Last night marked the end of the first NHL season since the strike/lockout of 2004-2005. The Stanley Cup playoffs — arguably the most exciting tournament in sports — begin Friday night, but will anybody be watching, other than Don Cherry and Barry Melrose?
While attendance was up in 75% of NHL arenas this season, the sport continues to struggle to attract new fans. The league has slipped to No. 5 in popularity for many, behind the NFL, NBA, MLB and NASCAR.
The Good Old Days
Back in the days when the NHL was on national TV two or three nights a week, it was easy to get into the game. There were always great players and great teams to keep us interested. The rivalry between the Bruins and Canadiens in the ’70s was as intense as the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry is now. Wayne Gretzky and the great Edmonton teams of the ’80s were amazing to watch, and Mario Lemieux’s dominance and Mark Messier’s resurrection of the New York Rangers kept us going through the ’90s.
There are a host of young players today who should be garnering our accolades, but because of a lack of exposure and poor marketing by the league, these would-be household names are after-thoughts in the sports world. We all know Jaromir Jagr, Joe Sakic and Teemu Selanne, but how many of us know Eric Staal (100 points), Ilya Kovalchuk (52 goals) and Brian Gionta (46 goals)?
Some amazing accomplishments were achieved this season, including the Detroit Red Wings’ astounding 124 points (fifth-best total in league history), rookies Sidney Crosby of the Penguins and Alexander Ovechkin of the Capitals both topping the 100-point mark, and Jonathan Cheechoo becoming the first Native American (called First Nations people in his native Canada) to win the goal-scoring title with 56.
There’s one group of fans that is interested in just about every game in every sport — the gamblers. Hockey traditionally has been a great sport to bet on, especially early in the season. The oddsmakers often have a hard time handicapping the sport that they are not that familiar with, leaving gamblers plenty of opportunity for easy money. With that in mind, here is how the first round of the NHL playoffs shapes up in this gambler’s mind:
Detroit and Dallas are in familiar positions atop the Western Conference standings. The Red Wings, who became the first team in 10 years to go through an entire season without being shutout, should score early and often as they dismantle the Edmonton Oilers in the first round. Detroit wins in a sweep.
Colorado is always a tough out, but the Avalanche dropped 3 straight and 4 of their last 5 to end the season. The Stars’ stingy defense will be the difference in a low-scoring series. Dallas wins 4 games to 1.
Calgary with probable Vezina Trophy winner Miikka Kiprusoff in net should have no problem eliminating Anaheim in 6 games.
The other first-round Western Conference matchup may be the best of all. Nashville finished the season winning 6 straight, including the season finale vs. Detroit, and posted the league’s best home record at 32-8-1. San Jose features Hart Trophy candidate and the league’s leading scorer Joe Thornton, along with the aforementioned Cheechoo. Look for a high-scoring, entertaining series with the Sharks winning a seventh game in Nashville.
Champs Still Alive
Over in the Eastern Conference, the defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning staved off late charges from Toronto and Atlanta to grab the eighth spot. The champs face multiple-time first-round loser Ottawa to begin their defense of the title, and the Senators are ripe for an upset again. Ottawa limped into the playoffs, finishing 2-4-2 in its last 8 games. The loss of Dominik Hasek hasn’t helped, either. Tampa wins 4 games to 2.
Carolina, despite being shutout in its last game and dropping to the No. 2 seed, should be tough to beat. Montreal’s rookie goalie Cristobal Huet came out of nowhere to post an impressive 2.14 GAA and a league-leading .930 save percentage. He will have a tough task in trying to slow down the Hurricanes’ high-scoring offense. Carolina advances in 7.
The Rangers-Devils should be a fun one for the New York fans. New Jersey is the hottest team in the league. The Devils scored 3 goals in the third period to complete a 4-3 comeback last night against the Canadiens for their 11th straight victory. The win clinched the Atlantic Division for New Jersey, which trailed Philadelphia by 19 points on Jan. 6. With momentum and experience on their side, the Devils will hold down Jagr and eliminate New York in 5 games.
The last first-round series features the upstart Buffalo Sabres vs. the Philadelphia Flyers, who have to be disappointed that they did not hold on to win the division. The key to this series will be the health of Flyers star center Peter Forsberg. If he can make it through the entire series, Philly has a chance, but Buffalo’s hard-hitting defense won’t make it easy for him. Buffalo wins in 7.
Whatever the outcome, I’m looking forward to watching some great playoff hockey. Nothing matches the intensity of sudden death overtime or the elation and pain of a seventh game.