Different Flavor On Tap in the East For The Big Dance7:55 AM
A lockout shortened season was sure to be inherently different. Despite some of the familiar contestants locked into the top 16 seeds of the annual tournament for Lord Stanley's coveted prize, fans in cities who have become accustomed to stress-free springs spent on the links now get to join in the wonderful agony of NHL playoff hockey.
Perhaps there simply were not enough regular season contests that a regular 82 game season provides post lockout which would have allowed for familiar mid-to-late season collapses (looking at you, New York Islanders), or maybe some teams actually have made strides toward advancement. We'll sure find out in the 2013-'14 edition of the NHL marathon but for now we focus on who is in and who is out.
Eastern mainstays and recent Stanley Cup Finalists Philadelphia and New Jersey are on the outside looking in. It is the first time in history that both teams fail to qualify for the postseason in the same year. For the Devils it is the second time in their history they fall short of the top 8 in a season following a finals appearance (1995-'96 being the last). Both teams succumbed to debilitating injuries at key positions and lost out on top players. Former Devs captain Zach Parise went home for big money in Minnesota and failed to re-coup his production. The Flyers lost out after signing Nashville d-man to an offer sheet in July only to see the Predators match.
The Islanders are in for the first time since 2007 and look poised to make serious noise (sometimes you gotta rhyme). Johnny Tavares is a legitimate Hart Trophy candidate, Gino Nabokov has played younger than his birth certificate indicates in goal, and the roundabout talent on that squad has not wilted rather relished the pressure through the month of April. For a team that is familiar with the standings cellar, finishing second to last in 2012, it has been quite the turnaround.
Montreal added some grit and character in the form of Brandon Prust over the summer while subtracting the albatross both in the lineup and within the salary cap that is Scott Gomez. Early holdout P.K. Subban has emerged as a perennial Norris Trophy favorite, and Carey Price had certainly elevated his game especially early on. The canadiens finished dead last in the east last season and will open the playoffs with home ice advantage next week.
The much maligned Toronto Maple Leafs, whom own the league's longest drought between sips from Stanley's mug (1967) will play for the prize for the first time since 2004. A season filled with swirling rumors regarding the potential acquisition of Vancouver's Roberto Luongo to solidify their goaltending, the firing of general manager Brian Burke who adamantly wished not to make said deal did not bring down a Toronto squad that has remained in the middle of the top 8 in the east. Positive developments such as the ascension of top prospect Nazem Kadri and the production from top players James van Reimsdyk and Phil Kessel up front kept the, afloat as opposed to their yearly collapse.
Final seedlings are yet to be set in ink as we enter the regular season's final weekend, but it is clear this edition of the tournament will taste a little different than it has in the recent past.