Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Major storylines heading into the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs

As the calendar turns to April, there are several major sporting events occurring, such as the NCAA College Basketball tournament, NBA playoffs and the start of another MLB season.  If I didn't know better, I might think there was another event starting this month.  Luckily for some Americans, ESPN doesn't acknowledge any other events, however for those of us who do care, the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs also begin this month.  As you might expect, there are some pretty significant story lines heading into the playoffs.  Let's take a look at some of them:

Sidney Crosby's concussion - Sidney Crosby hasn't played in a game since early January, yet the Penguins are still right in the Flyers' rear view mirrors, and will likely have home ice advantage for the first round of the playoffs.  The bad news: as of right now, it is still mathematically possible for the Penguins to draw Montreal in the first round of the playoffs.

No New Jersey Devils in the playoffs - Since the early 1990s, it was pretty much assumed that if there were playoffs, there were Devils in the playoffs.  This season, however, for the first time since 1996 and just the second time in 21 seasons, the Devils will be outside the East's top-8.  Once May rolls around, however, you probably wouldn't notice, since by that point, the Devils are usually eliminated already.

New York Rangers' resurrgence - Shockingly, the Rangers did not sign the biggest free agent last summer, and even more shockingly, their prized signing from the summer before, Marian Gaborik, has been nothing more than a detail for most of this season.  The key to the Rangers' resurrgence, likely back to the playoffs, is centered around home-grown talent.  Glen Sather seems puzzled by this concept, but since it's too late to self-destruct by trading everyone away at the deadline, he'll have to wait for the off-season.

Tampa Bay is relevant again - It wasn't long ago that the Lightning were the laughing stock of the NHL.  Aside from the Oilers and Islanders, of course.  It wasn't long ago that they drafted Steven Stamkos and signed him.  Don't credit Steve Yzerman for that, however, as not only did he not select Stamkos for his NHL team, but he didn't select Stamkos for his Canadian Olympic team either in 2010.  Let's see if the ageless wonder one of the many old guys still around can keep it going in the playoffs, Dwayne Roloson.

The Islanders are not in the playoffs - Again.

The Maple Leafs are not in the playoffs - Again, even though they made their usual late surge...

Is this the year that a Canadian team finally wins a Cup? - Since the lockout, the President's Trophy winner has been knocked out in the first round of the playoffs three times in five seasons.  One lost in the conference finals, and the 2008 Red Wings won the Stanley Cup.  Most analysts believe that these Canucks are not going to be the fourth time in six seasons that the best regular season team fails in the first round, but the casual fan can point to the standings and note Vancouver's current matchup: Chicago.  Maybe next year, Canada, maybe next year...

The Phoenix Coyotes might sell out a game - Okay, just kidding.  The Coyotes are safely in the playoffs right now, ranked 4th in the Western Conference.  The thing is, nobody is talking about them.  Usually, that is an expression used to say that the national media is overlooking them, but trust me when I say nobody is talking about them, including people in Arizona.  Still, they're probably going to draw either the Kings or Predators, and I'm sure Coyotes ownership -- or Gary Bettman -- or both -- would rather see the Kings play Phoenix, since at least 50 or 60 Kings fans might head down to Phoenix.  It is a great hockey market, though.

Corey Perry and the Anaheim Ducks - If anyone is going to score 50 goals in the NHL this season, it's probably going to be Corey Perry.  Not Crosby, not Ovechkin, not Colton Orr (don't know how that got there...), but Corey Perry.  Anaheim needs goaltending, however, but remember, all goalies are created equal.  Anaheim has five players with 60 points or more: Perry, Ryan, Getzlaf, Visnovsky, Selanne (the ageless wonder, or at least one of them).

The Detroit Red Wings are still a top team - Despite their annual injury plague, Detroit is once again atop their division heading into the post-season.  Nicklas Lidstrom is having a tremendous season, making him the ageless wonder (I feel like I've said that before...).  The only knock against Detroit right now is their goaltending situation, but we all know how I feel about goaltending...

Did Joe Nieuwendyk screw up royally? - At this season's trade deadline, it appeared that the Dallas Stars' general manager made the right decision when he did not move Brad Richards.  Dallas was the West's 3rd best team during the first half of the season, but now loom in 10th, and a playoff push would have to be miraculous at this point.  Considering Glen Sather hasn't made a stupid signing in over a year, expect him to throw a hefty offer Richards' way.  Like 17-years/$102 million.  Something radical and outrageous.

Colorado and Edmonton in the basement - The Oilers in the basement isn't really much of a story, but both the Avalanche and Oilers had exciting, young teams entering this season, and neither team is even close to being relevant right now.  There's no need to fear, though, because both teams will be relevant in late June...at the NHL Entry Draft.

DGA's official Stanley Cup Finals prediction: I expect a highly entertaining playoff season with many, long series, especially for the Washington Capitals...except for the series part.  I think the Penguins and Bruins are legitimate threats to go all the way through to the Finals, except if the Bruins do make it, they'll need to avoid leading games or series, 3-0, because as recently as last night, they have proven themselves inept to hold onto those leafs.  San Jose looks good this season, but hey, they're San Jose.  For their sake, let's hope last season was no fluke.  Vancouver is scary good, but seriously, can they get through the Blackhawks?

  • As of right now, I do think any of the top-3 teams in the West can make it to the Finals, although Detroit's goaltending and age worries me. 
  • I think the Flyers, Penguins and Bruins are obviously the best of the East (wow, that took a lot of insight, huh?), but Boston worries me, too.
I can't bring myself to pick an actual Finals matchup, but if I had to pick, I'd go Celtics-Lakers...I mean Sharks-Flyers.  Whew, the ESPN influence...