This might be merely a coincidence, but the past three Stanley Cup champions appear to be ramping up their game just in time for the 2009 post-season.
Detroit, the defending champ, has won five of its past seven games, while Anaheim (2007) has won five of six and Carolina (2006) six in a row.
The Hurricanes are especially hot, posting a 14-3-2 mark dating back to mid-February – and the three regulation-time losses came at the hands of non-playoff teams (Atlanta, Dallas and Ottawa). The streaking Canes needed a big finish to qualify for the post-season and they’ve been rewarded for their strong play down the stretch with a relatively pressure-free situation for the final two weeks of their schedule.
Carolina isn’t going to catch Washington for the Southeast Division title – and the top three seed in the East that comes with it – but they’re a good bet to finish in the No. 4-to-6 range; more importantly, the Hurricanes should head into the playoffs with as much confidence as they’ve had all year. And, considering the Canes have a raft of players from their ’06 Cup – including Conn Smythe-winning goalie Cam Ward, who’s had his best regular season to date; and, Erik Cole, back on Eric Staal’s line after an ill-advised Oilers stint – Carolina is the type of team that, like in 2006, could quietly sneak through and win it all.
Anaheim, meanwhile, appeared to have given up on the season at the NHL trade deadline, dispatching veterans who helped grease the gears for the ’07 Cup in exchange for prospects and draft picks. But as soon as the Ducks got younger and more inexperienced, they got hot, too. (Well, it took a couple games for the new teammates to gel, but they’ve been soaring ever since.) The Ducks still aren’t a lock to make the playoffs, but they control their own fate.
And, yes, if they do get in, they’ll probably have to face top-seeded Detroit or San Jose in the first round; tough teams to upset, to be sure. Goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere’s play has been sub-par this season, too, far from his superlative performances in recent playoffs. But with Scott Niedermayer, Chris Pronger, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Teemu Selanne leading the way, the Ducks cannot be discounted.
Then there’s Detroit. Of course the Red Wings are red-hot; they’ve been that way all season long. Heck, they’ve been that way since Chris Chelios was a Canadien. Detroit recently became the first team in NHL history to record nine consecutive 100-plus point campaigns and, assuming they’re able to reload at the goaltending position, the Wings show no signs of slowing down.
The only worry in Motown this season has been Chris Osgood’s unimpressive play. Detroit’s Osgood-Ty Conklin tandem in goal could be the team’s Achilles’ heel, but GM Ken Holland – an old goalie himself – is playing a hunch that, like last year, Osgood will rise up when it matters most. It’s a gamble, but one the salary-capped Wings were virtually forced to make. No netminder in the 2009 playoffs has won more Stanley Cups than Osgood’s three (two as a starter), but of course Martin Brodeur has three as well.
Meanwhile, what about the Tampa Bay Lightning, the NHL’s 2004 Stanley Cup champion? Unlike the past three Cup winners, the Bolts are headed in the opposite direction. Tampa has three wins in its past 12 games and just five victories since Valentine’s Day (insert your own massacre joke here). The good news is, Swedish defenseman Victor Hedman – think, a bigger version of Chris Pronger – will likely be available for whichever team drafts second overall. (The New York Islanders, desperate for offense, will surely snag John Tavares with the No. 1 pick, assuming the last-place Isles don’t lose the spot in the lottery. That leaves Hedman for Tampa, which is desperate for defense.)
And who knows what might happen in ’09-10? The Bolts have a fine selection of forwards (Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St-Louis, Ryan Malone and rookie Steven Stamkos) and have solidified their goaltending with starter Mike Smith (out for the rest of the season) and Karri Ramo looking like they can carry the load for the foreseeable future.
It’s no secret the defense corps – or lack thereof – needs to be revamped and fast. The huge Hedman (6-foot-7, 235 pounds), even more than Tavares, is the prospect who could most help the Bolts. With a couple of key blueline additions, Tampa might turn it around in a hurry, the way Philadelphia did last season.
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