By Steve Silverman
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Wait just a minute. The hockey season is not over and they have not awarded yet another Stanley Cup to the Chicago Blackhawks.
Many of the league’s sharpest observers have fallen all over themselves because the Blackhawks operated with nearly complete freedom in and around the trade deadline by picking up Andrew Ladd from Winnipeg, Tomas Fleischmann and Dale Weise from Montreal and Christian Ehrhoff from Los Angeles.
Why not just hand the Stanley Cup to Joel Quenneville and Jonathan Toews right now? Why even bother to go through the exercise of finishing the regular season and the two-month run of the playoffs?
Well, here’s a news alert. The Blackhawks just might not make it two in a row and four Cups in seven years. They may not even get to the Stanley Cup Final.
Sure, they have loaded up, but they have been an up-and-down team this season and their once-impenetrable defense has shown signs of cracking. Five teams have given up fewer goals than their 153, and they are just 5-4-1 in their last 10 games.
You have to give general manager Stan Bowman his props for gearing up for another run, but does any executive in sports have it better than Hall of Famer Scotty Bowman’s son? He has three Stanley Cups under his belt already. If his acquisitions work and the Blackhawks win a fourth Stanley Cup, he’ll become an all-time Chicago hero.
If they don’t work out and the Blackhawks lose in the second round or Western Conference finals, they will still have their three recent banners. In a world that is all about what have you done for me lately, Bowman has still done quite a bit.
But between the Washington Capitals, New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning, this may not end up being a season for the Blackhawks or any of the other Western teams.
The balance of power has been in the West for a long time, but no longer. The Capitals have been the best team in the regular season by a long shot, but for Barry Trotz, Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby to translate that success to the postseason is going to take a huge step up from previous years.
Remember how close the Capitals have come? Of course you don’t, because they never get past the second round and they are eliminated by the Rangers.
The Capitals clearly measure out as the best team on paper, but can they overcome their recent and historic demons?
That’s one of the reasons the Rangers have such a good chance this season. The acquisition of Eric Staal could give the Rangers just what the Kings got from Jeff Carter a few years back. Once Staal gets used to his new surroundings and realizes he is on a team with legitimate Stanley Cup aspirations, he has a chance to be one of the most impactful postseason players in the league. Staal has scored 30 goals or more five times in his career and don’t believe for a second that the 31-year-old has lost anything.
The Rangers are the team that has been so close in recent years, with their trip to the Final two years ago and Eastern Conference finals heartbreak against Tampa Bay last year.
Henrik Lundquist, Mats Zuccarello, Derrick Brassard, Keith Yandle and Ryan McDonagh can all handle their business. If only Rick Nash, Chris Kreider and Kevin Hayes decide they want to do more than come along for the ride.
Tampa Bay Could prove to again be a problem for the Rangers and the rest of the East. After a slow start, the Lightning has found their way and it looks like free agent-to-be Steven Stamkos wants to go out with a bang before signing a huge deal elsewhere (Toronto?). Big, fast, smart and somewhat sneaky, the Lightning could be the best team in the East if they continue to play as they have during their current seven-game winning streak.
The Florida Panthers are in first place in the Atlantic Division and they have come along faster than anyone — with the exception of general manager Dale Tallon — ever thought they could. But after watching Roberto Luongo for years, in my opinion there is no way this team gets through the Eastern Conference in the playoffs.
The Islanders, Bruins, Red Wings and Penguins are likely playoff teams, but none of them are going to win more than a round, and even that appears unlikely.
It will come down to the Caps, Rangers and Lightning. One of those teams will ruin the Blackhawks’ plans and lift the Stanley Cup in June.
Follow Steve on Twitter at @ProFootballBoy