Just three weeks into postseason action and there have already been plenty of surprises, momentum swings and heroics on display thus far in the 2012 NHL playoffs.
As the stakes grow and the physical play picks up (as it always does in the playoffs), the rising tension between teams is inevitable, making for some exciting and unpredictable hockey.
Although there have been numerous storylines early on, one of the most noticeable trends is the absence of some of the NHL’s major market teams — teams that always seem to be competing for a title this time of year.
Past Stanley Cup winners like Detroit, Chicago, Pittsburgh and Boston were all eliminated early, giving teams like Nashville, Los Angeles, Phoenix, St. Louis and Washington an opportunity to win their franchises’ first ever Stanley Cup.
The Boston Bruins proved last year by winning the Stanley Cup as a No. 6 seed in the East that any team, regardless of seed, could win it all if they peak at the right time.
This year, the No. 8 seed Los Angeles Kings remind me much of that Boston Bruins team that won it last year.
LA’s goaltender Jonathan Quick is playing with great intensity and confidence right now and has his Kings team looking unbeatable. The Vezina Trophy — an award given out to the NHL’s top goaltender — is the biggest asset to the Kings’ franchise since Wayne Gretzky. Quick is goalkeeping at a world-class level that has many analysts considering the Kings as a serious contender to bring the Cup back to SoCal, something Gretzky failed to do in eight seasons as a King.
Quick’s dominance is nothing new, however, as his unrelenting play all season long helped propel the Kings to a playoff berth. The biggest surprise for the surging Kings is their offensive production. A team that ranked 29th in the regular season in goal scoring is now putting pucks into the back of the net seemingly at will.
Star player Anze Kopitar and off-season acquisition Mike Richards have given LA a solid one-two punch at the center position that is elevating the offensive play of the Kings while remaining defensively responsible — a tough combination to beat.
After jumping out to a two-game series lead against a strong St. Louis team, the Kings are my favorite to not only make it to the Western Conference finals, but also to make a trip back to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since ’93.
In order to make it to the Cup, they’ll have to overcome the Phoenix Coyotes, who also have a two-game series lead on the Nashville Predators. Much like the Kings, the ‘Yotes have relied on the dominant play of their netminder Mike Smith.
Smith, listed at 6’4”, has been standing tall for Phoenix throughout the playoffs, as his persistence in the net single-handedly eliminated a talented Chicago team in the first round.
If Smith and Quick face off in the Western Conference Final, it should make for an intensely close and low-scoring series; maybe not the best for TV ratings, but that doesn’t matter to these guys — or true hockey fans — at this time of year.
The journey to lift Lord Stanley’s cup is an arduous one: a two-month long grind that by the end of it, has most players playing through injury or with unflattering facial hair (a common NHL tradition is for players to not shave during playoffs). History shows the team that holds the hardware in the end is often made up of several crucial components: depth, great goaltending and a good mix of veteran leadership and youthful energy.
The New York Rangers are my pick to win it all this year because I think they have the right mix of these components to prevail best in a seven-game final series. The Rangers are the strongest defensive team remaining in the playoffs. With great depth on their blue line, a strong systematic defensive approach led by Head Coach John Tortorella and MVP candidate Henrik Lundqvist in net, it’s no coincidence the Rangers gave up the fewest goals in the regular season. Responsible defensive play combined with the offensive talent and veteran leadership of players like Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik make New York the most complete team remaining in the playoffs.
Although they still have to overcome an unpredictable Washington Capitals team this round, the Rangers’ biggest threat in their road to the Cup may be a matchup against the dynamic offense of the Philadelphia Flyers.
The two teams featured in this year’s Winter Classic and HBO series “24/7” made it no secret to the cameras that they are not fond of each other. Both teams possess a gritty, physical style of play that could make for a passionate and entertaining series. The real question is can Philadelphia’s defense survive the attack of a deep Ranger squad?
Philadelphia led the NHL in goals scored during the regular season, but continue to have issues with the inconsistency of goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov. Despite injuries to key defensemen and shaky play from Bryzgalov, Philly still managed to knock off the Cup favorite Pittsburgh Penguins in six games. A major reason for the Flyers’ first round success was the play of 24-year-old Claude Giroux, who outshined NHL superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on a big stage.
Known around the league simply as “G,” Giroux has made a name for himself as a player who makes big plays in big moments. Currently leading the playoffs in goals and points, Giroux is a dynamic offensive talent who seems to make an impact every time he touches the ice. If the Flyers are going to continue to win in this year’s playoffs, it will be because of the competitive nature and clutch play from Giroux.
Philly has the offensive flair, New York has the defense and tenacity, LA and Phoenix have the goaltending; so who will have what it takes to win it all? The Eastern Conference’s first seeded New York Rangers have the right pieces to the puzzle, but if I’ve learned anything in my years of watching the Stanley Cup playoffs, it’s that anything can happen.
Only time will tell who the best team is in 2012, but by the end of June, I can guarantee the group of men that hoists the 34-pound Cup above their heads will be the team that dug the deepest and sacrificed the most. That is just how hockey works.