Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 21, 2016

Winds Of Change Blow Through The NHL Playoffs

The Stanley Cup playoffs are just a week old, with all eight opening round matchups at the midpoint of their potential seven games. The calendar will be closing in on the summer solstice before the captain of one of the sixteen playoff teams lifts the battered old trophy over his head and begins the triumphant victory skate that marks the culmination of each NHL season. At the risk of drawing conclusions from a small sample, the first games have offered more than a few hints that these playoffs will depart sharply from the league’s recent postseason script.

There is already a strong chance that the captain who starts his team’s season-ending skate will be wearing a different sweater than the ones fans have grown used to seeing with the Cup. The Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings have won five of the last six championships, beginning with Chicago’s six game triumph over Philadelphia in the 2010 Finals. Both teams are on the ropes in their first round series. Chicago trails St. Louis three games to one, while Los Angeles faces the same deficit against San Jose. The season could come to an end for the defending champion Blackhawks as early as Thursday night, not long after these words are written. The Kings face an elimination game at home one night later.

Fans of both squads can take heart in the fact that every game in both series has been decided by just a single goal, so it’s not as if either Chicago or L.A. is being badly outclassed. Both also have a history of comebacks. The Blackhawks won a pair of elimination games against the Ducks in last year’s conference finals; and the Kings spotted the Sharks a three games to none lead in 2014’s opening round before coming all the way back to win and advance. Still digging a deep and early hole is not generally the prescribed method for skating to Stanley Cup glory.

The only other franchise to claim the Cup in the last half-dozen years, the Boston Bruins, missed the playoffs entirely after a late season collapse. So if these two opening series go as they are trending, a new and different champion will be a certainty. And while opening round victors are still twelve wins away from hoisting the Cup, if St. Louis and San Jose do advance to the conference semifinals hopes of either franchise’s very first championship will remain alive.

As far back as the Original Six days, when the Canadiens and Maple Leafs combined to win nineteen of the twenty-five playoffs contested in the six team NHL, the league has always been one of “haves” and “have nots.” Dynasties rise for a period of time, but then they fall by the wayside, often ushering in lengthy championship droughts. Of the thirty current franchises, twelve have never won the Cup, including both the Blues and the Sharks. That’s a drought of forty-seven seasons for St. Louis and twenty-three for San Jose, the number of years since each team joined the NHL. San Jose has never even made it to the Finals.

Here in the early going the two teams threatening to oust the recent Cup winners aren’t the only ones hoping to end long periods of misfortune. Nineteen NHL teams have waited fifteen or more years for a title. Nine of those franchises made it to this season’s playoffs, and seven of the nine are either even or ahead in their first round series. Perhaps a postseason that was most notable as it began for the absence of any Canadian teams will wind up being remembered for some squad’s big breakthrough.

In addition to the Blues and the Sharks, one of those teams hoping to rewrite history this spring is Washington. The Capitals have skated in D.C. for forty seasons prior to this one, with but a single appearance in the Finals to show for their efforts. Since Alex Ovechkin joined the team eleven years ago the Capitals have gone into each campaign with high hopes. Ovechkin is one of the greatest players in NHL history, a prolific scorer and superb skater. But each of his first ten seasons ended with some measure of disappointment and doubt as the team as a whole could never match the performance of its superstar.

The 2010 playoffs marked a low point for Capitals fans. Washington rolled through the regular season, amassing 121 points to claim the Presidents’ Trophy, the NHL’s prize for having the best record. But there are more than a few players and fans who think that Trophy is more bane than boon when it comes to postseason success. Since its creation only eight of twenty-nine winners of the Presidents’ Trophy have gone on to claim the Stanley Cup. Nearly as many, six in all, have tumbled from regular season dominance to embarrassing first round playoff losses.

That was the Capitals’ tale of woe in 2010. Neither Washington’s sparkling regular season performance nor a commanding three games to one lead in the opening series mattered when the Canadiens, the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, stormed back to win the final three contests, two of which were played on Washington’s home ice. Six years later the Capitals are once again holders of the Presidents’ Trophy after a 120 point domination of the regular season. But through their first four games against the Philadelphia Flyers these Capitals have looked like a team that is not going to quickly fold.

The Flyers did manage a 2-1 win at home on Wednesday night to avoid a sweep, thanks to an impressive performance in net by goalie Michael Neuvirth. The decision by Philadelphia head coach Dave Hakstol to sit starting netminder Steve Mason worked for one night, but on the whole the series has been a mismatch. The Flyer’s two goals in Wednesday’s win equaled the team’s total offensive output in the first three contests, a testament to the performance throughout the series by Capitals’ goalie Braden Holtby. Meanwhile Washington has overwhelmed Philadelphia on special teams, scoring eight power play goals in the first three games. When the Flyers’ Shane Gostisbehere tallied on the power play in the first period of game four, it was the first time in the series that Philadelphia had managed to strike with the man advantage.

In San Jose fans have waited nearly two dozen years. In the nation’s capital it’s been four decades, and in St. Louis the drought is the second longest in the NHL. Fans of other teams also playing well in April have similarly waited many years for the chance to call Lord Stanley’s mug theirs. The NHL’s playoffs have only just begun, but already there is a palpable sense that this year some team’s long wait may finally come to an end.

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