While I am disappointed to see the Colorado Avalanche fall short of a playoff birth for the second straight season (The first time this has happened since the Quebec Nordiques came to the Mile High City), I've never been so excited for the playoffs. After the last two seasons, I have made the bitter (yet still exciting) realization that no real hockey is played in the regular season. The 82 games is certainly full of story lines and drama, but nothing compared to playoff hockey. This is what distinguishes the players that really want it from the pretenders who just like the lifestyle (The Alexander Ovechkin led Washington Captials).
This is where the speed and hitting that the league is designed for actually happens. The beginning of the regular season is fun intellectually because it allows a chance to observe the new team, as well as providing the coach to experiment with line combinations, defensive pairings, special team strategies and potential rookie contributors.
Greg Sherman and Joe Sacco's experimenting and keen observation were rewarded with the stellar new
third "first" line of Ryan O'Reilly, Gabriel Landeskog, plus miscellaneous complimentary skaters. Not that it was hard to tell these guys were having a special season. Other examples include that which seem obvious now: Semyon Varlamov's redemption in goal post-all star break, Stephan Elliott developing overall game, Tyson Barrie's developing offensive game (Barrie's going to turn the corner, and will make a statement. This kid is all game and character) David Van Der Gulik, who may be the most underrated Avalanche call up, and the emergence of one Matt Hunwick, who almost everyone was going to write off as a bust at one point (maybe our second best defenseman in the stretch run after E.J.).
Matt Duchene and captain Milan Hejduk should have produced more offensively, but a lot of other factors go into their situations. Peter Mueller started hot, but never really had a chance to get rolling. Paul Stastny and David Jones started the season in a slump but found their game and became major contributors toward the end of the season. In all honesty, I was ready to let Stastny go for a prospect and a pick when Duchene finished last season with 27 goals, but I am sure glad he was here to help weather some of the struggling star's growing pains. Sherman would be prudent to keep the lines for the start of next season. Maybe just get a winger to replace Hejduk if he hangs them up before opening day. I still think the new Captain could play a smaller role next season if he still can't find his chops. I know Dater said he is more than likely to call it a career (with a little push from management. Ugly business and unfortunate situation.), but I still have confidence in the vets ability to play at least 11 games (wink), perhaps 12 for good measure. other than that, we have Micheal Sgarbossa and Joey Hishon to look foward to next year.
Certainly it is a minor tragedy that the Avalanche will not have even the smallest chance of winning the big prize, but this doesn't change the fact that hockey is the greatest professional sport in the world come playoff time. Again, I think it's obvious that the players play with a bit of an sharper edge come the tournament for Lord Stanley's Cup. They skate a little faster, hit a little harder. and the teams play an dangerously entertaining style of hockey built around the passion and raw intensity derived from the skater's pride, the ultra high stakes, and inflated egos of overpaid (but still relevant) athletes.
And without and further ranting or blabbering about the demise of out beloved Avs, here are a few series I'm rooting for the chance to witness as well as a couple I'm already looking forward to watching in HD, baby.
For the almost inevitable first round matchups:
Both teams are stacked with elite talent and have a natural geographical rivalry (which may be the best kind of rivary, growing up in Chicago with the White Sox and Cubs. A ton of fun. I wish Denver had that kind of population to support this kind of rivalry. Not really the population part, I like being a smaller city, but we miss out and the perks of being overcrowded.). If you had watched the most recent collision between the two Eastern Conference power house teams, you would have seen a ton of animosity, a lot of scoring, and a hell of a lot of physical play and scuffling as well as a couple spirited bouts between some heavy hitters. Also, I thought Flyers coach Peter Laviolette was going to tear of Granato's head on his way to personally destroy league former Jack Adams award winner for "Coach of the Year" and Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma for putting his fourth line out after Crosby took a cross check to the back from a certain young and fearless
punk power forward rookie forward named Braydon Schenn.
Sid the Kid has looked better than ever, assuming his role as the best player in hockey, since his return from injury. The brilliant Russian Malkin has demonstrated how well a high profile Russian can perform all season long, likely to win the League's MVP award if dark horse and potential 60 goal scorer Steven Stamkos doesn't steal the spotlight (I think Malkin has it locked based on point totals as well as the difficulty of the Pacific division in comparison to the league's almost embarrassing Southeast division. How could you overlook this detail. I don't think they will). Hopefully he continue the strange phenomenon that is the Russian struggles to win when it counts. Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Nabokov and Ilya Kovalchuk have all faced these criticisms and none of them have won the cup. This is all bally whoo because one Nikolai Khabibulin has his name engraved into the Cup, as does Alexei Kovalev and of course the wizard and playing icon, Pavel Datsyuk (He plays for the Red Wings and I'm still giving credit where credit is due. This is how superior the game of Datsyuk can be when he's going. He's smart and only
makes people look inferior when necessary. He is probably the best 2-way forward in the league. He possesses the best qualities of Matt Duchene's offensive prowess and Ryan O'Reilly compete level and defensive saavy, just with a ton more experience and consistency. Seriously, if you haven't watch him because you're a stubborn Avs fan, you're missing out. Anybody remember this subtle play he made against the Avalanche sometime before or after the midseason struggles around game 30? Here's a reminder of a typical Datsyuk set-up play: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yzfzs0-Qeic ...Seriously, that's him playing a subtle and effective game. Hasn't even gotten flashy in this particular highlight. If you got time, watch some highlights of one of the best to play 200 feet of ice.)
The Pens offense is more than dominant, but this particular game ended 6-4 in Philadelphia's favor. Mike Milbury got in on the rivalry by calling Crosby a "little punk" and later apologized. Admittedly, I am a sucker for the manufactured drama that occurs prior to the Stanley Cup Tournament. But again, who wouldn't be eager to watch the teams fight tooth and nail to finally realize which team is the greatest hockey team in the world (Obviously, I am excluding the Olympic hockey tournament. Any true hockey fan knows that it's the only true competition for greatest hockey to witness. Also team Canada probably could have taken the tough Boston Bruins to school last season).
Nashville head coach, Barry Trotz, has been at this with the same team since 1998. He is a picture of consistency and strategy and is look highly upon throughout the league for his ability to keep his team focused (I may know a certain NHL head coach who may want to have lunch with this guy and pick his brain for a little while). He finishes high in the Jack Adams Award (again, the NHL's award for best coach) perennially and knows the game better than most could imagine (I imagine...). He certainly deserves his name in the current elite, and may find his name among the greatest men to ever hold the clipboard if he can find a way to take home the big prize this season.
Another coach that will certainly go down as one of the all time greats is the infamous Mike Babcock. I mean, this guy has had a hockey team that has been contending for years now. The time keepers have almost reached the point of decades of successful hockey teams. Given he's had the names to back him up, Babcock probably doesn't even remember what it's like to coach a losing hockey team. They may struggle, but the Wings never are a team you count on to lose. But his only Cup came in the now distant 2008, and I am certain he and the rest of the greedy Red Wing organization is ready for another one.
The talent on both sides speaks for itself. None of the players on either team usually have a shot at a scoring title, although forwards Pavel Datsyuk (as I ranted about earlier in a discussion/mild comparison about fellow Russian star, Evgeni Malkin) always could surprise and Henrik Zetterberg was certainly capable in his prime, but may have lost a step this season with age. The Wings are stacked with veteran talent and also Todd Bertuzzi (good enough reason to root against any team with a name like his). Talented role forwards include Johan "The Mule" Franzen and and Valerie Filppula, who have made their presence know to the Avalanche this season, as well as a number of other teams, I assume.
Nashville's offense is even more of a mystery, with Martin Erat leading the way with 58 points (19 goals, 39 assists). A Predator fan shouldn't be so shy not to tell you that their team's best player is captain and defenseman Shea Weber. Weber has a slap shot so powerful that any half way intelligent man on the ice would prudently dodge out of the way, and only the bravest goaltenders would try and get in the way of the rubber puck traveling at an almost unhuman 100 MPH plus. There is only a few guys in the world that can take that kind of shot with any consistency in accuracy and power. Weber is complimented by impending Free Agent and uber-talented Ryan Suter, who plays a less flashy game and still manages to be a game changer anywhere he finds himself on the ice. Other contributors include the gifted and powerful Kosisityn brothers who are very capable of putting the puck in the net in a variety of ways.
Nashville is anchored by the talented Pekke Rinne, which by first glance may be an advantage to less experienced, Jimmy Howard. But Howard certainly isn't a slouch and has the ability to be as good as any other goalie in the league despite the tendency to fall off at times. Rinne leads the league in wins (the most important goalie statistic) and holds a very solid .923 save percentage. Howard ranks a very respectable fifth in NHL wins this season and has managed a save percentage of .920.
This game is going to be chess match hockey with a lot of grind it out hockey, with all the flashes of brilliance and unpredictability that have come in the NHL playoffs in recent years.
Here is the series I hope to see and story lines I hope to follow.
Nashville Predators vs. St. Louis Blues
The goaltending duel of the playoffs could be these two teams no one expected to be contending last season. If Nashville and St. Louis were to get a chance to face each other, I would be interested to see which team is for real and if maybe one of these teams are a fluke. Can Hitchcock keep up the success with his surprise club when it truly counts? Two good organizations on the rise would make for a great series.
I'm obviously still hoping they go one and out, but they are a great story line after losing such a spirited Stanley Cup Final series last season. That series was far better than the Flyers/Blackhawks matchup from the year prior. Those teams hated each other and the Canucks came up short, with a likely injured at the time Ryan Kesler and the underwhelming performance from the Henrik and Daniel Sedin. Let's see how tough their top players can play against this year's competition. Hopefully a little more of a spark out of the two Aliens if you're a Vancouver fan. I of course am waiting anxiously for their demise and chronic early exits from the playoffs for years to come. Luongo needs to hold his own in the post season before the citizens of B.C. have him on the next plane to buy-out town (Florida?).
San Jose Sharks and Chicago Blackhawk circumstances
Both teams haven't lived up to the hype this season. Chicago hasn't been the same since they won it all two years back, and I don't see Toews coming off a concussion to help a streaky Patrick Kane and aging Marion Hossa to another Title.
San Jose has played awful hockey at times this season and will barely sneak into the playoffs after failing to capture a division title in the worst division in the West. Phoenix shouldn't be in first one game before the conclusion of the regular season. The Sharks should lose to Vancouver if the play with the intensity that has led them what may as well be a third place finish, but could end up finishing 2nd if LA loses the final game.
Anyways, I've ranted and raved long enough. Real hockey is here, and one glorious day (hopefully roughly a year from today) we'll be preparing to cheer on the Avalanche in the very impressive NHL Playoffs.