It’s often been said that hockey is an old boy’s network where very little is allowed to change except where the opportunity to make a dollar is concerned.
And perhaps that’s why, in the wake of all these teams advancing into the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, a lot of people have acted as though it was terribly surprising for teams such as the St. Louis Blues, Phoenix Coyotes and Nashville Predators to roll over their opponents in the postseason’s opening series. It was because they beat long-standing NHL Old Guards San Jose, Chicago, and Detroit, respectively. The upset was not in the standings and certainly not on the ice, but in the mind of viewers, because it makes people ask very hard questions about what they thought they knew about the league. The Coyotes? The Blues? The Predators? These teams stink. Have for years. And so it takes more than a little getting used to that these guys are all of a sudden very, very good.
In some ways, it’s kind of easy to see how St. Louis beat San Jose, I guess. The latter wasn’t very good this season despite being dominant for nearly a decade, having only lost in the first round of the playoffs one other time — in Todd McLellan’s first year behind the bench — since the season before the lockout. The former, of course, was the best defensive team in hockey, and remained just as staunch as ever in the postseason, allowing just eight goals in five games. But we had a whole season to get used to St. Louis’ defensive dominance, and even as San Jose won Game 1 of the series in overtime, it wasn’t hard to see the Sharks weren’t long for the postseason. Still, though, it was often remarked-upon that the team that should have been a heavy favorite based upon performance in the regular season was doing surprisingly well. What compete level. What a job to blanket the not-very-good San Jose offense. In fact, a surprising number of people (read: any) picked the Sharks to upset the Blues in the first round, and those that didn’t expected the series to at least last six or seven games — myself included; I think I had St. Louis in seven.
And why? Because the way we knew things to be — Sharks are great! Joe Thornton! Dan Boyle! Antti Niemi! — was not the way things were in reality — Blues are great! David Backes! Alex Peitrangelo! Either one of Jaro Halak or Brian Elliott! — and we refused to accept it.
It’s also at least a little bit understandable why people thought Chicago could unseat Phoenix. Mostly because, technically, it wasn’t an upset. The Blackhawks may have been the sixth seed, but they finished the season with four more points than Phoenix. But more importantly, the Blackhawks have Jonathan Toews, one of four or five best players in the world, and certainly the most complete. The Blackhawks have Patrick Kane, a dynamic, name-brand wing. The Blackhawks have Duncan Keith, one of the five or six best defensemen in the league and a former Norris Trophy winner.
The Coyotes meanwhile have umm.. oh, right, Shane Doan. And Mike Smith. But doesn’t Mike Smith suck? It sure feels like he does. So what business do these guys have actually “upsetting” a team that won the Stanley Cup two seasons ago? Doesn’t seem fair. Or at least, it doesn’t seem like the way things should be.
Perhaps the most galling, though, was the 4/5 series between Nashville and Detroit. Very much a case of two teams passing on a staircase. Nashville being the one heading up, and Detroit descending for obvious reasons. But the Red Wings have been so dominant for so long, and all anyone can talk ever about is how they are a model organization for which every player in the NHL would be lucky to play, that it feels like they must always be dominant. But to see them routed in five games by a clearly superior team is, well, somewhat disturbing to the senses. How could great, transcendent players like Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg get outscored over the course of five games by Alexander Radulov, David Legwand, and Gabriel Bourque?
It was especially perplexing because there was so little to choose from between the two in the regular season. They played in the same division, they had the same number of wins, and were separated by a pair of OT losses by the Preds. Detroit, if anything was the better team in terms of allowing fewer goals and scoring more. So how did they get dispatched with such considerable ease by the upstart team that didn’t even exist when Nicklas Lidstrom was in his late 20s?
Perhaps the hockey world isn’t ready for the once-were titans of the league to see their suns set. San Jose and Detroit are tied with the most regular-season wins in the last five years, and Chicago would be just about caught up with that if they hadn’t spent the first of those five barely missing the playoffs with a very young team. Taking the last five years into account, Nashville, Phoenix and St. Louis simply aren’t at that level, and while it remains to be seen whether the Blues’ success this season was a fluke or a harbinger of future success, the fact is Nashville and Phoenix, in the last three years, have very clearly proven they’re elite in the league.
One day maybe we’ll even collectively realize it.