Two of the three most recent Stanley Cup champions — the Chicago Blackhawks and last season's Cup-winning Los Angeles Kings — would appear to have the best bet of meeting in the NHL Western Conference final, but don't bet the house on it — there's a few other teams that would like to have a say in the matter.
Photograph by: Charles Rex Arbogast, AP
VANCOUVER — Do not be alarmed. That tingly/queasy sensation as you ponder the playoff hopes of your heroes is not only entirely normal, but there isn’t a constituency in hockey that doesn’t experience it.
Blackhawks fans may be marginally less nervous than the class average when the great equalizer that is the Stanley Cup playoffs begins, because in the West, in 2013, there was Chicago and then there was everyone else.
Ditto Pittsburgh, in the East.
The only hitch is that — unfortunately for favourites, and happily for underdogs — the National Hockey League has decided to install the ice surfaces slippery-side-up again this spring.
And if the usual first-round roll of the dice isn’t enough, what the Los Angeles Kings wrought last spring — from squeaking in as the No. 8 seed to winning the Stanley Cup with hardly a hiccup along the way — has only intensified the atmosphere of wild surmise and trepidation, depending which side of the odds-board your team has drawn.
“I think every team, whether you’re Chicago or Pittsburgh, or Anaheim or whoever makes the playoffs, you go in with apprehension — and hope,” says Anaheim Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau.
“I mean, L.A. was a pure example of the team that gets hot at the end and wins the Cup. It happens in a lot of sports ... whoever gets going at the end.”
It’s not a foolproof system, betting the hot team.
As noted in The Hockey News, no Stanley Cup winner in the past 20 years has had better than a 7-2-1 record over its final 10 games of the regular season — and last year, seven playoff teams had better closing records than the Kings’ 5-2-3, including the Canucks (8-1-1) ... and we all know how that turned out.
Lots of very good teams clinch early and coast to the finish line, resting regulars and not necessarily going all-out for wins, and their records reflect it. It’s not ideal. But neither is getting mentally and physically drained by grinding right to the wire trying to get into the playoffs.
“You see a lot of teams in the East that are kind of tailing off a little bit, and I know their coaches are probably worried going into the playoffs, because you can’t just flick a switch,” said Vancouver defenceman Kevin Bieksa, who, after this past weekend’s events, could probably name one in the West that’s in the same boat.
“Playing your best hockey at the end of the season definitely helps you. I’d take that any day over a good start.”
It turns out there is no correct answer. On one side: the Philadelphia Flyers who made it on the last day and went all the way to the Cup final against Chicago, or the Kings who sweated to the end and upset everybody last year. On the other: the 2008 Detroit Red Wings, Presidents’ Trophy winners and Stanley Cup champs.
Rest, rust ... it’s a tough balancing act — and it’s easy to dwell on what may turn out to be trivial.
“As coaches, you think about both way too much,” said Boudreau. “It’s like 90 per cent (of your thoughts) are occupied by 10 per cent of the problem. I don’t know how much of a difference-maker it really is, when it comes to emotion of the playoffs and everything else.
“In the end, good players always play good.”
Or so their coaches hope.
So how to decide where to stack your picks in the playoff pool? Loading up on conference finalists is usually a good plan, but which teams will make it to the third round?
Well, you’ve come to the right place: from the same firm that confidently predicted the Penguins (first-round losers) over the St. Louis Blues (swept in the second round) for last year’s Stanley Cup final, here are your sure things for the Western side of this spring’s tournament.
The Blackhawks are ticking along on all cylinders, as they have all season, and probably heaved a small sigh of relief when they didn’t draw Detroit in the first round. They ought to be able to dispatch the Minnesota Wild without undue fuss, but every other Western opener is a crap-shoot.
Anaheim had the better season, but Detroit has Datsyuk and Zetterberg and Franzen and Cleary and you don’t get any freebies from the Hockeytown crew.
The Blues and Kings might as well just go at it in the Octagon — there will be violence not suitable for a squeamish audience, and even the survivor isn’t going to come out of it unscathed.
But if that matchup was the secret hope of the Canucks, they didn’t exactly draw a first-round bye as a result of it. The San Jose Sharks are the only Western team Vancouver failed to beat all season, and the difference between the No. 3-seeded Canucks and any team they were apt to face in the playoffs was always going to be minuscule.
Assume at least two upsets, and figure on Chicago and Los Angeles in the conference final.
As always, use your game sense, and don’t actually bet anything.
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