The NHL has seen its fair share of Cinderella teams in the last decade or so – the 2003 Mighty Ducks, 2004 Flames, 2006 Oilers, 2009 Hurricanes and 2010 Canadiens and Flyers. Every year it seems there’s a surprise team that makes a run to the conference final or deeper.
As the playoffs open tonight, Patrick and I have a point/counterpoint (Saturday Faceoff-style) on who this spring’s Cinderella club may be. Buffalo Sabres By Patrick Hoffman
When talking about Cinderella teams in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, one thinks of teams that have made runs despite not being heavy favorites or having the same personnel that other top hockey clubs do.
This season, that Cinderella team could very well be the Buffalo Sabres. A team that has had one heck of a roller coaster season has simply gotten hot at the right time and has the team playing its best hockey of the season, something that could come in handy once the playoffs begin in the upcoming week.
After the Sabres found out that their star forward, Derek Roy, was going to be out for the season after sustaining a torn quad tendon, many figured that the rest of his team would go down with him. Roy was hot to start the season with 35 points in 35 games and as he went, so did the Sabres’ offense.
While the team was up and down offensively this season, the Sabres have found their offense at the right time. Leading the way is Thomas Vanek. Vanek had 73 points (32 goals and 41 assists) in 80 games and has started to put the puck in the net on a more consistent basis.
The Sabres also have players like Brad Boyes (17-38-55), Drew Stafford (31-21-52), Jason Pominville (22-30-52), Tyler Ennis (20-29-49) and Tim Connolly (13-29-42) who can contribute offense and create plays. They’re young, have speed and play with a lot of enthusiasm, things that can go a long way come playoff team.
Of course, the Sabres also have Ryan Miller in goal. Last year’s Vezina Trophy winner as well as the a Silver Medal and MVP winner at the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, Miller knows how to play in big games and in those games, often plays well. While he did not play the last few games due to an upper body injury, you know that he will be in tip-top shape come Game 1 against the Philadelphia Flyers.
The elements are there for the Sabres to make a deep run in a very unclear Eastern Conference. If they put everything together, who knows just how far they can go.
Nashville Predators By Ryan Porth
It’s tough to call a 5-seed a ‘Cinderella’ team; but given the market that the Predators play in, the fact that they haven’t been past the first round, and that a lot more people are picking the Ducks to win their opening series, I think the Preds qualify.
What do all of the teams mentioned at the top have in common? First off, good goaltending; the respective playoff runs by J.S. Giguere, Miikka Kiprusoff and Jaroslav Halak was stuff for the ages. Vezina Trophy candidate Pekka Rinne, who has been the most valuable goaltender in the league this year, is capable of putting together a similar string of success.
With his size, agility and knack for making jaw-dropping saves, Rinne has the ability to potentially steal games and even series. His 2.12 goals-against average ranked third in the NHL this year, while a .930 save percentage was second behind expected Vezina winner Tim Thomas.
Another thing that all of those previous Cinderella teams have in common is a clutch goal-scorer (an unexpected one, at that). Do names like Martin Gelinas, Fernando Pisani and Jussi Jokinen ring a bell? An unexpected ‘playoff hero’ for the Predators (as some of these players have been called) could be Joel Ward, who plays on an effective two-way line with David Legwand and Martin Erat.
There are other reasons to believe these Predators can go deep. Their top defense pairing of Shea Weber and Ryan Suter is as good as it gets. The line of Mike Fisher, Sergei Kostitsyn and Patric Hornqvist has been on fire since mid-March and features a little bit of everything. Between Fisher and Legwand, the Preds have two really solid defensive centers.
Also, the penalty kill ranks fifth in the league. Against Anaheim (and possible Vancouver, San Jose and Detroit down the road), that unit is going to be near-perfect. Special teams are so crucial in the postseason, and the Preds’ penalty kill will have to make up for a subpar man advantage.
When Barry Trotz’s club is playing ‘Predator Hockey’ (as he likes to calls it), they are a tough team to beat. If the Preds can, for once, get past round one, they may be able to pick up enough steam to knock off another great Western Conference team.
Behind great goaltending and defense, the potential is certainly there for the Predators to go on a deep run.
Our podcast 'RLD Hockey Talk' is LIVE every Wednesday afternoon at 1:00 ET/Noon CT. Some of our notable guests in past episodes have been Dustin Brown, Doc Emrick, John Buccigross, Dave Strader, E.J. Hradek, Elliotte Friedman and Jay Grossman.