A Spring without a Script
It all seemed so simple then.
Back in the 2000-01 season, the New Jersey Devils finished first in the Eastern Conference with 111 points, and the Colorado Avalanche registered 119 points to sit atop the Western Conference.
They both then acted as the favorites they were, each disposing of three opponents before meeting in the Stanley Cup final, with the Avs winning on home ice in Game 7 to cap the Hollywood-like Ray Bourque story.
Well, with the season down to its final eight days, odds are it's not going to go down that way this spring.
Sure, the Ottawa Senators and Detroit Red Wings, one-two in overall league standings, could theoretically meet in the Cup final.
But compared to the Devils and Avalanche teams of the '01 playoffs, the Sens and Wings are nowhere near as formidable in appearance despite their 50-plus win seasons.
Indeed, both have huge question marks at the most important position of all, in goal. If it was a Detroit-Ottawa final, it could be Manny Legace against Ray Emery, which wouldn't quite be Martin Brodeur vs. Patrick Roy now, would it?
Fact is, 16 teams will make the NHL post-season, and you could make a serious case that there are no favorites and at least a dozen teams have as good a chance of winning the Cup.
Look in the west. The two toughest teams right now are the fifth place Anaheim Mighty Ducks and the seventh place San Jose Sharks. Let's assume Vancouver pulls it together and catches fading Edmonton for the eighth and final spot.
Of that group, the only team that would appear to have no chance of winning it all would be Colorado, and even then there is the glimmer of a miracle in the return of Jose Theodore to the crease. Theodore played Sunday for the first time since his trade to Denver from Montreal on March 8, replacing Peter Budaj partway through a 5-2 home ice loss to Minnesota.
Maybe Theodore will be the answer. Or maybe the Avs will fade even worse than Edmonton and miss the post-season altogether.
Otherwise, you could have seven teams in the west with a medium to strong shot at winning it all. Even the Canucks, if they make it, are a team that was rated among the NHL's very best last fall, and certainly there is talent on Marc Crawford's bench, if not necessarily accompanied by smarts and chemistry.
Then there's the east.
The defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning looked absolutely porous in a Sunday night loss to Florida, nothing like a team that looks intent on repeating.
But you can't write off the champ until that squad is knocked out, can you?
Otherwise, the hottest teams in the east are the Devils ('00 and and '03 champs) and the fabled Montreal Canadiens, winners of eight of their last night before losing to - you guessed it - the Devils on Saturday night.
From here, the only playoff-bound team that looks unworthy to win the Cup would be Philadelphia, and perhaps that's just the lingering stench of recent home losses to the Maple Leafs.
Otherwise, if you include the Bolts just for old times sake, there's seven teams in the east that are equally capable of making it to the Cup final.
The Rangers looked really good until blowing a third period lead to Jersey on Sunday night, and suddenly Kevin Weekes (four straight starts) is getting all the work in net rather than Henrik Lundqvist. Lundqvist is currently out with a hip flexor problem - not good news for a goalie - and Al Montoya was Weekes' backup Sunday night.
Carolina and Buffalo, well, who knows what those teams are capable of, two franchises that haven't won the Cup but have both been to the final in the past seven years.
So, when you add it all up, that looks like 12-14 teams with an honest to goodness shot, and that doesn't even count the legions of Leaf fans who are gosh darn certain today that if their faves were in the playoffs, they'd win it for sure now that Ian White and J.S. Aubin are the centrepieces of the blue-and-white brigade.
Maybe if Dominik Hasek returns, Ottawa becomes the odds-on favorite.
Maybe. If. Sounds likes a heckuva spring filled with uncertainty and surprises coming up, wouldn't you say?