March 25, 2011
As with all things sport, Lady Luck casts her dash of influence on just about every aspect of hockey, including which team you draw in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. An eight seed isn't always an eight seed, the same way a one seed isn't always a one seed. Teams change as the year progresses, meaning the season's second-half stats are a more fair representation of a team's worth as they enter playoffs.
Last season, the Phoenix Coyotes earned home ice advantage with a fantastically surprising 82 games, and were undoubtedly going to be a tough out in playoffs. Problem was, they drew one of these "mis-seeds" — the Detroit Red Wings had slogged through a half season of injuries and found themselves a playoff bubble team before getting healthy, and becoming y'know, the Detroit Red Wings again. It was a tough break for the Coyotes to run into a surging team from Hockeytown.
With that in mind, let's take a look at the four teams that I think are better than their current seed heading down the stretch. You just know there's a couple top dogs looking down saying "ah, c'mon, we don't deserve that battle in round one."
It seems just about everybody has written this group off, to which I offer a hearty tsk tsk tsk.
In a season that's seen them, much like Detroit the year before, deal with injuries to key players such as Marian Hossa(notes), David Bolland, Patrick Kane(notes) and Brian Campbell(notes), they haven't actually spent a ton of time together fully healthy. (They were together more in the second half, which has seen them in the top ten for points acquired since the all-star break).
While they won't be at 100 percent health going into playoffs, it's likely Patrick Sharp(notes) will, fortunately for them, be back. That means a top seed will have to face the defending Stanley Cup champions who ice one of the league's best D-corps, who move the puck up to names like Patrick Sharp, Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews(notes), Marian Hossa and a host of other extremely capable players.
Armchair GMs don't like that they had to ship out some of last year's personnel, but seem to have forgotten to look at the remaining roster — you'd take it over most, and the Stanley Cup hangover appears to have faded.
Do you want your team playing them as a seven seed (I'm looking at you, Detroit) instead of facing a team higher in the standings such as the Nashville Predators or LA Kings? I think not.
The Anaheim Ducks might not even make playoffs, and the Vancouver Canucks are likely praying that turns out to be the case.
The Ducks have a starting goaltender, Jonas Hiller(notes), who was having one of the best seasons in the NHL in the early going, earning a spot on the All-Star team, and getting himself into the mid-season Vezina conversation. After Dan Ellis(notes) did whatever he did to him to make him contract vertigo, he missed a sizeable chunk of the schedule.
His return means a rested NHL All-Star in net, while arguably the NHL's best line -- Corey Perry(notes), Ryan Getzlaf(notes) and Bobby Ryan(notes) -- will fly around and give their opponents fits. And all the while, Teemu Selanne(notes) can be found somewhere, if the defense can only find him. He lurks and he's dangerous doing it, just like this team would be if they clawed their way into playoffs.
Between Tyler Myers'(notes) sophomore slump and a few other early season struggles, the Sabres didn't look remotely like the team we expected to see this season (I believe NHL.com's Dave Lozo picked them to win the Cup, for perspective). They underachieved their way around arenas during the season's first half, but thanks to the hapless bottom of the Eastern Conference, never found themselves too far out of the race.
But things are looking up — the Sabres are 9-3-3 in their past 15 games, waking up just in time to ward off some outsiders trying to push their way into the playoffs. Since Terry Pegula bought the team before the deadline, a new feeling has surrounded the Sabres and allowed them to do something they haven't done in awhile — upped the payroll.
Brad Boyes(notes) was brought in at no cost to player personnel, and other aspects have improved, too. Tyler Myers has had a considerably better second half, and players such as Drew Stafford(notes) and Nathan Gerbe(notes) are becoming who they expected them to be. Sprinkle in a dash of Thomas Vanek(notes) and, I dunno, Ryan Miller(notes), and I don't think any one or two seed would be too thrilled about their first round draw.
In net, the Rangers sport one of the few people who could cancel the pending coronation of Tim Thomas(notes) as a two-time Vezina winner. Henrik Lundqvist(notes) has led the Rangers to a 7-2-1 record over the past ten games of the playoff push, and appears to be able to play roughly 10,000 consecutive games without taking a night off.
The Rangers, as much as any team if not more, were ravaged by injuries this season. At the deepest depths of their injury woes, it looked like John Tortorella was a shoo-in to be at least considered for the Jack Adams, as he somehow managed to keep them afloat the entire time. As the team has slowly healed, it's come to the league's attention that the Rangers are actually kind of decent -- an annoying realization when you've battled all year for a top seed, only to see a team finally hitting their stride at the bottom of the pack.
As much of our attention has been on the tremendous second halves of the New Jersey Devils and the Toronto Maple Leafs, there was something we missed about those playoff hunts: The teams they were chasing had underachieved themselves in the first half, and weren't about to continue those ways for 82 games. (Yes, I know Toronto still has hope. No, unfortunately, they won't get in).
If the Rangers really get flying and Lundqvist plays to his potential — as he nearly always does — that's not a fun match up for anyone.
NHL playoffs are known for their upsets, and with these four teams lurking around as seven/eight seeds, I see no reason why this year would be any different.
Only question is, which of the mighty will be first to fall?