As both a hockey fan and a Canadian, this is a great time of year. The Stanley Cup playoffs are the best postseason of any sport. They are long, brutally-intense, and wildly-entertaining. They never disappoint. As we get ready for another long, glorious ride from 16 teams down to one, here are six predictions that I feel good about making. If you don't want to see the future then you probably shouldn't read them:
The Rangers will not win the Stanley Cup: Call me contrary if you want, but this is a prediction I am happy to make. The Rangers are the reasonably heavy favorite to win it all - they are at +500 at BetOnline, and the Blues are second at +800.
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I'm just not buying it - not at that price.
Sure, they are very talented, Henrik Lundqvist has been banged up, though, and that's an issue. Teams that have had the best regular-season record have won just two of the last 11 Stanley Cups, so history is not in their favor. They also face a tough path just to get to the finals - either Washington or the Islanders will be tough in the second round, and Tampa Bay and Montreal are both scary in the Atlantic. This is the toughest the East has been overall in years. Add in some big, physical, defensively-sound teams in the West, and it just doesn't make sense to believe in the favorites. On top of it all, they went all the way to the finals last year. Making that deep run twice in a row is a lot to ask of players physically, and they may not be up to it.
The Penguins will embarrass themselves: The Penguins are a proud, successful franchise. They have two of the five or six best players on the planet. In these playoffs, though, they are a bad joke.
They have just four wins in their last 15 games - and that is still a flattering record given their general level of play. They have no depth, their defense is suspect, their goaltending is never comforting in the playoffs, the chemistry is awful, the coaching isn't working - the list goes on and on. They also drew the Rangers in the opening round - a brutal matchup even if I don't like the favorites as much as I could.
This playoff run is going to be brutal and short for Pittsburgh - and it will force the team to look in the mirror and make some very significant changes.
No Canadian teams will play in Stanley Cup finals: As a Canadian, I couldn't be happier that five of the seven Canadian teams have made the postseason - and that the two I hate most, Edmonton and especially Toronto, didn't. After some rough years in the birthplace of hockey, this is a huge move in the right direction.
As exciting as it is, though, it isn't going to end as well as it could.
Montreal is the only real frontrunner, and I expect them to run into trouble - as we will discuss later. The other four squads all have to overcome some serious hurdles. Montreal and Ottawa play in the first round, and so do Calgary and Vancouver, so two of the five are sure to be out within seven games. The survivors face brutal paths and would need everything to go just right in order to make a deep run. It's not going to happen - though Calgary, Winnipeg and Ottawa are all really trending upwards as organizations, so their time could come soon enough.
No first-round series will go four games: As tough as the elite teams are this year, none are going to roll through their opening series unscathed. Even the worst team - here's looking at you, Pittsburgh - have what it takes to win one. This is going to be a very competitive year.
The hero goalies will look mortal: Two of the biggest stories of this season have been the goalies that have rescued what looked to be lost seasons in Minnesota and Ottawa. The Wild acquired Devan Dubnyk from Arizona, played him every game, and rarely lost. Andrew Hammond was called up in the midst of an underwhelming AHL season and proceeded to carry the Senators to one of the most shocking playoff runs ever. Both guys have been incredible. Neither is used to the pressure of being the main man in the playoffs, though, and neither is going to be quite as sharp as they have been so far. For the teams that rely so heavily on them, that's not good news.
And your winner is…: Before the season started I picked the Tampa Bay Lightning to win the Stanley Cup. Eighty-two games later I am happily sticking with that pick. They have a deep and absolutely potent offense led by the best pure goal scorer on the planet in Steven Stamkos. They are defensively solid. Their goaltending has been good, and Ben Bishop has the potential to be even better in the playoffs. They are well-built and well-coached, and they play like a team.
They have had the frustration of the playoffs last year to build on. I like their matchups, too. Detroit in the opener is as manageable as any first round outside of the Rangers'. They match up well with the Canadiens. I like their style of play against the Rangers, too. They are young, so they should be able to stand up to the test of the playoffs. This is the team to beat.
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