NHL Playoffs 2012: Biggest Surprises Heading Into Hockey's Postseason
Every season, the NHL produces surprises, both good and bad and 2012 was no exception.
Some teams come out of nowhere to contend and some surefire contenders hit the golf course early. Some players also do more than anybody expected while others disappoint.
Here's a look at the biggest surprises as we head into the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Florida Panthers reached the postseason for the first time since 2000.
This past summer, new GM Dale Tallon spent a lot of money just to bring his team above the salary cap floor. He brought in experienced players like Brian Campbell, Tomas Fleischmann, Sean Bergenheim and Ed Jovanovski.
Nobody was sure if these moves would pay off in the win column, but they did and the Panthers captured the first division title in franchise history and have a date with the sixth-seeded New Jersey Devils in the first round of the playoffs.
Phoenix Captures the Pacific Title
When the season begain, the Phoenix Coyotes were anything but favorites to win the Pacific Division title.
The San Jose Sharks are considered perennial favorites to not only win their division but contend for the Stanley Cup each year and the experts are always quick to jump on the Sharks bandwagon.
The Kings were also considered a popular choice after bringing in some more talented offensive players like Mike Richards and Simon Gagne and re-signing Drew Doughty.
The Coyotes are still owned by the NHL, their budget is limited and their future remains up in the air.
But somehow, GM Don Maloney and Coach Dave Tippett put together a team that resembled the Little Engine that Could and came away with the franchise's first division title (yes, that includes its time in Winnipeg).
The Predators Become Buyers
The Nashville Predators have always been one of the better-run teams in the NHL, but the team was clearly "small market" and lost some of their best talent year after year to free agency.
Still, GM David Poile always brought in enough lower-priced talent to keep his club in contention for the coming season.
This year, Nashville is facing the possible loss of their best two defensemen—Ryan Suter and Shea Weber—neither of whom has a long-term deal in place.
Instead of being sellers at the trade deadline, the Preds became buyers.
Poile sent a message to Suter and Weber that if they want to win a Stanley Cup, they have just as good a chance of getting one in the Music City as they do anywhere else in the league.
The Preds brought in an experienced defenseman in Hal Gill who already has a Stanley Cup ring just before the trade deadline and, on deadline day, added valuable role players like Andrei Kostitsyn and Paul Gaustad, who can be difference makers in the playoffs.
The Preds finished fourth in the West and will face the Detroit Red Wings in the first round, although this time, it will be Nashville that has the home-ice advantage.
We will soon see if Poile's spending pays off on the ice and if it helps the Preds re-sign Suter and Weber to long-term deals.
Ottawa Reaches the Playoffs
The Hockey News was pretty clear what it thought of the Ottawa Senators in its 2011-12 season preview issue: they picked Ottawa to finish dead last in the Eastern Conference.
Instead, the Senators received great play from defenseman Erik Karlsson and vets like Jason Spezza, Milan Michalek and Daniel Alfredsson to qualify for the playoffs.
For a good part of the season, in fact, Ottawa was a lot closer to the division-leading Bruins than they were to the eighth and final playoff spot, which is where they ended up.
Even though they open against the New York Rangers, Ottawa has a quick and talented young team and the future seems bright in Canada's capital.
The Blue Jackets Are Home
Columbus was a popular choice to reach the playoffs this summer after spending a lot of money to bring in offensive defenseman James Wisniewski and high-scoring forwards Jeff Carter and Vinny Prospal.
The season never really got off the ground for the Blue Jackets, though.
Injuries and suspensions kept Wisniewski from getting on track and Carter never really found his comfort zone in Columbus.
More importantly, goalie Steve Mason never regained his rookie season form and the Jackets quickly sank to the bottom of the NHL standings and stayed there.
Unfortunately for the Blue Jackets, finishing last didn't even win them the top pick in next year's NHL draft as the Edmonton Oilers won the draft lottery earlier this week, leaving the Blue Jackets with the No. 2 pick.
Rangers Win the East
Most experts expected the Rangers to be improved this season after they added Brad Richards—the top-rated free agent available last offseason—but almost nobody picked them to win the Eastern Conference.
Richards had a bit of a slow start, but finished the season leading the club in assists. More importantly, he was familiar with coach John Tortorella's system and helped his teammates buy into it.
The formula for the Rangers was a familiar one.
Great goaltending from Henrik Lundqvist, a strong team defense that included a lot of blocked shots and just enough goal scoring to get by. A healthy season from Marian Gaborik helped a lot, too.
Now we'll see if the Broadway Blueshirts can turn their first-place finish into their first trip to the Stanley Cup Finals since 1994.
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