2014-15 NHL Season Recap
The 2014-15 NHL season had a wide open regular season in the Eastern Conference and a fairly predictable Western Conference playoffs. It also featured amazing regular season runs by the Minnesota Wild and Ottawa Senators to get into the playoffs. Playoff rounds got tighter and longer as they went, in contrast to previous years were the series seemed to get shorter. In the second postseason of the new playoff format, we only had 3 match-ups that were the same as last year. Which isn’t too bad but it remains to be seen if that will always be the case. But the more things change, the more they stay the same. As we were left with the same result that has recently happened a few times.
The 2015 Stanley Cup Champions
The Chicago Blackhawks just won their 3rd Stanley Cup in six seasons. All of those Stanley Cups were won in Game 6. The Blackhawks are perennial contenders, having now played in five of the last seven western conference finals. If it wasn’t for their overtime loss in Game 7 of last year’s conference finals against the Kings, they probably would have won three Stanley Cups in a row. Having lost by the narrowest of margins last year, there weren’t many questions marks on this team going into this season. With the Los Angeles Kings failing to make the playoffs, for the first time in six years, the Blackhawks window of opportunity was wide open.
There was no magical run for the Blackhawks to start this season. In fact they were 9th in the conference after 20 games. But that didn’t last long as the Blackhawks got it together and had the 2nd best record in the Western Conference by the start of 2015, behind only the Anaheim Ducks. The played in their 2nd Winter Classic against the Washington Capitals and lost. Down the stretch, the central division got tighter with the strong play of the Blues, Predators and Wild. Chicago had a chance to win their division but lost their last four regular season games, all by one goal. They also lost Patrick Kane to a broken clavicle injury in February that should have kept Kane out until at least May.
I say until at least May because Kane ended up suiting up for the 1st game of the Round 1 series against the Predators. The Blackhawks won Game 1 on a Duncan Keith goal in double overtime, despite trailing 0-3 after the 1st period and having starting goalie Corey Crawford pulled. With a win like that, you just knew the Blackhawks were in for another long playoff run. Scott Darling was spectacular in relief stopping 42 of 42 shots. Game 2 started out just as even with the score 2-2 but then the Blackhawks and Crawford struggled and the Predators scored four unanswered goals. Darling ended up starting Game 3 which the Blackhawks won. Game 4 was another overtime masterpiece in which the Blackhawks prevailed in yet again. This time in triple overtime. Darling made 50 saves and Rinne made 45. The Predators rebounded in Game 5 with Darling struggling a bit, which carried over to Game 6. After giving up 3 goals, Darling was pulled in favor of Crawford. The Blackhawks rallied and won Game 6 with a Duncan Keith game winner. The Blackhawks ended up back where they started. Crawford in net, Keith with a game winner.
For the third year in a row the Blackhawks played the Wild. And for the third year in a row the series was kind of boring and the outcome was never in doubt. I won’t go too much into detail here, as I named this the worst series later in the column. Crawford played much better and produced a shutout in Game 3. Patrick Kane had a goal in each of the four games.
Next was the Western Conference Finals against the Anaheim Ducks. The Ducks were the other benefactor of the Kings missing the playoffs. Regardless, this match-up featured two of the better teams in the NHL over the last few seasons. Over that stretch in the regular season they played in close heated games and this series figured to be no different. The Ducks were just one game away from playing the Blackhawks last season but finally got to play them this season. Once again I won’t go into the series too much, as I named this the best series later in the column. The Blackhawks received the honor of being in the best and worst series in the same playoffs. Lucky them.
Next was the Stanley Cup Finals against the upstart Tampa Bay Lighting. These two teams were pretty evenly matched in the talent category. But the Blackhawks defense was a little better and, obviously, they have much more experience. The series was very tight as five of the six games were decided by one goal. There were no overtimes though. After four games the series was tied and the Lightning looked like the better team. Just like in 2013 when the Blackhawks were tied with the Bruins but the Bruins looked like the better team. But the Blackhawks find ways to hang around and win games and series even when they aren’t at their best. They tend to get better as the series goes longer as the other team tends to tire out. To me the biggest blunder by the Lightning, and in a sense the turning point of the series, was when Bishop went way out of his net to play the puck and collided with his defenseman. Patrick Sharp scored the easiest goal of his career. This was bad for a few reasons. You can’t spot the Blackhawks a goal, Bishop has a history of doing crazy things out of the crease, you shouldn’t make a run at the puck unless you are certain you will get there first, Bishop is injured so he shouldn’t have skated that far anyway, Victor Hedman and Bishop did not communicate and Hedman made a sad attempt at clearing it. If the play didn’t happen, there’s a good chance the Lighting win Game 5. At any rate, I’m not going to make excuses for the Lightning but had Tyler Johnson and Ben Bishop been at 100% percent, there’s a chance the Lightning might have won the Stanley Cup. Next year the Blackhawks will have a great chance to repeat. However, the team is going through a transformation similar to the salary cap purge when they won the Stanley Cup in 2010. The Kings should also be back in the playoffs, which will make for an exciting playoffs next year. But as long as the Blackhawks have Jonathan Toews, they will always be a contender. He is the ultimate captain. He never gives up, he wills and rallies his team and he plays lights out defense on other top centers. He is the glue that holds this dynasty together.
Best of the Year
Calgary Flames – I didn’t see any scenario in which the Flames would make the playoffs. But they made it all the way to the 2nd round. This young group is talented enough for future deep runs. But it remains to be seen if they will go backwards first, like the Maple Leafs and Islanders did. Still, in a tight Western Conference I had though that most of the playoff teams from last year would get in again this year. Instead we had a 50% turnover in the West. Sean Monahan, the number 6th overall pick in 2013, continued to develop nicely. Rookie of the year contender Johnny Gaudreau came out of nowhere to produce a solid and entertaining season. Most surprising was that Juri Hudler had the best season of his eight year career. TJ Brodie is also developing into a top defenseman. The biggest question mark will be in net. I still think Jonas Hiller has some juice left in the tank. But the Flames might be tempted to go with Karri Rammo. Next year the Sharks, Kings and Oilers figure to be better so there’s a chance the Flames will take a step back. But they are moving in the right direction ahead of schedule.
Nashville Predators – Nashville increased their win total by nine and made the playoffs after missing it the previous two seasons. A healthy Pekka Rinne was a big reason why. Still, the Predators were in 1st in the Central for much of the season, which wasn’t something many who have predicted. Filip Forsberg was a big reason why. He was pretty much the runaway for rookie of the year until he cooled down down the stretch and everyone else got hot. It’s not very often a rookie leads a team in scoring. Which also shows you that the Mantra in Nashville is still defense first. Roman Josi and Shea Weber were still the best defensive pair. Other than that, there wasn’t much else to write home about. Seth Jones slightly improved and that was about it. I expect the Predators to go backwards next season. Unless they can find some more offense. Although they did have eight players with at least 15 goals.
Devan Dubnyk – Minnesota Wild
Dubnyk was picked up for only one 3rd round draft pick. Previously, Dubnyk spent most of his career in Edmonton having some fairly decent seasons. Then he started his decline and bounced around the Nashville Predators, AHL and the Phoenix Coyotes. He started to improve a bit with the Coyotes that the Wild felt compelled enough to take a chance on him. Dubnyk set Minnesota’s franchise record with 38 straight starts after his acquisition. He went 27-9-2 with a 1.78 GAA, .936 SV% and five shutouts. He was the winning goaltender in 11 of the Wild’s 12 consecutive road wins that tied the 2005–06 Detroit Red Wings for the longest such run in NHL history. All in all not a bad season and an even better trade by the Wild. He was rewarded with a big new contract. However, lately the Wild have had a string of goalies put up great numbers for a season and then disappear the next, for one reason or another. Here’s hoping that doesn’t happen to Dubnyk.
Anaheim Ducks vs. Chicago Blackhawks
Despite the awful Game 7, more on that below, this series was the best of a pretty good group of series. It featured four one goal games and three overtime games. Hard to really ask for more than that, besides a competitive Game 7 of course. The two best moments in the series were when Jonathan Toews scored two goals in the final two minutes of the 3rd period to tie the game and force overtime and when the Ducks scored three goals in about 40 seconds in Game 4. If the Ducks had just won one of the other two overtime games, which could have gone either way, they would have won the series in 5 games. O well. Instead they went that Game 7 route…
Best Game 7
New York Rangers vs. Washington Capitals
There were two Game 7’s the Lighting were in (vs Red Wings and Rangers) that receive an honorable mention. But the best and closest game was the Rangers against the Capitals. Alex Ovechkin scored the first goal and it was quite nifty. I thought if Ovechkin scored, the Capitals had a great chance to win the game. But the Rangers scored on the powerplay and the game went into overtime. It’s fitting that a series that was mostly low scoring and tight, would end in a low scoring overtime game. And then off a faceoff win and shot the rebound came to the left, where the Capitals hadn’t quite gotten around to defending yet, and Derek Stepan popped home the rebound. Another crushing defeat for the Capitals in a series they could have just as easily won.
Worst of the Year
Boston Bruins – The Bruins didn’t have a lot go right for them this past season but if not for the Senators miracle run, they would have made the playoffs. Zdeno Chara was injured, David Krejci was injured and Milan Lucic struggled. Not to mention they’ve lost Patrick Horton, Tyler Seguin and Jarome Iginla over the last few seasons without really replacing them. Tuukkka Rask also regressed a bit but it was still a great season. All things considered they didn’t to do bad but they overreacted a bit in the off-season. It’ll be interesting to see how they bounce back with the new moves.
Toronto Maple Leafs – Well the Maple Leafs were here last year but I still put them here anyway. Mostly because they should have bounced back. They made the postseason along with the Islanders in 2013 and then both took a step back. Which is common with young teams sometimes. The Islanders rebounded but the Maple Leafs did not. Part of it is because they play in Toronto, where everything is magnified. Part of it is that neither goalie has taken the number 1 spot. Jonathan Bernier has the games for a number one but he played just as well as Jamie Reimer. Part of it was bad coaching which led to Randy Carlyle being fired. Part of it is Phil Kessel is uncoachable. Part of it is Nazem Kadri not developing. All in all you get the picture. But the talent is mostly there. It just needs to be given the proper push. Next year with a new coach and top prospect Mitchell Marner should be a better year for the Maple Leafs.
Minnesota Wild vs Chicago Blackhawks
There were only two sweeps in this years playoff. The Duck sweeping the Jets and this series. But you thought after facing the Blackhawks for the third straight year in the playoffs and having their best team of those three years the Wild could, o I don’t know, win a game or maybe just show up. Although the Wild only lost one game by more than 1 goal, the scoreboard doesn’t always tell the truth. While he still played well Devan Dubnyk cooled a bit, Zach Parise just disappeared, they had a lot of costly turnovers and the effort seemed lacking. Truth be told it was hard to get into the previous Wild vs Blackhawks series too. These teams just don’t click well in the playoffs. The result is a foregone conclusion as well.
Worst Game 7
Anaheim Ducks vs Chicago Blackhawks
O look, the Ducks are here again. After falling behind 0-4 to the Kings last season the Ducks decided to fall, um, well 0-4 to the Blackhawks. Proving that they learned absolutely nothing about playing a Game 7. They didn’t look as lost as they did against the Kings and pushed their game up a bit in the 3rd period but in the end it was the same result. Another disappointing season and another, mostly, unwatchable Game 7. Game 7’s are all about the drama and intensity, things that have been sorely lacking in the last two Game 7’s the Ducks have been in.
Playoff Team with Problems
Well I could just bash the Ducks and Penguins again, like I did last year, but it’s pretty much the same thing, only the Penguins have even more problems than they did last season. Hard to imagine really. Although they did finally pick up someone who can generate their own offense in Phil Kessel. But now they have no money left for their other needs. The Ducks, well, they still haven’t fired the coach and they picked up a veteran defenseman (Kevin Bieksa) to replace one that left (Francois Beauchemin). Which didn’t really solve that problem. Instead let’s bash the:
St. Louis Blues – Here’s a team that has great regular seasons and then does absolutely nothing in the playoffs. A lot of it has to do with the fact that the team has no heart. This is evident by the fact that most of the players don’t look like they really care. They also don’t have a player that can lead the team and score when needed. Based on this playoffs, it’s possible Vladimir Tarasenko (more on him below) may be that guy. Coach Ken Hitchcock has only been to, at least, the 2nd round of the playoffs once in the past 10 years. Not exactly a winning formula. He started rookie Jake Allen throughout the whole first round. I don’t know why coaches like doing that. They don’t make Patrick Roy’s anymore. But then again three of their last four exists have been by the hands of either the Blackhawks or the Kings. It’s really the way they flamed out the last two games this playoffs against the Wild that’s troubling.
Team on the Rise
Every time I’ve put a team here lately the don’t make the playoffs the next season. I would put Calgary here but I already put them under biggest surprise teams, so I guess I’ll jinx the…
Ottawa Senators – What a year for the Senators. They closed out the season 21-3-3 which is basically unheard of. They lost starting goalie Craig Anderson to injury and then had undrafted rookie Andrew Hammond step in and put up better stats than Carey Price and Devan Dubnyk. Mark Stone went on a tear, Erik Karlsson did his thing, Bobby Ryan…. er well… he struggled. Lately the Senators have been pretty notorious for overachieving and they did so here too. But they have the makings of a great young core for the future.
GM’s and Players don’t really get it
The AHL had been testing 3 on 3 action after 4 on 4 action. It was a rousing success and everyone wanted it. Instead we got 3 on 3 replacing 4 on 4. Okay then. Why test something, have it be successful and then not use it? We have the NHPLA to thank for this. First they bitched about the 3 on 3 because it would have to much wear and tear on the stars. Then they bitched about a seven minute overtime being too long of a wear and tear on everyone. Then after the change, they still bitched about it but it was either that or nothing. For me the whole point of this was to make less games decided in the shootout. While a 3 on 3 does leave more open ice, the overtime isn’t any longer than the previous one and this make the ultimate team game less of a team sport again. 3 on 3 is closer to 5 on 5 than one on one with a goalie but it’s not really that close to an actual 5 on 5 game. And wasn’t that the whole point? To try and decide a game faster and as close to a regular game setting as possible?
Breakout of the Year
Vladimir Tarasenko – St .Louis Blues
Tarasenko was the 16th overall pick in 2010. In his first season he had 19 points in 38 games. In his next season he had 43 points in 64 games. Better but not there yet. Just like Tyler Seguin, Tarasenko took some time to get adjusted. Although Seguin mostly needed new teammates and management. This season Tarasenko had 73 points in 77 games with 37 goals. In the 1st round against the Wild, Tarasenko had seven points (six goals) in six games. He was one of the few bright spots for the Blues in their series with the Wild. He should be able to build upon this season’s success for an even bigger season next year.
Rookie of the Year
Mark Stone – Ottawa Senators
This is a no-brainer to me because without Mark Stone’s play down the stretch, it’s likely the Senators just miss the playoffs. I realize what Calder winner Aaron Ekblad did was impressive, especially since he plays defense which has a higher learning curve in the NHL than a winger does. However, Stone was more valuable to the Senators than Ekblad was to the Panthers because, although they wouldn’t had the playoffs without Ekblad, they didn’t make it with him either. Both teams had about the same skill level. Stone had a nine game point streak to end the season with 19 points in his last 14 games. Not bad for a 6th round pick in his first full season. The 6th round pick status also factors into my decision to go with him.
Goalie of the Year
Carey Price – Montreal Canadiens
What’s not to say about Carey Price this season? Before we get to that, I like to own up when I’m wrong. And I was wrong about Carey Price. In 2010 after Halak’s miracle playoff run, I said that the Canadiens should give up on Price and just stick with Halak. Well Halak was traded and they stuck with Price. And boy did that pay off. Ironically, his best season, besides this last one, was the next one after Halak was traded. But the next two seasons he regressed. But even after those two sub par seasons he was only about 24. Which is still very young, especially for a goalie.
But here we are and Price will probably continue to play at this high level of play for years to come. Price led the league in wins (44), GAA (1.96) and SV% (.933). He was only one back of the league led in shutouts with nine. Although Andrew Hammond did have a better GAA and SV%, he only played in 24 games and wasn’t eligible. Without Price, there is no division win for the Canadiens and it’s possible the miss the playoffs entirely. Price had only one game under an .818 SV%. He was pretty consistent all season, with no stinkers. This was probably the biggest no brainer award ever. Especially since usual contenders like Pekka Rinne, Jonathan Quick, Tuukka Rask and Henrik Lundqvist didn’t have their best seasons.
Most Value Player to his Team
John Tavares – New York Islanders
Carey Price had an amazing season and he won the Hart trophy in real life but he doesn’t get consideration here. Why? Well as someone once said, goalies already have their own trophy. Which is true. But so do defenseman. Ironically there is no best forward trophy so they usually get the Hart. I’m not eliminating him based on that reason, although I think forwards should have their own trophy so that all positions can then be fairly considered for the Hart. I mean there’s a best defensive forward. Why not an offensive or an all around forward award? But I digress. The point is, goalies are always the most important position on the ice. They are the only ones that play the whole game. Technically, all the nominees should always be goalies. If you have a crappy goalie you aren’t winning anything. As Carey Price demonstrated, you can have an average team and a great goalie and win a division and a playoff series. So no Price in this debate.
If you want to know how valuable John Tavares was/is to the Islanders, all you really need to know is this one stat. No other Islander was in the top 50 in scoring. Yes, that’s correct, nobody else was in the top 50. That’s hard to imagine because every playoff team always has at least two players in the top 50 and a lot of the top non playoff teams do as well. But not the Islanders. Tavares came off an injury, recorded his first positive +/- in his career and had a season best 38 goals and 86 points. Not too shabby. He set season bests in hits and block shots. He also had 12 points in his final six regular season games. The reason the Islanders failed to get home ice in the playoffs had nothing to do with him. The best has yet to come for Tavares, as he will just be 25 entering this coming season.