Thursday, April 12, 2007

Lord Stanley's Cup: Who Wants It? [J. Mark English]

Finally the battle of the holy grail, the mug, the cup is upon us. Tonight, the NHL officially entered its second season, the playoffs. For the next two months, there will be a series of grueling tests of endurance and the last team standing will hoist Lord Stanley's Cup over their heads in jubilation. And as this blog has done at the beginning of every playoff race since the inception of this site, we go around the world of writers and see the latest info on who wants the Cup more:
  • Scott Burnside of ESPN looks into the top ten story lines heading into these Stanley Cup playoffs:
    1. It's one of the great debates, right up there with "Less filling versus tastes great" or "Betty versus Veronica." Offense versus defense. The old adage suggests you cannot win in the playoffs without great defense, and yet the Carolina Hurricanes proved a season ago that "great" is a relative term.
    2. It's been a long time since Ted Nolan called Buffalo home (he left after winning coach of the year honors in 1997), but there is more than a little weird chemistry humming in the background of the Islanders/Sabres first-round tilt. We're still shaking our heads at the grisly way Nolan's Islanders ended the Toronto Maple Leafs' playoff dreams. Now, Nolan faces the Sabres with a new team that was the subject of hysterical laughter before the season started.
    3. One of the most compelling aspects of the first round is that there almost certainly will be an upset of some form. History tells us it's virtually inevitable -- in every playoff year since 1997, a seventh seed has dispatched a second seed. It's happened six times in the East and five times in the West. Last season's biggest shocker was when the eighth-seeded Edmonton Oilers upset the Red Wings en route to a Cup finals berth.
    4. Compare the goaltending matchups in the Western Conference and Eastern Conference. It's like comparing the Mona Lisa to that black velvet painting of Elvis eating an ice cream sundae. Eight of the top 10 goals-against average leaders reside in the West; four of the top five save-percentage leaders are in the West; five of the top six shutout leaders are in the West.
    5. Can the Nashville Predators ignite a passion for the game in Nashville with a long playoff run? They'd better. On the ice, the Predators hit the postseason for the third straight season going a little sideways, winning five of their last 10 games in regulation. Injuries are going to be an issue as Steve Sullivan's back is still wonky and a handful of others are just getting back in the groove, including deadline acquisition Peter Forsberg.
    6. That euphoric feeling most players and coaches get when they reach the playoffs doesn't last long, especially if they fail to meet expectations. This is the time of year when careers are made, both on the ice and behind the bench. Or not.
    7. Joe Thornton, Turco, Daniel Alfredsson, Marian Hossa, Sergei Gonchar, Todd Bertuzzi, Hasek and Brad Richards. What do these players have in common? If you said "played the goat in the school play," you'd be close. These players, unfairly or not, have been tabbed as the ones who have either failed to deliver the playoff goods or have failed to live up to whopper new contracts or both. They are all players who, at one point or another, will be described as "having a lot to prove" this spring. As if every other one of their teammates doesn't have something to prove, like winning the most difficult trophy in sports.
    8. Come on, admit it. Every night you'd look at the standings and say, "That can't be -- the Vancouver Canucks, leaders of the Northwest Division?" But the Canucks managed to achieve the seemingly impossible -- winning one of the NHL's toughest divisions while essentially scoring the bare minimum of goals required. OK, the duo of Daniel Sedin and Henrik Sedin can score (they combined for 165 points). But no one else really does much in the way of scoring. Instead, like the Devils with Martin Brodeur, the Canucks count on Luongo to save the day, every day, while hoping they can muck up their opponents' plans long enough for the twins to score. It is a curious departure for a team that built its recent identity on fire wagon hockey, an identity that translated into virtually no playoff success. It will be interesting to see if this new look fares any better.
    9. There is so much to like about Sean Avery … unless your team is playing the New York Rangers. Then, you pretty much want to put a mug through the television screen every time you see him. The native of Pickering, Ontario, is annoying and fast and tough, and he never, ever, seems to shut up. Since he arrived in New York, the Rangers are a different team. The most surprising thing about Avery's contributions isn't his plus-11 or his 20 points in 29 games in Manhattan -- it's the fact he hasn't cost his team by becoming berserk boy. If he can keep it that way, the Rangers will continue to be a very difficult team to play against, and get by.
    10. Who will be the first to complain the refereeing standards have fallen back into the traditional clutch-and-grab mode? "Hockey Night in Canada" host Ron MacLean? Actually, we bet it's the first team that doesn't get as many power-play opportunities as it'd like and loses in overtime. Conversely, who will be the first to complain that referees should let the players play? We bet it's the first team hit with double-digit minor penalties and gives up five power-play goals. Or Ron MacLean.
  • The Sports Illustrated Staff offers up their predictions:
    • Michael Farber - Sabres over the Isles in five. Devils in six over the Lightening. Rangers in six over the Thrashers. Senators in seven against the Penguins. Flames over the Red Wings in seven. Ducks in seven over the Wild. Canucks in six over the Stars. Sharks in seven against the Predators.
    • Darren Eliot - Sabres in five. Devils in six. Thrashers in six. Penguins in seven. Flames in six. Ducks in five. Stars in five. Sharks in six.
    • Allan Muir - Sabres in four. Devils in five. Rangers in six. Senators in five. Red Wings in five. Wild in seven. Canucks in six. Sharks in seven.
Its the first time since 1994 that all three local hockey teams (in the NYC metro area) have been in the playoffs at the same time, and its the first time in history that none of them are facing off against each other in the first round. We'll take a trip around the local presses to see what is being said about the teams:
  • Lynn Zinser of the New York Times writes about the trials of Jaromir Jagr and his New York Rangers: Ask any of the Rangers about Jagr and not one will minimize his impact. Coming out of the All-Star Game break, Jagr said his only goal was to lift his struggling team into the playoffs. He would indeed lead the way, but not by scoring goals in bunches. Instead, he backed up everything he asked his teammates to do by also doing it himself.

    Since that March day against St. Louis, the Rangers have gone 12-3-3.

    “It’s always important when a player of his stature is doing what we call the little things,” forward Brendan Shanahan said. “It sends a message to all of the younger players. Here’s a guy who’s played 16 years in the N.H.L. and has a closet full of trophies, and he’s doing all these little things. That’s leadership.”

    Jagr entered this season by taking the reins as the Rangers’ captain, aiming to improve on the team’s first-round playoff collapse a year ago. He scored his 600th career goal early in the season, but little else went smoothly. Jagr, bouncing back from off-season shoulder surgery, struggled to score. The team began to reshape itself with a desperate, defensive mind-set. And after Jagr’s proclamation coming out of the All-Star Game break, they started to claw their way up the standings.

  • Gregory Logan of Newsday finds out how the Islanders are dealing with the 'underdog' role: To the oddsmakers, Islanders versus Buffalo in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs is akin to the game between the play-in winner and the top seed in the NCAA basketball tournament. No contest.

    The Sabres are the highest-scoring team in the NHL, and the Islanders are going with third-string goaltender Wade Dubielewicz at least until Rick DiPietro, who did not accompany the Islanders to Buffalo Wednesday, is cleared after his latest concussion.

    But as coach Ted Nolan recently said, the Islanders wouldn't be lining up across from the Sabres for Game 1 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series Thursday night as HSBC Arena if they worried about "ifs and shoulds." With four games left in the regular season, the Islanders got the help they needed to pass three teams, and won all four to qualify. Now, they only have to rely on themselves.

    "Somebody asked me, 'What are the chances of beating Buffalo?' " center Mike Sillinger said. "I said, 'Probably the same chances we had of making the playoffs a week ago.' Everyone counted us out. We've got a lot of veteran guys in this room, a lot of hungry guys, a lot of guys that have never won before.

    "Our attitude is we want to win the Stanley Cup. I've played 16 years, and I think it's my ninth playoff. You only get so many chances, and it proved last year what can happen."
  • Mark Everson and how the New Jersey Devils are looking to catch 'lightening in a bottle':They must turn around two seasons, in opposite directions, in two weeks. Not only must they transform NHL goal-scoring champ Vincent Lecavalier and his Lightning linemates into nonentities, but the Devils must find the switch that lights up their own top threesome, so dim all year.

    It's been a season-long mystery, why Scott Gomez, captain Patrik Elias and last year's record-setter Brian Gionta have been less than magic this year.

    While they were winning their seventh Atlantic Division title, it didn't seem so urgent. Now, as two of the past three Stanley Cup champs (and the two who made these playoffs) collide in the first round, opening tomorrow at the Meadowlands, the Devils don't have such patient luxury.

    "For whatever reason, we haven't scratched our potential as a line. So this is our time," Gomez said. "We haven't pulled our weight.

    "Did we set the bar high? Yeah, you bet. But Brian, Patrik and I have to play better."

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