Henrik Lundqvist and the Rangers will return to the Stanley Cup Final, only this time the outcome will be different.
The reigning Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings − winners twice in the last three seasons − are on the golf course. The perennially contending Boston Bruins, the 2011 champs, have gone fishing.
This spring’s NHL playoff bracket has no Kentucky, no seemingly unbeatable, pre-tournament favorite to automatically write into its center box. And if hockey does have that intimidating machine expected to win it all, it may be the Rangers, a franchise with one championship to its name in the last 74 years.
The world is on its head.
“The intensity picks up a notch, and every mistake is made a little bit bigger, and every good play is made a little bit bigger,” Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said after practice Tuesday in Greenburgh. “This is what players play for, and this is what coaches prepare their teams for.”
In a sport that has had nine different champions in its last 11 seasons, predictions are often futile. Still, no matter how much parity exists, the cream typically finds a way to rise.
Three franchises have combined to win the last five Stanley Cups, including the Chicago Blackhawks, who raised the greatest trophy in sports in 2010 and 2013 and are determined to do so once more this June. That is where we begin the Daily News’ 2015 preview of what promises to be a nail-biting, thrilling ride.
PAT ON THE BACK
Joel Quenneville’s Blackhawks only finished third in the Western Conference’s Central Division behind their first-round foe, the second-seeded Nashville Predators, but Chicago right wing Patrick Kane’s announcement that he is back from a broken collarbone for Game 1 could be a game-changer. While the Blackhawks lost four straight to end the regular season, the Predators — who had a league-high 84 points on Feb. 17 under first-year coach Peter Laviolette — collapsed and finished 0-4-2 in their final six. The concern is obvious: If a healthier, experienced Blackhawks team gets out of the first round and gains momentum, look out.
Five Canadian-based teams qualified for the playoffs for the first time since 2003-04: The Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators in the Eastern Conference, and the Vancouver Canucks, Calgary Flames and Winnipeg Jets in the West. Unfortunately for our friends north of the border, only three at most will remain after the first round, since the Canadiens and Senators have drawn each other early, as have the Canucks and Flames. Habs goalie Carey Price is the favorite to win the Hart Trophy as regular-season MVP. Vancouver and Calgary won’t be able to match the drama of ex-Rangers and Canucks coach John Tortorella storming the Flames’ locker room in Vancouver last January, but they’ll certainly try.
OUT ON AN ISLAND
The Islanders would love nothing more than to exit Nassau Coliseum in a blaze of glory before their move to Brooklyn in the fall. However, they have drawn one of the worst possible first-round matchups in the Washington Capitals, led by 53-goal scorer and MVP candidate Alex Ovechkin. The Isles and Caps are two of seven teams that did not make the playoffs last season but qualified this year, along with Calgary, Winnipeg, Nashville, Vancouver and Ottawa. But this Capitals group may never have been better coached than it has been in Barry Trotz’s first season since leaving Nashville.
The Anaheim Ducks are capable of steam-rolling through the Western Conference.
WATCH OUT, WEST
Mike Yeo’s Minnesota Wild is the most dangerous wild-card team in the playoffs. It was a popular preseason pick that faltered before acquiring goaltender Devan Dubnyk off the scrap heap and steadying to a startling 28-9-3 in its final 40 games for 100 total points. Minnesota is led up front by former Devils forward Zach Parise, the son of former Islander J.P. Parise, who passed away in January. Victimizing a formidable but frequently underachieving St. Louis Blues team could set up a doozy second-round series between the Wild and Blackhawks. No one is sleeping on Bruce Boudreau’s top-seeded Anaheim Ducks, though, who could steam-roll their way to the Western Conference final if goalie Frederick Andersen holds up.
HOME ON THE RANGE
The Rangers’ road to a Cup is imposing even if they get by the injury-riddled Penguins. A second-round series against the Capitals or Islanders would be grueling. A potential Eastern Conference matchup with the Lightning is intimidating (how many goals would you guess Ryan Callahan might score in that series?). Then there’s the matter of taking on the big, bad West. The Blueshirts’ health and measured attitude, however, will guide them to the ultimate prize. Vigneault finally will get the Cup he long has deserved coaching some of the league’s best teams in Vancouver and New York, and Glen Sather will smoke a cigar next to Lord Stanley’s chalice one final time.
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