We know our four teams for the Memorial Cup now. Thanks to Oshawa’s ousting of Connor McDavid and the Erie Otters, the Generals will represent the OHL, joining Kelowna of the WHL, plus Quebec (the hosts) and Rimouski in the QMJHL. So who is favored to win it all? Ah, that’s a thorny question in a tournament that often surprises. But let’s take a look at what you should know about the four worthy squads in contention.
WHAT WE LEARNED IN ROUND 2:
NEW YORK RANGERS: These Broadway Blueshirts are a resilient bunch. They are the first team in NHL history to rally from a 3-1 deficit and win a playoff series two years in a row. They did it in round 2 against the Pittsburgh Penguins last year and again against the Washington Capitals this week. New York didn’t always look like the better team against the Caps but managed to weather countless, hard-forechecking storms and counterattack. New York used its best asset, team speed, to give Washington fits in transition. There was simply no answer for the wheels of Carl Hagelin, Kevin Hayes and especially Chris Kreider late in the series. We also learned in round 2 that, while defensemen Keith Yandle and Dan Boyle can still move the puck with the best of ‘em, neither has held up well battling enemy forwards in the trenches.
TAMPA BAY: The hallmark of a good team, one we’ve picked to win the Stanley Cup, is winning in many different ways, and the Bolts did that in round 2 against Montreal. They relied on mostly great goaltending from Ben Bishop – and a goal that shouldn’t have counted – to win Game 1. They blitzed Carey Price for six goals in Game 2. Despite being a dominant possession team all season, they got badly outchanced and outshot in the middle of the series, yet still walked away with a win in Game 3 with just 19 shots. And, in the clinching Game 6, offensive stars Steven Stamkos, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov delivered backbreaking goals. The Lightning have won ugly, they’ve won pretty and they’ve won tough. Their blueline also looks as strong as it has all season with Braydon Coburn and Jason Garrison healthy.
Chris Kontos. Claude Lemieux. Jean Sebastien-Giguere. Fernando Pisani. Bryan Bickell. Justin Williams. It seems every year some player saves his best hockey for the post-season and becomes his team’s surprise hero. Who has a chance to do the same this year?
I present 10 players to consider. Some are cogs in Cup-contending machines. Others are standout performers with potential to elevate underdog squads.
Forgive Steve Yzerman. He’s less impressed by his Tampa Bay Lightning than the rest of the world is. It takes more than a healthy run at the Presidents’ Trophy to elevate this GM’s heart rate. Call it the byproduct of three Stanley Cup rings, a Conn Smythe Trophy, a Selke Trophy, a Ted Lindsay Award and three Olympic gold medals, one as a player and two as chief roster architect.
So when Yzerman learns in mid-March THN has chosen Tampa Bay as 2015 Stanley Cup champ, he doesn’t flinch. He doesn’t care if his team sits three points back of Montreal for the Eastern Conference’s best record. Bigger things to worry about? More like smaller things.
“We’re talking today, and we’ve yet to clinch a playoff spot,” Yzerman said. “You might be thinking Stanley Cup. We’re not. We’re just trying to make the playoffs.”
Yzerman has accomplished enough to never get ahead of himself, and the Bolts haven’t done much yet under his watch. He was hired in 2010 and they reached Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final a year later, but that wasn’t his team. He brought in aging goalie Dwayne Roloson for a Cinderella run, but most of the roster came from Jay Feaster and Brian Lawton.
The current Lightning incarnation is very much Yzerman’s, aside from pillars Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman, and anyone would’ve taken those two with the first and second overall pick in 2008 and 2009, respectively. The Yzerman regime drafted Andrei Vasilevskiy, Jonathan Drouin, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov. It traded for Ben Bishop and Ryan Callahan. It discovered Tyler Johnson and signed Anton Stralman and Valtteri Filppula. Tampa is where it is today because of Yzerman’s handiwork.
And Yzerman’s Bolts aren’t yet where he wants them to be, having lost to Montreal in four straight games last spring after Bishop dislocated his elbow days before the playoffs, derailing a Vezina Trophy-caliber season. But just because Yzerman thinks Cup talk is premature doesn’t mean we have to agree. Instead we elect to accuse him of modesty – and build a case for Tampa Bay to win its second Stanley Cup.
The CHL playoffs begin tonight and it’s going to be a lot of fun. Connor McDavid has one last chance to win it all with the Erie Otters in the Ontario League, but the powerfully-built Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds have designs of their own. Out in the Western League, Kelowna and Brandon seem to be on a collision course for the final, while the Quebec League has the added wrinkle of sending two teams to the Memorial Cup – one being the host Quebec Remparts, who won’t want to crawl in through the back door.
Here’s a look at all the first-round matchups in the CHL, with a bit more info on one series per league that has me riveted from the get-go.
These are the salad days for USA Hockey. The Americans have won two world junior titles in the past five years, and even if the results surrounding those triumphs have been uneven, it’s something the national squad can still hold over it Canadian neighbors, who have no golds during that span.
Obviously, the talent pool has a great deal to do with the recent success – players are coming from an ever-expanding number of states in the south and west, joining the traditional east and Midwest hotbeds – but the team’s brass has also found a knack for picking effective coaches. Read more
While Canada’s hopes of winning gold on home ice in Toronto don’t entirely hinge on the healing powers of Connor McDavid, it is a factor. And if the most scrutinized right hand in the nation is working at full capacity when the world juniors kick off in Montreal, Canadians can rightfully raise expectations to the highest setting.
Last year, Hockey Canada kept the training wheels on McDavid in Malmo. He was under-used and miscast as a winger, denying him the ability to fly with the puck as he is so apt to do as a member of the Ontario League’s Erie Otters. Part of this was by design, as the team’s brass wanted him to get a taste of the big stage and not the pressure of being the guy as the hockey-mad nation attempted to win the championship after a four-year drought. Read more
Weeks ago, the THN team gathered to debate and argue over the 2014-15 NHL standings as we went through the league team by team. We shared our final predictions in the annual Yearbook and ran individual breakdowns of each team over the past month. In our Season Preview magazine, we took it a step further and picked our winners for the major individual awards.
Here, on one easy page, are THN’s official predictions for the 2014-15 NHL season. Read more