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Kings’ Cup victory leaves Blackhawks with hollow consolation — they were the second-best team in the playoffs
All season, the so-called experts said the Western Conference was dominant in the NHL — that the Ducks and Sharks and Blues were far superior to the Penguins and Bruins; that the Blackhawks and Kings were championship-caliber, built-for-the-playoffs teams that would trump anything in the East; that the East was weighed down by under-achievers unable to rise to the level of their greatest players — the Penguins with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the Capitals with the great Alex Ovechkin; that the West had the best coaching in Joel Quenneville, Darryl Sutter and Ken Hitchcock; and the biggest trump cards in Jonathan Toews and Justin Williams.
And as it turned out, they were right. The Kings’ victory over the Rangers in the Stanley Cup Final completed a postseason that confirmed that what we saw during the regular season was real. The Kings needed seven games to beat the Sharks, Ducks and Blackhawks in the West, but only five games to beat the Rangers in the Final. The Kings were down 3-0 in the first round against the Sharks, but up 3-0 in the Final against the Rangers.The Rangers took three of the games in the Final to overtime, but it was no coincidence that the Kings won every one of them by being a mentally tough team that overcame one deficit after another — a trait they developed through the first three rounds of the playoffs.
No doubt about it, the West was best this season. The Columbus Blue Jackets couldn’t even make the playoffs in the West. They moved to the East and gave the mighty Penguins a battle before losing in six games in the first round of the playoffs. Alain Vigneault was an under-achiever in the West, but an over-achiever in the East. He went from Vancouver to New York and reached the Stanley Cup Final. John Tortorella went from New York to Vancouver, didn’t make the playoffs and was fired.
The Kings’ five-game victory over the Rangers resonated deeply for the Western Conference opponents they squeaked by in the first three rounds — all of whom have to be wondering what could have been had they come up with one more stop or one more goal against the Kings. Most notable among them are the Blackhawks, who lost three two-goal leads in the Western Conference Final, and lost three leads in the Game 7 before losing in overtime. It’s the smallest of consolation, but the Hawks were the second-best team in the Stanley Cup playoffs this season. But it only increased the pain for Blackhawks fans convinced that their team lost the Stanley Cup in overtime at home in the Western Conference Final.
With that in mind, here are my final 2014 Stanley Cup playoff power rankings:
1. Kings — The new gold standard of the salary-cap era NHL. The Kings have won two of the last three Cups and are an amazing 8-1 in series without home-ice advantage in the last three years.
2. Blackhawks — Couldn’t put the hammer down. Subpar defensively. Could barely roll three effective lines let alone four — and still came within inches of winning another Stanley Cup.
3. Sharks — They’ll spend all summer wondering how they let a 3-0 series lead dissipate against the Kings in the first round.
4. Ducks — This team has talent — and issues. The No. 1 team in the West, they lost a 3-2 series lead vs. the Kings and were embarrassed in Game 7 at home — falling behind 5-0 in a 6-2 loss.
5. Blues — Their big mistake was the late-season slump that cost them the No. 1 seed in the West. Never were able to regain the momentum they had in the second half.
6. Wild — Didn’t know their own strength. Tried to muck up the Hawks series, then went toe-to-toe in Game 6 and nearly came out ahead.
7. Avalanche — Talented, but not ready for prime time … yet.
8. Henrik Lundqvist — If the Rangers had pushed the Final to 6 or 7 games, he could have been the Chuck Howley of the Stanley Cup Final — a Conn Smythe winner on the losing team.
9. Canadiens — Injuries are part of the game, but the loss of Carey Price — and the circumstances of his injury — was particularly unfortunate.
10. Bruins — Started the postseason in a class with the Hawks and Kings as a former champion with an uncanny resilience. But after a typical surge in Game 2 against the Canadiens — four goals in the last 10 minutes of the third period — they uncharacteristically fizzled.
11. Stars — With a chance to push the opening-round series against the Ducks to a seventh-game — which could have gone either way — they lost a 4-2 lead in the third period and gave up the tying goal in the final minute before losing Game 6 in OT.
12. Flyers — The team that has two goaltenders in the playoffs usually has none, but they gave the Rangers all they could handle in the first round. That has to count for something.
13. Penguins — Another post-season disappointment — losing a 3-1 series lead to the Rangers — led to firing of GM Ray Shero and coach Dan Bylsma.
14. Blue Jackets — If they only couldn’t have taken the Penguins to OT again in Game 6 — down 4-0 they scored three in the third period and lost 4-3 — you never know what could have happened.
15. Red Wings — They lost to the team (Bruins) that lost to the team (Canadiens) that lost to the team (Rangers) that lost to the Cup champions. Only one team can do that.
16. Lightning — It was all downhill after losing the opener of their first-round series to the Canadiens in overtime at home.