Back before his company was forced to change its name, Vince McMahon was fond of saying “Anything can happen in the World Wrestling Federation” to emphasize the unpredictable nature of WWF programming. Since that slogan isn’t used anymore, and because professional wrestling impacted our childhood development far more than we’d like to admit, we’re co-copting that phrase and using it to describe the NHL of today.
Now that the regular season is almost over, thinking back about the season as whole shows exactly how unpredictable this year has been.
Who would have thought that the New Jersey Devils would struggle so badly early on? That John MacLean would be fired right before Christmas after putting together a miserable 9-22-2 record? That Ilya Kovalchuk would struggle to score goals? And then, who would have predicted that the team would turn things around so dramatically under Jacques Lemaire to the point that they managed to contend for a playoff spot in March?
Speaking of teams that remained in playoff contention longer than most would have expected, we have the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Calgary Flames. Both teams staggered out of the gate and remained far out of playoff contention for months. However, strong runs by both franchises propelled them back into the playoff picture and made the race that much more interesting for everyone. While it looks like the dream may actually be dead for the Maple Leafs right now, the Flames sit only one point behind Chicago for the final playoff spot in the West. They could still pull it off. The Flames have played several more games than their competitors however.
And the Blackhawks themselves are a bit of a surprise this year as well. While the defending Stanley Cup Champions shipped several key players away in the summer in order to fit under the salary cap and the team has been hit by several injuries all year, it’s still somewhat shocking that they may miss the playoffs this year. The team of Toews, Kane, Sharp, Keith and others still haven’t secured a spot in Lord Stanley’s Tournament and the competition for that spot is fierce. They may end up on the outside looking in.
In most years it wouldn’t be strange to see the Pittsburgh Penguins contend for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. However, the fact that they have managed to do so without the services of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal for long periods of time should definitely be considered surprising. Marc-Andre Fleury, who struggled terribly during the first month of the season, has become the team’s MVP and is one of the main reasons that the Penguins have defied the critics and succeeded without their superstars.
Truly anything can happen in the NHL. On any given night a basement dweller can rise up and defeat a top contender. A team can go from looking at a lottery pick to pushing for a playoff spot in a matter of weeks.
Some may say that parity can gone to far in the NHL. They say that shootouts and the salary cap have made dynasties impossible. They may say that the constant change and flux in the NHL standings dilutes the regular season and makes the first few months irrelevant. In some ways those people have a point. However, the game now is so unpredictable and so competitive that viewers cannot afford to miss a minute.
The enthusiasm around teams like the Devils, Flames and Leafs in recent weeks wouldn’t have existed if these teams were out of contention before the all-star break. Television ratings and ticket sales are much higher when the outcome of every game is in doubt. Even among teams that have already qualified for the playoffs and those who will likely qualify, the final ranking are almost completely unknown at this point. In the East, nine points separate first-place and fifth-place. In the West, there are just 10 points between the second-place Red Wings and the ninth-place Flames. Playoff seeding and home ice advantage are still both very much unknown.
In many ways, it feels like like the playoff started a few weeks ago. Every game means more, every shift could change a team’s future and every win and loss is magnified. It’s compelling and exciting, which is exactly what the NHL wants.