It took right up until the second to last game of the season, but the playoff pairings are all set, and we now can look closely at which NHL teams have a better shot at winning their conference and making the Stanley Cup finals than their odds suggest. The NHL playoffs are absolutely brutal - the toughest postseason challenge in North American sports. As many teams - most recently last year's L.A. Kings - have shown, the winner is often not the best, most talented team but instead the one that is most willing to make the sacrifices required when called upon.
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Strange things happen on the road to the Stanley Cup, and these three squads have what it takes to potentially add another surprising chapter to history ( All odds from BetOnline)
Calgary Flames (+1000 to win the Western Conference): I watch the Flames closely - as my hometown team I see them more than any squad. At the start of the year I had very low expectations. I was sure they would be in the mix with the Sabres, Hurricanes and Oilers for the top pick in the draft. Goes to show what I know. They were very young and seemed to have little offense. As it turned out, though, those youngsters - most notably rookie Johnny Gaudreau and 20-year-old sophomore Sean Monahan - were ready for primetime.
Only three teams in the conference outscored them. More striking than that, though, was their tenacity. They made an art of coming from behind in the third period. They lost eight in a row and then bounced back to still make the playoffs. They lost their best player, defenseman Mark Giordano, before the trade deadline, and they kept on rolling. They will have very strong support at home, they are very well-coached, and Vancouver is a good matchup for them in the opening round.
After platooning goalies much of the year, they also likely have some clarity there - Karri Ramo is hurt, so Jonas Hiller is the clear No. 1. This is very early in the positive development of this franchise, but it would be far from a major shock to see them get hot and go on a run. The price is more than fair.
Winnipeg Jets (+1000 to win the Western Conference): The fans in Winnipeg are going to be even crazier than those in Calgary. This is the first time since the Jets left town for Phoenix that they have had a postseason berth. It has been a long time coming, but they could be poised to make the most of it.
They are a very heavy team. By that I mean that they make their opponents suffer physically - both from big hits and by a grinding, relentless style of play. That can work very well in the playoffs - especially as things progress and opposing teams get more tired. It's what the Kings used to win two of the last three Stanley Cups.
Winnipeg has done a remarkable job of staying on track when they could easily have fallen apart. The trade of Evander Kane to Buffalo was a messy situation, but they didn't lose focus. Injuries and suspensions have been a problem, too. They are a mentally-tough team, and their legs are young. They also have a reasonably manageable first-round pairing - at least for a wild-card team. Anaheim won the conference, but they did it with the smallest goal differential of any playoff team, and they feel like they would be easier to knock of their game than other elite teams.
Ottawa Senators (+900 to win the Eastern Conference): We are on a roll, so we might as well stick with Canadian teams. What the Senators have done in 2015 is just short of impossible. On Feb. 7 they were 20-22-9. Teams below .500 by then just don't make the playoffs. Since then, though, they have gone 23-4-4. The incredible play of goalie Andrew Hammond - one of the least likely stars ever - since being called up from the AHL has been at the center of it, but they have had great play from young players, good veteran leadership, and they have enjoyed outstanding chemistry.
Unfortunately for them, they run into the Montreal Canadiens and all-World goalie Carey Price in the opening round. That isn't ideal, but the intensity and emotion of the series between neighboring cities and deep rivals could work in their favor - especially if Hammond's 15 minutes of fame goes into overtime. They face an uphill battle, but there isn't a team in the conference that I don't feel like they could beat if they played like they have for the last two months.
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