NHL Surprises in 2009

The New York Yankees are notoriously known as the most hated team in sports. As for the most hated sports town, however, Boston takes the cake. Since the beginning of the Patriots’ dynasty, continuing through the Red Sox’ takeover of the Yankees and the Celtics’ championship last year, Boston fans, outside of New England, have become some of the most hated sports fans in America. The one team from this massive sports takeover that has failed to join the winning tradition, until recently, has been the Boston Bruins.

The emergence of the Bruins as an NHL powerhouse has been one of the more intriguing stories of the 2008-2009 NHL season. Boston, although they made the playoffs last season, was not expected to be the team leading the Eastern Conference with a little over twenty games left in the regular season. The emergence of goalie Tim Thomas and the great play of young forwards David Krejci and Phil Kessel and veterans Marc Savard and Zdeno Chara have made the Bruins one of the NHL’s best. Besides the Bruins, the Eastern Conference has been full of surprises. The Pittsburgh Penguins, who lost in the finals to the Detroit Red Wings last year, have struggled despite the strong play of Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby. The Washington Capitals have thrived under the leadership of the NHL’s best player, Alex Ovechkin, standing second in the East. Finally, the New Jersey Devils have also been an intriguing story throughout this season. Ironman and future Hall of Famer, Martin Brodeur, went down with a bicep injury early in the season, leaving many fans thinking that the consistent Devils might not make the playoffs for the first time since the 1995-1996 season. The Devils, however, learned how to play without Brodeur behind the steady play of Scott Clemmensen and have emerged as one of the best in the East, which sets up an interesting scene for the Eastern Conference Playoffs.

The Western Conference has featured fewer surprises than the East. The Detroit Red Wings, San Jose Sharks, and Calgary Flames were all predicted to be top teams in the West and they have not disappointed. The current number one seed, the Sharks, have been helped by the emergence of forward Devin Setoguchi, who has matured in his second year to bolster offensive juggernauts Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. Evgeni Nabokov, as usual, has been solid in goal, along with one of the league’s best defensive units. As a team, the Sharks have been extremely impressive all season long. The Red Wings, the second seed, helped by the addition of Marian Hossa, have the best offense in the league, having scored almost thirty more goals than any other team. Their defense is also strong, led by Brian Rafalski, Nicklas Lidstrom, and the goalie tandem of Chris Osgood and Ty Conklin. As for the Flames, Jerome Iginla, Dion Phaneuf, and Mikka Kiprusoff have led the team to a respectable third place in the conference. Similar to the Devils’ situation in the East, the Vancouver Canucks lost goalie Roberto Luongo to injury early in the season. While the team struggled without one of the top goalies in the league, the Canucks persevered until his return and now, having won eight of their last nine games, are sitting at fifth place in the Western Conference. Despite the exciting regular season that has taken place so far this year; fans are eagerly awaiting the much anticipated NHL Playoffs.

In looking at the current NHL standings, it is inevitable that some teams currently in the playoffs will drop out of the race and others will sneak in. The teams at the top of the league this year, however, are so strong that it is certainly worthwhile to take a look at the current matchups for the playoffs.

In the Eastern Conference, the Boston Bruins and the New Jersey Devils look poised to make deep runs in the postseason. Although the Capitals are currently the second seed in the East, look for a first-round upset as Jose Theodore is not what he once was in goal and Ovechkin does not have the playoff experience, nor the support needed, to succeed in the playoffs. The Flyers and Canadiens, both good teams, are too inconsistent to get anywhere past the first or second round. In the Eastern Conference Finals, look for the Bruins and Devils to match up in a heavyweight battle. After a grueling seven-game series, the Devils, due to a healthy and fresh Martin Brodeur and a newfound scoring touch, will reach the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since they beat the Anaheim Ducks in 2003.

The Western Conference Playoffs might be even more competitive than the East. San Jose and Detroit are two of the NHL’s most dangerous teams. Unfortunately for the Sharks, who have had an unbelievable season, Roberto Luongo and the Vancouver Canucks will upset them in the second round to advance to the Conference Finals. While Calgary will make it to the second round, the Red Wings are simply too good to beat this year. This sets up an interesting matchup in the Conference Finals. While the Canucks will put up a good fight, Detroit, with their overpowering offense, will pepper Luongo until he cannot make any more saves and advance to meet the Devils in the Stanley Cup.

After an exhilarating regular season and Stanley Cup Playoffs, the NHL season will come down to a rematch of the 1995 Finals: the Detroit Red Wings and the New Jersey Devils. The matchup to watch in this series will certainly be the Red Wings offense versus Martin Brodeur. Although Brodeur is a lock for the Hall of Fame and maybe the best goalie in the history of the sport, the Red Wings offense will be too much for the old man and fans in the Motor City will be throwing their octopi on the ice for the second year in a row.