The pressure is on
By Josh Martin, Sports Editor
While it may seem like the season is just getting started—just like that—we find ourselves in the final few games of the shortened regular season, on the cusp of enjoying some playoff hockey. Here’s a look at several favourable teams and surprises heading into the 2013 NHL playoffs.
The Pittsburgh Penguins are the clear number-one favourites heading into the post-season with the likes of late-season acquisitions star forwards Jarome Iginla, and Brenden Morrow as well as Jussi Jokinen and defensemen Douglas Murray joining the already star-studded cast of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Pascal Dupuis, Chris Kunitz, James Neal, and Kris Letang. This team was already dominating the Eastern Conference before they acquired the aforementioned players, but now they look as if they’re a bona fide all-star team. Anything short of a Stanley Cup this year will be a disappointment for the Penguins, who are first overall in the East and second overall in the NHL behind the Chicago Blackhawks. However, with recent injuries to Crosby—who suffered a broken jaw after a slapshot from teammate Brooks Orpik hit him in the face—Neal, Letang, and defensemen Paul Martin, the trade acquisitions are coming up more useful than mere depth players that they were expected to be.
Luckily for the Penguins, Crosby is expected to be back before the playoffs, as well as Letang.
As of last Sunday, the Chicago Blackhawks are the first team in the league to clinch a playoff berth. The team that started the season with a sensational run of gaining at least one point in a 24-game period have not let off the gas pedal since. The Blackhawks are currently the number one overall team in the NHL, with only five regulation losses and an impressive 30–5–4 record.
With only a handful of games left, it looks as though the Blackhawks will capture the Presidents’ Trophy as the team that amasses the most points in the regular season. But looking back in the past four years, the Trophy winners have all come up short, not even making it past the first round of the playoffs (with the exception of the Vancouver Canucks, who lost in the Cup finals against the Bruins two years ago.)
All eyes will be on the Blackhawks in the West to make a deep playoff push, especially if they finish first overall in the regular season. It’s theirs to lose, and that has proven to be a decision maker in the past several years.
It looks as though this will be the first year since 2004 that the Toronto Maple Leafs will be making a post-season appearance. Maple Leaf nation has gone nine miserable years without cheering for their team in the months of May and June. But that will soon come to an end if all goes well, as they sit in fifth position in the Eastern Conference with a 22–13–5 record and 49 points with eight games remaining in the regular season. Just being in the playoffs is a huge accomplishment for Toronto, who could possibly fly under the radar for a deep playoff push.
With Nazem Kadri having a spectacular breakout year (17 goals, 23 assists, 40 points), Phil Kessel leading the way (14 goals, 26 assists, 40 points), and goaltenders James Reimer and Ben Scrivens playing solid between-the-pipes, Maple Leafs fans finally have a team worth getting excited about.
The Montreal Canadiens have possibly had the biggest turnaround year in the NHL. After finishing last in the Eastern Conference last season with a terrible 31–35–16 record and 78 points in 82 games, the Canadiens have played like a team possessed, going 25–9–5 in 39 games while collecting 55 points.
Rookie GM Marc Bergevin, who was hired last May by Montreal, is looking like the favourable candidate for GM of the year after taking a risk in hiring the former Canadiens head coach Michel Therrien to a second stint with the team—which has evidently paid off. He also locked up goalie Carey Price, winger Max Pacioretty, and juggernaut defencemen P.K. Subban for several more years. The Canadiens are one of the top teams that have emerged in the East behind the Conference-leading Penguins heading into the Playoffs.
Last but not least, the Ottawa Senators have had a truly remarkable season. Despite devastating injuries to superstar defensemen Erik Karlsson and sniper Jason Spezza, they have played exceptionally well going 19–14–6 with 44 points in 39 games so far this season. They are sixth in the East, with the New York Islanders, and New York Rangers knocking at the door with 44 points apiece, sitting at seventh and eighth place respectively. On the upside, Karlsson has been skating with the team as of late and may return within the next month, depending on whether or not the Senators make the playoffs. If they do and Karlsson returns, he will provide a huge boost in the Senators lineup next month, which will increase the chances of this underdog team putting up a fight against the beasts of the East.