With the Buffalo Sabres being the first NHL team to be mathematically eliminated from the playoffs in the 2014-15 season on Sunday and the Edmonton Oilers the second team to be eliminated on Monday, what should the hockey fan do when their team does not make it into the post season?
There is nothing like the NHL playoffs. The intensity of a seven game series, the excitement in every building, and clear elevation in play with players having a “do or die” mentality, make the NHL’s Stanley Cup Playoffs the best playoffs in the world of the sport. If you are new to the sport, it is definitely worth sticking around until the NHL playoffs begin in the middle of April because there is nothing in sport that matches it. However, being a Toronto Maple Leafs fan, you are probably surprised I am so passionate about the playoffs and not bitter.
The Toronto Maple Leafs have qualified for the playoffs once in the past ten years, and that was during the lockout shortened NHL season in 2013 (which is apparently the only reason the Leafs made the playoffs). Although it was only once and I should not be happy in any way as a fan with this decade of mediocrity, it was definitely one of the most exciting months of my life. For the first time in 8 years, the team I had been a fan of my whole life was back in the most intense and exciting campaign in sports. There is nothing that matches the excitement I felt seeing the Air Canada Centre and Maple Leafs Square filled up with fans screaming their heads off.
Then the Leafs fell flat on their face. To be fair, they did fight back against the favoured Boston Bruins to force a 7 game series, but then they eventually did completely fall flat on their face in that last game. The season after that, the Leafs did not qualify for the playoffs, and are on track to not making the playoffs again this year. With this valuable “experience”, I can help the hockey fan who wants to still feel the passion and thrill of the Stanley Cup Playoffs without their team being in it.
Though not the exact same, this tale has one point that sticks true to many hockey fans out there: your team has been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, so what is there now to do? Watching your favourite team’s games is conflicting since you want them to win since they are your team, but losing is better since they will get a higher draft pick the lower they place in the standings. In addition to that, a win doesn’t matter much because it does not do anything to change that your team is still not going to make the playoffs.
The best thing to do in this situation is to try and root for another team that is going to make it into the playoffs. Not to say that you are abandoning ship, but the NHL playoffs are too good to remain oblivious too. You could try and watch all of the playoffs from an objective point of view, but picking a team to latch on too can bring lots of excitement to the playoffs. Adding to this, try to get yourself involved in a playoff hockey pool or try starting your own playoff hockey pool among your friends, trust me when I say that it really draws you into the playoffs. The pool does not have to be for money, but nothing gets you interested when there is little bit of money on the line.
Saying all of this, I picked a single team from each Conference that I think will be very exciting teams to watch down the final stretch of the NHL Regular Season and into the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Western Conference – Minnesota Wild
I’ve always liked Minnesota because I like to playfully call them the “Canadians of the United States”. They love hockey, they are further North than the most Southern part of Canada, and they have hilarious accents similar to that of a Canadian. I feel like if I was to be kidnapped and dropped off into anywhere in Minnesota, I would think I was still in Canada.
Jokes aside, Minnesota is absolutely crazy about hockey. The state hosts the U.S. Pond Hockey championships each year, a weekend event that attracts 250 teams and 1900 players on 25 outdoor rinks on Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
They also host the Minnesota State High School Hockey Tournament each year in the Minnesota Wild’s own Xcel Energy Centre. This tournament hosts approximately 256 schools and over 6,500 participants. Tournament attendance has been over 100,000 for 22 of its tournaments, making it the largest state sports tournament in the United States.
However, the NHL’s history in Minnesota has been a shaky. The state first had the Minnesota North Stars from 1967-1993, where the team did not win any Stanley Cups in their 26 seasons in Minnesota. The team was eventually relocated to become the Dallas Stars in 1993 due to poor attendance during losing seasons, failure to reach deals for a new arena in either Minneapolis or Saint Paul, and a sexual harassment lawsuit against then owner Norm Green.
The hockey mad state was eventually awarded an expansion team in 1997 that would become the Minnesota Wild. The team began play in the 2000-01 season, and have qualified for the playoffs five times in their fourteen seasons as the Minnesota Wild. Three of those five appearances have been early first round exits, but have been nonetheless been very exhilarating games to watch. When the team plays in the Xcel Energy Center, the building is alive and goes nuts whenever a goal is scored.
A habit that I think a lot of teams should be adopting, at least partially, is that teams should be picking up players that are homegrown talent. Doing this gives fans of the team a sense of pride that a player that grew up in their area is representing them in the NHL. This has been the case with Minnesota when they signed both Zach Parise, who grew up in the Twin Cities, and Ryan Suter, who grew up in the neighbouring state of Wisconsin. They both received 13 year deals, showing that they want their boys to come home and stay home. These two big names, as well as 5 additional Minnesota born players on the team’s roster, give fans a sense of pride and connection with their team.
However, the Minnesota Wild started off this season with an 18-19-5 record in their first 42 games, which placed them in a mediocre 23rd place in the league and a good 8 points out from a playoff Wild Card position. Many had already written off the Wild’s season as a disaster. However, On January 14th 2015, the Wild acquired goaltender Devan Dubnyk from the Arizona Coyotes in exchange for a third-round draft pick in the 2015 NHL Draft. Over the past 24 games since that acquisition, the Wild have gone 19-4-2, which is good enough for 12th place in the league and the 1st Wild Card position in the Western Conference. In that time, Dubnyk is completely responsible for that record except for one overtime loss. If the Minnesota Wild keep up this torrid pace going over their last 15 games, they will for sure be an exciting team to watch.
Eastern Conference – Washington Capitals
You read the title of this section and already know why this team is an exciting team to watch; “The Great 8”, Russian star Alex Ovechkin. If you are just dipping your toes into the sport and still can’t find a reason as to why this sport is so great, just watch this video of Alex Ovechkin’s top 10 goals and you will see why this player is a sports legend in the making:
Ovechkin is on track to be one of the best goal scorers of all time, and he is currently leading the NHL goal scoring race with 44 goals and is on pace to get 54 goals this season. He is absolutely exciting to watch: he has skill, he has power, and he celebrates every goal like it’s his first. I used to dislike Ovechkin since I saw him play live once and all he did was “cherry pick” and kind of loafed around the neutral until he had the puck on his stick. However, his play over the years has matured and he has become a better-rounded player now that he is contributing in the defensive zone.
Ovechkin isn’t the only reason that I am excited for this team, there is one player on the Capitals that is currently tied with Ovechkin for second in points in the league and leads the league in assists, Nicklas Backstrom. Backstrom has always been one of the silent elite playmakers in the league due to the large shadow that Ovechkin casts in Washington. Some may argue that Backstrom only has such good numbers because he plays with Ovechkin, but an old coach of mine told me that an assist is more valuable than a goal; without someone to assist, there would be no goal. The same could also be said for Ovechkin, without such a good playmaker in Backstrom, would the 8 be so Great? Nevertheless, the two have worked together to make the most effective line in the NHL.
These two alone make the Washington Capitals a very exciting playoff team to watch down in their last 15 game stretch towards the playoffs. However, there is one big footnote in all of this, goaltender Braden Holtby. The first time I really paid any attention to Holtby was back in the 2011-12 Stanley Cup Playoffs, who was called in to play after the Capitals’ regular goaltenders Tomáš Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth were injured going into the post season. Holtby had absolutely no NHL playoff experience, not to mention only have played in only 21 regular season NHL games in his career, and he was matched up against the defending 2011 Stanley Cup Chamions, the Boston Bruins. The odds were not in his favour, but in the very first ever series where all seven games were decided by only goal, Holtby and the Washington Capitals pulled through and won the series. The Capitals eventually went on to lose to the New York Rangers, but Holtby still posted a 1.95 Goals Against Average and a .935 Save Percentage.
Since that series, Holtby has performed strongly each season, earning himself the starting role for the Washington Capitals:
This season, he currently leads the leagues goaltenders in Games Played (58), and is currently in 5th in Wins (32), Save Percentage (.925), and Goals Against Average (2.15). From December 4th 2014 to January 14th 2014, Holtby started every game for the Capitals and went 14-1-4 with a 0.938 Save Percentage. Holtby is on track to post a career season, and has shown that he is a work horse and can post consistently strong numbers while doing so.
The offensive prowess of Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Ovechkin mixed with the strong goaltending of Braden Holtby is really starting to show some promise with the Washington Capitals. However, going 12-10-2 in the 14 games since the previously mentioned 19 game hot streak, the Capitals have some work to do to prove that they are going to be strong performers in the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
There is so much that can be argued about what is the “winning formula” for a team going deep in the NHL playoffs; be it raw talent, possession numbers, or a strong playoff performance from a goaltender. There are probably many teams I could have picked that have a realistic shot at winning the Stanley Cup, but picking the Minnesota Wild and the Washington Capitals was not based off a “winning formula”, I chose them because they seem to have what it takes for making a very exciting series no matter who they are against.
For those of you looking for team to watch as your favourite team struggles, the Wild and Capitals are not my choice for Stanley Cup winners; they could be easily be first round exits when the playoffs begin in April. However, they are my choices for guaranteed exciting teams to watch going down the final stretch towards the playoffs and have the potential to get hot and upset a few series in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Besides, neither team has ever won the championship, nothing is more exciting than a team hoisting the Stanley Cup for the first time.
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Cover photo by: Vince Talotta/Toronto Star