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.
But admit it: If Lindback gets the hook and Bishop isn't ready to go, the Lightning would then turn to Kristers Gudlevskis in goal and reprise that wonderful Latvia-Canada game at the 2014 Olympics, when his opposite number in goal just happened to be the Canadiens' Carey Price. What fun that would be.
The fact that Colorado sneaked through and took top spot in the Central Division was a momentous achievement given that the Avalanche finished 29th overall last season. But they were helped along by a collapse of epic proportions by the St. Louis Blues, who lost their last six in a row.
One of the few teams playing a meaningful game on the final Sunday – because a win could have kept them in contention for the division crown – they instead fell 3-0 to Detroit. Unlike all the teams that rested their stars for the playoffs, the Blues' injury list runs eight deep – and it includes key players such as T.J. Oshie, David Backes, Vladimir Tarasenko, Patrick Berglund, Brendan Morrow, along with defenceman Alex Pietrangelo.
For months now, it has been suggested here that the Olympics could cast a major shadow over these playoffs in the same way that the 2006 Olympics – or when the NHL last travelled overseas for an Olympics – affected results that year in the postseason (when all four favorites in the West were upset in the opening round).
Speaking to reporters following the loss to Detroit, Blues coach Ken Hitchcock riffed on a similar theme, saying: "We had a brutal stretch here at the end. Every team went through a brutal stretch. The teams that had the Olympians, at some period of time, they hit the wall. Chicago's stretch was right after the break, ours happened now.
Most people will give the Blues little chance against a Blackhawks team scheduled to get Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane back in time for the playoffs, but Hitchcock believed the break would do his team a world of good as well.
"We can get re-energized, refocused and come back and get ready to play," he said.
"We got caught in the vortex, just like two or three other teams that had multiple players get caught in the vortex, too. We get a chance to rest. Our work-base part of our practices will be minimal now. We'll have a lot different lineup (by) Thursday."
FAREWELL TEEMU, MARTY AND RYAN: There were a number of memorable regular-season farewells on the final weekend, beginning in Anaheim, where Teemu Selanne has played in his 1,451st and final game over a 21 year career that has him 11th in NHL history with 684 goals and 15th with 1,457 points. He leaves as the Ducks franchise leader in goals (457), assists (531), points (988) and games played (965). Even with Selanne held out of Saturday's next-to-last game of the regular season against the Los Angeles Kings (because Bruce Boudreau doesn't play him in back-to-back games), the home team presented him with a specially designed paddleboard to honour his illustrious career. Presumably, he'll get a chance to catch the odd wave with his surfing buddy, Paul Kariya, who long ago preceded him into retirement.
Devils' goaltender Martin Brodeur isn't as certain that he will retire, but he could have played his last game in a New Jersey uniform Sunday, in the 3-2 win over Boston. Brodeur also earned his first NHL victory as a call-up back in March of 1992. Sunday's win was the 688th of his career. That's a 137-win lead over the runner-up Patrick Roy (551). Ed Belfour is third at 484. Even though Brodeur faced only 18 shots, he was sentimentally chosen the game's first star and there was a nice curtain call at the end, returning to the ice from the dressing room as fans chanted "Marty, Marty, Marty." Brodeur, who turns 42 next month, wants to play next year, but it remains to be seen if it will be in New Jersey, where he will likely have to take an even lesser role with Cory Schneider there, or somewhere else.
The market for free-agent goalies will be fascinating. The one team that could really use an experienced backup is the Phoenix Coyotes, who essentially fell out of the playoff race when starter Mike Smith got hurt and Thomas Greiss couldn't deliver the necessary saves down the stretch. Twelve goalies changed teams during the regular season this year – a phenomenal and close-to-unprecedented turnover – but Phoenix stood pat and now has to figure if Mark Visentin is ready for regular NHL duty, or if they need to sign a different backup. Maybe Ilya Bryzgalov, who helped back-stop the Minnesota Wild to a playoff spot after they were similarly devastated by goalie injuries, would consider a return to Arizona.
And of course, the Edmonton Oilers' Ryan Smyth had a nice sendoff Saturday in the second game of the Hockey Night in Canada doubleheader. All those Vancouver Canucks' players who took the time to shake Smyth's hands reminded me of a scene a few years back when Jarome Iginla led the Calgary Flames in a long hand shake line to make the end of Trevor Linden's career. Nice classy touch by an organization that needs to improve its reputation around the league.
THE INJURY LIST: The Kings will get Drew Doughty back for the start of their playoff season. He'd missed the last four games, recovering from a banged up shoulder, but could have returned mid-week if necessary. But the Kings wanted him to fully heal and also recover from his Olympic experience, where he logged a ton of ice time on behalf of Team Canada … Another Olympic star, Mikael Granlund of Finland, got an unexpected two-week vacation as a result of a concussion, but he is considered possible for the start of the playoffs for the Wild … Two players who won't be ready to go are Henrik Zetterberg (Detroit) and Nathan Horton (Columbus). Zetterberg isn't cleared for contact yet and so the middle of the first round is the earliest that the Red Wings might get him back. Horton, meanwhile, had surgery to correct an abdominal tear and probably wouldn't be cleared to play again unless the Blue Jackets unexpectedly get to the Stanley Cup final … The New York Rangers' playoff lives could hinge on how well defenceman Ryan McDonough plays after missing the last five games with a shoulder injury. McDonough was voted the team MVP and likely will appear on some Norris Trophy ballots. Without him, the Rangers could have trouble handling some of Philadelphia's size up front.
SHORT TAKES: Many of the same candidates that interviewed for the Buffalo Sabres' general manager's job earlier this season – the one that Tim Murray eventually landed – will also troop through Vancouver to talk to Linden about the opening for a GM. The sense though is that Jim Benning, the Bruins' assistant general manager, will be favored to land the position. Benning's last two NHL seasons overlapped Linden's first two with the Canucks way back in 1989 and 1990 … George McPhee has been general manager of the Capitals since 1997, but if Washington's inability to make the playoffs costs him his job, he will get a look in Calgary, where the Flames are still searching for a general manager. McPhee spent five seasons working in Vancouver's front office as vice-president of hockey operations, a period that overlapped Brian Burke's time with the Canucks.
AND FINALLY: When the Dallas Stars traded away defenceman Stephane Robidas at the deadline to the Ducks, little did they know they would be facing each other in the opening round. Dallas was the only team to cross over as part of the NHL's new playoff alignment – and as it happens, they'll play out the postseason in the Pacific Division, which was their home for the previous 14 seasons.
Accordingly, the Ducks know the Stars and the Stars know the Ducks. Dallas actually won the season series, 2-1, and Robidas speaking post-game Saturday, noted that after playing 10 seasons in the Stars' organization, it would be a challenge facing his ex-teammates in a best-of-seven series.
"I have a lot of good friends, a lot of teammates, guys that stayed at my house last year and this year," acknowledged Robidas. "But it's a game and it's the playoffs. I want to win and they want to win. At one point, you put friendship aside. Once a series is over, we'll be friends again. That's the way I see it.
"I've played against good friends before and whenever I'm on the ice, you put aside friendship. I really want to win a Stanley Cup. That's my goal and they're standing in our way."