In America, the NHL is treated as the forgotten sport. It does not have the following of Baseball, Football, or even Basketball. But come April, the NHL playoffs are the most exciting time in sports. The NHL playoffs are two months of intense, fierce battle to the most prestigious trophy in all of sports.
Who is going to win Lord Stanley's Cup this year? In the beginning of the year my choice was the San Jose Sharks. With the addition of all-world sniper Dany Heatley to an already stacked lineup that boasts Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, the Sharks looked well on their way to finally put their playoff struggles behind them. After a red hot first half, I was even more sure of my pick. Until the Olympics changed my mind.
Joe Thornton has taken a lot of blame for the Sharks lack of success in the playoffs. But total blame on Joe is unfair. Last year in the playoffs Evgeni Nabokov posted an 890. save percentage. That just does not cut it in the playoffs. Now back to why the Olympics changed my mind. After watching Nabokov be completely embarrassed by team Canada, I saw a preview of the playoffs for the Sharks. The Sharks can not have felt too good about their goalie and their Cup chances after seeing their goalie choke. The Sharks will again struggle in the playoffs and it will because of Nabokov and Thornton should no longer get any blame.
So who will play for the Cup this year? In the East, I can't find any other team that will be able to beat the Washington Capitals in a seven game series. Yes the Penguins will be there and would be a very tough series for the Caps. But the Caps dominance this year will lead to at least a Stanley Cup appearance. With Alex Ovechkin, the best player in the NHL, leading the way, the Caps are my favorites to win the Cup. Currently they have 6 players with 20 or more goals. They have depth offensively and have more than just one line. They have scored 270 goals this season, which is forty more then the second closest team. Their only flaw is goal tending. If former Hart Trophy winner Jose Theodore can play well enough and just be consistent in the playoffs then look out for Washington. Just like their best player, Ovechkin, the Caps are a rolling freight train.
Out of the west, my choice is tougher. I really like the Vancouver Canucks. They have great goal tending with Roberto Luongo and great defensive structure. They also have solid goal scoring with fierce Alex Burrows and Ryan Kessler and the skill of the Sedin twins.
But my pick is not Vancouver, it is the Chicago Blackhawks. Chicago is a lightning quick team that can also beat you up. Their speed and quickness is deadly, and sniper Patrick Kane is lethal. Duncan Keith is up for the Norris Trophy with good cause, he has 13 goals and 61 points from the blue line. Then their is the captain Jonathan Toews. The lightning quick center can beat you in so many different ways. Throw in Marian Hossa who has played in the last two Stanley Cups, loser of both, and skilled grinder Patrick Sharp, and you have a deadly deadly team. With Sharp and young and tough Dustin Byfuglien and a feisty Andrew Ladd, Chicago has an underrated team toughness that is overshadowed by their skill and team speed. Like Washington their biggest worry is their goal tending situation. Antti Niemi has tried to take a stranglehold on the number 1 spot. He has gone 18-5 with a 2.31 GAA. If he or Cristobal Huet can provide solid goal tending then watch for Chicago to use their speed and skill to make the finals.
There are two teams that interest me specifically going into the playoffs, the Buffalo Sabers and Phoenix Coyotes. Buffalo interests me because simply Ryan Miller is an animal. If Ryan Miller stands on his head for Buffalo like he did for Team USA then the Sabers could surprise people. The Sabers have decent scoring especially if Tomas Vanek turns on his game in the playoffs. Tim Connelly is finally 100%, knock on wood Buffalo, and is playing up to his capability. Vanek is as deadly as any sniper when on his game. But Miller is the key.
The possible Vezina winner has had an outstanding year and is the key for Buffalo going into the playoffs. Phoenix interests me because of their history of mediocrity. Dave Tippett has done an amazing job in the desert. The 'Yotes are currently fourth in the West and are focused for a deep run in the playoffs. They have an absolute stud in goal with Illya Bryzgalov and have a great captain in Shane Doan. They don't have too many flashy players and a casual fan probably can't name more than 3 players on Phoenix, but this team is for real. Bryzgalov is a star and is another Vezina candidate and for good reason. He is 36-18 with a 2.27 GAA and a .927 save percentage. Phoenix will be a very interesting team come playoff time, with their inexperience and youth but with Shane Doan's leadership they can manage.