Is 2012 the Year of the Underdog in the NHL?

(Tim Kolupanowich/CM)

Jeff Blay: The 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs have certainly been a roller coaster for the fans, athletes, team organizations and the NHL itself. While there have been a fair share of intriguing story lines throughout the postseason, one of the more positive ones has been the success of the teams least expected to thrive.

Whether it was the beginning, middle or tail end of the regular season, no one would have predicted the New Jersey Devils, Phoenix Coyotes and Los Angeles Kings would be competing in the final four for a shot at the Cup Final. We also wouldn’t have expected the Washington Capitals to not only make it to the Eastern Conference semifinal round, but also take the top-seeded New York Rangers to Game 7.

While many highly ranked teams have been eliminated and will certainly be disappointed, it’s rather refreshing to see different teams succeed in the postseason. The story lines have been endless; the Coyotes advancing further than the quarterfinal round for the first time in franchise history, the Devils slowly but surely emerging as one of the toughest all-around teams to face, and the Los Angeles Kings being the first team in NHL history to knock of both the first and second seed in the same playoffs after just squeaking in as the eight seed.

It’s safe to say 2012 has been the year of the underdog, but what has been the difference for the teams who have succeeded unexpectedly?

Tim Kolupanowich: I think a lot of it has to do with the league’s parity. The whole point of the salary cap coming out of the lockout was to give every team an equal shot at winning instead of seeing the teams with the deepest pockets vying for the title every year. It truly is a league where, if you make the playoffs, anything can happen.

The Edmonton Oilers made the Stanley Cup final as the eighth seed in 2006-06 (and I still believe they would have won if Dwayne Roloson hadn’t been injured in Game 1) and in 2009-10 the seventh seeded Philadelphia Flyers had home ice advantage in the Eastern Conference final against the Montreal Canadiens, two things that have never happened before.

With few exceptions, every team in the NHL in terms of talent and depth, though there is one thing that stands out, that all five remaining teams have in common: goaltending. The combination of rising skill, coaching and, yes, bigger pads, have turned goalies today into the superstars of the game. That’s what the remaining teams all have in common, superstaar, clutch goaltending. They have the ability to take over games the exact same way Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Mike Bossy, Peter Stastny etc. did in the 1980s.

Scott Rennie: I think Jeff is on to something when he touches on story lines, but I think he hit it by accident. I think we are all so predisposed to identify story lines in the game right now, because it’s so easy.

Salaries and cap figures are transparent and we know as much about every team’s prospects as humanly possible. It’s not hard to say who’s on the rebuild, and who’s challenging for the cup. It should be simple to figure out who is a favourite and who’s an underdog. But it’s not.

Take the Coyotes — not the most sparkling drafting record in the cap era, chose not to re-sign Ilya Bryzgalov in the offseason, but chose to acquire Daymond Langkow and Raffi Torres. They traded away a blue-chip prospect (with an albeit unknown ceiling) in Kyle Turris during the season. The league pays their bills. Ray Whitney is their best player. Adrian Aucoin logs big minutes. There’s no discernible rebuild or direction — it’s just a roster that appears Frankensteined together. And yet, they have Mike Smith in net and a bunch of guys who show up and contribute.

Maybe’s it’s too “safe” to christen 2011-12 the year of the underdogs, because we are betrayed by our own expertise. We want things to make sense. But then it’s easy to forget how far a team can get by on red-hot goaltending, Keith Yandle, and a bunch of weird chemistry. The Coyotes might be an underdog, but only because that’s what we think they should be.

JB: You both bring up some very interesting points. The Salary Cap era has evened the playing field, and as both the fans and players know, the Stanley Cup Playoffs are wide-open and it’s during the postseason we often see teams and players hitting their peak – or vice versa.

Whether or not we’ve stumbled upon this theme of the Underdog accidentally, as Scott pointed out, one thing is for certain: the 2012 playoffs have been extremely interesting, and for the first time in the last few years, the majority of Cup Final predictions will likely be proven wrong. As I mentioned before, it’s nice to see teams such as Phoenix finally earn a crack at the Cup, and it will certainly be nice to witness a Cup Final without Detroit, Pittsburgh or Philadelphia in the mix. Things could even get more interesting than they presently are, depending on the outcome of the Capitals/Rangers series, which will be decided in Game 7 Saturday night in New York.

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