Predicting a Stanley Cup champion after such a topsy-turvy regular season is a daunting challenge considering how some teams surged and others flopped through 1,230 games of mystery and intrigue. A show of hands, first of all, from anyone who circled game No. 1,229 of the NHL season and predicted the two teams playing in the next-to-last game on the schedule, the Anaheim Ducks and the Colorado Avalanche, would ultimately be champions of the Pacific and Central respectively.
Or that after their late surges this past fortnight, the two escapees from the Western Conference who shifted over to the East thanks to NHL realignment – the Detroit Red Wings and the Columbus Blue Jackets – would both make the playoffs, at the expense of, among others, the New York Islanders, Ottawa Senators, Toronto Maple Leafs, Washington Capitals, all of whom made it in the watered down East a year ago.
It was a crazy finish to a season full of surprises, with five teams returning to the playoffs this year after missing out last season (Colorado, Dallas Stars, Tampa Bay Lightning, Philadelphia Flyers and Columbus Blue Jackets). The Vancouver Canucks were the only Western Conference team that missed out this year, after qualifying a year ago.
And while the West was best again, that development will likely have no bearing on the eventual Stanley Cup champion, because the strongest, deepest team in the league at the moment looks like the Boston Bruins, who won the President’s Trophy for the second time in franchise history.
The first came back in 1989-90 season when, in the pre-shootout, pre-overtime NHL, 101 points (in an 80-game schedule) earned you the best overall record in the league.
Nowadays, 100 points is the standard for a good to very good season, but not an exceptional year. Ten teams finished with 100 points or more and Minnesota Wild had a chance to be the 11th, going into their final game of the regular season.
There is a long-held belief that winning the President’s Trophy is ultimately a bad thing for a team’s Stanley Cup aspirations if a team burns up so much energy chasing first overall that there’s nothing left in the tank when the playoff marathon begins. The Chicago Blackhawks disproved that theory last year, backing up their President’s Trophy win with a Stanley Cup championship, but it came during the 48-game, lockout-shortened regular season, so maybe that deserves as asterisk.
But the Bruins put so much distance between themselves and the rest of the Eastern Conference pack that coach Claude Julien could selectively rest players down the stretch – and they don’t even start the playoffs until Friday, their series against Detroit the last to get started.
Jarome Iginla, banged up with a couple of weeks to go in the season, hardly played down the stretch. He was one of eight regulars not in the lineup for Sunday’s meaningless finale against the New Jersey Devils. Joining Iginla on the sidelines were his usual linemates, David Krejci and Milan Lucic, along with second-line centre Patrice Bergeron, stalwart defenceman Zdeno Chara and a couple of injured bottom-six forwards, Daniel Paille and Chris Kelly. Vezina Trophy candidate Tuukka Rask also had the day off, as Chad Johnson got to play goal.
With all hands on deck, the Bruins have everything – three lines that can produce five-on-five scoring, six solid defencemen and one of if not the best goaltenders in the league.
Whereas the West seems wide open, something really unusual would have to happen for Boston not to come out of the East again this year – although the matchup they got for being the top team in the East is hardly favorable, surging Detroit.
The Bruins and Red Wings will meet in the playoffs for the first time since 1957, meaning the Bruins will have faced every Original Six team in the playoffs over the past three years, after playing the Chicago Blackhawks, the New York Rangers and the Toronto Maple Leafs last year and the Montreal Canadiens back in 2011.
They could face Montreal again if they advance and if the Canadiens happen to beat the Lightning, who earned the home-ice advantage for the opening round with a 1-0 shootout win over the Capitals. With Ben Bishop injured, Anders Lindback will likely get the start – and that may not be quite the lop-sided goalie matchup it looked like a week ago, after Lindback recorded shutouts in two of his final three starts.