No, there's no typo in that headline. About every 10 years or so, something happens. Something so big, something so contrary to everything we believe in, something so unheard of, that we all drop our collective jaws in amazement wondering if what we are seeing before us is, in fact, really taking place.
This “something” occurs in two forms. One in which an event occurs, perhaps an individual on a team or a solo athlete does something that we are all in awe over. 1962: Wilt “the Stilt” Chamberlain poured in 100 points in a regulation basketball game. At that point in time, who would have ever considered that as a realistic or plausible outcome of an NBA game? I dare say no one.
The other is what is commonly referred to as the “Cinderella Story.” The formula goes something like this: A relatively average team gets into a game or tournament they probably should not have reached due to their mediocre team and abilities.
During the course of the game or tournament, the players are able to dig deep and display talent beyond their normal capabilities. As a result, the team comes close to reaching some significant achievement, or better yet, actually does do something once thought unachievable.
The 1991 Minnesota North Stars (before moving to Dallas in 1993) lost to the mighty Penguins in six games. This after the North Stars had won a mere 27 games during the regular season (they were blessed with playing in a division with the Toronto Maple Leafs, who were only able to muddle a paltry 23 wins during that same year).
Minnesota became the fan favorite of many casual NHL watchers as it was, simply put, a “feel good” story that drew attention to the NHL.
The 2006 Carolina Hurricanes also come to mind. They were pushed to the brink by the upstart Edmonton Oilers during a grueling seven-game series. Carolina came into the playoffs as the second seed from the Eastern conference, while the Oilers barely made the playoffs and were the eighth seed from the West. Both teams were not expected to cause the waves that they did that year (especially Edmonton).
While every monkey with their own sports talk radio show was quick to point to the poor television ratings, hockey purists everywhere were ecstatic to see some new blood fighting to be crowned Stanley Cup Champions.
I can recall sitting in a bar in Halifax Nova Scotia (on a business trip) glued to the TV with my coworkers pulling desperately for the Oilers, who were of course the “Canadian” team, and by default, the more popular of the two squads that night. We drank away our sorrows after the loss but had lots of fun in the process.
So Vegas, you can thank me later for bringing you in on my little secret. The Dallas Cowboys of the NHL are about to be reborn. You read it here first. The Columbus Blue Jackets will be 2009 Stanley Cup Champions.
Have another shot of peppermint schnapps, you say? Hardly. It’s barely 8:30 a.m. Give me another hour.
I, along with a million other prognosticators, will be telling you over the next six weeks or so why I think I have got it all figured out. All the great hockey minds, from former coaches to TV analysts to current players, will all tell you who will beat who and why.
And everyone can likely make a case for their prediction coming true. Let’s be honest, unless the games are fixed, the theory of “anything can happen in the playoffs” truly applies. Opinions are like, well, you know. Everyone has 'em. So to discount anything at this point is pure speculation at best.
I mean, really, did anyone see Detroit falling to the Oilers in the first round in 2006? Or did anyone expect them to fall in four straight to Anaheim back in 2003? Not likely. But there seem to be some teams that finish strong in the regular season and then struggle to put it all together when they need to.
Often we hear about how it’s more important that a team be simply hitting their stride as the playoffs begin, and that this is more important then the number of points they finish with at the end of the season. I tend to think there is some merit to that.
In fact, the one wild card I see in the West because of their recent strong play is St. Louis. They have been unbelievable over the last month of the season, and netminder Chris Mason has been a huge reason for that success.
Some say the era of the dynasty is gone. They say the salary cap has watered down the league, forced it to staff itself with mediocrity simply to ensure a certain number of franchises existed. The league is only as watered down as the coaching allows it to be.
I would argue it has in fact allowed some players the opportunity to show their skills to both coach and potential teammates. I have watched my fair share of QMJHL, AHL, NHL, World Cup, Olympics, etc. Blue Jacket fans now know who TJ Oshie is, yes?
The Blue Jackets are about to perform a modern-day miracle. There will soon be some players who will be kicking themselves. Some players (Wade Redden comes to mind) had an opportunity to sign on the dotted line to play with Columbus but chose not to. He was told (in fact) to let Howson know what his best offer from another team would be and Howson flat-out stated that he would do better. Redden didn’t return the call.
Had he looked a little deeper into what the Columbus franchise was building, he too would be sharing the journey to the finals.
With OSU in its backyard, the locals are used to instant gratification and winners. And the novelty of “having a team” started to wear off a few years ago. It’s truly unfortunate that he won’t be around to see this year play itself out.
To refresh everyone’s memory, here are some of my predictions back in August (long before the season started)
1. Between Filatov or Vorachek, I proposed that the latter would be the one to make the team (and Jacob did, putting together 39 points in his rookie campaign during 79 games of play). To compare, Filatov got four points in eight games.
2. I pointed out that Columbus would finish third in the Central Division. I have to eat some crow here given the fact that they technically came in fourth. Cut me a bit of slack in that they finished with the same points, same wins, and they ended up needing to go to other differentiators to break the tie.
3. The need for one or more signings given their room under the salary cap was a no-brainer. Although they did grab Chris Gratton and Antoine Vermette, I will only take partial credit, as I had anticipated bigger names to be brought onboard. Maybe I get half a point for this one.
I also flagged the point that one of the biggest losses (mistakes, whatever) that was made was letting Zherdev get away. Not only was I bang on with this, the numbers that Zherdev put on the board for the Rangers put him second on the team (he would have been first but for Toronto sending over Nik Antropov at the trade deadline for a draft pick).
I don’t mean to “toot my own horn,” but I am trying to give myself an ounce of credibility given some of the predictions that are about to follow. Assuming the standings are as I expect them to be, here is how I see the Stanley Cup finals breaking down. I’ll tell you why each series will end up with the winner I have chosen and I will also highlight some of the keys to the outcome of the series.
And I will attempt to blow your mind.
1. (a) SJ (1) vs ANA (8) – SJ (1) in 5
Joe Thornton plays the “invisible man” again to a tee; however, upstarts like
Setagouchi, Pavelski, and Clowe all chip in and take out the Ducks. The goaltending
duel will be interesting, although I anticipate desperation will have pundits wondering
who they will start in net by Game Three.
2. (b) Det (2) vs CBJ (7) – CBJ (7) in 7
The usual suspects stand out (Zetterberg, Lidstrom, etc.) while Osgood shows the
chinks in his armor, which are to be the team's downfall. The start of an outstanding
run to the Cup final begins here. The season series is 3-3 and it’s no accident. Nash will
put the team on his back and the possibility of Brassard’s return will give them the will
to overcome the Big Red Machine.
3. (c) Van (3) vs St. L (6) – Van (3) in 7
Luongo holds the Canucks in the game on most nights. Chris Mason will be up to the
task...well, almost. The Sedins will shine, as will Boyes and Tkachuck. Unfortunately the
addition of Sundin will play a factor and the Blues will have their late season surge
extinguished in seven.
4. (d) Chi (4) vs Cal (5) – CHI (4) in 6
Calgary is the “anti-St. Louis.” They are frigid at the wrong time. Iginla will spend too much time in the box trying to motivate the troops with his fists. Khabibulin is sharp and Kipper looks average. Havlat and the kids (Toews and Kane) do enough to win it, possibly making it look easier then it should have been.
5. (e) Bos (1) vs Mtl (8) – Bos (1) in 5
This will be the least-interesting first-round matchup due to the total embarrassment
that is the Montreal Canadians. Expect Kovalev to be waving a white flag on the end of
his stick at some point in the series. A fool with cash to spare might bet the Habs to
win. But keep your money in your pocket or put it on the safe bet, the Bruins.
6. (f) Was (2) vs NYR (7) – NYR (7) in 6
Expect this to be a spirited contest. The X-factor is Washington’s goaltending. The
Rangers clearly have the edge there, but not so on the offense. Do not be surprised to
see Varlamov take over for the Caps in net. Technically, Washington is the favorite,
but you will have a hard time telling at any given point during the series.
If it isn’t Ovechkin, it’s Semin. If not Semin, then Federov, or Green, or Backstrom.
Make no mistake, the Caps have lots of firepower. But Lundqvist will keep the Rangers
in the the games long enough for guys like Gomez and Zherdev to net some rubber. The
Rangers will surprise many by taking down the mighty 8 in 6.
7. (g) NJ (3) vs Car (6) – NJ (3) in 7
The Devils have Brodeur, Hurricanes Ward. Tip the hat to NJ. Offensively, the Canes
have balance, while New Jersey has depth. This will be one of the less interesting
first-round series. You'll have plenty of time to run to the fridge for a refill of your
favourite beverage. Not a lot of pucks in the net, and great goaltending for sure. It will
come down to defense and net minding, and Brodeur is the difference.
8. (h) PIT (4) vs Phi (5) – PIT (4) in 4
The Battle of Pennsylvania was once a great rivalry. It is still exciting, but looking at the lineups, the tide has clearly shifted in Pittsburgh’s favor again. With Malkin and Crosbyup front, and Fleury playing like a real No. 1 goalie, I think Philly and their perennial netminding dilemma goes quietly. This may provide the most fisticuffs, but don’t get comfortable to watch this, 'cause if you blink, it will be over before you knew it started.
9. (i) SJ (1) vs CBJ (7) – CBJ (7) in 7
San Jose bows out as the Joe Thornton shows why he has earned the reputation of
being nonexistent in the playoffs. Jackets will get a balanced attack and, while not
pretty, will muck and grind away rendering skilled guys like Setoguchi and Pavelski
harmless. The second dragon is slain.
10. (j) Van (3) vs CHI (4) – CHI (4) in 7
More changing of the guard in that Chicago will keep rolling along over a team they might have struggled against before. Age catches up to the Canucks as Sundin runs out of gas. He is the heart of the team, make no mistake. My Spidey sense says an injury or two will play a factor maybe on the back end. Hawks keep getting scoring from the kids and guys like Keith and Barker are solid on the back end. The Bulin wall stands tall.
11. (k) Bos (1) vs NYR (7) – Bos (1) in 6
Boston shows why they are not a fluke. Thomas starts to put his name on the Conn
Smythe trophy. Avery starts to implode (come on, we all wanted it to happen). The
age and lack of scoring depth is more apparent here, while just the opposite shows up
for the Bruins.
12. (l) NJ (3) vs PIT (4) – Pit (4) in 7
This proves to be one of the more entertaining series of the entire postseason. It will be a shootout. New Jersey ends up in a run and gun with Sid and company, and you know how those types of series end up. If Brodeur can play the series of his life, maybe they pull it off. But seeing how Fleury has evolved, I believe he can keep them in the game each night. Folks will start to wonder if the Pens are ready this year.
13. (m) Chi (4) vs CBJ (7) – CBJ (7) in 7
This may be the best of the postseason. These teams know each other well. Nash,
Huselius, Malhotra, Umberger, and others will all chip in to win this series. Ultimately, it
comes down to some key goaltending, and in this series, I tip my hat to youth.
Mason wins out. Havlat will likely succumb to a hangnail (it’s bound to happen) and the regular-season experience of the Jackets will be enough to knock the much improved Blackhawks off to the golf course. Seriously.
14. (n) Bos (1) vs Pit (4) – Bos (1) in 6
I flip-flopped here. Originally I considered upset, but Pittsburgh’s goaltending just is not anywhere near where Boston’s is. In fact, Boston’s backup (Fernandez) could be the starter for Pittsburgh. Expect Thomas to put out the lights in this one. Savard and Kessel dominate, Krejci is a machine, and this one is far from a walk, but the top team will win and win in convincing fashion.
Stanley Cup Finals
15. (o) Bos (1) vs CBJ (7) – CBJ (7) in 7
A final likely no one (but me) predicted. And of course, I will be alone in my contention
that the Jackets will win it. So be it. I believe Thomas becomes human in this series.
The Jackets learn quickly that in order to win, they need to pepper him with shots from
everywhere. All shots, all the time. And Mason will win the series for them, erasing
Thomas’ name from the Conn Smythe and engraving his own.
Vermette, having quietly maintained a solid presence, explodes and makes Scott Howson look like a genius for signing him. The team from the midwest will stand tall and Boston will need to wait for at least one more year for their crack at the Cup.
So that’s the way I see it. Could the Blue Jackets pull off such an upset? Could they roll through the two top teams in the west in the process? Can Mason perform like the Patrick Roy of 1985-86? Can Rick Nash finally put the team on his back and become an elite force in the league? Can the hardest working team in hockey be Stanley Cup Champions? I’m off to Vegas.
Who would you put your money on?