Haggerty: B's, NHL back to normal in playoffs

Haggerty: B's, NHL back to normal in playoffs
April 30, 2013, 12:15 am
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Hockey is a sport of routine, structure and respect above all else, and so much of what the NHL is based on has been challenged during this 48-game shortened regular season. Practices were few and far between once the schedule grew heavier for NHL teams, and teams struggled to maintain any semblance of normalcy while playing as many as 17 games in a month.

The Boston Bruins certainly fit into that category while struggling to a 2-5-2 record in their final nine games while averaging only two goals per game. They built up a gaudy record in the first half of the year based on a favorable schedule, but there was also a nagging feeling even then that the Bruins weren’t playing up to their expected capabilities.

“We didn’t perform to the way we were capable of performing on a number of different fronts. It was good that we had a strong start, and that we were able to finish where we finished,” said Peter Chiarelli. “But if I’m going to judge our team on the latter half of the year, I’m going to have to say that we’re going to really have to step up our performance to have success in the playoffs.”

The same statement about “stepping up” could be said for just about every other team around the NHL.

There were few teams outside the Chicago Blackhawks, Anaheim Ducks and Pittsburgh Penguins that truly felt good about their performance in this most irregular of regular seasons.

Otherwise there have been challenges on a daily basis that have faced every team as they tried to muster the energy, healthy bodies and skating legs to provide a representative performance. Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli admitted that he engaged in more conversations with head coach Claude Julien than in past years as they put out fires and tackled problems that kept cropping up on a daily basis.

“There just seems to be more issues. It’s because [the season] was condensed. What happens—and I can say this applies to any team, and it applies to us when we’re having a very good year and it applies to us when we’re having an average year—it’s like a dam with holes in it,” said Chiarelli. “You’ve got to plug the holes, and whenever you plug one hole there seems to be another. There just seems to be more holes this year.

“Our play shows that, too, and I’m not using the season as an excuse. There just seems to be more holes. More discussion, he’s been plugging more holes. But I know [Julien] is pumped for the playoffs. He knows he’s got a team that has some experience, which is very important in the playoffs, to have a composed team.”

That’s what is so comforting and reassuring about the return of the Stanley Cup playoffs, a return to the normal way of hockey life. When the NHL postseason opens on Tuesday night it will be the first time life has returned to normal for coaches, players and managers around a league looking to finally inhale and take a deep breath. Of course, it’s an every other day grind that will test the mettle of the 16 teams lucky enough to qualify for the Stanley Cup tourney. But that’s the kind of playoff gauntlet that NHL teams prepare all year for, rather than the regular season reality of slogging through a 10-day road trip in March with miles still to go.

After a brief four-month experimentation into what life would be like if the NHL suddenly dropped down to a 50-game schedule, the hockey world is back to what it should be and will stay that way for the foreseeable future. That means dropping the puck and commencing the most exciting playoff season in any of the four major pro sports, and starting it with eight pretty compelling first round match-ups including a welcome back for franchises like the Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Islanders that have been out of the playoff loop for a while.

One final note about the 2013 playoffs: winning a Stanley Cup after the shortened 48-game lockout season will not take anything away from the accomplishment as some of the more persnickety people have suggested. The 1994-95 Stanley Cup playoffs are remembered first and foremost as the first championship season for the New Jersey Devils and a 22-year-old Martin Brodeur. There is no asterisk there, just as there will be no punctuation next to this season’s winner aside from a period at the end of 2013 Stanley Cup champions.

Here are some predictions for each of the playoff rounds set to begin on Tuesday night:


EASTERN CONFERENCE

No. 1 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. No. 8 New York Islanders: The Isles used a great second half to get into the playoffs, but this is where Sid and Co. ends the fairy tale.

No. 2 Montreal Canadiens vs. No. 7 Ottawa Senators: The Senators have done it all year with heart, smarts and overachievers, and now Erik Karlsson returns to help them upset the Habs.

No. 3 Washington Capitals vs. No. 6 New York Rangers: The Blueshirts are the team nobody wants to play in the first round, and dispatching Ovie will show exactly why.

No. 4 Boston Bruins vs. No. 5 Toronto Maple Leafs: Average defense and goaltending of the Leafs might be exactly what Boston needs to actually score some goals.


The Penguins over Senators and Rangers over Bruins in the Eastern Conference semi-finals.


The Penguins defeat the Rangers in six games to return to the Stanley Cup Finals.

 
WESTERN CONFERENCE

 
No. 1 Chicago Blackhawks vs. No. 8 Minnesota Wild: Zach Parise and Ryan Suter aren’t enough to take down a Blackhawks team that seems like they’re destined for greatness.

No. 2 Anaheim Ducks vs. No. 7 Detroit Red Wings: The Ducks had a great regular season, but this will be one of the last hurrahs for the greatness of Pavel Datsyuk.

No. 3 Vancouver Canucks vs. No. 6 San Jose Sharks: How fitting that Roberto Luongo ends another clipped postseason run for Jumbo Joe Thornton.

No. 4 St. Louis Blues vs. No. 5 Los Angeles Kings: The Kings are the biggest beneficiary of the lockout as they’re able to avoid the Stanley Cup hangover one season later.

 
The Blackhawks over the Red Wings, and the Los Angeles Kings take out the Canucks in the Western Conference semi-finals.  


The Blackhawks defeat the Kings in five games to make it back to the Stanley Cup Finals three years later.


STANLEY CUP FINALS


The Penguins might have the NHL’s dream team after trading for Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow and Douglas Murray, but the Blackhawks are this year’s team of destiny and take home the Cup in seven games.


CONN SMYTHE TROPHY WINNER: Patrick Kane.