A Hockey Cynic's Guide to the Wales Conference Playoffs
Through his cynical analysis, columnist Greg Wyshynski explains why none of the eight Eastern teams will win the Stanley Cup this season.
DC) -- I'm a coward, but at least I'm brave enough to admit it.
As a hockey playoff prognosticator, the 2006 Campbell Conference field is as frightening as Donald Brashear on a breakaway. The only sure thing we've learned from decades of these postseason wars is that there are no "sure things," and that's what scares me about the Campbell.
Think the Red Wings are a lead-pipe lock?
Consider the fact that just seven of the 19 Presidents' Trophy winners have gone on to win the Stanley Cup, 11 of the 19 made the conference finals, and two failed to escape the first round. (Although Detroit was one of the seven to go on to take the big prize, let's remember that this franchise isn’t exactly immune to an early-round upset).
And what if Chris Pronger doesn't flake, Ales Hemsky goes nuts and Dwayne Roloson pretends he still has Jacques Lemaire's system playing in front of him? The Oilers aren't the first-round bye everyone believes them to be.
Those who aren't picking the Wings are picking Calgary, with Miikka Kiprusoff playing out of his mind and with Dion Phaneuf ready for a rookie run at the Conn Smythe. But am I the only one uncomfortable about betting against J-S Giguere and Scott Niedermayer, two of the biggest postseason heroes in recent memory, in a series they're "not supposed to win?"
Nashville and San Jose? Again, without Tomas Vokoun out of action, the Sharks should skate away with this series. But the Predators are so damn pesky offensively, and Chris Mason's numbers for April (13 goals in 8 games) are better than Cristobal Huet's (13 goals in 5 games), though you'd never hear that comparison from the fawning Canadian media.
(And if the Ducks are leading the Flames, imagine the extra motivation for Paul Kariya to power the Preds to the next round … and one step closer to a tearful center ice reunion with life partner Teemu Selanne in the conference finals.)
Again, the Campbell scares me. I'm actually picking Dallas to win the Stanley Cup, and that pick has made me about as comfortable as Donald Rumsfeld at a retired generals' cocktail mixer. The Stars have a wonderful combo of veterans and young stars. They have players who are money in the postseason, like Jason Arnott. They can be physical, but can also kill you with speed. And Mike Modano is a story waiting to be exploited by NBC Sports producers.
Or the Stars could have their butts sent packing in the first round by Colorado, if Marty Turco becomes Marty Choke-o again.
I'm going to leave the Campbell Conference to those brave souls who think they can handicap this baffling field. I think whichever team gets out of it, that team gets to vacation with Stanley this summer.
Instead, I turn my cynical eye to the Wales, where we find eight teams with absolutely no chance of winning the Stanley Cup this postseason:
Ottawa Senators (No. 1 seed, 52-21-9)
Why They Won't Win the Stanley Cup: Because Ray Emery isn't Dominik Hasek, and Dominik Hasek isn't Dominik Hasek either. Even if The Dominator is cleared to play, I have zero confidence in him either remaining healthy or regaining the early season form that had some tabbing him as a potential Vezina candidate.
Speaking of zero confidence, Emery went in the tank as the postseason approached (0-4-1 with 22 goals against entering the season finale against the Rangers, which was over by the third period).
Too many pundits are trying to downplay the goalie muddle as being crucial to the Senators’ fortunes. Have they forgotten that over the last 15 years, it could be argued that only once has a team with an average keeper won the Cup? (I'm thinking Chris Osgood and the 1998 Wings; do we really think the Sens are on that level?) Maybe I'm stuck in some "old NHL" thinking, but then again I'm expecting the playoffs to have that "old NHL" feel, aren't you?
But hey, look on the bright side: the Sens won't have to lose to Toronto again. And that means Daniel Alfredsson might actually show up on the Ottawa playoff roster instead being the healthy-scratch-on-skates he’s typically been in every series against the Leafs.
Worst Case Scenario: That for all the improvements Dany Heatley has made over the departed Marian Hossa, the one thing he can't improve on is Hossa's knack for postseason heroics.
Carolina Hurricanes (No. 2 seed, 52-22-8)
Why They Won't Win the Stanley Cup: A few scouts have said they were impressed that Carolina didn't show any drop-off after the blazing start the team had. I think they're all legally blind.
In their last 16 games, the Canes had seven wins – three of them against lowly Washington, two against No. 8 Tampa Bay. In that stretch I've seen the same team I've watched ever since Erik Cole went down for the count: inconsistent on special teams, mistake-prone and with goaltending about as stable as Nancy Grace talking about Aruban law enforcement authorities.
Though the point totals don't show it, there's been a severe drop-off for Carolina in its consistency on the ice. So yeah, I'm pretty sure these “scouts” who claim these are the “same ‘ole Canes” have been sucking on Tony Stewart’s tailpipe. (That’s a NASCAR reference for the Carolina fans, who as we all know are backwoods hockey-ignorant hicks that don’t go to the games and can name the pit crew dude who changes Jeff Gordon’s back left tire but can’t name their own starting goalie. Or at least that’s what I gather from talking to former Hartford Whalers fans…)
Worst Case Scenario: Cole is given the green light to return to the lineup for the second round... and the Hurricanes lose to the Habs in seven.
New Jersey Devils (No. 3 seed, 46-27-9)
Why They Won’t Win the Stanley Cup: Because No. 3 and No. 4 are hanging in the rafters, not on the Devils’ bench. New Jersey is the hottest team in hockey entering the postseason, and that’s going to be enough to earn the Devils their first postseason series victory against the archrival Rangers in franchise history.
But there’s going to come a time in the playoffs when Gomez and Gionta are neutralized, Elias can’t kick-start the second line, and the team needs a defensive hero to help Brodeur hold the fort until the lamp is lit. There’s no Stevens, Daneyko or Niedermayer on this roster; can an oft-injured Colin White fill that role successfully?
The bottom line is that the offensive groove this team is in won’t last, and when the goals dry up the attention is turned back to a defense that several weeks ago didn’t look like it belonged in the postseason. Even worse is the fact that the Devils won’t have the benefit of the shootout in the playoffs, and that useless skills competition crutch is the only reason they’re a division champion, right now.
Still, winning the division is a hell of an accomplishment for the Devils, all things considered. Congratulations to Lou Lamoriello for coaching his way out of one of the single most pathetic off-seasons in franchise history, and to Patrik Elias for the greatest comeback from hepatitis since Pam Anderson.
Worst Case Scenario: The Devils actually do win the Cup, but because of construction at the Meadowlands are forced to hold their parade inside an IKEA off the New Jersey Turnpike.
Buffalo Sabres (No. 4 seed, 52-24-6)
Why They Won’t Win the Stanley Cup: Because if they did, what would Lindy Ruff have left to bitch and moan about to the media?
Seriously, though, I've crunched every imaginable number trying to find a way to pick the Flyers over the Sabres in the first round and there’s just no logical reason why it should happen. Buffalo scores more goals, is better 5-on-5, better on special teams, better on face-offs, better between the pipes, healthier, and the Flyers have exactly one win on the Sabres' home ice since 2001.
So, that said: Flyers in seven. Because the Stanley Cup playoffs aren’t supposed to make sense, and my simian brain refuses to believe that a team that can look as good as the Flyers sometimes can will bite the curb in the first round.
Worst Case Scenario: Martin Biron starts Games 3 and 4 in Philly.
Philadelphia Flyers (No. 5 seed, 45-26-11)
Why They Won’t Win the Stanley Cup: Because the only thing more fragile than Robert Esche’s ego is Peter Forsberg’s ankle. Because, yet again, the concept of a No. 1 goaltender escapes Bobby Clarke. Because there isn’t a Keith Primeau to light the lamp, lead physically and acts like a Conn-winner-in-waiting. And don’t underestimate how much the former captain’s ability as a locker room leader and ambassador is missed — there have been rumblings about some player/player and player/coaches strife over in Philadelphia for the last few weeks, and it shows on the ice.
Worst Case Scenario: The Flyers lose in the second round, Clarke vows to bring in a goalie with proven postseason credentials, and then trades for Pat Lalime.
New York Rangers (No. 6 seed, 44-26-12)
Why They Won’t Win the Stanley Cup: Because after losing the Art Ross, the Richard, the Hart, the Atlantic Division, home ice, Mario and his mullet, Jagr might as well lose to the Devils in the first round, too.
And because this is the Rangers, and it’s not 2048 yet.
Worst Case Scenario: The 2005-06 New York Rangers highlight video is reduced to three minutes of Jagr, seven minutes of Lundqvist, and 50 minutes of Marek Malik’s shootout goal on a continuous slow motion loop.
Montreal Canadiens (No. 7 seed, 42-31-9)
Why They Won’t Win the Stanley Cup: Let’s see -- take one of the most hockey-mad cities in the world and give them a goalie controversy... in the first-round of the playoffs. Gee, that won’t put too much pressure on either David Aebischer or Cristobal Huet, will it?
Thing is, no matter who plays against Carolina, they’re going to develop whiplash watching the rubber fly past their heads. Huet looked like a clueless kid against the Devils in the season finale; Aebischer just plain sucked against the Hurricanes this season, giving up five goals on 41 shots.
Maybe the Habs should just play with an extra attacker all series.
Worst Case Scenario: The NHL decides to have a severe crackdown on diving in the postseason, and Alexei Kovalev breaks the all-time mark for penalty minutes in a four-game series.
Tampa Bay Lightning (No. 8 seed, 43-33-6)
Why They Won’t Win the Stanley Cup: I hate to keep harping on the goalie troubles for these Wales Conference teams, but Sean Burke and John Grahame? SEAN BURKE AND JOHN GRAHAME?! Boy, somebody in the Tampa Bay front office must have attended Bobby Clarke’s seminar: “How to Short-Circuit a Potential Champion with Mediocre Goaltending.”
OK, we get it: spending the gross national product of a Central American country on Khabibulin wasn’t going to be the right decision. But this is a collection of stellar offensive players and steady defenders that was one good goalie away from winning a second consecutive Cup. That the Lightning scratched and clawed their way to a No. 8 seed is an embarrassment. That Brad Richards, Marty St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier, Fredrik Modin and Ruslan Fedotenko have been wasted in front of this pathetic tandem between the pipes is a joke. Having Sean Burke and John Grahame as your playoff goalies is like going to a bar, zeroing in on a ‘four,’ and hoping she’ll look like a ‘10’ after your fifth vodka/tonic.
Unfortunately, the Bolts are going to be done in ‘one.’
Worst Case Scenario: Tampa Bay enters the 2007 postseason with Sean Burke and John Grahame as its starting goaltenders.
Wyshynski, also the Sports Editor of The Connect Newspaper, is
a columnist for TheFourthPeriod.com and the Washington
Correspondent for The Fourth Period Magazine.
His book, "Glow Pucks and 10-Cent Beer: The 101 Worst Ideas in Sports
is now on sale.