The San Jose Sharks are already home for the summer, left to admire the Presidents’ Trophy that honours a stellar regular season but now also magnifies another empty post-season.
The top seed in the Western Conference couldn’t get out of the first round, and the Sharks might soon have another powerhouse or two joining them on the sidelines. Boston and Washington, the top two seeds in the East, have already faced elimination and are hardly shoo-ins to get to the NHL’s final four, either.
Washington forced a Game 7 in the East semifinals by beating Pittsburgh 5-4 in overtime on Monday night.
Call it May Madness.
“It is unpredictable,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said. “What I believe – both in the regular season and the playoffs – a sports league should give its fans is hope, uncertainty, so that there’s a reason to really want to get involved and root and see what’s going to happen.
“That uncertainty and unpredictability has made for a series of great seasons for us that have gotten better and better and give us a point today where these playoffs are pretty unpredictable.”
San Jose is hardly alone in flaming out after posting the NHL’s best regular-season record.
Starting with the 1994-95 season, only four of 14 Presidents’ Trophy winners have also captured the Stanley Cup. Detroit in 1995 was the only club in that group to reach the finals and lose.
The Red Wings have had the top record six times in that span and won the Cup twice, including last year.
Since the NHL developed the format in 1994 of seeding the eight playoffs teams by conference, eight No. 8 seeds won at least one playoff series and 14 No. 7 seeds have advanced.
Of the four teams that earned No. 1 or No. 2 seeds in this year’s playoffs, only the Red Wings reached the three-win mark through five games of the second round.
But even the defending champions had their anxious moments as they trailed the upstart and No. 8 seed Anaheim Ducks 2-1 in games, and fell behind early in Game 4 before taking a 3-2 series lead.
Now they’re poised to get back to the Western Conference finals and can advance as early as Tuesday night. If they drop Game 6 on the road, they host Game 7 Thursday.
“I think we’ve got the players that have been there before,” Red Wings forward Dan Cleary said. “Everybody’s been there … and knows what the situation is going to be, know how intense that Game 6 is going to be.
“Anaheim, they’ve got players that have been there, know what it takes, know what they’ve got to do, so we’ve got to match it.”
That is the key.
The standings say the Ducks are the eighth seed in the West, and the team with the worst chance to get to the second round. The reality is Anaheim is only two seasons away from a Stanley Cup title, and the Ducks used that experience against the Sharks – who have yet to make a deep post-season run despite a roster full of stars.
“I think the first round is often the most difficult because you’ve got teams that have just been scratching and crawling just to get in, playing against teams that normally have played well and maybe haven’t had to be humming on all cylinders just to get into the playoffs,” Sharks general manager Doug Wilson said Monday night in a phone interview.
“We were playing against a team that won a Stanley Cup two years ago,” he added. “It’s a team we respect immensely. We still feel if we had played our game … we don’t think we played well enough in several areas to win.”
With a core headed by stalwart defencemen Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger, Anaheim is capable of digging out of a 2-3 hole against the veteran-laden Red Wings.
“For some reason, we just didn’t engage ourselves emotionally,” Ducks forward Todd Marchant said. “The bright side is we’ve got the chance to redeem ourselves on Tuesday and even the series.”
Long playoff runs by teams that barely got in is nothing new.
The 2006 Edmonton Oilers took out the top-seeded Red Wings in the first round and got all the way to the Stanley Cup final.
Two years earlier, in the season before the lockout, the Calgary Flames made their run to the championship round as a No. 6 seed – also eliminating a top-seeded Detroit team along the way.
Detroit got through the first round easily this year, sweeping Columbus. The Sharks dropped the opening two games to Anaheim and were gone in six.
Boston, the top-seeded team in the East, also swept its first-round series against Montreal before running into trouble against No. 6 Carolina. The Hurricanes advanced out of the first round with a shocking comeback in Game 7 at No. 3 New Jersey.
Carolina built a 3-1 lead over the Bruins, who stayed alive with a 4-0 home win on Sunday. Boston will have to win on the road on Tuesday to get back home for Game 7.
No. 2-seeded Washington escaped from a 3-1 hole in the opening round against the No. 7 New York Rangers, and led Pittsburgh 2-0 in the conference semis. But three straight losses to Sidney Crosby and the Penguins left Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals on the brink of elimination again.
“The best team won. They were a better team than us,” Rangers coach John Tortorella said of the Capitals. “Do you find ways to upset teams? Yeah. When you’re an underdog, there are always upsets. We had our opportunity.”