| New Day Dawning
Playoff field playing out
The NHL playoffs begin in 2 weeks. When they kick
off on April 11th, the league will shift into overdrive with the usual flair
that accompanies the start of the post-season festivities. For nearly 2 months
a field of 16 teams will be whittled down to a single champion, who will stand
alone atop the NHL mountain. Along the way, teams will choke, over achieve, and
perhaps even astound. We don't really know the how's and why's, but one thing
has become abundantly clear to those who have been paying attention: It's a new
day in the NHL.
Look no further than the Western conference, where
Chicago has ruled the roost for nearly a decade, winning 3 Stanley Cups and
making it to several more Conference Finals. Similarly, the San Jose Sharks,
Anaheim Ducks, and Los Angeles Kings have created an annual spring California
Gauntlet, ensuring that whomever comes out of the Pacific division must first
deal with them. Other strong clubs have waxed and waned, namely the St. Louise
Blues who perennially looked like contenders, only to suffer an inevitable (and
all too familiar) post-season collapse.
This year though, things have
changed. Whether you think they are for real or not, all Pacific Division roads
leads through Las Vegas and their raucous barn. They're a team which doesn't
yet understand just how special their accomplishments are, and supported by
fans who don't know this isn't supposed to happen.
That makes them the
most dangerous entity in all of sports: a team playing with house money. No one
expected this. No one is sure what will happen next. For a team with nothing to
lose, the only thing left to do is give all they have without holding back. Woe
to the opponent who isn't ready for that maelstrom.
In the Central
Division, the surging Nashville Predators appear to have completed the
transformation from underdog darling into powerhouse. No longer are they the
plucky team trying to stage a coup of Chicago or Detroit. Instead, they wield
all the power and are eyeing a loftier prize in Lord Stanley's Cup. But even
then, their path isn't clear as newly playoff bound Winnipeg has finally put
together all the pieces and stand ready to offer a stiff challenge.
Led by teenage scoring phenom Patrick Laine, the Jets are loaded and ready to
rain fire down on any opponent. In a fair world these two clubs would meet in
the second round, and fight the first battle of what appears destined to be a
decade long war.
As for the res of the Old Guard, the sands of time
have already started to bury them. While perhaps not completely dead, Chicago
is on the decline, and for the first time in 10 years will not make the
post-season. Over in St. Louis, a frantic run has put the Blues on the cusp of
the playoffs, but their spot is far from secured - a situation which is
mirrored in Anaheim.
Meanwhile, in LA the Kings continually try to
throw away their postseason berth, while only lately has a surge seen the
Sharks solidify themselves in 2nd place. Any of these squads that do qualify
for the post-season will enter without the usual fanfare, and certainly won't
be see as favourites. Rather, they'll be clubs that 'could contend if
everything goes well', which is a polite way to say 'longshots'.
Further afield, in the Eastern conference the first signs of upheaval are
starting to show as well. In the Metropolitan Division, upstart squads like New
Jersey and Columbus are pushing the Penguins and Capitals, while the Rangers
have already fallen victim to the ravages of time. As for the Atlantic, well,
dynamic Toronto continues to grow in confidence, while in south Florida a young
and hungry Panthers team has awoken and is on the prowl. Even here, the bones
of previous giants can be seen, with the desolate remains of once proud Detroit
and Montreal scattered about.
The point of all this is that the winds
of change are blowing in the NHL, and this is something we should all be
excited about. Often, it's easy to forget the cyclical nature of sports, as the
wheels may turn very slowly. A select few teams seem to remain competitive
forever, which can lead to complacency and even disinterest. This is part of
the lifecycle of any league, and provides the fuel for rivalries and hatred.
But when the epochs do change, when confusion, uncertainty, and upheaval are
everywhere, that's when the game is at its most compelling.
the signs are everywhere. Make no mistake, this isn't a one-off season of
It's the dawning of a new day.
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