Chicago Blackhawks are best team in NHL again

Apr 30, 2013 3:07 AM

The 1990-91 season was a memorable one for the Chicago Blackhawks, the only other time this Original Six franchise captured the President’s Trophy (best regular season record at 49-23-8) since the award’s inception.

Goalie Ed Belfour earned the Calder Memorial Trophy as Rookie of the Year, making up for the honor that never went to Tony Esposito. (Denis Potvin of the N.Y. Islanders instead won it). Belfour also captured the Vezina Trophy.

Jeremy Roenick centered a high-scoring line with wingers Michel Goulet and Steve Larmer, while Chris Chelios anchored the NHL top-rated defense for head coach Mike Keenan. This is also the team where the career of goalie Dominik Hasek began.

There was no way this Blackhawks club could falter in the playoffs.... until the first round when the fourth-place Minnesota North Stars shockingly beat them in six games. The Hawks even led the series, 2-1, before dropping the next three by a composite 12-3 score.

Two decades later, Chicago again is the best team in the NHL. And the Hawks opening round opponent again is Minnesota.

I could give you a dozen reasons why the Wild (the North Stars moved to Dallas) could pull off the upset. They were even my long-shot of the season, so a Futures wager can now be offset. Among the eight first-round playoff series, this is the one which will be a sweep.

All the others are most interesting, which means betting on the visiting teams at plus-dollars will be advantageous to the wallet.

Western Conference

Anaheim Ducks (2) vs. Detroit Red Wings (7): The proud Red Wings proved all the naysayers wrong, sweeping their final four contests to gain a 22nd consecutive SCP appearance. This is the series to hit the visiting team hard. Detroit won the season series, 2-1, with the road team winning all three.

Both sides rank in the Top 10 in defense, but the Ducks hold a superior offense. Still, goaltending can be everything in the playoffs, so the Wings’ Jimmy Howard may be the difference.

While looking toward the UNDER in every game, bet the road dog until one team wins three games, then stick with that team.

Vancouver Canucks (3) vs. San Jose Sharks (6): The Canucks, the best team from the conference’s weakest division, may possess the firepower with the Sedin brothers. If goaltending really is so important, then going with former Stanley Cup champion goalie Antti Niemi (Chicago ‘11) is the way to side.

Besides, there was only a 2-point difference between the teams, with Vancouver’s points coming against a weaker schedule against divisional foes like Calgary, Colorado and Edmonton. Go with the better defensive club which played the tougher schedule and take the Sharks.

St. Louis Blues (4) vs. Los Angeles Kings (5): Let’s face it, in last Saturday’s regular season finale, San Jose had no interest in beating the Kings so they could make the short trip to Vancouver. The Sharks are in the Canucks’ head, too, sweeping all three meetings this abbreviated season.

The defending Stanley Cup champion Kings don’t mind flying two time zones to Missouri, meeting a Blues team they have defeated in nine straight contests, including a 4-game sweep in last season’s playoffs – more head games for sure.

Low-scoring games could go either way, but if there are goals the edge is with the Kings thanks to the recent jump by Jeff Carter, Anze Kopitar and others. Under is a safe way to go, but Kings/OVER may be the more profitable payday.

Eastern Conference

Pittsburgh Penguins (1) vs. N.Y. Islanders (8): The injury-plagued Penguins see James Neal return to score a hat trick in his first game back last Saturday. Evgeni Malkin is also back. Sidney Crosby is skating and expected back this week. And they were winning anyway!

Plus, the Penguins recently infused the roster with Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow and Jossi Jokinen. Nothing should stop Pittsburgh in the weaker Eastern Conference, except themselves.

Too bad that’s exactly what happened last season when Philadelphia upset them, falling into the trap of playing the Flyers’ style of ultra-physical hockey. The Isles new-found success is found with a similar style as the Flyers. A solid 14-6-4 record on the road is no fluke. So it may be tempting to play on the boys from Long Island.

In the end, Pittsburgh has real expectations of winning the Cup, while NYI may just be happy to be in the playoffs for the first time since 2006-07 (and seeking their first series win wince 1992-93).

Montreal Canadiens (2) vs. Ottawa Senators (7): Name the hotter team with the better offense, a more-disciplined defense (sorry, P.K. Subban), with a veteran leader at captain in Daniel Alfredsson. You named the winner of this first-round series: the Senators in six games.

Sure, the Canadiens looked great to finish the season against Toronto. But one game is not a ticket to Stanley Cup immortality. Plus, Ottawa, hampered by injuries all season, fought through a ton of adversity just to get here. A short 2-hour drive to the east along the Ottawa River beats a long flight to, well, anywhere.

Washington Capitals (3) vs. N.Y. Rangers (6): Wasn’t it just a month ago that both of these teams were heading to the golf course after failing to garner an SCP berth. Then the Caps’ Alex Ovechkin wakes up, with rookie Adam Oates gaining Coach of the Year chatter for lighting a fire under the slumping star.

Then the Rangers turned over the roster, suddenly rediscovering their ability to score goals on all three lines. Still, defense and goaltending rule. I’ll always take NYR’s Henrik Lundqvist over a someday-soon star in Caps goalie Braden Holtby. This also may be a parlay haven: look for either Rangers/UNDER or Caps/OVER.

Boston Bruins (4) vs. Toronto Maple Leafs (5): No, really, the Maple Leafs are finally in the playoffs for the first time in a decade. But it may be a short stay if the Bruins maintain a physical advantage. However, Boston is showing signs of running on empty, closing the season with a 2-5-2 mark and blowing the Northeast Division title to Montreal.

Patrice Bergeron leads the NHL in face-off percentage, and puck control is a key to playoff hockey. A penalty-kill hick-up against Washington over the weekend shouldn’t be a concern for Boston, but that effort against Ottawa on Day 100 (a make-up game due to the Boston Marathon bombings) may have given Toronto a blueprint to beat the B’s.

I still like Boston in the series because only one line typically scores for Toronto, but my dollars will be going elsewhere until the series develops.

Contact Nick at [email protected].

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