Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - It may be a little late in arriving thanks
to the lockout but the NHL season is finally upon us.
Over half a calendar year has passed since the Los Angeles Kings -- the eighth
seed in the Western Conference -- completed an improbable run at their first
Stanley Cup title. The Kings ousted the New Jersey Devils in six games and
they'll try to become the first team to win consecutive championships since
the Detroit Red Wings claimed back-to-back Cups in 1997 and '98.
The 48-game regular season kicks off on Saturday and the campaign will be a
sprint for the playoffs. Due to the compacted schedule, it wouldn't be
shocking to see Los Angeles or other teams considered to be Stanley Cup
contenders miss the postseason this spring.
At the start of a normal season, it's difficult to predict what teams will be
left standing come playoff time and this lockout-shortened campaign should
make prognosticating more of a challenge than usual. Anyway, here goes
1. Vancouver (Northwest Division winner)
2. St. Louis (Central)
3. Los Angeles (Pacific)
6. San Jose
WEST CHAMPION: St. Louis
Much like last year's Stanley Cup champions, the Blues are coming out of a
long rebuilding phase and they hope to follow in the Kings' footsteps by
emphatically announcing their arrival with the franchise's first Stanley Cup.
Coach Ken Hitchcock worked magic for the Blues in 2011-12, taking over for the
fired Davis Payne early in the campaign and leading St. Louis to a 43-15-11
record over the last several months of the regular season. The club also
landed its first division title since 1999-2000, but after ousting San Jose in
the opening round, the Blues were unceremoniously swept by the Kings in the
It's no secret the postseason has been anything but kind to St. Louis
throughout its history. Although the Blues made it to the Stanley Cup Finals
in each of their first three NHL seasons from 1968-70, the club is the only
surviving franchise of the Expansion Six to have never won a Cup. Since making
it to the conference finals in the spring of 1986, the Blues have made it past
the second round of the playoffs on one occasion when they lost to Colorado in
So, there's some historic playoff futility standing between the Blues and a
Western Conference title this season, but the lockout-shortened schedule could
help erase the ghosts of past postseasons.
The Blues are a relatively young team and that youth should serve them well
during a season when playing four games a week will not be uncommon.
Secondly, St. Louis has a unique situation in the crease with Jaroslav Halak
and Brian Elliott, who were both legitimate Vezina Trophy candidates after the
2011-12 campaign. Having that type of depth in net gives Hitchcock the
opportunity to not wear either netminder out during the regular season.
Lastly, Hitchcock has earned a reputation as a taskmaster who is eventually
tuned out by his players. However, with this sprint of a season ahead of us, a
no-nonsense guy like Hitch may be just the coach to keep his players focused
with so many games on the slate in such a short period of time.
1. New York Rangers (Atlantic Division winner)
2. Boston (Northeast)
3. Washington (Southeast)
7. New Jersey
EAST AND STANLEY CUP CHAMPION: N.Y. Rangers
In 2011-12, the Rangers put forth the franchise's best effort since winning it
all in the spring of 1994. New York claimed its first division title and
regular-season conference crown since 1993-94 and booked the franchise's
second trip to the Eastern Conference finals since reaching hockey's peak over
18 years ago.
Now with expectations raised for this season, anything less than matching the
heights of '94 should be considered a disappointment.
Even though the Rangers won two playoff series last spring, the postseason
seemed like a slog for head coach John Tortorella's troops. New York needed
seven games to beat both Ottawa and Washington, the conference's eighth and
seventh seeds, respectively, before losing to No. 6 New Jersey in six games.
One of the main reasons New York struggled in the playoffs against what
should've been inferior opposition was the club's lack of scoring depth.
The Rangers boast one of the world's best goaltenders in Henrik Lundqvist and
Tortorella has everyone buying into his mantra of defensive responsibility,
but the 2011-12 Rangers lacked an explosive offensive element. Last summer,
however, general manager Glen Sather may have landed the missing piece when he
acquired prolific winger Rick Nash in a blockbuster trade with Columbus.
Nash has become a perennial 30-goal scorer by combining size, skating and
skill and his presence alone should take some pressure off other New York
forwards like Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards.
Although the power forward has notched 30 or more goals in each of the last
five seasons, the one thing nobody really knows is how Nash will perform in
the postseason. He only made one trip to the playoffs during his nine-season
run with the Blue Jackets and that ended quickly after a four-game sweep at
the hands of Detroit.
Much like Hitchcock, Tortorella isn't the type of coach to let complacency
creep into his roster and his fiery style could work well during the shortened
According to Las Vegas, the Pittsburgh Penguins are the odds-on favorites to
win the Cup, but the division rival Rangers are the NHL's real team to beat in
HART TROPHY (MVP): Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh
Honorable Mentions: Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay; Jonathan Toews, Chicago.
VEZINA TROPHY (best goaltender): Jonathan Quick, Los Angeles
Honorable Mentions: Henrik Lundqvist, N.Y. Rangers; Mike Smith, Phoenix.
NORRIS TROPHY (best defenseman): Shea Weber, Nashville
Honorable Mentions: Erik Karlsson, Ottawa; Kris Letang, Pittsburgh.
CALDER TROPHY (top rookie): Justin Schultz, Edmonton
Honorable Mentions: Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida; Vladimir Tarasenko,
The Sports Network