By Neil Becker
Speaking as a die-hard hockey fan, there is nothing quite like that ultimate thrill of watching the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The playoffs, which are a gruelling two-month marathon, tests player's stamina, pain threshold, mental toughness, and overall hunger, as they battle approximately once every two nights in hopes of eventually earning that right to proudly lift the Stanley Cup.
Post-season is like Christmas to this die-hard fan. It's when I, along with millions of Canadian fans from coast to coast, buckle up and get ready for the ultimate rush of watching playoff hockey from afternoon to well into the evening.
Recently, it was announced that this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs marathon would kick off on Saturday, May 15th, with the Boston Bruins taking on the Washington Capitals.
As all hockey fans know, four teams from the North, East, Central and West Divisions qualify for playoffs. In the big picture, that means 16 out of the 31 NHL teams still have a chance, following regular season play, to compete for the opportunity to be called Stanley Cup Champions.
Hockey commentators, general managers and players alike have often referred to the Stanley Cup as the hardest trophy to win. This is the time of year when players demonstrate their courage and high pain thresholds by competing with major injuries, which would keep them out regular season games.
The playoff format consists of teams competing in a gruelling best of four out of seven series. Over the approximate eight-week span, teams go through the enormous grind of trying to win what adds up to four series in order to fulfill every hockey player’s dream of lifting the cup.
Once the Stanley Cup is won, my personal favourite scene is the first official Stanley Cup handoff. This emotional historic scene occurs right after the enthusiastic team captain accepts Lord Stanley from the league commissioner, where he then hoists the trophy and gives it a big smooch before passing it onto a teammate.
Over the years, there have been quite a few emotional and historical scenes that have played out. Back in 1987, when following a thrilling Edmonton Oilers 3-1 Game 7 Stanley Cup clinching win, team captain Wayne Gretzky accepted and kissed Lord Stanley before handing it off to his excited teammate, defenceman Steve Smith. What made this first handoff so special and emotional was that Smith had been devasted and in tears a year earlier after accidentally putting the puck in his own net, proving costly in a Game 7 Smythe Division finals loss against their Alberta rivals, the Calgary Flames.
Needless to say, this handoff was just one of several past historical Stanley Cup playoffs sentimental moments.
Another sentimental moment, which is also among my favourites, took place on a hot June night in 2007. In his first Stanley Cup win, Anaheim Ducks captain Scott Niedermayer hoisted the cup for the fourth time in his career before handing it off to his brother Rob.
This historical hockey event took place in Game 5 when the Anaheim Ducks defeated the Ottawa Senators at home by a score of 6-2 to clinch the franchise's first Stanley Cup.
"He grabbed it and he gave it to his brother, but that is what brothers do; they help each other out," Ducks forward Corey Perry told NHL.com
Naturally, when teams play pre-season games followed by 82 regular season matches and playoffs, a strong bond forms between teammates. Of course, not all players will get along perfectly, but there is that respect and admiration players have for one another.
Personally, my favourite historic Stanley Cup hand-off scene, which left me with a lump in my throat, took place on June 9, 2001, when after 22 years of playing, Ray Bourque finally got to lift the Stanley Cup.
The historical moment, which has gone down in Stanley Cup lore, is a favourite memory of mine. Avalanche Captain Joe Sakic registered perhaps his most famous assist when after accepting the Stanley Cup from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, he immediately passed it to a smiling Bourque, who on this occasion became the first to hoist and kiss the Cup proudly.
This moment, which would be Bourque’s final game, occurred after Colorado defeated the New Jersey Devils 3-1 in Game 7.
The beautiful things about playoffs are the sentimental stories that are written and the images of sportsmanship they create.
Prior to the post-season, a strong passion among hockey fans is to join a playoff pool, hoping to draft a team that will win them some money.
In the days leading up to playoffs, fans often debate with colleagues, family members, friends, or on online chats about which team will triumph in winning the Stanley Cup.
Presently, there is so much parody in the league; this means a strong case could be made for a handful of teams who have a chance to capture Lord Stanley.
Once again, the favourite to capture the Stanley Cup has to be the defending champions Tampa Bay Lightning.
Following an average season that saw them finish third in the Central Division with a 36-17-3 record, they received a monumental lift when it became official that power forward Nikita Kucherov would be back after missing the entire campaign due to injury.
Back in the 2018-2019 season, Kucherov had a season to remember as he dominated by scoring 41 goals and 128 points. That year, he was the recipient of the Ted Lindsay Award, Hart Trophy and Art Ross Trophy for leading the league in points.
This is a well-rested Kucherov joining the team, who in last year’s Stanley Cup win scored seven goals and 34 points.
He’s not the only player coming off the disabled list. In what will also be a monumental lift, team captain Steve Stamkos has declared himself healthy for the post-season.
Stamkos, who had 17 goals and 34 points in 38 games this year, has been out since early April with a lower-body injury.
Stamkos serves as a leader both on the ice with his strong play and what he says in the dressing room to get the team pumped up. Backed by some strong goaltending from Andrei Vasilevskiy, who had 31 wins and a 2.21 GAA, along with the play of solid defenceman Victor Hedmen, the defending Stanley Cup champs won’t be an easy out. Playing in the Central Division, they do have their hands full in their Stanley Cup first-round matchup against their Florida rivals, the Florida Panthers, who won the season series by a 5-2-1 count. Still, the defending champions Lightning have the experience.
One of the many up-and-coming teams with a legitimate chance at Lord Stanley’s Cup is the President Trophy champs, Colorado Avalanche.
The Avalanche, who with 197 goals have the NHL’s number one offence, has a handful of young elite players ready to take that next step. Among those include former 2013 first overall pick Nathan Mackinnon, who finished second in team scoring with 20 goals and 65 points.
Shortly before the 2013 draft, Mackinnon turned heads when he was named MVP after scoring seven goals and 13 points, leading the Halifax Mooseheads, of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, to the team’s first Memorial Cup.
Showing he was NHL ready, Mackinnon, as a rookie, displayed lots of skill by scoring 24 goals and 63 points in winning the Calder Memorial Trophy. He has had lots of regular-season success, including three campaigns of over 90 points. Now he has the nucleus around him to enjoy a deep playoff run.
This dynamic young nucleus also includes 2015 Av’s first-round pick Mikko Rantanen who led the team this past season with 30 goals and 66 points. Other reliable offensive players include captain Gabriel Landeskog, who scored 20 goals and 52 points, and Andre Burakovsky, who scored 19 goals and 44 points.
On defence, Colorado has a potential superstar in 2020 Calder Memorial Trophy winner Cale Makar who this past season scored eight goals and 44 points. However, it’s a very young defence core that may be their eventual downfall.
In net, Colorado has a reliable tandem in Philipp Grubauer, who had a career season with 30 wins, and veteran Devan Dubnyk who came to Colorado in a late season deal.
Having such a young and impressive nucleus, it’s only a matter of time, and it could be this spring, when Colorado challenges for the Cup.
Despite being older teams, heavy consideration has to be given to the Washington Capitals and Boston Bruins as Stanley Cup contenders.
Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin might be 35 years old, but father time has clearly not caught up to this Capitals 2004 first overall pick.
This past season he led the Capitals with 24 goals and was fourth with 42 points. No doubt, Ovechkin wants to repeat what he did in 2018, which is celebrating a Stanley Cup victory.
Ovechkin’s longtime linemate Nicklas Backstrom also hasn’t slowed down. He produced a team high of 53 points this season and is obviously critical to the team’s success.
Another high-powered forward is 34-year-old T.J. Oshie, who, with 22 goals and 43 points, has shown that he hasn’t slowed down.
On defence, Washington is led by a key offensive-minded veteran in 31-year-old John Carlson. Carlson, who was drafted first round in the 2008 draft, is a smooth offensive-minded defenceman who finished second in team scoring with 44 points.
Other standouts on the blueline include Justin Schultz with 27 points and a +12, along with Dimitry Orlov, who scored 22 points and was a +16. Adding leadership and experience to the blue line is veteran Zdeno Chara, who will be playing with that extra determination to go out as a winner if this should be the 44-year-old’s final year.
Many of Washington’s core players are in their mid to late 30’s, which means that their window of opportunity to do what they did in 2018, which is win a Stanley Cup, is slowly closing.
Meanwhile, the Bruins, who last won the Stanley Cup in 2011, still have some key parts from that team, including elite goaltending from 34-year-old Tuukka Rask. This popular Finish goalie, who has 306 regular season wins, finished this past season with a nifty 2.28 save percentage and a .913 save percentage in 24 games played. He also has a reputation for being a clutch playoff performer. Boston also has a solid nucleus with the talents of Brad Marchand, who led the team with 69 points, along with Dave Pastrnak and captain Patrice Bergeron who both had 48- point campaigns.
The Bruins got a huge lift at the trade deadline when they acquired former 2010 first overall pick Taylor Hall. Hall, who in 2010 was selected by the Edmonton Oilers, had scored eight goals and 14 points in 16 games with Boston.
On defence, Boston has some elite talent, including 23-year-old Charlie McAvoy, who scored five goals and 30 points.
The fifth team with a solid opportunity this spring to celebrate as Stanley Cup champions is the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Leafs, who haven’t won Lord Stanley since 1967, have an explosive team led by this year’s Rocket Richard trophy winner, Austin Matthews, who scored a league-leading 41 goals. Along with Matthews, Toronto’s other big guns include their leading scorer in Mitch Marner, who had 66 points, and captain John Tavares, who had a 50-point campaign. Other dangerous shooters include William Nylander, who registered 42 points and the versatility of shifty Zach Hyman. Toronto also has muscle in Wayne Simmons and the experience in greybeards Jason Spezza and Joe Thornton.
The big questions with Toronto revolve around their goaltending of Frederik Anderson, who is just coming back from injury and Jack Campbell, who has opened up eyes with his strong play.
As a life-long hockey fan, I’ll be glued to my television every single night watching in anticipation to see what team is left standing and presented with the honour of lifting the Stanley Cup.