Reflections on the NHL Playoffs After the Final Round
Well, the NHL playoffs are over, and thanks to my 7-1 predictions in the first round, I had a winning record. The rest of it was mediocre, including a loss in the final round. Congratulations to Pittsburgh for defeating the defending champions even when they didn't have home ice advantage.
So what does the Pittsburgh victory mean, and what is the state of the NHL with the 2008 season now over? Like the other articles in this series, I'll start with the loser.
Detroit: May Rue Not Winning When They Had the Chance
It seemed to me that the Red Wings had all the advantages going into this series. They had better depth, home ice advantage, better defense, and the status of being the defending champion and knowing what it takes to become one. et somehow they lost.
Two reasons can be discerned: Mike Babcock was outcoached by Dan Bylsma, and for some mysterious reason, in the last two games Detroit refused to shoot the puck at Marc-Andre Fleury, who entered this series as a suspect goalie who had not been able to win the big one.
Bylsma learned from every defeat and made the adjustments necessary for victory, while Babcock never altered anything, even when he saw his team was not creating enough opportunities to score.
The Detroit depth was canceled, nor did they establish any superior physical play over Pittsburgh, something I thought would make it a short series in Detroit's favor if they had shown the hitting game from the start. Pittsburgh's goalie was not run over like Anaheim's was.
Thus, in the last two games, Fleury, without having many shots to contend with, was good enough when he had to be. I'm not going to belittle Pittsburgh's triumph as a cheap victory, but more was expected from Detroit's forwards.
While Chris Osgood's reputation increased, Marion Hossa's declined. He was supposed to make Detroit stronger than their Stanley Cup-winning team from the year before, but instead he is building a reputation as a hexy player who can't win a championship.
With every incentive to win a Cup at the expense of his old team, he had a horrible series. He is a talented player, but whether Detroit should keep him is questionable.
More serious is the fact that many of Detroit's top players are getting older. If they cannot win now against an inexperienced Pittsburgh team, unless they get some younger players, they are unlikely to do as well next year in a rematch.
So long as they were able to hold the upper hand against up and coming teams like Pittsburgh and Washington, they were the team to beat. By letting victory slip through their fingers, their dominance may be over.
The Pittsburgh Era Has Begun
It was always expected that Sidney Crosby would win the Stanley Cup one day, especially when he was joined by Evgeni Malkin. The one obstacle in their way was Detroit, and now that barrier has been overcome, surprisingly early in Crosby's career. There were few years of apprenticeship like the New York Islanders and Edmonton dynasties.
The Pittsburgh triumph was one of a few players of superior talent over a team with lots of top players, but no superstars except for an aging Nicklas Lidstrom. The Conn Smythe winner was not Malkin, but Dan Bylsma, who outcoached Mike Babcock.
Bylsma took over a team that seemed headed for the ashcan and turned it around completely. He got far more out of his players than his predecessor, and they started to play like everyone imagined they could.
Under his guidance, Malkin, who was a non-factor the year before, produced big numbers. He also made a winner out of Fleury, who was a suspect goalie before the season started.
Pittsburgh's victory means a new era for the NHL, and they will be tougher to beat now that they know how to win the Stanley Cup.
Coupled with the fact that there are few genuine contenders for the Stanley Cup in the present NHL, as long as Pittsburgh can keep its top players and its coach, it is no longer a question of when but how many championships can be won in the Crosby-Malkin era.
The NHL Is a Three-Team League
Unless there are dramatic trades, unexpected injuries, or startling young player development, there are only three teams capable of winning the Stanley Cup: the last three winners, Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Anaheim.
As this year's playoffs made plain, nobody else is close. All have superior coaching, can play a physical game, and have enough talent to win.
Of the three, Pittsburgh should be in the driver's seat because their top players are much younger than their opponents', and they don't have a serious challenger in their own conference. As Detroit and Anaheim's top players get older, the gap between them and Pittsburgh should increase.
By the time the Crosby-Malkin era is over, Pittsburgh may be fourth on the all-time Stanley Cup winners list, behind Montreal, Detroit, and Toronto.
Beneath the three top teams are a few second-level teams that can make it as far as the second or third round of the playoffs. But when compared to the top three teams, they look like a sorry lot.
The most promising is Washington, which is the only team to have a player of the caliber of Crosby-Malkin (Alex Ovechkin), but one player isn't enough to win a championship. The last game of the Pittsburgh-Washington series wasn't close, even with Washington holding home ice advantage.
It's hard to picture them doing as well as they did next year against Pittsburgh, now that Pittsburgh has won the Stanley Cup.
Other teams on this level are Carolina, Philadelphia, New Jersey, and the New York Rangers. In the west, there is the Chicago Blackhawks and nothing else.
Goaltending's Importance Has Been Diminished
One theme that sometimes emerges in the playoffs is the team that rides the hot goaltender to the championship and the Conn Smythe trophy. Many of my failed choices were based on this theory.
I expected Carolina and Vancouver to make it to the finals, with Cam Ward or Roberto Luongo winning the Conn Smythe trophy. Instead the two best goalies were beaten badly, though Ward did manage to beat tough competition in Boston and New Jersey.
What counts now in today's NHL are star players who can play a physical game and produce offensively with good enough goaltending. Only Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Anaheim meet that criteria.
So that is what the playoffs produced. If you are a fan of one of the three top teams, you have a future to look forward to. The rest of you will have a long wait.
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