These teams are your Stanley Cup contenders
I, like Daniel Sedin, believe that the Stanley Cup -- earned in a season-long battle, won in front of your friends, your fans -- surpasses an Olympic medal and is more reflective of boyhood dreams and adult aspirations of NHL players. As Sedin said in a Globe and Mail piece by Eric Duhatschek last month, "If you compare the Stanley Cup to the Olympics, I'll take the Stanley Cup by far for sure. It's a tougher tournament to win. You have to go through a hundred games to win it."
The Stanley Cup, not Olympic gold, has become the symbol for hockey excellence in the world. The gold medals won by a hockey player and a curler are the same. Sedin wants that picture with the Stanley Cup over his head, to be part of that exclusive club. Henrik Lundqvist wants that picture. Alex Ovechkin wants that picture. Shea Weber wants that picture. Zach Parise wants that picture.
What also makes the Stanley Cup so compelling, so mystical, so much more magical than an Olympic medal is that you are part of a thread when you win the Cup. You touch the bowl that Jean Beliveau touched, that Bobby Orr touched, that Wayne Gretzky touched, that Steve Yzerman touched, that Nicklas Lidstrom touched, that Patrick Roy touched, that Scott Niedermayer touched, that Sidney Crosby touched. Living history.
Also, you never truly own the Stanley Cup. You borrow it. The NFL, MLB and NBA regenerate a new championship trophy every year for the champion. Not the NHL. A hundred years from now, they will still be rolling out the same Cup they have now, maybe even in Europe. All you get is that picture, that one endless summer fling. More than one if you're lucky.
The Cup is that elusive, beautiful, one-of-a-kind, ultimate artifact. It's not for sale like the Olympics, which go to the highest bidder. It has a presence. It, like home ice, is earned. It is imperfect. It is eight months of brave, tough play. It is hockey. A living, breathing ghost. Past, present and future.
The game and the quest are on again.
Keep the gold. I'll take the silver.
For the past few seasons, I've broken out my "Only these teams can win the Stanley Cup" list. It's a proven secret formula that I can't share. Much like the hole-in-one I got on the par-4 11th hole at Newport Country Club in 2007. I just don't like to talk about it, so please, don't ask.
OK, the way I see it (and probably most of you see it), one of these teams will raise the Cup (Columbus, Colorado and Tampa Bay would really need everything to fall their way to get through).
The East is the underdog conference in this year's Stanley Cup playoffs. If we had to bet the mortgage on which conference will win the Cup, most of us, outside of die-hard fans, would take a team from the West. I think that, realistically, three teams in the East have a shot at reaching the Stanley Cup finals.
The Bruins have that simple Stanley Cup formula of being a top-five scoring team and a top-three goal-prevention team. They have good, tough players who buy into a structure, and they have an excellent goalie in Tuukka Rask. The Bruins also play very well at home, which is a good intangible for those key moments of a playoff series. I think you have to make them the East favorites again.
The Penguins are very close to the Bruins in the Eastern Conference hierarchy. The Bruins are a better goal-prevention team, are bigger and seem to delegate their machismo throughout the lineup. The Penguins are a quiet team from which all of the responsibility come playoff time falls on Sidney Crosby's shoulders. I think that's one reason he's lost his composure in recent playoffs. A healthy D and an engaged Evgeni Malkin are Pittsburgh's only chance. Malkin's game has slipped. He's averaging the fewest shots of his career. He needs to bring it up a notch.
New York Rangers
Why the Rangers? Well, they are the third-best goal-prevention team after the Bruins and Penguins. The Martin St. Louis trade undoubtedly makes the Rangers better in my mind because it addresses their biggest need: scoring. St. Louis makes people better. In his four games with the Rangers, he already has made them more dangerous offensively with his creativity and smarts; the goals will come. But can the Rangers score in the playoffs? Have they traded away too much grit? "Hey, why not us?"
Tampa Bay Lightning
It's probably too early for the Rangers and Lightning to see what they will become with their new ex-captains. Tampa has home games in hand, so it has time to reboot. The Lightning also have a decent collection of skill. But can you see them beating the Bruins or Penguins in a playoff series?
Columbus Blue Jackets
The Blue Jackets are in a groove. They are the only team playing at a playoff intensity right now. They went 10-4 in January and are 7-3-1 in February-March (through Tuesday's games). They play a rugged game, have good skill and probably think they are better than the Rangers. They might be.
St. Louis Blues
The Blues have never had a better opportunity to win their first Stanley Cup in franchise history. They score, they prevent, they do well on special teams and now they have Ryan Miller playing for a huge contract. No excuses. Now, can they handle the pressure and just play? I think so. I am just a little concerned about whether they have enough individual scoring talent to beat the Blackhawks, Ducks, Sharks and Kings if they fall behind or if, as one would think, they play multiple-overtime games. The Blues scored 10 goals in the six playoff games versus the Kings last season.
No duo in the NHL is like Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. Getzlaf is having the best offensive season of his career; no one combines his size and mitts. He's also shooting more this season (second-highest per-game total of his career), which only makes his team better. He should be an MVP finalist. Perry is having the second-best year of his career, just a tick behind his MVP season. Perry likely will be in the Hall of Fame. Cup, Hart, 500 goals. He does need to be better in the playoffs -- just two goals in 13 games over the past two postseasons. The Ducks have a great chance for franchise Cup No. 2.
San Jose Sharks
The Sharks once again are good. They're an underrated, well-managed franchise. This is the 10th straight season you could put them on this list. Also, they've won a playoff series every year during this run except for two postseasons. They score, prevent and have lots of balance. It's hard to talk about the Sharks too much because we know they are good. We just keep waiting for the great performance. Maybe this is the year.
The Blackhawks would love to put their dynasty stamp on this era. Three Cups in five salary-cap years would be in that ballpark, as they are the only team that has won more than one Cup in the cap era. Last season, when they won the Cup, the Hawks were the second-highest-scoring team and the best goal-prevention team. When they won in 2010, they were third in goals scored in the regular season and fifth in prevention. This season they are the highest-scoring team again, but they are 17th in goal prevention. They need to tighten that up. Watching the Hawks (and Penguins) these days is poetry. If you like English Premier League passing at the highest level, you will like watching the Hawks' power play.
Los Angeles Kings
The Kings of Freon have found their schwerve. They are the best goal-prevention team in the NHL, and as we have returned to a dead-puck-era league, that is a vital stat. The Kings were the second-best goal prevention team two years ago when they won the Cup. Here are the Cup-winning teams since the 2004-05 lockout with their goals-against rank:
2013: Chicago (first)
2012: Kings (second)
2011: Bruins (third)
2010: Chicago (fifth)
2009: Pittsburgh (18th) (sixth in goals scored)
2008: Detroit (first)
2007: Anaheim (seventh)
2006: Carolina (18th) (third in goals scored)
There are outlier seasons, but those were when more goals were being scored. 2005-06 averaged 3.08 goals per game. 2008-09 had 2.91 goals per game. This season it's at 2.76 goals per game. Preventing goals keeps you in every game, and right now, the Kings are taking advantage of a soft schedule. If they keep cruising through March, watch out. "Hey, why not us?"
Patrick Roy's postseason stare could boil water. He will do something memorable to try to get his team to another level. The last time the Avalanche won a playoff series, 2007-08, Joel Quenneville was coach. The Avs have two lines that can score. I get more excited every time I see Nathan MacKinnon play. Holy schnikes, is he talented. Colorado made the right pick when it chose MacKinnon.
Buccigross: Seguin is having a sensational season and will have a sensational career. He's still only 22, so if he keeps his wheels for the next 10 to 15 years, he will have monster Hall of Fame numbers. He can skate, shoot and pass. He needs to get better on faceoffs, but over time he should improve there. He won't win the MVP this season but has a good chance to finish in the top five in points. We will have to see long term whether he can display the character and selflessness that the Bruins thought he lacked.
@Buccigross reasons the Gophers (men's or women's) won't win a National Championship in hockey??— Luke Meyer (@LJMeyer91) March 12, 2014
Buccigross: Well, the No. 1 Minnesota women (36-1-1) are huge favorites to win their third national championship in a row. Hannah Brandt leads them in scoring (22-40-62), and she is a plus-44.
The No. 1 Minnesota men don't quite share the dominance of the women, but man, are they good. I will do the play-by-play of the Gophers' game Friday night at Michigan on ESPNEWS at 6:30 p.m. ET. Both teams have multiple future NHL players, and it should be an exciting game. One college coach told me he feels that Boston College is a little more explosive. From what I've seen, it looks like a push.
Don't forget that the entire men's NCAA hockey tournament is on the ESPN family of networks. The Frozen Four will be held in Philadelphia this year.
Buccigross: The entire hockey world seems to think Vanek, a former Gopher, will end up with the Minnesota Wild. The Wild need scoring, the cap is going up, and Dany Heatley's $7.5 million cap hit will be off the books after this season.
@Buccigross who is going to be "Last Years Yale" in this yours tourney? Who in college hockey is going to shock the college hockey world?— Kevin Casserino (@KevinCasserino) March 12, 2014
Buccigross: Union could be.
@Buccigross question - what are the Devils chances at making the playoffs?— Jawn (@jawndiodato) March 11, 2014
Buccigross: 48 percent.
@Buccigross comment - the Devils will make the playoffs.— Jawn (@jawndiodato) March 11, 2014
Buccigross: You wanna go?
Buccigross: Minnesota and Dallas are looking good.
@Buccigross what proposed rule changes being discussed at GM mtgs do u support? Any you would add? Current rules you would change?— Zach (@zgonyea55) March 12, 2014
Buccigross: Bigger nets, 18-minute periods, 10-minute four-on-four. And I think one coaches' challenge is reasonable. I don't think the games are too long.