Every October before the puck’s dropped analysts begin the tea leaf readings on the season and weighed in with their predictions for who will hoist the Cup nine months later. There are always some surprises, though: no one would’ve been able to look into their crystal ball to see the out-of-nowhere dominance of the Panthers and Blues, not to mention how the mighty have fallen for the Capitals and Sharks, who face a rare playoff extinction. Last year’s Stanley Cup matchup wasn’t a shocker, with the third seed in the East facing the first seed from the West in the final. Boston and Vancouver were predicted to have the 100-plus point season they had last year, but it already looks unlikely that the playoffs will shake out like that this year. Already there are teams in the post-season who weren’t considered contenders back in October.
Zero to Hero:
St. Louis Blues – The Blues had one of the league’s biggest upward trajectories from the October predictions. The Blues have a league-leading 101 points and are in line for a Presidents’ Trophy, which would be just their second in franchise history. They were the first team to clinch the playoffs and have broken a two-year playoff drought handily. It’s hard to believe the start the Blues got off to, having gone 6-7-0 to start the season. Firing head coach Davis Payne, replaced by Ken Hitchcock, may stand in hindsight as one of the best decisions made by any team in 2011-12, with Hitchcock taking the team 40-13-9 after that. The team has the fewest goals against in the league with 147 and have arguably the best goalie tandem in Halak and Elliott with 13 shutouts combined. It will be interesting to see whether they can maintain this positive momentum through the playoffs.
Florida Panthers – The Panthers hold the humbling record of having the league’s longest playoff drought, being locked out for a decade, so it’s not surprising that they weren’t picked as early frontrunners. It looks like they’ll be ready to pass that title off soon though, with the team holding the division title in third place in the conference. The Panthers wavered during the dog days of January losing seven straight, but have rallied since. The team went into the season having finished last place in the East the year before; at this point Florida is on pace to finish with 23 points more than they finished with last year.
Ottawa Senators – The Sens were almost universally panned coming into the season. The knocks were many for a team that was considered to be in a rebuild and had assumed Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson were past prime, but to the chagrin of many, they returned to form. The club came off a season where they were firmly out of playoff contention and second-last in the league in scoring. The Sens now sit in 7th with a precarious hold on a playoff spot in the tight Eastern conference bubble, but even in this place they’ve overachieved.
Studs to Duds:
Washington Capitals – The Caps are holding down the 8th and final playoff spot. It’s an enviable spot for teams like the Jets and Sabres who are nipping at their heels, but for a team that was expected to be top their conference, this season has already been considered a disappointment. The Caps are at risk of missing the playoffs for the first time in the last four years. Analyst Kevin Weekes predicted the team to top the conference, with similar guesses from analysts around the league, no one predicted the embarrassing skid that saw the Caps’ coach fired and star players all but disappear. Ovechkin was a solid prediction for a Conn Smyth trophy and TSN projected the captain to reach 102 points; in reality, with 7 games left, Ovechkin has 59 points and is on pace for a career low in almost all categories. It’s not over for the Capitals, whose playoff hopes haven’t been completely dashed, but hopes are now low for a team that hasn’t been strong in the playoffs at the best of times.
San Jose Sharks – The Sharks were on everyone’s list in the West. They’ve been a longtime playoff staple, having made the post-season for 7 years in a row… up until this year. The Sharks racked up 105 points last year, rocketing them to second place in the west, but a year later find themselves a bubble team with two weeks to go. Consistency has been a major problem, with the team posting losing streaks at times when it matters most. Their fall from grace has made room for playoff newcomers in the West like the Dallas Stars, who haven’t contended in three years.
Tampa Bay Lightning – The Bolts were one win away from making it to the Stanley Cup finals last year and now find themselves in the battle of the basement for the top draft pick. While the predictions surrounding the club weren’t as assured as the declarations made about long-time winners like the Sharks and Capitals, they were still expected to be a lock for the post-season. Right now they’re done barring a miracle, with the conference’s most goals against. Despite talent like Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis, the Lightning are the third-oldest team in the league (average age of 29), and with seasons like this one it may be time for a rebuild.
The paradigm shift in the standings this year suggests the importance of intangibles like team cohesiveness, coaching and line chemistry. The teams who have surprised us this year aren’t the teams with the highest number of talented players or highest salaries, just ask the Buffalo Sabres. What these teams have found is a zen state of team play that the big dynasty teams have lost.
Matt Stephen is a writer, not a fighter. He is both a beer and fantasy league veteran and has written about hockey online and in print for The Hockey News. He now covers the spectrum from the White House to Mike Green. He carries a picture of Ovechkin in his wallet.