End of Season Brings the Playoffs, Awards and Changes

For Devils fans, the season might have ended last weekend, but for fans of the game of hockey, things are just starting to heat up. Spring and summer brings not just the playoffs, but also the NHL awards, the draft and free agency.

Things got off to a quick start when former Devil Jaromir Jagr and the Florida Panthers announced last Sunday that the north-of-40 superstar will come back for his 22nd NHL season with the Cats next year. Jagr liked what he saw in terms of the young guns in Florida and sees a good future for this team. He liked the ice time he was getting and it resulted in a good fit. Jagr keeps himself in tip-top physical condition and his playing a 22nd year should come as a surprise to no one.

Some other changes made include the Buffalo Sabres firing head coach Ted Nolan and the Toronto Maple Leafs firing General Manager David Nonis and interim head coach Peter Horachek, including most of his staff. Both of these teams suffered through horrible seasons, especially the Leafs, and these moves really came as not much of a surprise.

Awards-wise, Jamie Benn of the Dallas Stars claimed the Art Ross Trophy as top overall scorer with a hat trick and an assist in his team’s final game of the year to put him over the top. Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals won the Rocket Richard Trophy as top goal scorer with 53 goals on the year. Goaltenders Carey Price and Corey Crawford of the Montreal Canadiens won the Jennings Trophy with the least goals allowed in the NHL with 189 between the two.

On Wednesday, April 15, the NHL’s second season gets underway. In the East, the matchups include Montreal and Ottawa, Tampa Bay and Detroit, the Rangers versus Pittsburgh and Washington against the Islanders. In the West, St. Louis takes on Minnesota, Nashville versus Chicago, Anaheim against Winnipeg and Vancouver and Calgary square off.

An interesting factor is the number of Canadian teams that qualified for the playoffs this year (of the seven Canadian NHL franchises, only two – Toronto and Edmonton – failed to make the playoffs). It is a renaissance in cities like Winnipeg and Calgary, who have not had NHL playoff hockey in some time. In places like Vancouver and Montreal, they are trying to fulfill the potential that they have had for a few years now. Although they qualified the way they did, do not think that Ottawa is just happy to be there. They want to make some noise in this playoff. Fans north of the border have a lot to cheer for this season.

Starting with the East, the Habs and Sens series will be one of the most interesting considering how Ottawa came into the playoffs. They made a huge rush and pushed the Bruins to the outside and forced the Penguins to fight for their lives to get in. The number seven seeded Ottawa will give number two Montreal a run with their hot rookie goaltender Andrew Hammond. The Senators could end up being the closest thing to a 2012-era Devils team, or even the Kings from that same year, a young team that got hot at the right time and rode great goaltending through the playoffs.

As tough as it is for any Devils fan to admit, the President’s Trophy-winning Rangers are the team to beat in the East and I do not know if the Penguins are the team to do it. Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury has had some troubles in the playoffs and with the Rangers’ firepower; he can easily be shaken early on. Add to that the Rangers’ goaltending one-two punch and you have a recipe for a team to go deep into playoffs.

Another series to look closely at is the Caps and the Isles. Washington ended up finishing second in the Metropolitan Division while the Islanders sort of limped into the playoffs. New York had a great season; they will not want to go quietly out of the playoffs. Hopefully the Islanders do not squander a great overall season. They too, have a great goalie in Jaroslav Halak and some young guys like John Tavares and Kyle Okposo that can light up a game. They know the history of the franchise and what it would mean to their fanbase to close out the Nassau Coliseum with, if not a Stanley Cup win, a good solid run in the playoffs. Knocking off the Rangers would also mean a lot should they meet up later in the playoffs.

Moving to the West, St. Louis and Minnesota could potentially be of interest to Devils fans. Martin Brodeur working in the Blues’ front office and former Devils captain Zach Parise playing for the Wild makes a matchup that would intrigue Devils fans looking for a series to get excited about in the Western Conference. Minnesota has gotten a lot out of netminder Devan Dubnyk, who has carried the team on his back since he came to the team. The Wild have a good amount of leadership and some big guns up front. The Blues, who finished second overall in the conference, are always an offensive threat with Vladimir Tarasenko and have been on the cusp of breaking through for a few years. Will they be able to get through this year?

Anaheim and Winnipeg is a very interesting matchup in itself. The Ducks finished the season first overall in the West and were in the running for the President’s Trophy almost to the end. The Jets are making their second-ever appearance in the playoffs in franchise history (they made the playoffs once as the Atlanta Thrashers) and the city of Winnipeg is making its first playoff appearance since 1996. The Jets are young and will be hungry to have some success, while the Ducks want to give their fans a playoff run befitting their finish in the regular season. With the return of the “White Out” in Winnipeg, can the playoff-starved Jets upset the mighty Ducks?

This year’s playoffs offer some interesting matchups and have injected some new blood into the Stanley Cup tournament. It is a real testament to the parity in the NHL that perennial playoff teams like Los Angeles, San Jose and Philly did not make it while teams like Calgary, Winnipeg and the Islanders have now qualified. That really lends hope to fans of all teams that their team has a chance in any given year. With new teams in the playoffs come questions, however. Will we get upsets from teams like the Senators, the Jets or the Flames? Time will tell on that front since that is why they play the games. One thing is for certain, though, there will be lots of excitement across many NHL cities as the 2015 Stanley Cup playoffs get under way this week.

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