A Team-Less Fan’s Guide to the Conference Finals

Things have not gone your way this year. Whether it’s seeing your team flounder at the bottom of the standings only to have a lottery pick snatched away, or having to watch as your league-leading team was swept in the first round, the pain is the same. With that dark cloud above your head, you’ve just had a tough time getting excited about the 2019 Stanley Cup, especially as it enters into the semi-final matchups.

However, I’m here to tell you that all hope is not lost. There’s much excitement to be had in this season’s postseason, you just need to know where to find it. For fans missing their favourite franchise, I have put together a handy guide so you can pick a new (temporary) team to support in these strange playoffs.

You Love Drama

Compared to the other major sports leagues in North America, the NHL is one of the least dramatic. The players have rather subdued personalities, and the biggest controversy lately has been the Americanizing of the game. Even when there is drama, such as the issues surrounding concussions and CTE, the conversations are hushed and pushed under the rug. True drama is hard to find. That’s why, to you, Brad Marchand is a blessing in disguise.

Brad Marchand, Frederik Andersen
Boston Bruins Brad Marchand shoots on Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

As a member of the Boston Bruins, Marchand has become one of the NHL’s most-hated players. He’s been suspended and fined on multiple occasions for dirty hits, dangerous slew foots, and malicious spears, but has also gotten away with just as many controversial acts. One of the most infamous occurred last season, when Marchand licked Ryan Callahan of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

After the following uproar, Marchand took a step back, trying to not be as devious, but it didn’t last long. Against the Columbus Blue Jackets, he stomped on Cam Atkinson’s stick in a faceoff, then punched Scott Harrington in the back of the head long after a whistle. He punctuated his performances with comically short post-game interviews.

Marchand specializes in getting under opponent’s skin, but many fans and opposing players see his tactics as going too far. Despite the measures the league has taken, he seems undeterred, and will most likely get more antagonistic as the playoffs wear on. So, should you be a drama-loving hockey fan, you’d best cheer for the Bruins against the Carolina Hurricanes, just for the chance to see Marchand do something really stupid.

Related: NHL Keeps Feeding the Rat

You Love an Underdog Story

With the four top-seeded teams eliminated in the first round, 2019 has become the year of the underdog. Wild card teams like the Colorado Avalanche, New York Islanders and Columbus Blue Jackets heated up at the right time and surprised everyone with incredible first-round upsets against division champions. But they fizzled out in the second round, overcome by stronger, more experienced teams. Yet one underdog still remains, and arguably the most underrated of them all – the Hurricanes.

For most of the season, everyone has written of the Hurricanes. Few preseason predictions had them making the playoffs, and even fewer playoff predictions saw them getting by the Washington Capitals in Round 1. There was no competition; how could the likes of Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, and Petr Mrazek compete with Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Kuznetsov, and Braden Holtby?

Yet after seven games, it was the Hurricanes who were on top, not the Capitals. It was even more surprising to see the Hurricanes sweep the Islanders in the second round, who were riding the hot streak of Vezina candidate Robin Lehner. The Hurricanes were the first to qualify for the Conference Finals, yet barely made the playoffs in the last games of the season.

The cast has no true stars, yet it’s difficult to find one part that is lacking. Rookie coach Rod Brind’Amour has looked like a seasoned veteran, getting the best from his players. Aho scored over a point per game this season despite experts predicting that wouldn’t happen for another few seasons. Justin Williams, the team’s captain, has one of the league’s best nicknames – and reputations – with the moniker, “Mr. Game Seven.”

Then there’s Jaccob Slavin, who may be one of the most underrated defensemen in the league. He’s helped his team form one of the most versatile defense corps, scoring over 30 points in his last three seasons, yet few fans outside Raleigh still aren’t quite sure about him. It’s a team of misfits, but so far, they’ve looked like real contenders.

Jaccob Slavin Hurricanes
It won’t be long before Jaccob Slavin is a household name outside of Carolina, especially if they take home the 2019 Stanley Cup (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Hurricanes will undoubtedly have a difficult time against the Bruins, but they’ve shown they have the talent to upset powerful teams. If you want to see the Stanley Cup lifted by a team who was never supposed to be there, root for the Hurricanes, especially if the series goes to Game 7.

You Miss Your Canadian Teams

For the first time since 2016, and the third time in the last 10 years, there were no Canadian teams playing in the second round of the playoffs. It’s a depressing statistic for the nation that popularized the game and loves it more than anyone else.

Canada hasn’t had a Cup-winning team since 1993, and the fans are so desperate to see the Stanley Cup return that they’ll cheer for any Canadian team, no matter their location. Back in 2011, the nation rallied around the Vancouver Canucks as they nearly captured their first Stanley Cup. In 2017, Canada anxiously watched as the Ottawa Senators faced-off against the reigning champs in the semi-finals. All Canadians want to do is see other Canadians do well.

Sedins skate around
Canada cheered on the Sedin twins, but they eventually fell to the Bruins in seven games (THW Library Archives)

So, for the Canadians who wish they still had a team, look no further than the St. Louis Blues. The team has 18 Canadians on their current roster, which is more than any Canadian team. The Montreal Canadians come the closest with 17, but the average is a measly 13 per team.

Not only do they have one of the highest concentrations of Canadians among the final four teams, but they hail from nearly every province. Players from Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Quebec, Ontario, and even New Brunswick all don the blue and gold. If the Blues won the Cup, Lord Stanley would make an appearance in nearly every part of Canada.

Jordan Binnington, Alex Pietrangelo
Three Ontario natives – Alex Pietrangelo, Jordan Binnington and Ryan O’Reilly – gather after a win (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

However, one of the best reasons to cheer for the Blues is that they are the only active 1967 expansion team to still have not won a Stanley Cup. The Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Los Angeles Kings and even the Minnesota North Stars, after their move to Dallas, have all held the coveted trophy.

Technically, even the California Golden Seals won the Cup. The team moved and became the Cleveland Barons in 1976, then merged with Minnesota in 1978 in an effort to save both franchises, joining their histories, and thus, their Cup win with the Dallas Stars. With the talent and history of St. Louis, Canadians looking to support their nation should be fully behind the Blues.

You’re the Ottawa Senators

Few things have gone right for the Senators this season. It all started back in September, when face of the franchise Erik Karlsson was shipped off to the San Jose Sharks after, among other things, growing frustrated with ownership.

It was heartbreaking for Senators fans and players to see yet another talented player leave the organization. The team managed to secure some promising prospects from the deal, though, as well as a handful of conditional picks. While most of the picks conditions have already been met, a couple are still dependent on when the Sharks end their season.

San Jose Sharks defenseman Erik Karlsson
Will Erik Karlsson remain in San Jose? The Ottawa Senators can only hope. (Photo by Samuel Stringer/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

When San Jose qualified for the 2019 Playoffs, the Senators received a 2020 first-round pick instead of one in 2019. While that may be a slight downgrade, especially when considering the depth in the first round this year, it opened up a new condition on another of San Jose’s picks…more or less.

The actual condition is whether or not Karlsson re-signs in San Jose. Should he choose to remain a Shark, the Senators will receive a second-round pick in 2021. However, should the Sharks win the Cup this season, that pick is upgraded to a first. The two conditions seem unconnected, but think of it like this: if the Sharks win the Stanley Cup, then Karlsson will have a greater incentive to return to play in San Jose.

Related: Sharks’ Biggest Priority Should Be Re-Signing Karlsson

It’s likely that Joe Thornton would retire after hoisting the Cup, which would provide cap relief to re-sign Joe Pavelski, Gustav Nyquist and Karlsson. That means Karlsson could be offered a nice little raise to stay in San Jose and chase a back-to-back championship. Just like that, the Senators would have another first-round selection, which would be crucial in their rebuild.

While it’s true that San Jose has also not won the Cup before, they’ve only waited since 1992, where as the Blues have waited an additional quarter century. The Sharks have also had some controversy with penalties and recalled goals, but nowhere near the amount generated by the Bruins. They also can’t qualify for underdog status, as they came into the playoffs with home-ice advantage. But those who support the Senators have no other choice – San Jose needs to win the 2019 Cup.

San Jose Sharks players celebrate after defeating the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 7
San Jose Sharks players celebrate after defeating the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 7 (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

There is, of course, no right or wrong answer to cheering for a team. If hockey fans have learned anything this season, it’s that anything can happen. So why support a team with a great story? Whether it’s drama, an underdog, a fellow Canadian, or hoping the Senators get a little extra help, the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs offer something for everyone.