft list and the final results are always thrown into chaos by trades and reaches. As the draft gets closer and teams decide who they like the most, I’ll get a more accurate picture of how things might shake down. But for now, here’s a quick-and-dirty look at what could happen come draft day in Philadelphia, based on the teams’ current situation.
1. Florida – Aaron Ekblad, Barrie Colts, D
Yeah, yeah, defensemen never go first overall anymore (Erik Johnson was the last in 2006), but the Cats are loaded up front with Aleksander Barkov, Nick Bjugstad and Jonathan Huberdeau. Their best ‘D’ prospects are still in college, whereas Ekblad can step in right away and play a top-four role.
Parsing prognostications is always a fun yet humbling and (with some picks) humiliating experience.
I had a glance at my regular season predictions around American Thanksgiving, when teams traditionally take stock of where they think they’re at, and I was fairing pretty well. I had another peek at them during the Sochi Games, and I was looking a little better.
But the last month of the season hit my picks hard. For the most part, I was nearly bang-on for the majority of my predictions. My problem was that when I missed, I swung and missed like Pedro Cerrano on a curve ball.
In the summer I whittled my possible Stanley Cup winners down to four teams for our annual Yearbook predictions: the St. Louis Blues (THN’s pick), Anaheim Ducks, Detroit Red Wings and New York Rangers. I was tempted to go with the Ducks for sentimental reasons (Teemu Selanne), but in the end I opted for sound hockey reasons, as well as some sweet symmetry, and went with the Rangers.
It should have come as a shock to no one that the St. Louis Blues beat the Minnesota Wild in a shootout Sunday night. Because if the Wild had managed to beat the Blues in regulation, it would have accomplished a unique first for this season.
So far in 2013-14, the Blues are 18-0-1 against teams in the Central Division, with their only loss dating back to a 4-3 shootout defeat to the Winnipeg Jets Oct. 18. That augurs very well for the Blues going into the playoffs, particularly since the first two rounds will likely be played exclusively against Central Division opponents. Starting with their game against the Dallas Stars Tuesday night, the Blues have 10 more games against division opponents this season.
Now that bad news. If the regular season is any indication, the Blues will almost certainly be toast in the Western Conference final. As outstanding as the Blues have been this season, they have just a 1-8-0 record against the three teams from California. When we as a group at THN picked the Blues to win the Stanley Cup before the season, I was against the choice because I thought the Blues couldn’t score enough. Since they’re currently in third in goals for this season behind Chicago and Anaheim, they’ve put that notion to rest.