The 2008 NHL Playoffs started out just as anyone could have hoped; except for Carolina Hurricanes fans, that is. Though he's not the NHL's Golden Boy, Alexander Ovechkin is the league's most exciting player, and he proved it by leading The Washington Capitals in their late season playoff run that nearly every hockey fan was rooting for, mainly to see Ovechkin continue his trademark glass jump goal celebration through April. As a Kings, fan, I was taking on the Caps as my 2008 playoff team to cheer for.
But wait a minute, we also finally have Sidney Crosby and the Penguins with a legitimate chance to make a run at the Stanley Cup? With Crosby sidelined for 6 weeks, Evgeni Malkin takes over and scores 39 points in 24 games, eventually earning him the nod for the Hart Memorial Trophy, given to the league's MVP. Where's the excitement for this story? Unfortunately for the Pens, the Caps' story was just more enthralling at the time, even though the consensus was that Pittsburgh had a much better shot at competing for Lord Stanley's prize. Moreover, these scenarios provided the possibility of the NHL's dream scenario: Crosby vs Ovechkin on the largest stage. They had scheduled this matchup two or three times during the season to be exhibited on NBC's nationwide broadcast with meager results. The games were exciting, but not quite what we all hoped for. But now the possibility of this match-up in the postseason was just too intriguing not to talk about.
Alas, it was not meant to be, as the Caps couldn't get past the eventual Eastern Conference finalists in the Philadelphia Flyers. This could be looked at as a disappointment, but anyone who was fortunate enough to participate in this series in any way, even spectating, is better off from it. And that was just the first round.
The Ovechkin storyline aside, the first round of the playoffs were filled with interesting stories.
The storied Montreal Canadiens were matched up with their long time rivals, the Boston Bruins, and up until this series it had been an absolute blowout of late; The Canadiens had won the past eleven straight match-ups, a staggering statistic. Hockey analysts had a clear cut opinion prior to this series: Habs in 4 or 5. Despite the history and rivalry intangibles, the Canadiens had just been too good recently, putting up ridiculous scoring numbers and boasting the best power play in the league. However, there were a few that had a lingering feeling in the back of their minds that something crazy could happen in this series; and it almost did. Boston pushed this series to a seventh game despite being down 3-1. No one could have predicted that. They lost game seven 5-1, but the renewed the faith of B's fans everywhere by killing the streak and going the distance with the Habs.
In the West, defending champs the Anaheim Ducks were set to face off against division rivals the Dallas Stars.. wait, are you kidding? These two made it on most analysts lists for top five teams with a shot at the cup. To think that one of these teams wouldn't make it past the first round is slightly disturbing, but given the strength of the Pacific Division, perhaps this was bound to happen. Surely, then, the Ducks will just have to put the Stars out of their misery and attempting to be the first team to be back to back champs since the Detroit Red Wings ten years ago. Sorry, Teemu and Scott, perhaps you guys should have either called it quits or started the season with your team. The Ducks weren't able to put enough pucks past the likes of Marty Turco to defend their crown.
These were probably the most interesting first round stories, prior to the starts of their respective series that is. Upon the conclusions of the conference quarterfinals, many more emerged. A strong cup contending San Jose Sharks needed seven games to move past conference rivals the Calgary Flames, with the Flames making perhaps the most exciting single game comeback of the playoffs down 3-0 in game three and winning 4-3. The New York Rangers displayed what many supporters hoped they would in a strong veteran presence and goaltending performance in disposing of the Devils 4-1. The Colorado Avalanche successfully battled Northwest Division rivals Minnesota Wild in one of the most entertaining first round series of the year, winning 4-2. The Nashville Predators gave Detroit one of their toughest challenges in the postseason, in fact Detroit was forced to pull starting netminder Dominik Hasek in back to back games, eventually handing the job over to Chris Osgood, but the Red Wings would prevail in 6. Oh yeah, and the Pittsburgh Penguins swept early season cup favorites the Ottawa Senators, outscoring them 16-4; Mike Lange, my back is feeling itchy.
The conference semis did not disappoint either. Most notably, a rivalry from the past emerges again, this time in the west: Detroit vs. Colorado. During mid 90's these teams pummeled everyone they faced, especially each other; both physically and on the scoreboard. In fact, the Avs won the Cup in 1996, and as previously mentioned, the Wings won it in '97 and '98. To make things even more interesting, Colorado acquired Peter Forsberg late in the season, one of the most important members if not the most important member of their championship team. Unfortunately, he would catch the injury bug from the rest of his teammates in Colorado, and though Joel Quenneville was able to create success out of nothing during the season, these injuries would prove to sink the ship against Detroit, with the Avalanche falling in four very disappointing efforts. And the Detroit victory express just gets rolling...
Now the Stars have to face the Sharks? Is this for real? They knock off the Ducks only to have to face the now beefed up Sharks, adding bruiser Jody Shelly and All-Star D-man Brian Campbell to their already stacked roster. So much for the effort... or would it be? The Stars take down another giant, defeating San Jose in the first three games and then holding them off in six. Wow. People start to take notice in this well balanced team and the passionate play of veteran Brendan Morrow, truly a long-time underrated hockey player. Meanwhile, in the East, the Canadiens face another seemingly easy opponent in the Philadelphia Flyers. This was the most fast paced and offensively entertaining match-up of the playoffs. The Flyers perform the other significant upset of the second round, taking down the top seeded Canadiens 4-2.
That just leaves... of course, the kids from Pittsburgh; they eliminate the steady New York Rangers in 5 games. The only reason it wasn't 4 was because Henrik Lundqvist stole a game, as he had done numerous times throughout the regular season, keeping the Blueshirts in playoff contention throughout the year. I see a trend forming..
Remember that cheesy analogy about the Wings and a freight train? Well they were certainly steaming to start this series, taking the first three games from Dallas in what would appear to be a blowout. The Stars fought back to force a game six, but could not match the offensive depth of Detroit. Plus, a little guy named Chris Osgood was phenomenal. If the Stars had somehow pulled off a victory, it would be worth noting as one of the most difficult roads any team has surpassed en route to the Stanley Cup Finals.
In the East, an all Pennsylvania finals was brewing hatred between east and west borders of the state. The Penguins were certainly the favorites but fans were definitely afraid of the Flyers' new found confidence after erasing the top seed in the East, led by stellar goaltending of Martin Biron. Enter Colorado's injury bug. Team leader Kimmo Timonen acquired a blood clot in his foot after blocking a shot. Braydon Coburn took a puck to the face, an injury which required FIFTY stiches under his eye. These were the top two defencemen of a very offensive minded team, led by breakout superstar Mike Richards. These holes would prove to be too much to fill- and Biron would not be able to hold off the scoring juggernaut of the Pittsburgh Penguins, losing in 5 games with a combined score of 18-5. What's the one about the monkey and the Grandma playing bingo?
Stanley Cup Finals
At this point, the only team with the capability of beating Detroit is one that can come back from a 3 goal deficit. How about 51 goals in 14 postseason games against: Martin Biron- who had a phenomenal postseason, Martin Gerber who is no slouch, and Henrik Lundqvist, a premier NHL goaltender. Now we have a series. Game 1: Det 4, Pit 0. Game 2: Det 3, Pit 0. Hmm, after averaging 3.64 goals per game, they couldn't score a single goal in two games. Sidney, your new linemate, Marian Hossa, can shoot the puck, I promise you. Geno- you've got the same linemates you lit it up with during the season in Sykora and Malone, what's going on?
The answer is simple. The Pens did not play the Red Wings all season and have not seen anything like the style that Detroit has perfected: true puck possession hockey. Mike Babcock groomed an unparalleled machine in Detroit where every player on every line knew where to be at every moment of the game. You could count the number of times the Datsyuk line dumped the puck full strength each game on one hand. They perfected a style of play that no one else in the NHL would even attempt. Nothing can prepare you for it, you have to see it first hand. Finally they realized that you have to pressure the source of the offense- the puck moving defenseman. The secret is that their breakouts start at the face-off dots, not behind the net. When you figure out your strategy after being down 2-0, however, it is simply too late.
The best team won this year, and no one can be too upset about that. Congratulations to the Detroit Red Wings, you truly deserved to hoist the Cup. More importantly, congrats and thanks are due to the NHL, for providing endless entertainment as well as high hopes for the future. I'm gonna hold off on fried chicken this summer, I have had all I can eat for now.