In preparation for the Stanley Cup playoffs, I try to canvass hockey people much smarter than myself to gauge opinions on how teams are playing and which teams they like more than others. It's a strategy that clearly paid off, as I ultimately decided to pick the Pittsburgh Penguins to win the Cup.
But looking back, I just needed to listen a little more closely, because two conversations near the end of the regular season have turned out to be quite prescient. The first was with St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock in late March. Hitchcock's team had just completed a trip to California and he left absolutely sold on the Los Angeles Kings. He predicted that they would not only win the Pacific Division but would be an incredibly tough team to beat in the playoffs. He was half right.
"We played them late in the season when both teams were up and running. The games were exactly the way the playoffs were. They were a goal better. They were running on all cylinders," Hitchcock said when we revisited the conversation Tuesday. "When we left the rink, we lost 1-0 in the shootout and I said, 'That's a bear of a team.' We might have played the best game we played in a month. We still hadn't scored."
The other conversation was with former Carolina Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice, who flat out said that the New Jersey Devils were his sleeper team and that he wouldn't be surprised if they shocked everybody by making a run. He liked that they were headed into the postseason without any pressure and that they had a goalie capable of winning it all. He liked that they were getting healthy at the right time and that Ilya Kovalchuk was playing at a high level. I asked for an underrated aspect of their game and Maurice pointed to Adam Henrique, saying he has the ability to score big goals, including a game-winner against Carolina in November.
"That's another guy who snaps it around pretty good," Maurice said in early April. Henrique's overtime goal against the New York Rangers sent the Devils to the finals.
So on the day the Stanley Cup finals begin, I'll spare you my prediction (OK, Kings in seven) and instead give this space to Hitchcock and Maurice to expand on the teams they liked now that they've made it to the finals. Of course we already knew this, but these guys know what they're talking about.
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