In the final weeks of the regular season, New York Rangers coach Alain Vigneault talked to plenty of colleagues around the NHL and came away with a consensus about these Stanley Cup playoffs.
“Everybody’s sort of got the same theme: Pick your poison,” Vigneault said recently at Madison Square Garden. “Any one of the 16 teams that gets in has really a legitimate chance of winning the Cup, they do. There’s so little separating teams.”
The defending-champion Los Angeles Kings and defending Presidents’ Trophy-winning Boston Bruins didn’t make it. There are seven new teams going for the Cup in 2015 that didn’t qualify a year ago.
Put it all together and this is the most wide-open, unpredictable NHL post-season in recent history.
“Can you sit here and honestly pick the four teams that are going to play in the conference finals? I can’t,” St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said last month in Toronto. “This is the first time in my life I can’t honestly pick anybody that you’d say, ‘Man this team is for sure a lock,’ because it’s just so close.”
Montreal Canadiens forward Brendan Gallagher called it “nuts.”
“It’s pretty hard to believe, actually,” he said. “It’s great for the league, it’s great for the game.”
The name of the game is parity, something commissioner Gary Bettman touts as one of the strengths of the league in the salary-cap era. Seven different teams have won in the nine seasons since the cap was instituted, with the Kings and Chicago Blackhawks the only ones to do it twice.
With Patrick Kane back early from a broken clavicle, the Blackhawks have to be considered one of the favourites, especially given their wealth of depth and playoff experience. But Chicago doesn’t even have home ice in the first round against the Nashville Predators, and those teams are part of a brutal Central Division bracket with the Blues and red-hot Minnesota Wild.
“The way Minnesota’s playing now, they can knock out any team in the league,” Blackhawks defenceman Niklas Hjalmarsson told reporters in Chicago last week.
Only one of St. Louis, Chicago, Nashville and Minnesota can reach the Western Conference final. Any of those teams could then win the Cup, but the start may be just as difficult.
“It doesn’t really matter who you play in the first round,” Hjalmarsson said. “All the teams are so even now with the salary cap. The first round is probably going to feel like a conference final, every single matchup.”
Out West, the Jets are in the playoffs for the first time since moving to Winnipeg and open against the conference’s top seed, the Anaheim Ducks.
The fearless Calgary Flames face the more experienced Vancouver Canucks in one of two all-Canadian series.
“We feel just lucky to be here, but at the same time, we’re not backing off from any challenges,” Flames coach Bob Hartley said Monday. “That’s in our DNA.”
The Canadiens, armed with all-world goaltender Carey Price, face Andrew Hammond and the Ottawa Senators in the other all-Canadian matchup. Montreal hasn’t matched up well against Ottawa recently, but players said they’re not worried about that.
“The playoffs, it’s a new game,” forward Lars Eller said. “It’s 50/50. We’ve seen so many times in the past that records in the regular season don’t necessarily mean a lot. We kind of come in with a fresh mind-set, but at the same time understanding what made us successful during the regular season.”
No team had more regular-season success than the Presidents’ Trophy-winning New York Rangers, who open up against Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins. Pittsburgh needed to win on the last day of the season just to get in.
The Senators needed that, too, after becoming the first team in NHL history to be 14 points back of a playoff spot at any point to get in. The winner of their series will face the winner of the other Atlantic Division matchup, the Tampa Bay Lightning against the Detroit Red Wings.
In the other Metropolitan Division series, the Washington Capitals face the New York Islanders for the first time since 1993. Capitals first-year general manager Brian MacLellan told reporters Monday outside Washington that he believed this team is more suited to win in the playoffs than in the past.
So many teams can say that, making it anyone’s Cup to win.
“You look at the route to the Stanley Cup and the teams, it seems like the league’s more balanced than it’s been in a long, long time,” Canadiens defenceman P.K. Subban said. “Everybody’s got a chance.”
— With files from Donna Spencer in Calgary