The National Hockey League once again gears up for the Stanley Cup playoffs. A major factor in the greatness of the NHL postseason is sudden-death overtime. Now that the NFL has done away with it for their playoffs (and perhaps for the regular season as well) by giving a team that gives up a field goal on the opening overtime possession a chance to reply, the NHL is the only league with true sudden-death.
It's getting to the playoffs that's the problem. The extra points for wins in overtime and the shootout – wins that wouldn't have existed a little over a decade ago – have led to inflated records. This year, there are 11 teams with over 100 points.
Also, more teams may have a playoff shot but it's very difficult for a team to pull far ahead or come from far behind to make it. The teams that clinched playoff berths are the same teams that were in playoff position at the Olympic break, except for the Detroit Red Wings. They were tied for 9th, one point behind 8th-place Calgary, but rode a 16-3-2 post-Olympic record to 5th place in the Western Conference.
So keep in mind, when you read the following summaries of each of the teams and my playoff predictions at the end, that teams may not be a great (or as mediocre) as their records may indicate.
1. Washington Capitals 54-15-13 121 points
The Caps are, of course, led by Alexander Ovechkin, but there's plenty of firepower beyond Alex the Great, with 7 players having 20 or more goals. The question for the Capitals is defense and goaltending. Washington had the top power play but was 25th in penalty-killing. And while Jose Theodore is 20-0-3 with a .922 save percentage since mid-January, last year he was yanked after the first playoff game in favor of a rookie with 6 career games.
2. New Jersey Devils 48-27-7 103 points
With Martin Brodeur in goal, the Devils have a chance no matter the opponent. However, the Devils haven't gotten into the conference finals since 2003. And the Devils were much better during the first half of the season than the remainder. New Jersey traded for top scorer Ilya Kovalchuk for the stretch run and the playoffs, adding him to a team that includes U.S. Olympian Zach Parise.
3. Buffalo Sabres 45-27-10 100 points
Sabres coach Lindy Ruff has been with his team since 1997, longer than any other current NHL coach. That's extraordinary for any coach in any league these days. As long as he has Ryan Miller in goal, he ought to be around longer. But is Miller enough for the Sabres to make a deep playoff run?
4. Pittsburgh Penguins 47-28-7 101 points
Last year the Penguins had the 4th seed in the East and won the Stanley Cup. This year they're 4th again, but expectations were higher and they couldn't beat out New Jersey for the Atlantic Division title. Has success gone to their heads? They do have this player named Sidney Crosby, though. Perhaps you've heard of him? Scored some goal and got a medal or something?
5. Ottawa Senators 44-32-6 94 points
The Senators had an 11-game winning streak just before the Olympics, and a 6-game win streak at the end of March. Take away those two streaks and they have a losing record. Still, they missed the playoffs last year so things could be worse. Ottawa has a rookie goaltender, Brian Elliott. An unproven goalie in the playoffs is always a crapshoot. Then again, sometimes proven goalies are a crapshoot.
6. Boston Bruins 39-30-13 91 points
The Bruins scored the fewest goals in the league and still made the playoffs. Tuukka Rask took the starting goaltender job away from Tim Thomas and ended up leading the league in goals-against average and save percentage. Can the Bruins win lots of 1-0 and 2-1 games?
7. Philadelphia Flyers 41-35-6 88 points
Considering how much I despise the shootout, and how poor the Flyers have historically been in the shootout, the fact that a shootout win on the final day of the season put the Flyers into the playoffs leaves me conflicted. The team has underachieved just about all season, even after Peter Laviolette took over for the fired John Stevens. They lost two goaltenders to injury and, in order to advance, have to hope for Brian Boucher to somehow recapture the magic of his first playoff run. That was ten years ago.
8. Montreal Canadiens 39-33-10 88 points
The Canadiens lost 8 of their last 11 – but 4 of those losses went to overtime, which let them squeak into the playoffs. They do have history (and the league's second-best power play), but it's almost impossible to see the Habs getting out of the first round.
1. San Jose Sharks 51-20-11 113 points
Here come the Sharks, desperate to make a deep playoff run and exorcise the ghosts. Last year may have been the worst of the last four years. The Sharks changed coaches (Todd McLellan replaced Ron Wilson, who nearly won gold for the USA in Vancouver) and signed defenseman Rob Blake, then won the Presidents' Trophy for most points, only to be dumped in the first round by Anaheim. Once again, they seem to have everything they need (adding Dany Heatley in the offseason for more scoring) but once again they have to prove it on the ice.
2. Chicago Blackhawks 52-22-8 112 points
The Blackhawks may be the “it” team now. Stars like Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, an exciting style of play, a revived fan base, coming off a strong playoff run last year? What's not to love? But the Hawks have impending salary cap pressures coming, so the future may have to be now. And they're another team going with an untested goalie, as Antti Niemi took over for Cristobal Huet.
3. Vancouver Canucks 49-28-5 103 points
The Canucks have the league's leading point-getter, Henrik Sedin, and his twin Daniel, plus Olympic gold-winning goalie Roberto Luongo, and Ryan Kesler, whose USA team nearly took that gold away from Luongo. They have some possible issues on defense due to injuries, though, and a tough first-round matchup in a conference that is stronger from 1 through 8 than the East.
4. Phoenix Coyotes 50-25-7 107 points
The team in perhaps the most ridiculous hockey location, with the league pulling strings to keep the team in Arizona rather than let it move to Canada where it would be much more appreciated, while no one in Arizona really cared outside of those who could profit from the situation...surprise! The unsettled ownership led to Wayne Gretzky's resignation before the season. Dave Tippett took over and suddenly things have gelled. One key to remember, though: 14 of the Coyotes' 50 wins came in the shootout. 14! The Flyers have 17 SO wins...in 5 years! No shootouts in the playoffs, though. Coyotes fan (fans? Multiple?), beware.
5. Detroit Red Wings 44-24-14 102 points
As previously mentioned, the Wings came out of the Olympic break scorching. Add one pre-Olympic break win and they were 17-3-2 down the stretch. The Red Wings got injured players back and seem like a major threat again. But here's another team that could be brought down by their rookie goalie, in this case Jimmy Howard.
6. Los Angeles Kings 46-27-9 101 points
Back in the playoffs for the first time since 2002, the Kings have a lot of young talent (such as Drew Doughty) and a few key veterans that have had success elsewhere (Rob Scuderi, Ryan Smyth). To start the postseason, at least, their goalie is Jonathan Quick, who got off to a fine start but failed to win in his last 8 games, and was pulled early twice.
7. Nashville Predators 47-29-6 100 points
The Predators are back in the playoffs after a one-year absence. In the recent past they've had ownership drama and many don't think the area should even have a franchise (see: Phoenix), but despite not being a big spender the Preds manage to get to the postseason. They just don't get far. Their strength this year is on defense, which is never a bad thing.
8. Colorado Avalanche 43-30-9 95 points
The Avs have young talent that pushed them into a surprising playoff berth, but they were sluggish in securing that berth at the end, as did goalie Craig Anderson – still another goalie who's never appeared in a playoff game before. This seems like a team that will threaten in the future, but not now. Then again, they have San Jose in the first round...
And now, fearless predictions!
East Quarterfinals: Capitals over Canadiens in 4, Devils over Flyers in 6, Sabres over Bruins in 6, Penguins over Senators in 5
*East Semifinals: Captials over Penguins in 7, Sabres over Devils in 6
*East Finals: Captials over Sabres in 6
*When I originally wrote this I had the wrong pairings for the East Semifinals, so these are corrected. I still have the same team winning, though.
West Quarterfinals: Sharks over Avalanche in 6, Blackhawks over Predators in 5, Canucks over Kings in 7, Red Wings over Coyotes in 6
West Semifinals: Blackhawks over Canucks in 6, Red Wings over Sharks in 7
West Finals: Blackhawks over Red Wings in 6
Stanley Cup Finals: Capitals over Blackhawks in 7