By Matt Loughlin
It wasn’t easy for the Giants to win Super Bowl 42 in 2007 as a wild card entry in the NFL playoffs. Big Blue had to win three road games before defeating the New England Patriots to capture the Lombardi Trophy.
And it certainly wasn’t easy for the Chicago Cubs to win last year’s World Series with the weight (and the wait) of over a century of failure and frustration lined up against Joe Maddon’s crew before they finally won the franchise’s third world championship and first in 108 years.
But with all due respect to the champions of the NFL, MLB and NBA, the most difficult championship to win in all sports is the Stanley Cup.
The winning team must endure two grueling months of competition spread out over four seven-game series before it can lay claim to Lord Stanley’s precious chalice. It’s a war of attrition and an emotional roller coaster that challenges the body as well as the soul.
With that in mind, here are a few story lines to follow as the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs begin Wednesday with opening games in five series with the remaining three series starting on Thursday.
- Can the Washington Capitals win their first Stanley Cup?
The closest the Caps have come was in 1998 when they lost to the Detroit Red Wings in the final. In fact, Washington has not advanced past the second round since then either. So the pressure is on for the team to deliver. The Caps finished with the best record in the league, have one of the best goalies in the NHL in Braden Holtby and have a deep roster of stars led by Alex Ovechkin, Niklas Backstrom, TJ Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov. It’s not now or never for Washington, but it’s close.
- Welcome to the playoffs, kids!
The NHL has seen a recent steady influx of exceptional, and exceptionally young, talent. Edmonton’s Connor McDavid, 20, became the third-youngest player in NHL history (behind Wayne Gretzky and Sidney Crosby) to lead the league in scoring as he accumulated 100 points this season. His Oilers teammate, Leon Draisaitl, is 21 and finished eighth in scoring. They helped Edmonton to its first playoff appearance since 2006.
Toronto’s Auston Matthews is still a teenager (he won’t turn 20 until September) but set a record for American-born players by scoring 40 goals. Mitch Marner, another 19-year-old, and 20-year-old William Nylander, each finished with 61 points and helped to round out the Maple Leafs’ “Kiddie Korps”.
But the playoffs are a different animal than the regular season. The pressure is enormous, the competition is fierce and there is little margin for error.
This is the first go round in the Stanley Cup playoffs for McDavid, Draisaitl, Matthews, Marner and Nylander. For all their talent and acclaim, it will be interesting to see how they respond to the bright, white lights of the postseason stage.
- Will the Pittsburgh Penguins repeat as champs?
No team has turned the feat since the Red Wings won consecutive titles in 1997 and 1998. The Pens are led by the incomparable Sidney Crosby who had perhaps his most complete season ever—and that’s saying something—leading the league in goals with 44 and finishing second behind McDavid in the scoring race with 89 points.
But defense wins championships and the Penguins are missing a key component of the blue line.
Defenseman Kris Letang is gone for the playoffs, out with a herniated disk in his neck and his loss is enormous. Letang plays in all situations, up a goal, down a goal, power play, penalty kill, late in the game, etc., and he can’t be replaced. GM Jimmy Rutherford traded for veteran defensemen Ron Hainsey and Mark Streit near the end of the season and they can partially fill the void. But only partially.
It won’t be easy for Pitt.
- How will the Rangers do?
It’s a good question. The Rangers had a very good year, finishing with 102 points, but that put them only fourth in the Metropolitan Division, the best division in the NHL. That gave New York the top wild-card spot in the playoffs and, under the NHL’s playoff qualification rules, moved them out of the Metro bracket into a crossover matchup against the Atlantic Division champion, the Montreal Canadians.
While the Canadians don’t offer much of an offensive threat, the Rangers defense is a weak link so Henrik Lundqvist will have to outduel Montreal’s Carey Price in goal for the Rangers to move on to the Eastern Conference semifinals.
- Can Chicago win its fourth Stanley Cup in eight years?
The Blackhawks won in 2010, 2013 and 2015 so maybe they can win another odd-numbered year title.
Chicago has all the ingredients: an outstanding coach (Joel Quenneville), a workhorse defenseman (Duncan Keith), a good goalie (Corey Crawford) and three great forwards (Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Artemi Panarin). The Blackhawks flew a bit under the radar this year but put it all together down the stretch to finish with the best record in the Western Conference.
There’s no reason that Chicago shouldn’t come out of the West except that Anaheim has many of the same qualities as the Blackhawks and will be a formidable opponent should they meet in the conference finals.
There will be many twists and turns before the championship is decided. Though the loss of Letang will be hard to overcome, I think Crosby will carry the Penguins to the Stanley Cup.
photos: hhof.com (Stanley Cup); nhl.com (Alex Ovechkin); sportsnet.ca (Connor McDavid); foxnews.com (Sidney Crosby); cbssports.com (Jonathan Toews)
image: nhl.com (NY Rangers shield)