The Stanley Cup playoffs is where the best stories are told, and those stories can grab someone who has never picked up a hockey stick, let alone watched any part of a game outside of the random twelve-second highlight during SportsCenter*, and make them fans of the game.
(*Who am I kidding? SportsCenter doesn’t show hockey highlights.)
I’ll double down and go one step further. The Stanley Cup playoffs are where the best stories create lifelong hockey fans.
The four teams that were a part of the Conference Finals wrote new storylines that the National Hockey League has not offered its fanbase in many years. While there’s certainly something to be said about the League marketing its biggest stars from its biggest markets (and has done so over the course of many years), the League now has a rare opportunity to display the fruits of its expansion campaign into “nontraditional” markets such as Nashville and Columbus. How exciting is it to see a fanbase thrive where, only a few years before, the very notion of a hockey team in a market like Las Vegas would seem baffling!
Let’s take a look at this year’s conference finalists and dive into some of the storylines that each club is writing as they set their sights on Lord Stanley!
The Washington Capitals formula for postseason play seemed to follow a script over recent years: have a stellar regular season, clinch a playoff berth, get eliminated in the second round, repeat process next postseason. A roster stacked with elite-level talent seemingly fated never to get a sniff of a Stanley Cup Final was always something that felt like an unjust sentence carried out by the hockey gods.
This year, however, the hockey gods granted a reprieve from the script we’ve all grown accustomed to: this time, the Pittsburgh Penguins took on the role of the conquered (after dispatching Washington in their previous two postseason meetings), and the Capitals would participate in the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in twenty years. To give that time span some context, current Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin was twelve years old and starting goaltender Brayden Holtby was nine years old back then! While teams like the Chicago Blackhawks can seemingly reach the Stanley Cup Final with ease, the Capitals are a classic illustration of how a team can boast some of the best talent in the world and repeatedly fall short of the Final. Not this year. Ovechkin now has the strongest chance earn the right to play for the championship that has eluded him his entire career.
However, the Capitals story runs deeper than the Russian Machine (who never breaks). The Capitals have never won the Stanley Cup since the franchise entered the League in 1974. Their prior trip to the Final resulted in a four-game sweep by the Detroit Red Wings in 1998. Longtime Caps fans are hoping the Great Eight, along with Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and the rest of the modern-day Capitals can erase those memories of that Detroit squad celebrating their Cup defense on Washington ice as their heroes Peter Bondra, Dale Hunter, and Olaf Kolzig skated to their locker room empty-handed.
With one game standing between them and the Stanley Cup Final, the Capitals stand on the verge of writing a remarkable last chapter in their long chase for championship glory. Besides, who wouldn’t want to see Ovechkin’s exuberant grin as he skates the Stanley Cup high over his head? It would make generations of fans, including former players such as Kolzig and Bondra, proud to be part of hockey’s fabric in the District of Columbia.
Tampa Bay Lightning
The Tampa Bay Lightning played like a Stanley Cup finalist from the start of the regular season and showed little, if any, signs of slowing down as the playoffs began. They were one of the biggest players during the trade deadline, acquiring J.T. Miller and Ryan McDonaugh from the New York Rangers in exchange for Vladislav Namestnikov, along with draft picks and prospects. They struck down both the New Jersey Devils and Boston Bruins in five games, respectively, before going head to head with the Capitals in the Eastern Conference Finals. With so much going in their favor, how could anything short of an appearance in the Stanley Cup Final be in doubt?
Fate, much like lightning itself, can strike under the right conditions, and for the Lightning franchise, when has fate shown up over recent seasons, it struck fast and without warning. In November 2013, Steven Stamkos missed significant playing time after a collision with a goalpost resulted in a fractured tibia. Stamkos would recover in time for the playoffs, but were swept out of the first round by the Montreal Canadiens. The following season would see the Lightning reach the Stanley Cup Final, only to lose to the Blackhawks in six games. A second consecutive appearance in the Final the following year fell one game short thanks to a Game Seven victory by Pittsburgh.
Now, after missing the postseason last year, the Lightning are poised to make their third franchise appearance in the Cup Final, and second in four years. They were an unstoppable force all season long, and are right back in the same position they were two seasons ago. Tampa remains one of the strongest “nontraditional” markets in the League, and a second Cup victory for the Lightning would further dispel the notion that hockey can’t succeed outside of a cold weather climate.
“Stanley Needs A Tan!” was the playoff slogan during Tampa’s championship run in 2004. Perhaps this is the year that Stamkos and his squad pack a little extra sunscreen on their summer vacations!
An entire nation pinned its hopes of bringing the Stanley Cup back to native soil on their seventh and most recent addition to the Canadian landscape in the Winnipeg Jets. Only seven seasons removed from their former incarnation as the expansion Atlanta Thrashers, these Jets are sleek, powerful, fast, and with all due respect to the Toronto Maple Leafs, were truly Canada’s best bet to break the stranglehold that US-based clubs have long enjoyed over the last twenty-five years (years, not seasons). A team that largely was built through years of great drafting, not to mention a (literal) trade or two, the Jets boasted the second-highest point total (114) in the entire NHL (only their fellow Central Division rival Nashville Predators had more at 117), an impressive mark for a franchise that, until this postseason, never won a single playoff game in its history!
Look up and down the Jets’ lineup, and you’d be hard pressed to find many, if any, glaring weaknesses. Jacob Trouba and Dustin Byfuglien anchor the Jets’ blue line, Connor Hellebuyck has emerged as a sensational goaltender for Winnipeg after years of searching high and low for a true starter between the pipes, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Patrik Laine and captain Blake Wheeler, both of whom were vital cogs in the Jets offense throughout the season. To further bolster their depth, Jets General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff added Paul Stastny to the fold at the trade deadline, giving coach Paul Maurice a veteran center who, as Avalanche fans know all too well, has impeccable hockey vision and a knack for making his linemates even more of a threat. With a lineup like that, how could there be anything less than a sure ticket to the Final?
If you are one of the hockey traditionalists out there, this was your team: a Canadian club who tore through opponents all season long with the sole mission to bring Canada’s Cup home. A long-standing tradition of the “Winnipeg Whiteout” at Bell MTS Centre was in full force this postseason, as fans proudly wore their white t-shirts and jerseys in support of their club as they dispatched the Minnesota Wild in the first round, then the defending Western Conference champion Predators in the second round. This was a team that, admittedly, I overlooked in my preseason predictions, but I knew that I could not sleep on them come playoff time. Perhaps this was going to be the year that for the first time, Lord Stanley would make its way to Portage and Main in downtown Winnipeg among a sea of white and blue-clad fans in its first true homecoming since Patrick Roy and the Montreal Canadiens won their last championship in 1993.
Except, that it wasn’t. The Jets were eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs this past Sunday, and while the story didn’t end as the city of Winnipeg (or the nation of Canada) may have hoped, they have plenty of reason to believe that their story is far from over.
Vegas Golden Knights
There are tales, tall tales, and then there’s the tale of the Vegas Golden Knights.
Even before their first puck drop against the Arizona Coyotes back in October at T-Mobile Arena, the NHL’s newest franchise was labeled as a novelty act that wouldn’t have much staying power. They were supposed to be a team that, given its collection of castaways in the expansion draft, would find itself mired near the bottom of the League standings, if not dead last. The franchise had been shrugged aside by many hockey experts, who chose to pooh-pooh the very notion that an expansion team could have an ounce of relevance before they even played a single game. Aside from Marc-Andre Fleury and James Neal, both of whom played in the Stanley Cup Final last season while representing the Penguins and Predators, respectively, who were these guys?
“These guys” clinched their first franchise playoff berth against the Avalanche (a game in which I was in attendance) back in March. “These guys” followed that up with their first Pacific Division championship a few weeks later. “These guys” swept the Los Angeles Kings in the first round of the playoffs. “These guys” took out the San Jose Sharks in the second round. “These guys” lost the first game of the Western Conference Finals to the Jets, then ran off four straight victories to claim the Western Conference crown.
“These guys” just keep winning.
There’s more to “these guys” than just Fleury and Neal. Yes, they are big pieces of the team, but this is a club that, when Fleury was lost to injury early on in the season, utilized three additional goaltenders in their lineup and still continued winning. William Karlsson scored over forty goals in the regular season (only Ovechkin and Laine had more)! Erik Haula’s twenty-nine goals matched his totals in his final two seasons with the Wild combined! David Perron’s fifty assists this season alone were more than his combined totals in his past two seasons as a member of the Penguins, the Anaheim Ducks, and St. Louis Blues before being selected by Vegas in the expansion draft. The Golden Knights enjoyed career years from a lot of different players who stepped up throughout the season.
While hockey may not be the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of Las Vegas, one thing that the city has a long-standing background in is showmanship. The type of hockey that coach Gerard Gallant has the Golden Knights playing throughout the season has been one that has captivated the entire city. Hockey has taken Las Vegas by storm, and they are loving every second of the ride. Their first year club has defied all expectations, and they have not shown any signs of slowing down all year long.
It would be foolish bet against “these guys” in the Stanley Cup Final.
Another team that the hockey experts wrote off at the start of the season. Of course, they had ample evidence to do so: a modern-era worst record of 48 points the season prior, a rookie coach who appeared to be in over his head, a roster filled with veteran players of diminishing contributions, and injuries to its starting goaltender and a top defenseman which caused both to miss significant time during the season. On top of all this, an unhappy former top three pick returning to the club who, in the midst of last season’s tire fire, publicly admitted packing it in halfway through while trying to arrange a trade out of town.
Why would this team be any better than its prior campaign?
Simply put, they knew they could do better. Once Matt Duchene was traded to the Ottawa Senators on November 05, the team closed one chapter and began another, and that chapter was the emergence of Nathan MacKinnon as a true top center in the League. His play throughout the season earned him several accolades, including a nomination for the Hart Trophy. Linemate Mikko Rantanen had a sensational sophomore campaign, scoring twenty-nine goals and reaching eighty-four points alongside MacKinnon and captain Gabriel Landeskog. Defenseman Tyson Barrie likewise had a career year in goals (14), assists (43), and points (57). Both Semyon Varlamov and Jonathan Bernier excelled in goal, with Bernier backstopping the team through a ten-game winning streak, tied for longest winning streak in the League and the first team in the League to reach that mark during the regular season.
However, it wasn’t until the final game of the regular season that the Avalanche proved to themselves that they truly belonged in the postseason. With a 5-2 defeat of the Blues on April 07, the Avalanche earned a last-minute ticket to the Stanley Cup playoffs and faced off against the Predators in the first round. To the surprise of many, they were able to skate with their Central Division foes for lengthy stretches of the series, only getting dominated in the Game Six finale. After a miserable campaign the season prior, watching this season’s iteration of the boys in burgundy and blue keep raising the bar, keep pushing themselves to be better, and make such a strong statement all season long and into their brief playoff run signals that this could be the beginning of a very compelling tale here in Avalanche territory.
The Stanley Cup playoffs are a treasure trove of captivating storylines. Casual viewers can become lifelong fans before they even realize that they’ve fallen in love with the sport. This is truly the best time for anyone new to the game of hockey, to tune in and find that special storyline that will keep them tuning in and, in time, give them their own story to tell about how they discovered their love of the game.
These stories make the chase for the Cup truly a special time. This is the time where fans are born.
Thanks for reading!