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It’s playoff time, and rather than lead off with some clever transition from nothing, I’ll mention that I don’t need to do that and that you don’t need another vanilla, clichéd-up version of some dude picking all the favorites to win in 6 or 7 games and act like any value was added to your Stanley Cup playoff investment.
What we are going to do today is look at the “experts’ picks” from three of the most visible hockey media companies, compare their hunches to the series prices currently offered by the sportsbooks, and see if we can’t take a stab at predicting some things that won’t happen in the first round of the playoffs.
The three sources that I tallied to compile the 35 “experts’ picks” figures were NHL.com, espn.com (I know, I know), and Sportsnet.ca. The series price betting lines were taken from sportsbook.com.
Eastern Conference
#1 New York Rangers vs. #8 Ottawa Senators – For all the talk that I seem to be hearing amongst the hockey world about a lot of people picking Ottawa to win this series, it sure didn’t show up with regard to the experts. Of the 35 to vote, 33 took the Rangers to advance, making New York the most sure thing to win a round amongst all NHL teams. At -240, the Rangers are also the most expensive bet. No matter how we slice it, NYR is the most favored team of any in the first round of the playoffs.

I think that suits Ottawa just fine, what with their Roland Deschain attitude both in net and throughout the roster. Craig Anderson lives for big games, and is the kind of goalie that almost guarantees his team won’t get swept out of any series. Unfortunately, the flipside is a lack of consistency at mundane times, which leads to a lot of doubters. I am unsure if Ben Bishop is in the team’s plans as far as playing in this series, but I am confident that what won’t happen is Ottawa getting swept out by New York. Their offense is too dynamic at the top and Anderson is going to have at least a pseudo-Game 3 moment at some point.
Photo found here
Sir Craig Anderson, F.M. (Fuckin’ Man)

But, I also don’t believe Ottawa would go into New York and win a Game 7 against such a deep, physical team with the best goalie in the world. Game 7s are typically only lost at home by uber-talented, smooth skating offensive teams that get the yips when everything is on the line in front of their demanding fans. The Rangers are not this type of team. They are too physical and deep, and whedn the moment gets as big as it can get, I like teams that base their games around the simple things to be most likely to close out a home Game 7.
I want to put this out there right now: there is only 1 way that Ottawa can win this series, and it basically looks like the blueprint for any underdog in a seven-game series. The Sens must split the first two games, then bring it home and ambush the Rangers. If Ottawa can grab the coveted 3-1 lead, then I would expect they can close it out at home in Game 6. Let’s also point out that New York is not as seasoned as the stereotypical #1 seed, so there is always the possibility that MSG eats its young in Game 5 when the chips are down, whether the series be at 2-2 or 1-3 against the Rangers.
My ones of loyal readers know that I do not like picking “good” teams to get eliminated at home, but I’m struggling to pick against Ottawa winning two games in a series against a team that has truly no playoff success to speak of. I can’t deny that I feel the most likely (safe?) outcome is that the Rangers will do enough to take a 3-2 lead back to Ottawa and find a way to play a grinding, shutdown road game to knock the Sens out in 6.
Quick Reference – Experts’ picks: 33-2 NYR; Series price NYR (-240) OTT (+190); What Won’t Happen: NYR in 4, OTT in 7.
#2 Boston Bruins vs. #7 Washington Capitals
This one smells like a rat. A cheese eater. Another member of that nation that Frank Costello so resented toward his end.
Let’s play a game called “go back twelve months.” It’s fun. You can often spot forests through trees. Here we go.
Twelve months ago, people were giving the Washington Capitals one last chance to make things right and get to the finals (or at least the conference finals). The Caps came into the playoffs on fire and grabbed another #1 seed. They would even go on to casually handle the New York Rangers in an albeit contested five-game series with playoff rookie Michal Neuvirth in nets. Washington then got swept by Tampa Bay, and all of us proverbial Ned Starks dropped our proverbial Ices through the necks of Alex Ovechkin, Bruce Boudreau and everyone involved with the Capitals’ organization.
We were pissed. Much like Mrs. Bobby Petrino, we all knew we were looking the other way on a team that had not under its current makeup seriously challenged for a spot in the eastern final. And don’t give me “’09 Game 7,” because I watched that damn game. I said “seriously.” But we went ahead and picked them anyway, and if we didn’t, it’s because we picked them to lose in the second round to Pittsburgh, who actually lost in the first round to Tampa Bay. Once the second round was set, everybody was back on the bandwagon and unafraid to admit it. We weren’t sure Washington was going to win it all, or even get past PHILADELPHIA in the east, but they were damn sure not losing to a division rival who plays in the state of Florida.
Then the Caps got swept, and we got embarrassed. “We’ll never back you again,” we said. And from the looks of it, we haven’t reneged on that promise yet.
Boston, meanwhile, was still having to deal with questions about their most recent playoff collapse — that of blowing 3-0 series and Game 7 leads at home to the Flyers. Boston squeaked past a Montreal team that most had pegged for what actually happened to them this season. The Bs entered the second round on the road at the team that had not only done them dirty the season before, but had led the eastern conference for much of the season. I don’t remember Boston being a consensus pick to beat Philadelphia, but maybe I have amnesia. Or maybe all the rest of you do. That’s why we’re playing this game.
Then Boston swept the Flyers en route to two more series that had to end with victories in deciding seventh games. Kudos to the champs, they earned it. But that’s what happened. Boston won a 16-team, 4-round tournament in which 3 of those 4 rounds saw them pushed to the brink, and that’s having the league leading Vezina-in-waiting goaltender backstopping every game. Tim Thomas is still there, but he’s only shining out the string with regard to that trophy.
So, what are the numbers, you ask? Of the 35 “experts,” 32 of them have picked the Bruins to defeat the Capitals. In other words, this is the second-most surefire bet in their eyes. I get that it’s a 2-7 matchup, but this 32-3 vote still raises my eyebrows. This whole thing stinks of revenge. If you don’t believe me and are countering with, “Yeah, but Boston will win this series and almost anyone would think so,” let me get to the rest of the tallies here in a minute. And remember, it’s the Washington Capitals here. Despite all of their transparent playoff problems, it never stopped the majority of people from picking them to win before. So, what’s changed so drastically? Our egos, maybe…
The betting line represents Boston as tied for the second biggest favorite, along with Vancouver, at -225.
I’m not going to pick Washington to win straight up, and I certainly have never liked some of their key players, but if you’re looking solely for value, the Caps on the money line has to be a candidate.
Here’s what won’t happen: Caps’ goalie Braden Holtby will not get deer-faced and give up terrible goals to get the team eliminated. It’s funny, Neuvirth was a playoff rookie until he looked incredibly solid last year against the Rangers. Most people think Holtby is more talented than Neuvirth, and has been pretty good in limited big league action over the past two seasons. Yet, Holtby’s assumed status as fill-in starter is cited as a big reason why Washington will lose. Seriously? The Caps might lose because they are not as well set up to enjoy playoff success as the Bruins are, but it won’t be because Holtby shits the bed.
Quick Reference – Experts’ picks: 32-3 BOS; Series price: BOS (-225) WSH (+188); What Won’t Happen: Caps lose because of Holtby.
#3 Florida Panthers vs. #6 New Jersey Devils
This one’s just comical. I understand it’s the Florida Panthers. I understand it’s the Southeast Division. I understand it’s a traditional power with the winningest goalie ever. But the degree to which the Panthers are being written off as glorified sparring partners for a team that has accomplished exactly nothing over the last four seasons can only be explained by the “name on the front” theory.
See, it doesn’t matter that the New Jersey Devils have won only two first round series (and zero beyond that) since the lockout, or that the Panthers have home ice in this series, or that until upgrading the size of his pads, Marty Brodeur looked like he might not be able to start in the ECHL. None of that matters, because this series is between the Florida Panthers and the New Jersey Devils.
Who cares that the best defenseman in the series is Florida’s Brian Campbell, or that six of the eight points that the Devils have on the Panthers this year are via the six extra shootout wins that New Jersey “earned,” or that, again, Florida has home ice in the series. None of that matters, because New Jersey is going to pound their asses and it’s unfair that all of us have to sit through such an undeserving playoff qualification (never mind that we love watching the Capitals… who lost the division to Florida…).
New Jersey ought to be the favorite, but the gap is too wide for a road favorite that led the league in shootout wins. If they play their cards right, the Devils will be lucky enough to bring a 3-2 lead home, where they would logically close it out. But this is far from a sure thing.
Quick Reference – Experts’ picks: 30-5 NJD; Series price NJD (-210) FLA (+170); What Won’t Happen: Devils in 4, as projected by a few of the experts (including Sportsnet’s Jeff Marek, who I tend to agree with on most hockey arguments).
#4 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. #5 Philadelphia Flyers
It’s really too bad. This one could have been so badass. The league could have went and let everybody believe that this was a true grudge match, that no holds were going to be barred and that the face would have to go through hell to get past a very worthy adversary just to advance to the second round.
Then the league went and started fining anyone and everyone who used anything relating to Pittsburgh in a paragraph with anything relating to a putdown. You aren’t reading this for information on the league’s clear “no shit talk on the Pens” directive, so I won’t go into detail, but over the past few weeks no fewer than three fines have been levied at three separate entities who may have used words to call into question basic things like fairness, toughness or a propensity to bitch and moan.
Lots has been said recently on the matter, and I don’t have much to add except that the complaints by fans, coaches and all those around the game are very warranted and on point. Quite simply, the first rule of the NHL is that you do not talk about the Pittsburgh Penguins (unless it’s to select roster players as either award candidates or all-time great fodder). The second rule is that you do not, under any bleeping circumstances, talk about the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The whole situation is pretty sad, and not the least of which for the Penguins themselves, who through league memos regarding unfair practices that they went on to use themselves, medical incompetence that was masked as the need to give special officiating for special players, and the public silence regarding these ridiculous, arbitrary and capricious fines that are getting levied against any and all dissenters, have adopted the roles of Craig Kilborn in Old School or Bradley Cooper in Wedding Crashers — men who have all the tools and do not need to win by cheating or having others cheat for them, yet go down that route nonetheless.
It’s embarrassing to the league, it’s embarrassing to the Pens and it makes a mockery of notions of justice. But, the rules are the rules, and the commissioner’s office makes the rules.
Of course, there’s no way that office would let an anti-shit-talking directive leak over into an on-ice anti-shit-officiating directive that would screw the Pens’ opponents. Not after losing Pittsburgh in the first round of the playoffs last year. Not a chance.
Don’t like the conspiracy theorist? Then don’t give him all the reason in the world to believe in the likelihood and practicality of the conspiracy.
Notice I haven’t even mentioned a player in this series yet. It’s because I don’t have to. Sorry Flyers fans, there’s no way you’re winning this series. I’m surprised the votes and line are as close as they are. The sad thing is, I think the Flyers actually match up alright with the Penguins. Oh well, what could have been…
Quick Reference – Experts’ picks: 27-8 PIT; Series price: PIT (-220) PHIL (+180); What Won’t Happen: Philadelphia winning the series… or the penalty minute battle… or the lowest fine competition…

Recently I tweeted that Sidney Crosby’s return on Monday against the New York Islanders was a strategic move that had very little to do with his NHL readiness as compared with a week before or after that magical date of November 21, 2011.
My assumption all along was that Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins agreed that the star center should only really worry about bringing the Stanley Cup back to the Steel City. Based on this assumption, I figured that Crosby’s return was not going to be rushed, since the Pens are cruising and it doesn’t take five months to get ready for the playoffs.
I also figured that the status quo for players coming off serious concussions was that they would be on-again, off-again for some time. This may still prove to be true, but what I saw last night certainly altered my opinion of what the plan is.













What does Gaga really stand for: Germanotta or Goal Assist Goal Assist?

If in fact the Penguins knew that Sid was likely going to miss another game within the next couple of weeks, then it made perfect sense to set their recent quarrel mates (the Isles) up to be the ones who “re-injure” the league’s maltese falcon. If the Pens were (are) planning to have to sit Crosby soon for a game or two for “precautionary reasons,” then why not add a bullet to their chamber by bringing him back against the team that called up a double-A goon last year specifically to try to hurt Pittsburgh’s star players?
The plan made perfect sense to me, and I watched with great anticipation of the Islanders doing what basement dwellers do — play dirty. It was all set up, and I was ready to preach.
But something was missing from the Consol Energy Center last night: the New York Islanders.
Never mind the fact that their once stashed cupboard of goaltenders is now down to the dust and mold; the Islanders didn’t play professional hockey last night. And maybe it’s just the case that they couldn’t. Pittsburgh looked scary. Crosby elevated the games of his linemates, and factored into four of the team’s five goals with a cool GAGA performance. In fact, Sid the Kid is so accustomed to two-goal, two-assist performances that perhaps his nickname should be Man Gaga. Or Kid Gaga… Baby Gaga? Alright, we’re all allowed a few uninspiring attempts, aren’t we?
One key fallacy in my logic is that the aforementioned semi-pro goon, Trevor Gillies, was not on the ice for New York. Gillies has only skated in three games this year for the Isles, and it probably didn’t make sense for the franchise to call him up given the strict scrutiny that it would receive if Gillies so much as glanced at Crosby. But, Matt Martin was in the lineup (as usual) and notched a whopping nine hits. I’m not comparing Martin’s game ethically to Gillies’, I’m just throwing out a disclaimer that at least New York had some hitter in the game. Table favorite Milan Jurcina also skated in the game, although that’s about all he did in his 18:48 of ice time.
To the Islanders’ credit, they did outhit the Penguins 31-12, which is actually a jarring margin. But the hits weren’t hard, and many of them were not on #87. Faceoffs were even at 34, and shots were only 36-29 in favor of the winning home team, but the difference in quality was so apparent it was at least a little worrying for supporters of any team that thinks it’s contending this season.
The good news for the Penguins is that they look fluid, crisp, awesome in all ends and, most surprisingly given the point of the season we’re at, totally locked in.
The good news for every other team is that this was only one game. It was one home game against a pretty bad team that started a goalie with exactly zero prior NHL starts. And all of that excitement and group love may wear off around game 60 or 65, just in time for a third straight playoff disappointment since winning the Cup in 2009. That early-out scenario looked more like a fanatical delusion last night, and the Penguins are already the second favorite to win it all (behind only Chicago) on sportsbook.com at 6-to-1. I suspect those positions will swap sooner than later.
Well done and fair play to Crosby and the Pens, as my cynical assumption surrounding the date and opponent of his return seems to have been proven incorrect. Good to have such a dynamic player back on the ice.
The Edmonton Oilers were the last team to get its season started, but the opponent Sunday night could not have been more appropriate.

The Pittsburgh Penguins rolled into Rexall Place coming off road wins against the “better” western Canadian teams, Vancouver and Calgary. To qualify, the Pens were without Evgeni Malkin on Sunday, who is apparently suffering from a lower-body injury. Of course Sidney Crosby was also out, as he has been for a long time despite the inane daily questions about his return. Marc-Andre Fleury was spelled by backup netminder Brent Johnson.

But the actual game was well-played by both teams, and it was something of a measuring stick for the rebuilding Oilers, who make it difficult to not compare them with those Penguins of the mid-2000s. That team was famously bad for a good while, which allowed them to draft in consecutive summers:

2003: Marc-Andre Fleury (first overall)
2004: Evgeni Malkin (second overall)
2005: Sidney Crosby (first overall)
2006: Jordan Staal (second overall)


The Penguins grew together and let their stars mature, and the results turned around strikingly quick. The team of course made it to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2007-08, and won the Cup the following season. Most pundits agree that a hockey team is better off being strong down the middle of the ice than on the outside (if you have to pick only one), and having three centers of the ilk of Malkin, Crosby and Staal was something that proved to be a winning formula.

Fast forward a few years and we take a look at the Edmonton Oilers. The team has been locked in various levels of the basement since making that stunning run to the seventh game of the Stanley Cup Finals in 2005-06. That run was led by Chris Pronger, who was granted a trade to Anaheim just weeks after the Oilers lost Game 7 to Carolina. Pronger and the Ducks went on to win the Cup the very next season, while the Oilers finished 25 points out of fourth place in the division.

The awfulness that has taken place on the ice in Edmonton since has not been without some silver lining though. Being very bad means drafting very high, and here’s what the Oilers have done with their first-round picks since that dreadful season of 2006-07:

2007: Sam Gagner (6th overall)
2008: Jordan Eberle (22nd overall)
2009: Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson (10th overall)
2010: Taylor Hall (1st overall)
2011: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (1st overall)

All five of these players are still with the Oilers, and the most recent four all played Sunday night against the Penguins. Nugent-Hopkins scored a backhanded rebound to tie the game with under five minutes to go. The assist went to Hall, who was very threatening throughout the game, although was unable to beat Brent Johnson with any of his team-leading five shots on goal. The Oil’s version of Crosby and Malkin skated together through much of the game with fellow former first-rounder Ales Hemsky (13th overall in 2001), who has long been Edmonton’s best scoring threat when healthy, and accounted for the shootout winner.

You may notice that unlike the run of high picks in Pittsburgh, there was no goaltender on this list of depression era first-rounders in Edmonton. That’s because Sunday night’s winning tender was selected by the Oilers in 2004 with the 14th overall pick. Devan Dubnyk finally got his shot to work the crease on an opening night, and he was nothing short of excellent, allowing just one goal — an early power play blast by Kris Letang. Dubnyk spent last season playing in far too few games thanks to the big money contract on the books for Nikolai Khabibulin, who played 47 games to the tune of an embarrassing .890 save percentage to go along with a 3.40 GAA and a 10-32-4 record.

Conversely, Dubnyk made the most of his 35 starts by posting a respectable .916 save % to go with a slimmed down 2.71 GAA and a record of 12-13-8. Based on the numbers of each goalie, there is absolutely no case that can be made for Khabibulin getting a 47-35 split. None. It was insane then, it is insane now, and it will be insane if Dubnyk isn’t given at least 50 starts this season. The Wall may have only been starting because of his contract figures, but the outcome wasn’t necessarily bad for Edmonton, as his league-worst numbers allowed them to lose the games necessary to end up with the top overall pick (Nugent-Hopkins), which just happened to save the day last night and will be a huge factor in determining whether the Oilers are able to follow the blueprint left by those Penguins.

I’m not saying that Edmonton is going to win the Stanley Cup in the next three seasons, or even make the playoffs this year, but they have the high-end pieces in place that allows them to have a higher potential ceiling than teams that are forced to develop stars out of lesser draft picks. When healthy, Hemsky is one of the best scoring right wings in the league. We don’t know how good Hall and Nugent-Hopkins will be or how quickly they’ll get there, but last night showed more than just flashes of brilliance.

And on defense, the team is still awaiting the return of their smooth-skating high point total man Ryan Whitney, who coincidentally was a high draft pick himself: fifth overall in 2002 by, yep, you guessed it, the Pittsburgh Penguins. Whitney was traded during the season that the Pens went on to win the Cup, but he was a solid part of their resurgence. In his absence, normal playing partner Tom Gilbert will have to step his game up much like Dan Girardi will for the Rangers in the absence of Marc Staal. Big minutes, blocked shots, solid checking and offensive support are the plan for Gilbert, and I think the big man can cover the void just fine for a while. The promoted man in Whitney’s absence is Theo Peckham, who is a physical fan’s delight. Peckham’s offensive game is not much to speak of, but he is the kind of defenseman that makes opposing forwards no longer eager to play against Edmonton, and every team needs a guy like that.

A final parallel to the Penguins of old is the fact that the Oilers are in the midst of a very important deal for a new arena. The waters have been muddied, but most in the know expect the deal to get done sometime soon. Terry Jones of the Edmonton Sun wrote a very good article detailing the situation, and how Oilers’ owner Daryl Katz may be a hindrance to the deal getting done by using bully tactics. I’m not going to pretend to know Katz or anything about what’s going on upstairs, but the Jones article is a recommended read for those interested.

I very much enjoyed the Penguins – Oilers game last night, and expect both teams to deliver a lot of entertaining hockey this year and for years to come.
While we are stuck in the waning parts of the summer, left to contemplate the effect of free agency, the rises or stagnations of young players and all things between the pipes, I feel it is as good a time as any to reflect upon some of the better and worse Stanley Cup Finals that we’ve seen in recent years.
I’ve read about and familiarized myself with the lineal history of the league, but I don’t have many chronological memories of given playoff years before the magical spring of 1994. As a nine year-old kid, I found myself trying to beat chants of “1940” out of my head during random parts of pretty much every day from May on. The Rangers’ crowd was intense during those playoffs, and fed upon the growing hysteria of the idea of taking back the Stanley Cup for the first time since that year that it kept chanting. The tone of the chants seemed to change as the playoffs went along, with it starting more as a reminder of the franchise’s impotence over the last half century. The chant grew to have a touch of controlled anger, meant to not only convey the fans’ pain and suffering, but also to motivate the group of star players that would cement their legacy at the end. By the end, the chant was pure joy, but that’s only because the Cup was already in hand, since even with 1.6 seconds left in Game 7 of the Finals against Vancouver, the Rangers still had to avoid a defensive zone faceoff disaster. The Rangers were able to dig the puck to the corner, and the ensuing celebration in the arena might put to shame anything that we’ve seen since. It, along with the playoff run itself, made a lifelong fan out of my then six-year-old brother.
Photo via here


But as beautiful as those playoffs were, in today’s world they may not have ever happened. The 1993-94 season was played without a collective bargaining agreement, and that situation manifested itself into the 1994 NHL lockout, which carved the 1995 season into a rapid-fire 48-game season that saw the playoffs start in May for the first (and hopefully last) time. Since that first lockout we’ve been lucky enough to see a statistically strange amount of Finals series go seven games, but not every Stanley Cup Finals lives up to the hype inherent in the fourth round of any bracket-style tournament. Here’s a look at the best and worst Finals from the standpoint of an objective third party, who either supported a team that was previously eliminated or just a casual fan without a dog in the fight to begin with. These series are rated based on excitement coming in, the teams and story lines involved, watchability and actual results, and are of course all my opinion.
The Good
5. 1997 – Detroit d. Philadelphia 4-0
I know, I know. How can a sweep be considered among one of the best series in any time frame? But remember that there were key story lines coming in for both teams, and that the Red Wings were decided underdogs prior to the drop of the puck in Game 1.
For Philadelphia, the story was supposed to be the punctuation on the Eric Lindros trade as one of the better moves in franchise history, and the first opportunity to reverse what happened the year before. For those that don’t know or remember, Lindros very publicly indicated that he would never play for the Quebec Nordiques, who drafted him #1 overall in 1991 anyway. Among Lindros’ reasons for refusing to play for the club was reportedly that he did not want to have to learn French, which is kind of funny in today’s age of baseball players with translators and the like. Lindros stuck to his guns though, and the Nordiques fielded two trade offers for his rights. One was from the New York Rangers, and the other from the Flyers. New York threw the following at Quebec for the rights to Lindros: Doug Weight, Tony Amonte, John Vanbiesbrouck (apparently the biggest city in the USA didn’t like American players much), Alexei Kovalev, three consecutive first-round draft picks from 1993 to 1995, and $12 million in straight cash, homie.
Luckily for New York, the arbitrator deciding on the two offers ruled in favor of Philadelphia’s deal instead. The Flyers sent the following to Quebec: Peter Forsberg, who by himself made the deal a stinker for Philadelphia and a boon for Quebec (or rather, Colorado), Ron Hextall, Chris Simon, Mike Ricci, Kerry Huffman, Steve Duchesne, a 1993 first-round pick that became goaltender Jocelyn Thibault, a 1994 first-round pick that was later traded to Washington, and $15 million. Quebec moved to Colorado in the summer of 1995, and that Avalanche team won the Stanley Cup in its first year, largely thanks to the contributions of the players sent over from Philadelphia.
Photo via
Lindros with the ’97 Prince of Wales Trophy. It would be the only team trophy he’d win with the club.
One of those players was not Hextall, who got himself traded to the New York Islanders after one season in Quebec. He was then shipped back to Philadelphia, which brings us back to the 1997 Finals. Hextall was a Flyer through and through, and Lindros was expected to cement himself as the legend that he was expected to be all along. He had already won a Hart Trophy as league MVP in the 1995 shortened season, and now was to come the Cup. Lindros and the Flyers destroyed everyone in their path en route to the Finals, going 12-3 in three consecutive five-game victories. To add hype to the already legitimately-based expectations, Lindros had two linemates that teamed up with him to actually have a universally recognized nickname — the Legion of Doom. The line of John LeClair, Mikael Renberg and Lindros tallied 225 goals in the previous two regular seasons alone. They would tack on 41 in those two playoffs, but it ultimately wouldn’t be enough and the line was broken up after the sweep at the hands of Detroit.
So while we look back and understand that this was the one and only chance at glory for Lindros and that era of Flyer hockey, at the time the mood was much different. They were rolling, had a player that people were actually calling the best in hockey, and were favored to win the Stanley Cup over a Detroit team that was known for “choking,” playoff disappointments and a “lack of toughness” that was coded language for “too many europeans.” Ah, the days of nationalism. Glad we’ve moved on and matured. Oh, wait…
The expectations and general feeling surrounding the Red Wings were very different back in the spring of 1997, however. It’s hard to remember now, but four Stanley Cups ago the Red Wings were seen as a team of regular season heroes who didn’t have it in them to close the deal and win hockey’s biggest trophy. While the Flyers were a three seed on an uptick, the Red Wings were a three seed coming off two Presidents’ Trophies in 1995 and ’96 that were mocked by solid beatings at the hands of New Jersey and Colorado. In fact, that 1996 season saw the Red Wings set a record with 62 regular season wins; that record still stands today. But it ended in the conference championship series when those Avalanche handily dispatched of Detroit with those players gained from the trade with Philadelphia. Coming into the ’97 playoffs, it was expected that Colorado should be able to get back to the finals as the winners of their very own Presidents’ Trophy that year.
All signs pointed to another season of Colorado’s dominance over Detroit until a game in late March changed the fortunes of both franchises. Remember that Claude Lemieux rearranged Kris Draper’s face in the ’96 conference finals. The Wings had already played against and lost to Colorado three times in the 1996-97 season, and were reinforcing their reputation for being too soft (read: european) by doing absolutely nothing to anyone on Colorado’s roster. That final meeting changed everything, and allowed Detroit to win the first of two Stanley Cups in a row.
It started when Forsberg took a swipe at Igor Larionov, who aside from having one of the most awesome daughters in the world today, also showed some mettle in getting involved in a wrestling match with Forsberg. That “fight” itself wasn’t much, but it set off a chain of events that delayed the Avs’ second Cup by four years and gave the Red Wings the forum they needed to jumpstart the franchise’s ultimate success. Darren McCarty beat Lemieux into the doctor’s office, and Patrick Roy came flying up center ice before being intercepted by a clothesline by new acquisition Brendan Shanahan. Roy eventually got up and challenged Detroit’s smaller goaltender, Mike Vernon, to a fight that saw Roy put on his back. It was the first time Detroit had gotten over on Roy since they hung 11 goals on him in a game that forced his way out of Montreal and into the Cup-ready hands of Colorado, and it was the first time the team had collectively addressed the illegal hit that could have ended the career of their young teammate ten months prior.

Video via HockeyFightsdotcom’s Youtube page
Pass Sports’ coverage of the March 26, 1997 brawl.

After a six-game upset of Colorado that ended at Joe Louis Arena and felt like a revelation of how to play hockey in the playoffs, the Red Wings found themselves underdogged for the second series in a row, and in the finals again after being swept by Lemieux and his New Jersey Devils in the conclusion to the lockout-shortened season of ’95. So after finally getting over on Lemieux and the team that the Flyers arguably handed the ’96 Stanley Cup to, Detroit had its chance to end a 42-year drought of its own. Let’s also not forget that while Vernon played in the most important regular season game in franchise history, it was actually Chris Osgood who played 47 games to Vernon’s 33. Osgood’s GAA and save percentage were better than Vernon’s through the regular season, and therefore head coach Scotty Bowman probably set himself up for criticism if Vernon didn’t come good and bring the Cup to Detroit right then and there. But, of course, he did.
The games themselves were pretty compelling early on, as the Red Wings played nearly perfect road hockey games to take a 2-0 series lead to Detroit. But it looked shaky early in Game 3, and the Flyers took their first lead at any point in the series in the first period. But the hope was short-lived, as Steve Yzerman tied the score on the power play two minutes later. Another two minutes after that, Sergei Fedorov made one of his best deke moves to put the Wings ahead. By the end it was a 6-1 Detroit victory that left fans’ jaws on the floor. By the time everyone had picked up their jaws, it was time to move on to piling on Lindros and the Flyers. That was perhaps unfortunate, as nobody will remember that the Flyers actually kept their heads and played Game 4 down to the wire; albeit they trailed by two goals throughout the third period until Lindros scored his first and only goal of the finals with just 15 seconds to go. Detroit held on for the 2-1 win and answered announcer Gary Thorne’s very appropriate question from three hours earlier, which was whether or not it was, at long last, time for a coronation.
Full Game 4 highlights, for your viewing pleasure.

The Wings went on to roll through the Washington Capitals in the 1998 Finals, which were utterly forgettable other than the Caps’ incredible collapse in Game 2 and the Brian’s Song-esque scene where fallen defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov was rolled out onto the ice in his wheelchair and made into the centerpiece of the team victory photo. Since that series wasn’t worthy of the top 5 or bottom 5 (based on the Konstantinov / repeat / major franchise story lines), I figured I’d make note of it here.
4. 2008 – Detroit d. Pittsburgh 4-2
Yeah, the Red Wings were the victors in both of the finals that I’ve picked so far, but it’s hard to argue against the magnetism of the 2008 Stanley Cup Finals. On one side, we had a Detroit team that won the Presidents’ Trophy and had relatively little resistance from either Nashville, Colorado or Dallas on their way to the Finals. The Avalanche were by this time a shell of their former strength, and the Dallas series only went six games after the Red Wings went up 3-0 in the series before people remembered that blowing a 3-0 series lead was possible (see, I really don’t hate the Flyers).
The only real event of controversy for Detroit came prior to Game 5 of the first round series against Nashville, when after losing both road games Dominik Hasek was benched in favor of Osgood, who grabbed the reins and never let go. Osgood went all the way and won his second Cup as a starter (1998) and third overall, including that ’97 title as the playoff backup. Henrik Zetterberg won the Conn Smythe and the Wings were finally certain that they had successfully transitioned from the Yzerman, Shanahan & Co. era.
But the real intrigue of the series came from the runners-up. The Penguins finished dead last in their division from 2002 – 2006, and loaded up on high draft picks due to those terrible seasons. The Pens made the playoffs in 2007, but were eliminated in the first round by the deeper and more mature Ottawa Senators, who went on to win the east. But the 2008 playoffs put those negative memories in the past, and the three series wins had the hockey world questioning whether this 20 year-old Sidney Crosby kid was just too good. With Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Marc-Andre Fleury and plenty of more-than-capable older players like Marian Hossa at his side, Crosby was trying to start a dynasty for team owned by the man who was housing him. But the Penguins played too similar a style to Detroit, and did so as less developed puck controllers. It’s long been an idea to fight fire with fire, but that strategy only works if your fire is as big as your opponent’s. Pittsburgh’s puck possession game was very good, but not as practiced and dominant as Detroit’s.
It almost didn’t matter though, as the Penguins were within inches of scoring the game-tying goal in Game 6 against a sprawling Osgood. Pittsburgh had already stolen Detroit’s first opportunity to raise the Cup when Max Talbot tied Game 5 with just 35 seconds left in regulation. The Penguins went on to win in triple-overtime and took the series back to Pittsburgh, which had people getting excited and wondering if we could be in for one of the best finals series in recent memory. A 3-1 Detroit lead was cut in half with 1:27 left in the game, and for those moments the Penguins had the feeling of a possible team of destiny. But in a scene that would be almost exactly reversed the following year, Crosby, Hossa and the team in black ran out of time in Game 6 and the Wings raised the Cup on the road.

Pittsburgh’s final rush can be seen around the 2:35 mark.

3. 2011 – Boston d. Vancouver 4-3
This year’s final really was very good. Aside from the obvious fact that it went seven games, we had rumblings of a goalie fight, a couple of crushing injuries (which are unfortunate, but add questions and intrigue), a contrast of styles and two droughts that had lasted 40 and 39 years. This series is still fresh and the fallout is still unknown as far as the Canucks go, so a long writeup as if it were a new concept is unnecessary. If you want to know what I thought about the series, check out the June archive of this blog.
2. 2001 – Colorado d. New Jersey 4-3
As a 16 year-old Red Wings fan, I couldn’t think of a matchup between two teams that I’d rather see lose, but this series was a great one for hockey. These two teams, along with Dallas, had owned the three-year gap between Detroit’s second and third Stanley Cups. Colorado had lost the western finals to Dallas on the road in Game 7 in both ’99 and 2000, but surprisingly the Stars were swept in the second round by St. Louis. The Avs had no problem with the Blues, and finally got back to the finals after those two losses on the brink to Dallas, which were preceded by a blown 3-1 series lead against 7th-seeded Edmonton in ’98 and that conference finals upset loss at the hands of Detroit in ’97.
The team they faced was the defending champion Devils, who had beaten Dallas the previous season in a final series that we’ll get to. New Jersey had always seemed like an overachieving team, as they weren’t favored to win the Cup in their previous two finals appearances in 1995 or 2000 — but they won in four and six games despite being the road team in the series. The Devils again had to do this thing on the road, and it ultimately may have been the difference that led to the Devils finally losing a final series.
The big story throughout the season was the Cup pursuit of legendary defenseman Ray Bourque, who came to Colorado for one last shot at the title that had eluded him for twenty years of that drought for Boston that only just ended in June. After both teams traded road wins in Games 2 and 3, the Avalanche surrendered all advantages by getting smashed at home in Game 5 by a score of 4-1. The game had people wondering if there was just something about the Devils style of play and organization that lent itself to winning championships, and if Bourque would be shutout and kept off the Cup as a player for all eternity. That was not to be, however, as the Avalanche focused and put on a clinic in New Jersey for a 4-0 win that put them squarely back on the podium as favorites to grab the Cup back at home in Game 7.
They did just that, and after doing so captain Joe Sakic took the Stanley Cup over to Bourque so that the 22-year NHL veteran could be the first to lift the Cup that night. It was Patrick Roy’s fourth championship and second as an Av. He won the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP for the third time, which is something that still has never been done by any other player. Perhaps even more impressive is the fact that Colorado won the final two series of the playoffs without Peter Forsberg, who was sidelined for over a year following the bursting of his spleen after 2001’s second round victory over the L.A. Kings. The lack of Forsberg took away from the beauty of the ’01 Finals, but his absence only highlighted the fact that the Avalanche were a great team, and one of the best of the era.
This series brought a merciful end to the Dallas-Colorado-New Jersey three-year round robin of sorts that was bookended by Red Wings titles in 1997, ’98 and 2002.
1. 2009 – Pittsburgh d. Detroit 4-3
As a fan of the Red Wings, this is the one that I think I’ll always remember. Subjectively, this series brought on all the emotions like a truly well-done story can. But objectively, this series had everything that a third party fan can ask for. It had a defending champion going up against the very team that it had denied the season before. It had a young challenger that made a few modifications to try and accomplish what it could not one year prior. It even had an element of treason to it in the form of Marian Hossa leaving Pittsburgh in the summer of 2008 and heading to the very Detroit team that beat the Pens in the ’08 Finals.
And don’t forget that all of this was played out in the cities of Pittsburgh and Detroit less than a year after the crash of the U.S. stock markets. A big rallying cry in Detroit was that the Red Wings needed to do it for the city and its struggling people. Two of the big three automakers had just filed for bankruptcy and employment was skyrocketing while the housing market closely resembled the equal and opposite reaction of something skyrocketing. The Tigers made a fluke World Series in 2006 but threw it away quickly, and hadn’t been back to the playoffs since (and still haven’t). The Pistons had just failed to qualify for the conference finals for the first time in seven years, and everybody knew in which direction that thing was trending. And the eight-year tenure of Matt Millen as head of the Lions front office had finally ended, but the team had little hope of quickly picking up the pieces of the worst eight-year record in modern NFL history (31-97). The city still had it’s Red Wings though, and the mood of the town felt desperate if not defiant. This was the last thing going right in the lives of many of those fans, but the team had to find a way to hold off the charging and maturing Penguins again if Detroit was to hold its title as kings of the hockey world and defend the Stanley Cup for the first time since, well, the Red Wings did it in 1997-98.
Doing so would have made a prophet out of ultra-talented but as-of-yet Cupless forward Marian Hossa, who in many ways led the Red Wings to the ’09 Finals. But in what was either an “english as a second language” misinterpretation or one of the greatest and most unnecessary digs ever, Hossa sat on the bench after Game 2 and told NBC that the reason he jumped ship is because he wanted to see what it was like to play with the top organization in the league. While I think I understand what Hossa was trying to say, it came off as ill-willed and shocking, since many figured the Penguins would rise to the top of the NHL soon, if not in that very series. Of course, they did, but Hossa’s embarrassment lasted only one season, as he immediately signed a long-term deal with Chicago and won the Cup the following year.
For my emotional retelling of how I spent my day and night on Friday, June 12, 2009, refer to this post that was meant to encourage fans of the Canucks and Bruins in the lead-up to their big one this past June.
But as far as the series went, it seemed like it might be a stinker early, or at the very least a long series of uncompetitive games. Detroit won both of its home games, just as it did the season before. Both games went to the Wings by a score of 3-1. But what didn’t follow 2008’s model was a series score of 3-1. Where Pittsburgh failed to get back on serve the year before, the Penguins actually managed to sway the opinions of many by producing back-to-back 4-2 wins to even the series and make it a best-of-three for the ultimate prize.
What happened in Game 5 was perhaps the most intentionally misleading slight of hand that I can remember in a playoff series. If we were watching the series as a film, Game 5 would have been seen as either a piece of writing and directorial genius or a liberty so unbelievable that it’d have us throwing overpriced fountain drinks at the screen. Back at Joe Louis Arena in a game that Detroit lost the year before, the Red Wings embarrassed the Penguins. The Pens seemed to come unglued in the 5-0 loss that had them picking fights about nothing and looking utterly stumped by the return of Pavel Datsyuk, who had missed the first four games of the finals with a foot injury. By the end, over 20,000 people were piling on and letting the Penguins know exactly where the city boy was from. The scene looked every bit like a proof. If the teams were relatively even before, and now Datsyuk was back and rolling, the Wings simply had to be better than the Pens.
But like most if-then arguments relating to sports, this proof turned into just another failed hypothesis. Pittsburgh locked down in Game 6 and made sure not to watch the Wings lift the Cup in Mellon Arena again. Dan Cleary was in all alone late in the third period, but was unable to lift the puck and got stoned by Fleury, who saved 25 shots in a 2-1 win to force Game 7 and give Pittsburgh a game to win the Stanley Cup for the first time in 19 years.

And for as much as Detroit was struggling at the time, let’s not forget that this is a Penguins franchise that had to file bankruptcy itself in the late ‘90s, and had to fight through relocation rumors for a while before patron saint Mario Lemieux stepped in to turn the huge amount of money that the Penguins owed him into equity, and bought the team less than four months before Y2K hit. So as much as Detroit wanted to keep its grip on the one thing it still felt it had to hand onto, one can forgive Pittsburgh for not assuming the role of the overfunded tycoon that was beating the life out of the poor small business that had four Stanley Cups since the Pens had their last one.
Game 7 began with this, and ended with this. In between, Sidney Crosby got injured and Max Talbot scored the biggest brace of his career before Fleury stoned Nicklas Lidstrom as time expired. The Penguins won 2-1 again and the cinematic reversal was complete. It’s a loss that the Red Wings haven’t fully recovered from as a team yet, no matter what anyone might say. The quest to win another Cup in 2011-12 is as much fueled by the craving to banish the feelings of inferiority from three years before as it is by the fairy tale desire to send Lidstrom off in the ultimate style.
Pittsburgh’s playoffs have been disappointing since, as they bowed out early in both 2010 and 2011, to Montreal and Tampa Bay, respectively. Both series saw the Pens as the home team, and they’ve now lost their last five games when entering with the opportunity to clinch a series, with three of those games at home. That in itself has been a reversal from what they did inside the Joe on the 12th of June, 2009. They hope to stop the skid, but a lot of that depends on the health of Crosby, who even eight months after last playing doesn’t sound like a man who’s able to fully prepare for a hockey season. We’ll see what happens to both of these teams when the puck drops in just over a month, but for now we’ll have to settle for the memories they gave us from the best Stanley Cup finals since the first lockout.
The Bad
3. 2000 – New Jersey d. Dallas 4-2
It feels a little unfair to dub this series “bad,” since the level of play was pretty high and it had the defending champions in it. But episode two of the Colorado/Dallas/New Jersey round robin was hard to embrace as a third party observer. Maybe it was the slushy ice in Dallas’ hot summer. Maybe it was the Devils’ trap style of play. Maybe I was still at that age where I needed Detroit to be in the finals. Whatever it was, this series didn’t hold my attention and awe like any of the five listed above, or even like any of those that won’t end up on either list.
There were story lines that developed, such as Jason Arnott being traded to Dallas after beating them in this series. That trade famously brought over Jamie Langenbrunner and franchise legend and current GM Joe Nieuwendyk, and another Stanley Cup in 2003, to New Jersey. Dallas, meanwhile, has never fully recovered from that deal that put an end to their western dominance.
The goalies were Eddie Belfour and Marty Brodeur. The bone-crushing defensemen (and captains) were Derien Hatcher and Scott Stevens. But there’s just something about a series with one home win in six games that lacks continuity, and I never did feel like anybody could figure this one out. Maybe all of this made the series great. Maybe I need to go back and watch the 2000 Finals again. But comparing it with the other 15 finales since 1995 doesn’t allow it to finish high on the list.
New Jersey won in double overtime on the road on Arnott’s goal. The Cup was the Devils’ second and came between the two in 1995 and 2002-03. This series set up the third final in the round robin in 2000-01, when New Jersey entered the finals as the defending champion against Colorado. That series was #2 in “The Good” list above.
2. 2007 – Anaheim d. Ottawa 4-1
One franchise had finally gotten back, while the other had finally gotten there. Anaheim was a surprise entrant in the 2003 Cup finals and took New Jersey all the way to seven games, where the Ducks succumbed to the better Devils despite Anaheim goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere winning the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP. Ottawa had beaten two recent nemeses in Buffalo and those very Devils to get to the finals. Daniel Alfredsson had the chance to be the first european captain to ever win the Stanley Cup (Nick Lidstrom would become that just one year later).
Unlike 2003, the Ducks were heavily favored to win this Stanley Cup Finals appearance, and unlike ’03, they did. In fact, outside of the obligatory Game 3 that every home team wins when it’s down 0-2 if it even remotely resembles a good team, there was no real drama to this one. You could argue that Anaheim’s first three wins were sort of dramatic because they were all by one goal, but the games looked like what they were: a matchup between a relative dream team and its less tough, junior varsity version. By the time the series got interesting it got over, as the Ducks cleaned up the mess from the game before with a 3-2 road win in Game 4, which set up a 6-2 drubbing and coronation at home.
Anaheim’s roster is almost laughable when you go down the list, but it was the first Stanley Cup for a lot of them besides captain and Conn Smythe winner Scott Niedermayer, whose career accomplishments provoke more laughter than the ’07 Ducks roster. The smooth-skating defensemen won all three of those New Jersey titles (’95, ’00 and ’03) as well as this one; he won two Olympic gold medals (2002 and ’10), a world championship (2004), a world junior championship (1991), the Memorial Cup (1992), and a Norris Trophy in 2004 to go with the Conn Smythe in ’07.
While Ottawa had a story of redemption to get to the finals, the team was unable to score the ultimate prize, and quickly fell apart afterward. Dany Heatley would request and be granted a trade just two years later, while goalie Ray Emery was waived in the summer of 2008. Jason Spezza remains on the team, but not without much rumor surrounding his impact on the locker room and desire to remain on what’s left of a once-contending team. Alfredsson tore his MCL in the ’08 playoffs, and has battled the aging process to try to find that form that took the Sens through the east in ’07. And in what was one of the worst decisions made, the Senators chose to re-sign free agent defenseman Wade Redden over Zdeno Chara in the summer of 2006, which was not an after-effect of losing the ’07 Finals, but it helped to ensure that the Sens would never get back, even as Chara polishes his ’09 Norris Trophy and ’11 Stanley Cup.
1. 1996 – Colorado d. Florida 4-0
This plain sucked. Not because Colorado won a Stanley Cup in its first year after relocation; not because Claude Lemieux got a title for smashing Kris Draper’s face in; not because it was a contest between a third-year franchise and a first-year team relocated from Canada to the western United States. This series sucked because this was like watching one of those private school vs. public school football games early in a high school season where the only questions of consequence are the winning margin and how many injuries piled up.
Florida had an amazing run to get to the ’96 Finals, largely on the back of goalie John Vanbiesbrouck. The fans decided to try to make a staple out of throwing toy rats onto the ice, and like the first few innings of the Anaheim Angels’ playoff run in 2002 where thunder sticks became all the rage, for a while the ritual was kind of cool. It was almost even acceptable.
But the magic died quickly when the Cats ran up against that Avalanche team that was honed by the Lindros trade with Philadelphia. Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Lemieux, Patrick Roy and the many other big names were too much for Florida, and the series ended mercifully as soon as it could have: in Game 4 on the Panthers’ ratless rink.  Colorado won the total goal count in the series 15-4. Plain sucked.

Even a rival winning in a sweep is exciting when it’s Cup-clinching.
The Ugly
Didn’t think you were gonna get this bonus category, did you? Well, these ones weren’t “bad” so much as they were ugly for one reason or another.
3. 1999 – Dallas d. Buffalo 4-2
This one was intriguing enough, and the competition was better than most people expected. The underdog Sabres had Dominik Hasek in net, and therefore had a chance to beat anybody. The Stars were expected to take this one though, as the western conference was seen as simply tougher after Colorado and Detroit had swept through the previous three finals.
Not only did Dallas fail to sweep Buffalo though, they actually needed one of the more controversial overtime goals to finish the series off in six games. In the spirit of competition, there’s no way Brett Hull’s goal should have been anything but a season-winner. But this was that two-year period where every single goal was under review and seemingly half of them were disallowed because a toe was in the crease on the opposite side of the goaltender. For this one, Hull was all up in the crease, but he kicked the puck out of the blue paint, which meant that it had to have come from there, which meant that being in the crease was allowed. Got that? You’re instincts are correct, the crease rule was destroying hockey and it was finally done away with (or just drastically altered) after the ’99 playoffs seemed to end a couple weeks late due to booth review.
So while the hockey was acceptable enough to avoid being one of the three “bad” series, any time you have a team celebrating with the holiest of sports trophies while the commentators are legitimately questioning whether there’s more hockey still to be played, that qualifies as ugly.



2. 2004 – Tampa Bay d. Calgary 4-3
There was a lot of beauty to this series. On one hand there was the Red Mile, in support of an upstart six seed led by one of the most beloved first-year captains league history, Jarome Iginla. On the other hand, there was the desire to spread hockey to the American south and build brands and tap into a mostly untapped hockey market. And there was the knowledge going into the series that this might be the last NHL hockey that any of us got to see for a long time.
Tampa Bay won the Cup at home in Game 7 by a score of 2-1, with Ruslan Fedotenko scoring both goals much like Max Talbot would five years later. But the team was powered by players like Conn Smythe winner Brad Richards, 1998 top overall draft pick Vincent Lecavalier, winger Marty St. Louis, and younger versions of defenseman Dan Boyle and goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, who really justified the “Bulin Wall” nickname with his outstanding 1.71 GAA and .933 save percentage in the ’04 playoffs. And on top of that, the Lightning were captained by Dave Andreychuk, who mirrored Ray Bourque’s ’01 triumph by winning his first and only Stanley Cup in his 22nd season of NHL play.
But again we had controversy, as Martin Gelinas appeared to have scored what might have held up as the Cup-clinching goal in the third period of Game 6. Certain camera angles appeared to show the puck crossing the line by the slimmest of margins before Khabibulin kicked it out, but the play was to go on. St. Louis ended the game just 33 seconds into overtime, and spoiled the Flames’ chance to win the Cup on home ice. But more importantly, we again had controversy determining a “true winner” after a questionable play in front of, or this time just behind, the goal line. To make the situation even uglier, there was no hockey for another sixteen months, as what could have been Alex Ovechkin’s true rookie season was lost to the lockout.

Here is a link to a video recap of the series.

1. 2005 – Season Cancelled
Come on, there’s never been a Stanley Cup Finals worse than this one. To the credit of everyone involved, the system needed fixed and it got fixed (as far as we all understand). But that doesn’t change the fact that we all had to swallow the mud for an entire year. Turning 21 in what should have been the lead-up to the all-star game may have allowed me to legally quell my heartache for a time with that sweet medicine, but nothing short of winning the Mega Millions could truly offer an even trade off.
The good news is that the puck will be dropped on October 6, and the games will start to count again. The bad news is that the current CBA is set to expire on September 15, 2012. But I am optimistic that a new agreement can be reached before that date, and even if one is not, the current CBA is set to continue on a year-to-year basis until one party notifies the other of a termination at least 120 days before that date. That would be in the middle of the playoffs at the latest, and if such a written notice of termination is delivered by either side in 2012 I’d be close to stunned.
There you have it — the Good, the Bad and the Ugly Stanley Cup Finals from the past 17 years and 16 seasons. I had to give that one final twist into the 2004-05 lost campaign. Enjoy the rest of your summer, and check back periodically before the puck drops for real on October 6.






The NHL is as good as it has been since I started really following the league when the Pittsburgh Penguins were embarking on their first Stanley Cup run following my sixth birthday. At least five teams were pegged as more legitimate title contenders going into the 2011 playoffs than the team that actually won it (Vancouver, San Jose, Detroit, Philadelphia, and yes, Washington. I said going into the playoffs). The league is so saturated with effective players that we tend to think that almost all regulars are above average NHL players.
This of course is by definition not true, but what it does mean is that the average NHL player is better than he was maybe ten years ago. If you want another way of knowing that the NHL is amazing right now, check out the AHL. When the play of a minor league looks as good as it does in the A, the major league has to be great.
What I want to do today is begin a series of extremely-too-early looks at the various divisions in the NHL, and try to predict some orders of finish with some arguments. We’ll call it “Premature NHL Prognostication,” because it’s both self-deprecating and an accurate depiction of the league’s timeline. Let’s start with the division that both has arguably the most blood rivalries (Northeast fans can skip straight to the comments section to rip me a new one) and is also universally listed first when you look at the standings anywhere: the Atlantic Division.






1st: Pittsburgh Penguins 2010-11: 106 points, 2nd in division
The fact that the Pens actually tied the Flyers for the division lead without the services of Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby for the second half of the season is pretty surprising. When you consider that Jordan Staal and James Neal only played 42 and 20 games for the team, respectively, all of a sudden the upcoming season looks very promising for the 2009 Stanley Cup champions.
All reports indicate that Malkin is ready to go for this season, and we also know that Crosby has been skating for a little while now. Of course, if Crosby were unable to play hockey this year, we would have to reevaluate the prospectus, but I think he’ll play and I think the Pens should be the best team in the division.
The Penguins have one of the better situations in the crease that can be found in the entire league. Marc-Andre Fleury is coming off the best stretch of his career, and Brent Johnson was fantastic last year in keeping the Pens alive early, before Fleury found his game. Johnson seems to know his role as a backup, and so there shouldn’t be a situation where the backup thinks he should be a starter, which can lead to some dissension at times. I am big on teams with good backup goalies and/or tandems, and Pittsburgh is a team that falls into the first category.
Defensively, Pittsburgh has certainly one of the best two groups of top four defensemen in the division, along with Philadelphia. The Pens’ top four includes Brooks Orpik, Kris Letang, Zybnek Michalek and Paul Martin. Orpik skated 20:53 per game last year, while the other three all played more than 21 minutes a game. Letang and Martin were credited with 24:02 and 23:22 of ice time while contributing 42 and 21 assists apiece. Near the deadline last year, Pittsburgh traded Alex Goligoski away. While Goligoski is potentially a star on the blueline, the fact remains that Pittsburgh has a really solid top four without him, and also got winger James Neal out of the deal from Dallas. My feeling is that Dallas got the better end of the bargain if we look at trades in a vacuum, but real life and hockey are not played in a vacuum. Given the makeup of the Pens, the trade made sense. The offensive production of Neal will determine whether the Pens got what they bargained for in the dealing of Goligoski.
The Pens have another forward who plays a similar game to James Neal in the form of Chris Kunitz, the man who single-handedly won the CCHA in 2003 with Ferris State — a feat I’ve yet to see duplicated in college sports since. Kunitz probably won’t have as high of a point total as Neal by the end of the season, but he did a good job last season to prove that his offensive production isn’t entirely tied to Crosby. Kunitz tallied 28 points in 39 games before Crosby’s final game, and 20 points in 27 games afterward.
On the lower end of the forwards, the Pens have a good combination of gritty guys and young up-and-comers. Tyler Kennedy, Mark Letestu and Dustin Jeffrey will all be a year older and it will be interesting to see how much they improve. And while everyone knows about Matt Cooke, the Pens also have Craig Adams and Arron Asham, and it’s not exactly like the team’s scorers are weaklings either.
Why the Penguins will win the Atlantic Division
I think the Penguins have the roster that is best apt to play winning hockey in all three zones. Some of this belief is based on the idea that Crosby will return, but not all of it. The Pens tied the Flyers in points last year, and while Pittsburgh gets Malkin, Staal and Neal for presumably twice the number of games this season, the Flyers will have to deal with the loss of two of their top forwards. I expect Fleury to have a decent season and sport something like a .915 save percentage, and Brent Johnson can be relied upon to win more games than he loses. With the skaters that those goalies have in front of them, they don’t need to be Vezina-worthy to win the division, and probably even the eastern conference’s top seed.
2nd: New York Rangers 2010-11: 93 points, 3rd in division
I know, I know. I’ve listed two teams from the Atlantic already and haven’t gotten to the Flyers. The decision between Philly and New York was tough, but I’m more sure of the Rangers for a few reasons.
First there’s the obvious addition of Brad Richards. It may take more time for him to click with his new Ranger teammates than most fans will want to wait, but by the break I would expect Richards to be doing what he does: creating numerous scoring opportunities a game while not being a huge defensive liability. The player most likely to benefit from the addition of Richards has to be left winger Marian Gaborik. He’s had to deal with not living up to expectations in New York for a while now, but this year he has a legitimate top-end center to play with, instead of a steady rotation of rookie Derek Stepan, Artem Anisimov, Erik Christensen, and whoever else he had to hope to take feeds from last year. By no means is Gaborik an underrated player, but it is interesting that he is maligned while Rick Nash has always gotten the excuse of never playing with a capable center. That is probably because Nash plays a more likable style of hockey than Gaborik, but both guys have their chance to break out this year.
Another reason I like the Rangers to improve this year is that they have a really solid young core of players. This core has been pared down a little, but the big pieces still remain in the form of defensemen Marc Staal and Daniel Girardi, and forwards like Anisimov, Stepan, Brandon Dubinsky, Mats Zuccarello, Brian Boyle and Brandon Prust (if you want to count 27 as “young”). Ryan McDonagh should be ready to compliment Staal and Girardi as a minute-chewing defensman who can skate, hit, block shots and move the puck. The Rangers also have a couple of guys in Wojtek Wolski and Ruslan Fedotenko who have the capability of contributing on the offensive end, but also could turn out to be worthless, as they have been at different points of their careers. One red herring on this Rangers team is the complete lack of depth on the blue line. After Girardi, Staal and McDonagh (who are all young by the way), the Rangers have only two defensemen on the roster: Tim Erixon and Mike Sauer. Neither should be expected to set the league on fire this season, although Sauer was a cool plus-20 last season with the Rangers. Erixon is 20 years old and spent the last few seasons in the Swedish Elite League with Skelleftea AIK. Erixon tallied a point every other game last year, and was a first round pick of Calgary in 2009. All things considered, the defensive leaders might have to play upwards of 24 minutes a game this year, and you wonder if that might take its toll on Marc Staal and Dan Girardi. Probably not though, since they are young and hockey players.
As far as goaltenders go, I wouldn’t take a single one ahead of Henrik Lundqvist. The 2006 Olympic gold medalist is steady and technically as good as anyone there is, and when he’s in the zone, Lundqvist can make it seem like somebody turned the video game level to the toughest setting. Backing up the best active goalie to never win the Vezina is Martin Biron, who posted a .923 save % and 2.13 goals against average in 17 appearances last season before breaking his collarbone. Biron’s record was only 8-6, but that’s more of an indictment of the Rangers’ anemic offense than Biron’s play, as his peripherals would indicate. It should be noted that in 68 games, Lundqvist matched Biron’s save percentage and himself only allowed 2.28 goals per game. With goaltending like that and a maturing skating corps that added a Cup winner like Brad Richards, there’s no reason the Rangers shouldn’t have a better 2011-12 than the season prior.
The key to this team rounding out its roster is getting right winger Ryan Callahan back in the fold. The hybrid forward is a restricted free agent and has an arbitration date set for July 28, but most times we see a deal get done before an arbitration ruling. If the Rangers are unable to lock Callahan down before an arbitration ruling, he would then be on a one-year contract and would be set to become unrestricted next summer. New York probably doesn’t want this to happen, but they are up against the salary cap. They have about $5.77 million to add three roster players, and a player of Callahan’s impact probably demands a good share of that available pie. The Rangers may be alright with an arbitration ruling because they know that they can use Wolski’s expiring $3.8 million deal, as well as a few other smaller contracts that are set to come off the books next July, to help fund Callahan when he would become a UFA next summer. There are two things I’m certain of — 1) The Rangers want Ryan Callahan to be a Ranger for a while, and 2) The Rangers need Ryan Callahan if they are going to have a chance at a top two spot in the division and/or a second round appearance in the playoffs.
3rd: Philadelphia Flyers 2010-11: 106 points, 1st in division
The Flyers might be the most talked-about team in the last month, and for good reason. On June 23, the team traded away Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, two centers who can also wing it who are both in their mid-20s. Those boys clearly weren’t aging rapidly, but it’s not like they were mere prospects either. Both Richards and Carter played integral roles in getting the Flyers to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2010. There have been insinuations that the Flyers had some locker room issues, but I’m not interested in sensationalism — just premature prognostication.
What we do know is that the 2011-12 Flyers should look a lot different than the team of the previous couple years. While those two borderline star players were shipped out, the Flyers brought in five forwards who should all see time in the top nine. Philadelphia scored a couple coups by bringing over Pittsburgh Cup-winners in Jaromir Jagr and Max Talbot. Talbot adds toughness to an already tough team, while Jagr’s impact is less certain. Some people think that returning to the rigors of the NHL and its 82-game schedule after a three-year absence will be too tall an order for a player who will be 40 years old in February. But really, even if Jagr needs some precautionary scratch games, isn’t having him for 60 games potentially a boon for Philadelphia? I think that Jagr is primed for a solid 65-point season in which he probably won’t play all 82 games. And while most people criticize Jagr for his lack of defensive intensity and general disinterest in getting physical despite his huge stature, I would ask what the Flyers lost when Jeff Carter was shipped out. A big forward with elite hands who plays more like Sergei Fedorov than Chris Stewart? Okay, well, are Jagr’s hands not as elite as Carter’s? I guess we’ll find out.
Philadelphia got Jakob Voracek back from Columbus for Carter, and Brayden Schenn, hockey’s top prospect, from Los Angeles in return for Richards. Both players can contribute this season, but Schenn’s ceiling is higher as far as careers go. But while I enjoy looking pretty far into the future, this is supposed to be a writing of the 2011-12 season only. The Flyers also got winger Wayne Simmonds from the Kings in the Richards deal. Simmonds looks like he could be a hybrid-type of winger, but I’m not entirely sold on the scoring part of the deal. We do know what Simmonds goes full blast into the corners and plays a physical style that looks like it belonged in Philadelphia all along.
Defensively, it’s hard not to love the Flyers. The orange-and-black sported something of a “top five,” as Chris Pronger, Kimmo Timonen, Matt Carle, Andrej Meszaros and Braydon Coburn all skated between 21:04 and 22:30 per game, in descending order. All five are back in the fold this season and make the Flyers one of the most formidable defensive teams on paper. The unit clearly missed Pronger during the latter parts of last season, but assuming he can stay healthy this year, nobody will be able to take a shift off against Philadelphia.
The biggest acquisition this offseason for the Flyers is the guy who will play behind those tremendous blue liners. Some of the purpose of dealing away Richards and Carter was to make cap space for Ilya Bryzgalov, who comes over from Phoenix and gives the Flyers the big, athletically gifted goalie that the Flyers haven’t had since Ron Hextall. Bryzgalov is about as unproven in playoff hockey as a Cup winner can be, but he did get the Coyotes to a seventh game with Detroit in 2010, and also was 3-1 with the Ducks in 2007 while largely backing up J.S. Giguere en route to that Stanley Cup. I’m not sure that Bryzgalov will justify a nine-year contract that forced the moving of Richards and Carter, but the Flyers were desperately seeking the guy to fill their starting goalie hole, and we now get to see if Bryz is that guy.
The Flyers are not lacking big time physical players, but it’s two smaller guys who have come up huge offensively in recent seasons. Claude Giroux has emerged as a world-class playmaker, and Danny Briere has resurrected his once-drowning career by scoring timely goals and bringing it every shift. I believe that Briere and fellow forward James van Riemsdyk are the two swing players for the Flyers this year. If JVR is able to improve his game like a young player should, and Briere is able to maintain his high level of output, the Flyers can be the best team in the east. But if either JVR or Briere falters, the Flyers could finish third and barely get in the playoffs. I think they should be about even on points with the Rangers, but less than 50% of me likes the Flyers over the Rangers at this extremely premature point.
4th: New Jersey Devils 2010-11: 81 points, 4th in division
Everybody seems afraid to speak ill of the Devils as if they were the dons of hockey, but I can’t see where the return to a high level is going to come from for this team. Sure, they made a run of sorts last year, but they still finished 12 points out of the playoffs and don’t have any key additions save for probably Zach Parise’s return from injury.
New Jersey should be solid in net again with Martin Brodeur back in the fold. They don’t have a great backup, but Johan Hedberg did his job last season and certainly can’t be blamed for the team’s early season flub.
It’s true that Ilya Kovalchuk played a pretty great second half of last season, but he’s one man. Also, people seem to forget that New Jersey finished 4-5-1 in their last ten games last season, so it’s not really like they charged hard and just couldn’t dig out of their hole. Had they gone 10-0 they would have qualified for the playoffs with 92 points to NYR and Carolina’s 91 (assuming an April 9th win over NYR). I know that 10-0 shouldn’t be expected, but the narrative on New Jersey’s gladiator-like charge is kind of funny to me.
As far as Parise goes, I wrote earlier that endangering the ability to keep Parise by signing Kovalchuk to a ridiculous fifteen-year deal was about as smart as cheating on your Swedish model wife and mother of your children with waitresses and women who live in trailer parks. I’m looking at you, Eldrick Woods. The best American non-goalie is scheduled for arbitration on August 3, a week after his 27th birthday. I expect Parise to remain a Devil through that process, but it shouldn’t have come to this and if he is a UFA next summer I would liken that to Elin finding out about Woods’ indiscretions. If Parise has a reason and the ability to go, only dumb loyalty would keep him there.
To prove my point, let’s look at the rest of the Devils’ top six forwards and their salaries.
  • Patrik Elias $6 million — He’s a Devil through and through. I could nitpick the figure, but he belongs on this team the way Parise does.
  • Brian Rolston         $5.06 million — Are you serious?
  • Travis Zajac           $3.89 million — Yeah, I’ve watched him play. It’s not there, at least not for that money.
  • Dainus Zubrus       $3.4 million — This made me spit out my coffee. Then I remembered the ’97 Cup Finals and I smiled again. Oh, Dainus Zubrus, you’re all growns up now.
To add to the Devils’ lack of scoring at high prices, the back end didn’t play well last year either. Andy Greene was a solid -23, albeit mostly early in the season. And besides Greene and Henrik Tallinder, no defenseman played over 20 minutes a game consistently. Matt Taormina achieved just over 20:00 in ATOI, but that was in only 17 games played. Colin White was still Colin White. Anton Volchenkov appears to have done his best Greg Louganis impression with his career, although I like the big guy’s defensive game. What a relief that he signed that big six-year contract last summer!
All in all, people claim to like the Devils to have a bounce back year, but I think they’ll play to their ability in this division, which should leave them fourth again.
5th: New York Islanders 2010-11: 73 points, 5th in division
I hate to have to do this, but there’s no way I can pick a team owned by Chazz Wang to outplay any of the above four teams. The Islanders have a lot of really good young players, but I like to think that organizations need to be strong and efficient at the top in order to succeed. If my thesis is true, then NYI is due for an entertaining chase for fourth place that should ultimately come up short this season. I mean Chazz Wang was actually quoted as wondering aloud why 35 year-old goaltender Evgeni Nabokov, who had spent a decade playing in important games, wouldn’t want to come play for the Isles. If Wang doesn’t know the answer to that question, then he’s as clueless as a sports owner can be.
On the positive side, the Islanders might get the most wins per dollar spent on salary this season, since they are currently $9 million under the cap floor with only three players left to sign. Blake Comeau has an arbitration hearing scheduled for August 4, and I’m actually not sure what the deal is with fellow forward Josh Bailey’s contract, but both players appear to be RFAs right now.
Aside from center John Tavares, who has drawn comparisons to Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos since being drafted #1 overall in 2009, the Islanders’ most exciting question mark appears to be between the pipes. I’m about over Rick DiPietro, but some still think he has the stuff to justify his top overall draft pick from 2000. If Rick D falters or picks up yet another injury, the Islanders can feature a number of goalies with some upside. Al Montoya was really good at the end of last season, despite once letting a dump in bounce off the side boards and into his net against Bowling Green while a member of the University of Michigan (I was there, and the fact that Montoya was a “chosen one” only added to the hilarity of that moment). Montoya didn’t make it with the Rangers, who drafted him 6th overall in 2004, but he’s still only 26 years old and may have finally figured out the mental game of NHL goaltending.
Deeper on the depth chart sits Kevin Poulin, a 21 year-old Canadian who rocked a .924 save percentage in 10 appearances for the Islanders last season. Mikko Koskinen is a 6’6” former 31st overall pick of the Islanders in 2009 who is just 22 years old. Koskinen struggled last season in four games with NYI and throughout his season in the AHL with Bridgeport, but perhaps he can follow the Montoya timeline and figure it all out later. The Islanders drafted another big goalie in 2009 in the form of Anders Nilsson. He stands at 6’5” and has played 58 games over the last two seasons with Lulea HF of the Swedish Elite League. All of these guys appear to be assets that the Islanders could hypothetically flip for established players, but who knows how these guys will turn out and whether Chazz Wang will put GM Garth Snow in a position to hunt for help before the trade deadline. Seeing as NYI flirts with the salary cap floor, I wouldn’t expect much.
I do like a lot of the Islanders’ young players, and I think it’s conceivable for them to finish fourth in the division, but when it’s all over I expect the team to bring it up the rear in the division, and the fans to take it there from old Chazz while he waits for the new arena that, to his credit, he has fought long and hard for.
I hope you enjoyed the Atlantic Division edition of Premature NHL Prognostication. Next up: the Northeast. Cheers.

Before taking to the ice to face elimination at home in last night’s Game 4, Detroit Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom told his team to play with confidence.  Then, he showed them why they should:  because they have him on their team.
Lidstrom set the tone early with two goals in the first period to open up a short-lived, but hope-inducing 3-0 lead on San Jose.  I say “short-lived” because within 15 seconds of Lidstrom’s second goal, which he kicked to his stick and swatted out of midair from the slot, the Sharks scored a softie through the wickets of Jimmy Howard to make the score 3-1.  Dan Boyle scored the only goal of the second on a cheat up play that went unnoticed by Detroit’s Jiri Hudler, who has been particularly dreadful in this series.  The lead was officially blown early in the third, when Dany Heatley, the talented goal scorer with a newly acquired playoff toughness, made a goal scorer’s play and hit the top left corner over Howard’s blocker following a beautiful cycle play behind the net.
But Lidstrom only redoubled his efforts, and played an intricate role in killing off two Detroit penalties with the score tied at 3.  They were the first power plays for the Sharks in the entire game, and for once the Red Wings’ penalty killing was up to the task.  Both teams had their chances throughout the third, but Howard and Niemi raised their games when it became evident that the next goal would probably win.  But Niemi did not have the luxury of having the great Lidstrom doing work in front of him, and eventually Detroit cashed in on a typical Red Wings puck movement play that saw Darren Helm take a cross ice pass to the bank.  The Joe Louis Arena crowd may have caused some roof damage over the last 1:27 of the game, when Helm scored the eventual winner.  During the ensuing San Jose timeout, the building blared the intro to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing,” and the crowd shouted the words “south Detroit” louder than ever.  It was a moment to cherish for any Wings fan, as no matter what ends up happening in Sunday’s Game 5, this moment happened, and nobody can ever take it away.  And it was fueled by Lidstrom, who gave his teammates the support and belief in themselves to not quit, as some teams down 3 games to 0 are wont to do.  Oh, and also the two goals.
But we’ve seen this before:  the 1997 Pittsburgh Penguins had almost an identical setup in their first round series against the Philadelphia Flyers.  The Penguins were a 6 seed in the east that year, and figured to be overmatched by the eventual conference champion Flyers, which of course they were.  But there was that one moment, in Game 4 with the Penguins facing elimination and the impending retirement of Cup-winning hero Mario Lemieux.  The Penguins were five years removed from their second of back-to-back Stanley Cups (1991 and ’92).  These Red Wings feel five years removed from the 2009 disappointment in Game 7 of the Finals.  But in that game in ’97, with time winding down and the Penguins trying to hold a two goal lead, Mario Lemieux found himself in all alone with speed flying up the left wing.  To say that the goal and ensuing celebration was a special moment probably only highlights my lack of vocabulary, but I couldn’t help but feel some déjà vu watching last night’s scene, which reeked of reflection and appreciation, unlike the typical game-winning celebration.
This is the same point that was made by hockey people 14 years ago in the lead up to Pittsburgh’s trip to Philadelphia for Game 5, but there’s no reason these Red Wings cannot go grab a win in San Jose.  Detroit has lost all five of its playoff games in San Jose over the last 12 months, but all five losses have been by only one goal.  So while San Jose does look like the better team, Detroit at least gave us a reason to hold out hope for this otherwise abominable conference semifinal round.  Another key to winning road Game 5s to stay alive is that it shifts the pressure to the leading team.  All of a sudden, if the Red Wings are able to force the Sharks to fly back to Detroit for a Game 6, the media will stop talking about how bad the Wings are, and will replace that line with the one about how the Sharks have blown playoff opportunities in the past.  We saw this happen just last round with the Vancouver Canucks, who parlayed a missed opportunity to sweep Chicago into a pressure-packed, finger-pointing blamefest in which Vezina candidates were benched and MVPs past and future were likened to the fairer sex.  Vancouver escaped, but only after Alex Burrows had to score in overtime of Game 7.  As a Wings fan, I’d love nothing more than to put that same pressure on the shoulders of our new bane, the Sharks.  Here’s hoping for another spirited Game 5.  Because, unlike Lemieux and the 2001 conference finals run, Lidstrom is not walking back through that door.

I didn’t stay up to watch the Sharks – Kings game last night, but from what I can see, the Sharks took the game to LA the way I figured a championship contender would.  San Jose took the game to LA by outshooting them 16-5 in the first period, and took a series of 1 goal leads before closing the series out in overtime via Joe Thornton’s goal.  The Sharks also showed their mettle by killing a 5 minute major penalty that spanned the end of regulation and the beginning of overtime.  Not surprisingly, the game winner came soon after the 5 minute kill.  San Jose looks like a legitimate contender, as many predicted they would.

Earlier in the night, Tampa Bay finally won a home game, 4-2, to send their series back to Pittsburgh for a seventh game.  There are two stats that I think are relevant going into Game 7 Wednesday night.  First, Tampa Bay has outscored Pittsburgh 21-14 in this series.  That’s only a touchdown, or 1.16 goals per game.  Second, and I have yet to hear anyone talk about this, but since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009, the Pittsburgh Penguins are 0-4 in closeout games.  If they fall to 0-5 and allow the Lightning to come back from a 3-1 hole on them, shouldn’t there be an opinion correction to account for all those saying that Marc Andre Fleury is a top level goalie, and that the Pens are a playoff team?  Sure, Fleury has had a very good season, but all the talk surrounding him seems to forget that he was dreadful for over 12 months before finding his game late in the 2010 calendar year.  He’s allowed 21 goals in 6 games, and it’s not as if he’s never gone through a long stretch of being bad before.  But, you know, he’s elite…
And sure, Crosby and Malkin aren’t there, but the team was winning regular season games without them this year, and the team also blew the 3-2 lead on Montreal last year with them.  There is a lot on the line for the Penguins tomorrow night, but given that most of the team will be back next year, I don’t think there’s a whole lot of pressure on them to win the Stanley Cup this year, or even the east.  But a first round exit and 5 consecutive donkey performances with 3 series wins isn’t exactly where any franchise wants to be.  Except maybe the Blue Jackets…