With the NHL season almost upon us and the thoughts of hockey fans once more turning to their beloved frozen sport I thought I’d look ahead and try to predict which teams would be the greatest threat to win the Stanley Cup in 2011. Though, because of the salary cap, there is more parity in the NHL than ever before there are a few teams that have separated themselves from the pack. Though they lost out in the quarterfinals last year to the Chicago Blackhawks, the Nucks actually might have been one mental lapse away from taking home the cup themselves last year. After beating the Blackhawks handily in Chicago in game one of last year’s playoff series, they also flirted with victory in game two. A breakdown on a Vancouver powerplay led to a momentum-swinging shorthanded goal for the Hawks, who would go on to win the game. As it turned out that momentum swing was bigger than it first seemed.
Had the Nucks held on to win that game, there is a strong possibility they would have held on to win the series. San Jose and Philadelphia both would have presented challenges, but I believe last year’s Vancouver Canucks were good enough to beat both those teams. This year they may be even stronger. With the off-season acquisitions of Dan Hamhuis and Keith Ballard the Canucks now boast the deepest blueline in the league. Henrik Sedin should against challenge for the Art Ross Trophy as the league’s leading scorer, and one of his main challengers may very well be his brother Daniel, who would have been up near the top last year if not for a long layoff due to injury. Ryan Kesler and Alex Burrows should provide plenty of secondary scoring punch, and if Mikael Samuelsson can continue to score at the surprising clip he did last year then offense should be no problem for the Canucks. The biggest key to whether or not the Canucks hoist the Stanley Cup next year lies between the pipes.
Will this finally be Ovie’s year?
Will this finally be Ovie’s year?
Roberto Luongo has been one of the NHL’s premier goaltenders through much of the past decade. If he can find his top form during next spring’s playoff run the Canucks will be a very tough team for anyone to beat. It is a make or break year for Luongo. If he has another average performance in the post-season he may find himself in greener pastures, with back-up Cory Schneider stepping up to the number one job. Will this finally be Ovie’s year? Ovechkin has been a regular season dynamo, tearing up the league with his pedal to the medal physical style and his superlative shooting ability. He has been arguably the most dominant player in the league over the past five years, and his supporting cast of Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green, and Alexander Semin hasn’t been too shabby either. However, despite the fact that the Caps are laden with all that talent, they’ve failed to advance beyond the second round of the playoffs during Ovechkin’s tenure there. Three times they’ve bowed out in game sevens over the past three seasons, losing to the Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Montreal Canadiens respectively.
In all fairness to the Caps they deserved a better fate against the Habs last year. They dominated them from start to finish in the series, but a goaltending performance for the ages by Jaroslav Halak kept them from ushering the Canadiens out of the playoffs in short order, and when the dust settled on game seven, the Habs were moving on to face the Penguins and the Caps were cleaning out their lockers for the season. It is said that every great team must first face adversity before becoming champions. The Capitals have faced their fair share and then some. A year older, wiser and hungrier the Capitals are going to be a force to be reckoned with this season. They should roll through the Eastern Conference, and will be a handful for whichever Western Conference team meets them in the finals. When they take to the ice for the 2010-11 season the Chicago Blackhawks will be a vastly different team than the one that hoisted the Stanley Cup a few short months ago.