The lack of a truly great team or teams in the NHL this season, and this likely the most wide open race for the Stanley Cup in decades, raises the debate echoed by some cranky pundits that the absence of a dynasty or even a clear favourite is really a condemnation of a league which endured more than its fair share of criticism through 2003-2004.
There was a point when only five teams won the Stanley Cup through 17 seasons, 1973-74 through 1989-90, when dynasties ruled and the Calgary Flames were the only interloper with a single Cup to its credit.
That in turn gave some comfort to these critics, always able to point to the safety of the Islanders in the early '80's or the Canadiens before them, knowing those teams were most likely to be there in the end to face whatever cannon fodder had managed to survive the rest of the tournament.
Those were teams that defined their era's and because they were there in full splendour, devouring their competition at will, those era's must have been great as well say these observers.
Those days are long gone, however, and quite literally any team in the Final 16 this year could pull up its britches and go all the way, some as long shots of course but probably 13 of 16 where a solid argument could be made for ultimate success.
In this sense, the Stanley Cup playoffs aren't necessarily about the best talent or even about the best team anymore. It's about who might get hot at the right time in the season. That in turn, is an affront to those who revel in the warm blanket of the clear favourite, who feel compelled to point to parity as an absence of greatness.
Well, get stuffed you stuffy people.
This is going to be one whale of a playoff year since the part of "not knowing" is 100% of the anticipation. With only marginal differences of a few quality players here or there among The Chosen 16, the eventual Stanley Cup Champion could be just about anyone.
I, for one, like it that way.
Our first round "guesses:"
Detroit (1) vs. Nashville (8) Red Wings (48-21-11-2, 109 pts); Predators (38-29-11-4; 91 pts) Season Series: 3-3-0
The Predators rattled off wins in their first three games against the Wings earlier in the season, then settled back to earth with three losses in the second half. That might leave optimistic observers giving Nashville a 50/50 chance of upsetting the battle-hardened Wings but more all the Predators did was alert the wily Wings to take these guys seriously. I'm not a huge Tomas Vokoun fan but I can still appreciate the annoying, buzzsaw approach the Predators brought to the rink this season. But the deep Wings are superior to Nashville in every respect, including using a third string goaltender, Manny Legace, who would probably be a starter on many other teams. There's too much going on in Hockeytown not to brush aside the bothersome Preds in five.
San Jose (2) vs. St. Louis (7) Sharks (43-21-12-6; 104 pts); Blues (39-30-11-2; 91 pts) Season Series: 2-2-0
St. Louis isn't your usual number seven seed, most conceding them a top five spot in the standings at the start of the year. Worse for San Jose, the Blues were actually looking pretty peppy at the end of the season. By all accounts, the veterans on the Blues recognize their dramatic squeak into the post-season was something of a second chance to redeem themselves but this is a Blues team thin on defence after Chris Pronger and merely average in net with Chris Osgood. San Jose is looking like the team people thought they were last season when many pundits picked them as a Stanley Cup finalist, only to see them wallow like an East River barge and miss the post-season altogether. The Sharks are deeper all around than the Blues and anchor it with better goaltending in Evgeny Nabakov so there shouldn't be a lot of doubt this one will end with San Jose winning in six.
Vancouver (3) vs. Calgary (6) Canucks (43-24-10-5; 101 pts); Flames (42-30-7-3; 94 pts) Season Series: 3-2-1 Vancouver
One of the more intriguing series in this playoff year and probably the most difficult to call. The Canucks have an image as an offensive dynamo but it was actually the Flames who scored more goals after the All-Star break, 68 to 67, and it was Calgary which had the better goals against average in that time frame as well. In the wake of the Todd Bertuzzi/Steve Moore incident, the Canucks have reinvented themselves somewhat into a more defensive styling, bolstered by the return of Ed Jovanovski, one of the best all-around defencemen in the NHL. Calgary, of course, finished top three defensively in the NHL this year and have Miikka Kiprusoff, who established a modern day record for lowest goals against average in a season. While Kiprusoff will be hampered by virtually zero playoff experience his doppelganger at the other end of the ice, Dan Cloutier, has only the experience of choking in the post-season, his save percentages the last two playoff years ranking him near the bottom of his peers. Both teams finished the season on a strong note, the Canucks winners of six straight and Calgary 11-6-2 down the stretch, the latter wading through a difficult road schedule. The Flames have a good shot in this series if Stephane Yelle and particularly Toni Lydman manage to return from the injury ward in time but will have to impose their game early on Vancouver and keep the Canuck necks pinned to the ice. Vancouver, in turn, has to take advantage of Calgary's fatal predilection for letting the opposition set the tone early in a game. In the end, the Flames may be missing one or two people too many, their depth not as solid as Vancouver's, a few too many rookies needing to step up in prime time. Vancouver should win this in a hard fought seven games.
Colorado (4) vs. Dallas (5) Avalanche (40-22-13-7; 100 pts); Stars (41-26-13-2; 97 pts) Season Series: 3-1-0 Colorado
I haven't liked the Avalanche from day one of this season and this isn't a time to start. There is absolutely no doubt this is among the most talented rosters in the NHL but the game today isn't about talent alone. Even the great Montreal teams of the 1970's had a "grit" element to bring to the table on a shift by shift basis, something Pierre Lacroix in Colorado was belatedly recognizing at the March trade deadline. But too little, too late. The Stars on the other hand weren't going out their way to avoid the Avalanche, a gritty and talented team salivating at the chance to run over Colorado's pretty boys. The wild card here is Peter Forsberg, likely the premier player in the NHL today, but even his mighty efforts probably won't be able to save Colorado. Dallas in six.
Tampa Bay (1) vs. NY Islanders (8) Lightning (46-22-8-6, 106 pts); Islanders (38-29-11-4; 91 pts) Season Series: 3-1-0 New York
Long haul we're not as enamoured with Tampa as others might be, but they're certainly a better team than New York. In Nik Khabibulin, the Lightning have a veteran goaltender who has won only a single post-season series in his career but that should be more than offset by the offensive talent up front as well as one of the best mid-season pickups by any team, Darryl Sydor on defence. The Islanders, meanwhile, have playoff warrior Michael Peca effectively neutralized by chronic playoff choker Alexei Yashin. While the Islanders bring a gritty element to this series the Lightning may find difficult to match, Tampa should ultimately prevail in six.
Boston (2) vs. Montreal (7) Bruins (41-19-5-7; 104 pts); Canadiens (41-30-7-4; 93 pts) Season Series: 3-2-1 Boston
Does he or doesn't he? The ubiquitous "upper body injury" to uber-forward Joe Thornton will be one of many keys to this interesting series. No one is quite sure if Thornton is even going to play, his absence bringing the Bruins down to the level of the Canadiens. Combine that with a young rookie netminder in Andrew Raycroft versus the tried and proven Jose Theodore and this is one series in the first round where an upset becomes a distinct possibility. Weighing against that is Montreal's disjointed finish to the season. We'll assume Thornton is a mere ghost of his usual self, that Raycroft proves to be a mere rookie, and call Montreal in six.
Philadelphia (3) vs. New Jersey (6) Flyers (40-21-15-6; 101 pts); Devils (43-25-12-2; 100 pts) Season Series: 3-2-1 Philadelphia
One of the great mysteries in the game will be put on full display once again in this series, the continued lack of recognition of the importance of goaltending in the playoffs by Philadelphia GM Bobby Clarke. It was Clarke, after all, who was captain of a Philadelphia Flyers team in the early 1970's which rode the incredible netminding of Bernie Parent to two consecutive Stanley Cup championships. Yet Clarke, in spite of repeated failures in the past, will be starting the post-season again with a relatively untried goaltender, in this case, Robert Esche. At the other end of the ice will be one of the best netminders of his generation, Martin Brodeur, surrounded by a team and a philosophy designed to make him as secure as possible while chipping away with the occasional goal at the other end of the ice. The absence of defenceman Scott Stevens will be profoundly felt by the Devils, however, and even the Flyers should have enough to push past New Jersey in the first round. Flyers in seven.
Toronto (4) vs. Ottawa (5) Maple Leafs (45-24-10-3; 103 pts); Senators (43-23-10-6; 102 pts) Season Series: 4-1-1 Toronto
I loved the Senators at the start of this season, declaring them eventual Stanley Cup champions before the first puck was dropped, but a lot has changed since then. Or rather, it's the same Senators but . . . . . different. A team that once made few mistakes now makes a ton. A team that was developing an iron will now seems to flustered on occasion, loses its concentration and acts as a group of selfish individuals. A team that was getting better than adequate goaltending now has doubts about Patrick Lalime, who has a wonky knee as it is. Across the centre line is a Toronto squad that may be the finest Leaf team and the best bet to win a Stanley Cup in 37 years. Fittingly, this Leaf team rivals the 1966-67 champions in age as well but brings up all sorts of health issues through a lengthy run to the playoffs. Focussing further, Toronto's chances in this series and for an eventual championship will ride squarely on the wonky back of Ed Belfour. If he can play, Toronto will beat the Senators and perhaps beat them handily. Toronto in five. And more's the shame.
FURTHER NECK ON THE LINE PREDICTIONS:
EVENTUAL STANLEY CUP WINNER - DALLAS -
From the middle of the pack, they beat Toronto in the Stanley Cup final, the ultimate emotional wreckage for Leaf fans in their best chance since 1966-67. At least they have a team worthy of the challenge, unlike their ghastly and fortunate entries into the final four in the early 1990's. Dallas, on the other hand, will have to go through Detroit to get there so we're crossing our fingers that miracle happens.
FIRST TEAM ELIMINATED - NASHVILLE
LEADING SCORER IN THE PLAYOFFS - Brian Leetch. Geez, when was the last time a defenceman led the playoffs in scoring?