The NHL Playoffs start Wednesday night, kicking off one of the most intense, physical and fun competitions in sports. For the uninitiated, we prepared a guide to the teams vying for the Stanley Cup with recognizable faces from the Olympics.
Playoff hockey is more exciting than just about anything, from filing your taxes to playoff football to sex, probably. Unfortunately, hockey, at least at an every day professional level, is woefully underwatched in the U.S. because finding the NBC Sports Network on your cable guide used to be difficult, to put it politely. But it is much more widely available now, and many more people signed up after the winter Olympics, that wonderful celebration of worldly competition, when we all followed hockey so intently. Now NHL competition is ramping up, but new fans who discovered stick and puck during the Olympics have no idea who they should root for, and that is where we come in. You have heroes already but no unifying national jersey to rally around. Let us be your guide to Olympics heroes of the past, competing for the best trophy in sports in the present.
Some teams are undeserving of your love and affection, though. The Colorado Avalanche missed the playoffs last year, only to finish at the top of the stacked Western conference this year; their young, untested roster will kill their playoff hopes early. The Detroit Red Wings have made the post-season for the last 23 years, almost as long as I have been alive, and sent ten players to Sochi, but that does not mean they will survive the first round. A handful of Russian Olympians play for the plucky Columbus Blue Jackets, a sexy Cinderella pick, but Russia did not play well enough for you to learn their names. The Minnesota Wild, Dallas Stars and Tampa Bay Lightning don't have reasonable hopes in hell of contending. Here now are your surefire favorites to win the Stanley Cup, with GIFs, and Olympians.
The Penguins are stacked from the top down offensively, and it all begins and ends with Sidney Crosby, Canada's Golden Boy. He scored the gold medal-winning goal, again, because that is what he does. His speed, decision-making ability and on-ice vision are unparalleled across the league. He will be a unanimous MVP, again, when this season's final awards shake out.
The other big Olympian on the Penguins roster is Russia's Evegni Malkin. The Russian squad accomplished little at the Olympics, despite Putin's best wishes, and Malkin especially was absent out there. But in the NHL he is an absolute beast who does things like regularly. Beware Malkin when he has even a tiny bit of open space ahead of him. He splits defensemen like banana peels. Malkin also has one of the most precise sticks in the league; looking at the net is for suckers.
Otherwise, many believe the Penguins' goaltending and coaching will make or break their playoff hopes. Marc Andre Fleury is not the most reliable netminder in the league, despite a Stanley Cup ring on his resume. And after the U.S. team collapsed late in the Olympics, doubts circle coach Dan Bylsma's abilities to make late adjustments in the middle of a playoff series and rally his players. They are a strong team with breaks in the armor that leaves them vulnerable for an upsets.
New York Rangers
The Rangers had a rocky season, and as a fan, my feelings about their playoffs hopes resemble something like this. Asking me for reasonable analysis about this team is like asking a dog for insight into the life of a cat. Rick Nash played on Canada's Olympic team and does stuff like this when he is so inclined. Derek Stepan had one of his best seasons after suiting up for U.S.A. hockey. But forwards Mats Zuccarello and Carl Hagelin, of Norway and Sweden respectively, have some of the best hair in hockey and will be offensive X-factors for the Rangers.
But everything lies with beautiful Swedish human Henrik Lundqvist, the franchise goaltender. If the defense does not play ahead of him, and he does not play to his usual other-worldly level, the Rangers have no chance of winning the Cup.
Canada's medal hopes fell to the same person who will be counted on to bring the Stanley Cup back to its northern home for the first time in over 20 years: goaltender Carey Price. He was solid at the Olympics, but he has battled injuries over the last few weeks. Whether or not he stays healthy will greatly influence the Canadiens chances. Besides all that, he is one of the best goalies in the NHL.
The Bruins are the best team in the NHL and a favorite to win the Stanley Cup. If anyone debates these facts, you have my permission to call them an idiot to their face. The Bruins sent only five players to Olympics, but that does not matter, because they have one of the most balanced rosters in the NHL. The Bruins offense this year was led by two Olympians: David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron, of the Czech Republic and Canada respectively.
The team's defensive leader, Zdeno Chara, should be known as the friendly Slovakian giant. Some argue Chara should regularly win the NHL's Lady Byng award, given to the player who demonstrates the most gentlemanly conduct on the ice, because, if he was so inclined, he could flatten opposing players without breaking stride. His slapshots can rip a person in half. Thankfully he is one of the nicest, most thoughful players in the league. We are all thankful for that, but no one is more grateful than bronze medal-winning Finnish goalie Tukka Rask.
San Jose Sharks
The Sharks are the perennial bridesmaid. A team that has made the playoffs so consistently over the last ten years, with strong teams, and yet fate deals them a bad hand every single time. Lots of smart hockey people believe this is the year, finally. But lots of smart hockey people believe that every year the Sharks make post-season, and the results are always the same. Sharks forwards Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski were their two most prominent Olympians, playing for Canada and the U.S. respectively, and the Sharks offense will look to them for goals against the tough Western conference teams.
The Sharks will also look to veteran leaders like Joe Thorton, who was left off Canada's Olympic team, perhaps unfairly, and 20-year-old rookie Tomas Hertl, who was injured and left off the Czech Republic's team, to bolster their offense.
The Kings are a talented team who play well offensively and defensively and are only two years removed from winning a Stanley Cup. Most of the pieces that won a title in 2012 are still here, too, and all of them played major roles on Olympic teams: defensemen Drew Doughty (Canada), forward Jeff Carter (Canada), forward Anze Kopitar (Slovenia), goaltender Jonathan Quick (United States), and team captain Dustin Brown (United States). Doughty was dynamite for Canada. He scored at will and is without question one of the best defensemen in the league. Few goaltenders play as well in the post season as Jonathan Quick. Kopitar is one of the league's premier goal scorers. No one would be shocked if the Kings won another Cup, solidifying a legitimate dynasty, except for one thing.
The Kings play the Sharks in the first round, in what might be the most anticipated series of the playoffs. The matchup could be a Western Conference final but somehow, thanks to the hockey gods, we are getting it in the first round. The two teams hate each other: the Kings eliminated San Jose in round two last year after a hard-fought seven game series, but the rivalry turned for the worse this season when Dustin Brown injured the Sharks' rookie sensation Tomas Hertl in December. If you are still reading and unsure whether you should watch playoff hockey, give this series a shot. You do not want to miss this series.
The defending champions sent ten players to Sochi, and with good reason. Chicago counts some of the most talented players in the world, defensively and offensively, and they could win another championship with this roster. If not this year, then next. Team captain Jonathan Toews, forward Patrick Sharp and defensemen Duncan Keith all played solid hockey for Canada during the Olympics, and routinely help the Blackhawks win every night. Toews will probably win the Selke award this year, given to the NHL's forward who plays the best defense. When he also scores 28 goals and 40 points in a season, you understand why people believe he is the second best player in the NHL behind Crosby.
And then there is Patrick Kane, who played so well for U.S.A. hockey in 2010, but disappeared in Sochi. No matter. He still bursts with a natural talent for putting the puck in the net, and the Blackhawks will need him to come through. But Sharp led the team in scoring this year, and the race was not close. He played out of his mind for Canada and continued that streak back on North American soil. Blackhawks fans better hope he does not run out of gas. (Note: Patrick Sharp is dreamy, if that interests you.)
The Ducks have two of Canada's top-performing forwards from the Olympics: Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf. The two were paired together throughout the tournament because of how well they know each other's game, and that coaching decision paid dividends for Canada.
But the "Finnish Flash" is the real reason everyone should root for Anahiem. Teemu Selanne retires this season, allegedly, after 25 years playing professional hockey. He announced before the season this would be his last campaign, and, with a nod to Mariano Rivera, embarked on a goodbye tour around the league. At the end of his final regular season home game in Anaheim, where he has played most of his career, the Ducks awarded Selanne all three stars, and the arena stood and clapped for his years of service. Selanne can still go, and lots of people, myself included, wish the 43-year-old would stick around #forever, literally. But Teemu knew he was not the only player in the building retiring that night: Jean-Sebastien Giguere won a Stanley Cup with Anaheim in 2006, and now plays back-up for Colorado. Teemu embraced his former teammate and saluted the Ducks faithful one last time. A lap around the ice with an arena going bonkers — a legend and a journeyman, together. That is the kind of player Teemu is. Gimme like twenty minutes and I'll be composed again. I promise.
St. Louis Blues
In all, the Blues had nine Olympians on the roster in February, the second most of any team besides Chicago and Detroit, who tied with ten Olympians apiece. Their two breakout stars arguably made the biggest splash of any players on skates during the Olympics, though. Blues captain David Backes was one of the U.S. squad's strongest players, coming second in scoring behind the Toronto Maple Leaf's Phil Kessel, who is probably drunk on a golf course somewhere right now. Backes had a strong NHL season, pocketing 27 goals and 57 points, but he will have to lead a struggling Blues squad past the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks in the first round; the Blues lost their last six games of the regular season.
But Backes cannot do it all himself. He will need help from Alexander Steen, the Blues' leading scorer and an anchor for the silver medal-winning Swedish team. Here, Steen scores while fighting through some truly uncomfortable defense.
But St. Louis also boasts the one true American hockey hero on their squad. After failing to medal, the high point of the tournament for U.S.A. hockey was clearly the shootout win over the Russians during the round robin, when T.J. Oshie, the shootout specialist, scored six goals to put away the host country. I have watched this GIF a million times and I could watch it a million times more. It never gets old.