Sixteen teams. One Stanley Cup.
I want to be bold. I want to predict the unpredictable. As I compile playoff power rankings – listing the teams in order of their odds to persevere through four punishing rounds – I want to identify the underdog who will shock us all.
But I can’t. The Vancouver Canucks are too good. They’re so good that they can shake off 40 years of frustration, recent playoff disappointments and the supposed curse of winning the Presidents’ Trophy as the NHL’s best regular-season team. They’re so good that, even in a relentlessly competitive league, at a time when anything can happen, anyone can win, they can be the surprise team by actually living up to the hype.
The Canucks deserve to be the prohibitive favorites. They were 10 points better than anyone else in the regular season, which is even more impressive when you consider that 10 points separated the next 12 teams. They scored the most goals and allowed the fewest. They ranked first on the power play, third on the penalty kill. They’re talented, deep, hungry and businesslike.
And so we begin with the …
1. Vancouver Canucks: To go a long way the Canucks must answer three main questions: Can they overcome the loss of Manny Malhotra(notes), who added defense, faceoff prowess and leadership before suffering an eye injury? Can goaltender Roberto Luongo(notes) win when it matters most? And can they beat their nemesis, the Chicago Blackhawks?
They should overcome the loss of Malhotra the way they have overcome injuries all season. Luongo seems more relaxed with such a solid team in front of him, though we’ll see how he – and hysterical Canucks fans – react the first time he allows an iffy goal. As for the ’Hawks, after losing to them in the second round the past two years, beating them in the first round could give the Canucks confidence that this, finally, is their year.
2. San Jose Sharks: When will it be the Sharks’ year? How many times have we held up this team as a top contender, only for them to let us down in the playoffs? They made the Western Conference final last year, only to be swept by the Blackhawks. Then they started this season so poorly that they became almost an afterthought.
“All the talk has been about, ‘What are you guys going to do in the playoffs? What are you guys going to do in the playoffs?’ And this year, not so much,” defenseman Dan Boyle(notes) said in December. “That might not be a bad thing.”
Quietly, the Sharks shot up the standings in the second half. Suddenly, the storyline is that the Sharks still have the talent to win the Cup, that all the adversity prepared them for the playoffs. Which sounds a little like the …
3. Washington Capitals: The Capitals committed to changing their style this season, going from a high-risk attack to a more conservative, defensive approach – hoping to go from a successful regular-season team to one that can win in the playoffs. They dropped their goals against from 16th last season (2.77) to fourth (2.33).
For all the kvetching about Alex Ovechkin’s(notes) down season – a career-low 32 goals and 85 points – he still ranked seventh in scoring. All he kept hearing after last season, when he failed to medal in the Olympics with Russia and lost in the first round with the Caps, was that Sidney Crosby(notes) was better because his teams won. As Ovechkin heated up down the stretch, I went back to something he said in September: “You have to win something to say, ‘Yeah, I’m the greatest player in the world.’ ” He knows what he has to do.
4. Boston Bruins: The Bruins have much to prove themselves a year after the biggest choke in NHL history, blowing a 3-0 lead in their second-round series with the Philadelphia Flyers, including a 3-0 lead in Game 7. There were mitigating factors, yes, like an injury to David Krejci(notes). But excuses? No.
There should be plenty of motivation for a tough, veteran group that plays a tight defensive system in front of goaltender Tim Thomas(notes), who had surgery to repair a hip problem, regained his Vezina Trophy form and set an NHL record for save percentage at .938. He turns 37 on Friday. Despite his age, he’s capable of stealing a series or four.
5. Philadelphia Flyers: At their best, which they were earlier this season, the Flyers have four lines that can score and a deep defense corps. They have inexperience in goal with rookie Sergei Bobrovsky(notes), but they have gone deep in the playoffs with goaltending concerns in the past.
At their worst, which they were down the stretch, the Flyers seem less than the sum of their parts. Plus, one of their lynchpins, defenseman Chris Pronger(notes), is questionable for the start of the first round because of an injury. The Flyers haven’t inspired a lot of confidence lately, making them candidates to be upset in the first round by the streaking Buffalo Sabres. But they remain confident they can flip the switch in the playoffs. Which sounds a little like the …
6. Detroit Red Wings: Just like the Flyers, the Wings are deep and experienced, looked strong for a while, finished flat and believe they can turn it on now. They need goaltender Jimmy Howard(notes) to be better in his second playoff run and Henrik Zetterberg(notes) to return from a knee injury. When they won the Cup in 2008, he won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs’ most valuable player. He’s out for at least the opener.
Just like the Flyers, the Wings are candidates to be upset in the first round. They face the Phoenix Coyotes, who pushed them to seven games in the playoffs last year. The Wings were loose defensively this season, ranking 23rd in goals against (2.89). But remember: The Wings were 20th in goals against (2.93) in 2008-09, when they went to Game 7 of the Cup final.
7. Tampa Bay Lightning: Steven Stamkos(notes). Martin St. Louis(notes). Vincent Lecavalier(notes). Simon Gagne(notes). The Bolts have scorers, and not just the big four. They have 10 men who scored at least 10 goals this season.
Stamkos has gone cold, though, scoring only two of his 45 goals in his last 13 games before his NHL playoff debut. The question is whether the Bolts’ firepower and the goaltending of 41-year-old Dwayne Roloson(notes) can overcome a leaky defense. The Bolts finished 21st in the league in goals against (2.85), though that statistic was skewed by some blowout losses. Yes, with the Lightning, when it rains, it pours.
Roloson led the underdog Edmonton Oilers to the 2006 Cup final. If the Bolts are going to go deep, he must be brilliant again.
8. Pittsburgh Penguins: The Penguins have kept winning despite a number of injuries – most notably to Crosby, out with a concussion since early January, and Evgeni Malkin(notes), out with a knee injury since early February. They have executed coach Dan Bylsma’s system. They have a formidable defense, and Marc-Andre Fleury(notes) has been great in goal.
Still, the Penguins just aren’t the Penguins without Crosby and Malkin. Crosby was on pace for the best season the NHL has seen since the mid-1990s, and though everyone is excited he’s skating again, there remains no timetable for his return. If he does return, there is no guarantee he will be able to jump into playoff intensity and perform at his former level. Malkin hasn’t played like Malkin for a long time, but this is still the guy who won the Conn Smythe two years ago.
9. Chicago Blackhawks: The ’Hawks don’t have Dustin Byfuglien(notes) to mess with Luongo anymore. They lost 10 members of the team that won the Cup last year, thanks to an off-season salary-cap purge, and they backed into the playoffs on the last day of the regular season.
But when the Dallas Stars failed to beat the Minnesota Wild on Sunday, handing the eighth seed to the ’Hawks, it set up a tantalizing first-round matchup. The ’Hawks still have Jonathan Toews(notes), Patrick Kane(notes) and the rest of their talented core. They hope Troy Brouwer(notes) (shoulder) and Dave Bolland(notes) (concussion) will return in the first round. They have confidence they can beat the Canucks.
10. Nashville Predators: Five times, the Predators have made the playoffs in the past. Five times, they have lost in the first round.
Now they think they’re ready to win. They felt they came close to upsetting the Blackhawks last year. Had they not allowed a shorthanded goal late in regulation and another goal in overtime in Game 5, they would have gone home with a 3-2 series lead. As it turned out, they lost in six and watched the ’Hawks go all the way.
The Predators struggle to score, but as is often the case with this efficient franchise, they squeeze the most out of what they have. Led by Shea Weber(notes) and Ryan Suter(notes), they play tight defense in front of superb goaltender Pekka Rinne(notes). They’ll have to be airtight in the first round against the …
11. Anaheim Ducks: The Ducks have one of the league’s best lines with Corey Perry(notes), Ryan Getzlaf(notes) and Bobby Ryan(notes). They have Teemu Selanne(notes), still excellent at age 40. They have assets on defense with Lubomir Visnovsky(notes), Toni Lydman(notes) and rookie Cam Fowler(notes).
So what don’t they have? A healthy goaltender, for one. Jonas Hiller(notes) is fighting vertigo. Ray Emery(notes) has a lower-body injury, after coming back from hip surgery and filling in admirably down the stretch. Dan Ellis(notes) could end up starting Game 1. The Ducks need good goaltending, because they take a lot of penalties, don’t kill them well and give up too much defensively.
12. Phoenix Coyotes: All season, all the talk about the Coyotes has been about Glendale and the bond sale and Matthew Hulsizer and the Goldwater Institute and Winnipeg. There has been little talk about the exceptional season of defenseman Keith Yandle(notes) or the goaltending talents of Ilya Bryzgalov(notes) – except when people talk about where Bryzgalov, a pending unrestricted free agent, might play next season.
Upset the Red Wings, though, and the Coyotes can bring attention to their hockey. They pushed the Wings to seven games in the first round last year, before being humbled at home, 6-1. They know they can beat the Wings and should be desperate to do it, and they will be well-coached, as always, by Dave Tippett.
13. Buffalo Sabres: Is this Terry Pegula guy great or what? He buys the Sabres, gets misty-eyed talking about his memories of rooting for the team, promises to spend money and dreams out loud about winning Stanley Cups. Cups! And just like that, the Sabres, who struggled so badly early in the season, started winning and winning and winning.
Can they keep winning in the playoffs? Well, they have Ryan Miller(notes), don’t they? The Sabres’ skaters will be no match for the Flyers’ in the first round, but Miller gives the Sabres a big edge in goal, even if he hasn’t had his Vezina Trophy form this season. While finishing 16-4-4, the Sabres beat the Flyers twice.
14. Montreal Canadiens: Carey Price(notes) has proven the Canadiens wise for trading last year’s playoff hero, Jaroslav Halak(notes). Since being booed in the preseason by his own fans, Price has been so stellar that he has become a fan favorite in Montreal. But for the Habs to go deep again, he’ll probably have to be better than Halak was last year when they went to the Eastern Conference final. Mike Cammalleri and P.K. Subban(notes) will have to reprise their performances, too.
Injuries have thinned the defense, and the Habs are short on scoring and size up front. For all the emotion, hype and history surrounding their first-round series with Boston, they risk being pushed around by the bigger, badder Bruins – one of the few teams that can boast the edge in goal.
Their playoff hopes took two huge blows when they lost Anze Kopitar(notes) to an ankle injury and Justin Williams(notes) to a shoulder injury. Kopitar was their leading scorer. Williams tied for second on the team in points. He might return as soon as Game 1, but reportedly at less than 100 percent, wearing a harness.
Without Kopitar and Williams, no one filled the void offensively for the Kings down the stretch. If someone doesn’t fill it now, it could be up to Quick to prevent a quick exit.
16. New York Rangers: There is so much to admire about the Rangers – the Blueshirts’ blue-collar ethic, working hard, sacrificing, blocking shots – and they have a goaltender in Henrik Lundqvist(notes) who can carry them. That could be the formula for upsetting the Capitals, whom the Rangers took to seven games two years ago.
But the Rangers lost their heart and soul when they lost Ryan Callahan(notes) to a broken ankle, the latest in a long series of injuries this season. Their biggest star, Marian Gaborik(notes), has been so unproductive that coach John Tortorella has benched him at times. And it’s hard to believe in a team that lost to the Atlanta Thrashers last week – by the score of 3-0, no less – and had to back into the playoffs because of it.
It’s easier to believe in Vancouver.
“There’s a lot of pressure, but at the same time, this year, I think it’s a lot of positives,” Henrik Sedin(notes) said. “We’ve got a good team. We’ve shown it all year. There’s an optimism in the city for sure.”