Olympic hangover ends tonight

Cam Cole
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The most difficult, punishing, draining, exhilarating chase in sports is set to start

The cure for the National Hockey League's 45-day-long Olympic hangover is upon us - and it involves no raw eggs, horseradish or Worcestershire sauce.

Home team loyalty aside, even the passionately-engaged among NHL fans couldn't help but experience the squinting and lowering of expectations required to view the six-plus weeks of post-Olympic regular season hockey with the same enthusiasm.

Fermeuse native Ryane Clowe (right) is part of a San Jose team seeded first overall in the NHL's Western Conference, meaning the Sharks should be a favourite to make it to the Stanley Cup final. But with all of San Jose's past playoff failings and a histo

Vancouver -

The cure for the National Hockey League's 45-day-long Olympic hangover is upon us - and it involves no raw eggs, horseradish or Worcestershire sauce.

Home team loyalty aside, even the passionately-engaged among NHL fans couldn't help but experience the squinting and lowering of expectations required to view the six-plus weeks of post-Olympic regular season hockey with the same enthusiasm.

The Olympic standard was too high. The gold medal game was too spectacular. The storybook finish was too improbable.

No wonder league owners are not keen to have their league participate at Sochi in 2014: the standard NHL product, sans flags, is often pretty thin soup by comparison.

But now, the pot thickens.

The hangover ends tonight, when the puck drops on the magnificent obsession that is the Stanley Cup playoffs, and we are reminded again that the pursuit of the Cup - while not as panic-inducing as the loser-goes-home finality of the Olympic medal round - is the most difficult, punishing, draining, exhilarating chase in sports.

Two months from now, a roomful of battered athletes suffering from chronic arena pallor and overexposure to recycled airplane oxygen, held together with tape, ice bags, sutures, dentures, anti-inflammatories and analgesics, will lace up the skates and give more than they knew they had, one last time - and at the end of the night, hoist the trophy that's harder to win than any other in pro sport.

Ah, but which roomful would that be?

The roomful that revolves around Alex Ovechkin?

Quite possibly.

The amount of energy saved while fattening a win-loss record against as many bad teams as there are in the NHL's Eastern Conference is not to be underestimated.

It worked for the Pittsburgh Penguins last year, when they drew a beat-up Detroit Red Wings team, with Nick Lidstrom and Jonathan Erickson and Pavel Datsyuk ailing, in the Cup final.

It could work that way for Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals, who won the President's Trophy in a runaway and figure to expend less blood, sweat and tears in getting to the final than whomever they might face.

Someone is apt to throw a spanner into the works - the re-committed New Jersey Devils, perhaps, with Jacques Lemaire's stamp on them again, or the Buffalo Sabres, if Ryan Miller can build the kind of wall he did in the Olympics - but more than likely, it's Alex versus Sid, Caps versus Pens, one more time, in what ought to be a fabulous Eastern final.

No such semblance of probability exists in the West.

After the Olympics, where he was again just a face in the crowd, who'd bet a nickel on Joe Thornton's will to raise his game in the playoffs? He will be asked the question, but will Jumbo answer? Thornton and the Sharks look formidable going into the post-season, but when did they not?

They have so much mental baggage, it won't fit in the overhead bin or under the seat in front of them.

If Rob Blake can captain this Titanic out of the icebergs in his first year at the helm, they should waive the waiting period and put him directly in the Hall of Fame.

But name a team that doesn't have questions, out West.

Goaltending may be a conundrum that isn't confined to a particular conference, but it's more acute in the West, where the only proven difference-maker, Calgary's Miikka Kiprusoff, didn't even make the cut.

The Canucks' Roberto Luongo has issues, but not half as many as his blue-line corps, or what's left of it.

Those who are picking the Canucks to make a big playoff run haven't seen how thin they are in the back line, and surely even Alain Vigneault and Rick Bowness can't keep teaching rabbits to give milk.

The Sharks' Evgeni Nabokov has never given his teammates the kind of goaltending that could get them over the psychological hump.

Chicago is a coin-toss between the pipes (and both sides might be tails), though the Hawks have so much firepower, they could win games 5-4.

Detroit's Jimmy Howard is a 25-year-old unknown post-season quantity, and though the Wings may be the hottest team in hockey at the moment, they had to dial it up to playoff pitch a month early, just to get into the tournament.

And they haven't gotten any younger since they crumbled physically near the end of last year's Cup chase.

By now, people should be all done under-rating the Phoenix Coyotes. From the moment the Dallas Stars' new regime handed them Dave Tippett, the league's best coach - nice work, Joe Nieuwendyk - the 'Yotes have been a long evening's work for every team they face.

Unlucky drawing the playoff-hardened Red Wings, but upsets are always the story of the first round.

In short, it's a coin-toss, out our way.

We hereby make the following prognostication about the Stanley Cup: We have no idea.

Stuff happens. Players get hurt. Goals go in off players' skates and backsides. Goalies go south at the wrong time.

But on orders from the boss, here are our articles of faith: Never pick the Sharks, on general principles.

The Canucks have too many holes in the back end - no anatomical criticism intended.

The Blackhawks and Red Wings are both good enough to survive ordinary goaltending - but don't give me Jimmy Howard until he's won some playoff games.

They met in the conference final a year ago, and there's no reason to suppose they won't be back there again.

The younger Hawks are less likely to be fatally banged up by that point.

It's impossible not to like the Capitals, who are the East's version of the Blackhawks, only more firewagon in approach.

They will score enough goals to make people forget who's between the pipes, but have their hands full with the Penguins, who've been there and know what it takes.

There is this creeping suspicion that Martin Brodeur could have the last laugh among the Canadian Olympic goalies, and lead the Devils to the conference final, but - nah.

Capitals-Penguins.

And so, to the finale.

Washington versus Chicago.

Symbolically, thanks to the Olympic break, the league will ensure that the final game takes place right around Independence Day.

Capitals in seven.

Organizations: National Hockey League, Detroit Red Wings, Washington Capitals Pittsburgh Penguins New Jersey Devils Canucks Buffalo Sabres Blackhawks Phoenix Coyotes Dallas Stars

Geographic location: Vancouver, Chicago, Calgary

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Recent comments

  • Mike
    July 02, 2010 - 13:21

    Correct me if I am wrong, but since the caps finished 1st overall and Pittsburgh finished 4th, if the Devils and Sabers win, then the Pens and Caps will play in the 2nd round, and no the East Finals.

  • Calvin
    July 02, 2010 - 13:08

    I believe you are correct Mike, but I dont think Washington or Pitssburgh is gonna make it out of the first round this year. Laugh it up folks, but the only thing Montreal has done in the playoffs in the passed 16 years is eliminate top seeds, and the Sens are one of the hottest teams in the league. GO HABS GO!!!!!!!!

  • Mike
    July 01, 2010 - 20:04

    Correct me if I am wrong, but since the caps finished 1st overall and Pittsburgh finished 4th, if the Devils and Sabers win, then the Pens and Caps will play in the 2nd round, and no the East Finals.

  • Calvin
    July 01, 2010 - 19:43

    I believe you are correct Mike, but I dont think Washington or Pitssburgh is gonna make it out of the first round this year. Laugh it up folks, but the only thing Montreal has done in the playoffs in the passed 16 years is eliminate top seeds, and the Sens are one of the hottest teams in the league. GO HABS GO!!!!!!!!