By: Max Wolpoff
There will be a new champion in hockey. Of the eight teams left battling on injured legs for the Stanley Cup, three have never won the sport’s highest prize. Of the eight teams with home-ice advantage in the first round, only three moved on to the second.
If you are new to the NHL’s playoffs, perhaps coming from another sport where the best teams are expected to win at least their first-round series, the sight of both wild card teams in the West and East upsetting all four division winners can be unsettling. This is an abberation, to be sure. It is the first time since the new — and arguably stupid — playoff format started that all four division winners are gone after the first round.
Out of every playoffs arises at least one “Magic Team,” the team that captures the imagination with plucky stars and a lovable story. Last year, that was the expansion Vegas Golden Knights. “Magic Team,” however, hardly ever wins.
The door to the Stanely Cup Final is wide open. Every winner from the last seven years is out, and only Boston and San Jose remain of the losers from those seven matchups.
The Sharks, St. Louis Blues, and Columbus Blue Jackets are all looking for their first entry on the trophy. Carolina and Dallas are searching for their second etching, Colorado wants a third. Boston has six titles — more than the six teams mentioned above combined. The New York/Brooklyn/Long Island Islanders won four in a row in the early eighties and have been mediocre since.
Each team has a case to be a “Magic Team.” Here are my rankings of the teams left on a completely subjective scale of what makes each “magical.”
ST. LOUIS BLUES
This is the strongest case by a wide margin. A team stationed in last place in the league at the turn of the new year puts Jordan Binnington in net and starts to win games. Slowly, they turn from expected sellers at February’s trade deadline to contenders, knocking off the powerhouse Winnipeg Jets at home in six games. The Blues are not used to having any playoff luck. Every single year, they seemed to run into the West’s “Magic Team.” Los Angeles, Chicago, Minnesota, Nashville, and San Jose have all ended St. Louis’s run this decade. They got past a high-flying offense and solved a great goalie to get to round two.
SAN JOSE SHARKS
Joe Thornton, noted Boston Bruins draft pick from what feels like another century (oh wait, it was), is 39-years-old and might be coming to the end of a Hall of Fame career. The 2006 league MVP lacks only a Cup on that resume. Martin Jones, despite an atrocious 0.896 save percentage in the regular season, turned in games of his life against Vegas to get San Jose a chance to move on at home in Game 7. It took a comeback of epic proportions — helped by a shady call from the terrible officiating — but the Sharks are here to party. Finalists from three years ago, this is their shot to get Jumbo Joe his Cup with a loaded team designed to make one last deep run.
COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
In what was supposed to be the first stop in a coronation ceremony for hockey’s best team, a talented and overlooked Columbus team ran Tampa Bay out of the building. John Tortorella, for all the flak he gets for being curt with the media after losses and generally being a difficult person to work for and with, got the best out of his players when it mattered most. Expiring contracts for Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky put added emphasis on making this year count. General manager Jarmo Kekalainen sold just about everything he could to get Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel. It is “Cup or Bust” for this year. With only their third-round pick and Calgary’s seventh for this summer’s draft, along with six pending unrestricted free agents due big raises, this year is their only shot.
Adding a Hobey Baker winner to this team certainly helps, but this team was already good before Cale Makar left UMass-Amherst. The Blue-Eyes Ultimate Dragon of a top line (Nathan MacKinnon-Gabriel Landeskog-Mikko Rantanen) bolstered by Phillip Grubauer in net got the Avs into the playoffs after a late-season surge by Arizona fell a few wins short. Of their big names, only Rantanen is of major concern, and he is a restricted free agent without arbitration rights. For a team that had the worst season in NHL history – except for the expansion teams – a mere three years ago, Colorado has a bright future.
You may have seen this team’s zany post-game celebrations after home games this season. Even with the announcement that they would not do the “Storm Surge” during the playoffs, Carolina wiped the ice with Washington in Raleigh and (of course) beat them in D.C. in Game 7. Getting Andrei Svechnikov back at full health could be a huge boost for them. Rod Brind’Amour, who was the team’s captain the last time they won the Stanley Cup in 2006, outcoached the defending champions. It is so subtle, but their penalty kill may as well have been called “Gandalf” with how hard it was for Washington’s power play to pass into the offensive zone after a clear. This bunch of jerks, a slogan used as an insult by Don Cherry and taken as a badge of honor, is young and ready to compete well ahead of schedule.
Back in the more innocent times of last year, Dallas’s CEO Jim Lites spoke to The Athletic and called out star players Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin for being “words I am not allowed to type on this outlet.” Let me put this in some perspective: the coach talks every day, the general manager talks sparingly, and if anyone above the GM talks to the media, it is usually bad. Dallas got their horses back in line, Ben Bishop played well enough to earn a Vezina Trophy nomination as the league’s best goalie, and they knocked out Nashville despite their lauded defense corps. The run-and-gun days are not over, but having John Klingberg on defense helps out a lot.
NEW YORK ISLANDERS
If you are unfamiliar with what Islanders fans went through this offseason, just ask a blue-and-orange clad fan what they think of John Tavares. New York revamped its front office and coaching staff, bringing on noted rule-breaker Lou Lamoriello for GM and newly-Stanley Cup winning head coach Barry Trotz after he and the Capitals could not agree on a new deal. With a turnaround season from Robin Lehner, the Islanders allowed the fewest goals of any team in hockey this season. It would be a cathartic moment to win the team’s elusive fifth Cup without Tavares, and a moment they would never let anyone forget about for eternity.
Zdeno Chara is coming back for another year and he already has his Cup from 2011. The core of that team – Chara, Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand – is still here eight years later seeking another run. David Pastarnak eventually got his game going against Toronto in round one, and the Bruins beat the Leafs in seven games because time is a flat circle and nothing is ever new. Tuukka Rask – shocker – is making big saves in big games. Deadline acquisition Marcus Johansson finally got on the board in the series-clincher. Boston will be back after this year, and also, I am almost certain sports fans are tired of Boston teams having it so good (so good, so good).
Think about it: the Red Sox and the Patriots have already won their league’s championship. If the Bruins did the same this year, and if the Celtics are the team of choice in the NBA, that would be a first in North American professional sports to have a city win four straight. The closest any city came to winning in all four leagues was in 1980 when Philadelphia teams went 1-3 (the Phillies being the only win) in championship games. Pre-NBA, Detroit went 3-for-3 in 1935.