NHL playoffs: Who to root for if you don't follow hockey
Hey! The Stanley Cup Playoffs are on! That means you’ll be hearing all your hockey fan friends say stuff about how it’s the best postseason in all of sports. You know what? They aren’t wrong. But I understand that if you don’t follow hockey it’s tough to know who to root for when the player names are all a blur. I’m a Kings fan, which means that when I’m not sobbing into both of my Stanley Cups, I’m looking for a bandwagon just like you!
So I went ahead and wrote about every team in the bracket, and why you should feel spiritually motivated to root for them. Hopefully you’ll find a team that lines up with your personal disposition, and you’ll be off to the races! But be warned, there’s no disappointment quite like hockey disappointment.
• If you’re a fan of tragic villains, root for the Canucks.
The Canucks are far from their peak when they suffered an absolutely devastating Game 7 loss to Boston at home in the 2011 Stanley Cup finals. The ensuing riot in the streets essentially taught the whole world how to hate Vancouver. Canucks fans have still got tons of hubris and the team’s Sedin twins are still sturdy producers, but this team always manages to choke away everything but the Presidents’ Trophy. As I mentioned above, I’m a Kings fan, so watching us 4-1 ‘em back in 2012 is a particularly charmed memory. Seriously, the Canucks always manage to end up standing in the way of more colorful squads. They’re like the Triple H of hockey. This year they’re staring down the surprising Calgary Flames, who are somehow in the playoffs even though they were expected to be a lottery team. For the Canucks, that alone should be more anxiety-inducing than if they were matched up with, say, a powerhouse like the Anaheim Ducks. A group of misfits and ne’er-do-wells who stumbled into the playoffs and are just happy to have an opportunity? What could possibly go wrong against a team like that?
So if you like chaos, and want to root for the bad guys trying, and failing, one last time. Throw in with Vancouver. They could probably use the love.
• If you’re a fan of college basketball, root for the Jets.
This is the Jets’ first playoff appearance in Winnipeg since 1996 and first since 2007 when they were based in Atlanta and known as the Thrashers. When you put national attention on a flyover city that has a diehard fanbase, a legitimately gritty team and a terrifying goaltender named Ondrej, crazy things can happen. If you’re into the energy of a Sweet 16 Kentucky game, you’re going to love the MTS Centre in April.
• If you’re a fan of great players playing great, root for the Blackhawks.
The Blackhawks have looked out of sorts at times this season, but come playoff time they’re always very, very scary. Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith, the imminent return of Patrick Kane. This is an all-star team that has claimed two Stanley Cups during the last five years. So, if you’re just a fan of hockey, and people playing it at an exceptionally high level, it’s hard to find a team that matches up with the Blackhawks on a pure talent level—which is why so many fans elsewhere are secretly dreading another Cup run. If all you care about is dynasty and just want to see people win for a big city, throw in with the Hawks.
• If you’re a fan of teams losing to Chicago, root for the Predators.
I’m sorry Nashville, you’re a good team! Honest! It’s just that this feels kind of inevitable, doesn’t it? (See: Game 1.)
• If you’re a fan of hurting so good, root for the Islanders.
The Islanders are (finally!) good. They finished in the league’s top five in goals per game and boast enough offense, defense and goaltending that a Cup run isn’t impossible. These will also be the last games in moldy old Nassau Coliseum. The end of an era is best capped by a trophy of some kind, but this team still retains faint whiffs of its decades of sometimes comic mediocrity that preceded it.
• If you’re a fan of the insufferable, root for the Canadiens.
If you like black tea, Goop, saying things like “Oh you know, Montreal is such a European city,” and the most overrated dynasty in the history of human competition, you’ve found your home with the Canadiens. If you want to be a Cowboys-type fan who is somehow even more deluded in your self-importance than usual, you’ve found your home with the Canadiens. They’re totally going to bounce the plucky underdog Senators in the first round and I am going to be so sad.
• If you’re a fan of The End, root for the Red Wings.
Bye bye Henrik Zetterberg. Bye bye Mike Babcock. Bye bye Pavel Datsyuk. I’m glad you guys aren’t winning Cups anymore but I am going to miss you, at least for a little while.
• If you’re a fan of royalty, root for the Penguins.
The Pens, who are co-owned by a group the legendary Super Mario Lemieux, have been awful down the stretch and into the playoffs. Their slow, steady decline since their Cup season of 2009 is the sort of thing that all great teams (save for maybe the San Antonio Spurs) go through after an extended, decade-long run.
There is one man who could save them, though, and his name is Sidney Crosby.
Sidney Crosby could go into full YOU CAN’T STOP ME mode and attempt to win the Stanley Cup all by himself. Is that possible? Probably not! Hockey is a team game, but maybe it’s time for Crosby to unequivocally seal his “best player in the world” status. Or maybe it's time for his sidekick Evgeni Malkin to step up.
• If you’re a fan of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, root for the former Mighty Ducks of Anaheim.
On one hand you have the Kings and the Dodgers, two franchises with decades of history and tradition that include luminaries like Wayne Gretzky and Sandy Koufax.
On the other hand you have the Angels and the Ducks, two franchises that got fat off Disney money and were specifically rebranded to sell children’s sports movies. Both have their share of heavy hitters. Both are usually expected to deliver more than they actually do, but they have won a championship (Angels, 2002; Ducks 2007) so you can take them seriously.
• If you’re a fan of heartbreaking disappointment, root for the Blues.
Not only are they one of the most promising teams in the league with one of the best defenses you’ll ever see, they also sport some of the best hockey names you’ll ever hear on a roster: T.J. Oshie, Vladimir Tarasenko, Barret Jackman, Carl Gunnarsson, Kevin Shattenkirk. Does that sound like hockey or what? Unfortunately, they've developed a knack for setting up their fans with honeyed expectations only to leave them flat in the first round. They do it again this year and it's likely coach Ken Hitchcock will be told to pack his bags.
• If you’re a fan of lovably scrappy underdogs, root for the Flames.
Seriously I have no idea how the Flames made it this far, and I think I’m picking them to beat the Canucks. They are like David Eckstein in hockey form, a bunch of promising kids and reclamation projects (see: Jiri Hudler) who are chugging along, overachieving and winning hearts. The Flames are probably the biggest bandwagon team in these playoffs, but don’t be surprised if and when the wheels fall off.
• If you’re a fan of the Dallas Mavericks, root for the Capitals.
The book on Alexander Ovechkin isn’t much different than the book on Dirk Nowitzki. Ovi is a franchise centerpiece who routinely gets things done big time during the regular season, but can never quite get his team over the hump in the spring. This could be his year, much like it could’ve been his year so many times before. But unlike the Canucks, I feel there’s a certain groundswell of momentum for the Caps. The Mavericks were in the NBA playoffs for years, and they finally put it all together when they beat the Heat for the title in 2011. It would be nice to see Ovie get his Cup. The only issue? They’re going up against the underdog Islanders in the first round, which could make them villains real, real quick.
• If you’re a fan of Kendrick Lamar, root for the Senators.
Remember a couple years ago when Lamar was an upstart talent with a unique point of view and a solid mixtape? It all seemed simple, but then came good kid, m.A.A.d. city, which solidified him as a career All-Star and put everyone who said he wasn’t ready on notice for the rest of their lives.
This is basically the story with the Senators.
Young, hungry, and anchored by Andrew (Hamburglar) Hammond, the goalie who came out of nowhere to become one of the season's biggest stories, they’re staring down the Habs, who might as well be Jay-Z. This is the moment where we learn if the Senators are ready to jump the big boys.
• If you’re a fan of getting in on the ground floor early, root for the Lightning.
This team is really young, and really really good. How good? Well, the Bolts led the league in goals per game with a bawdy 3.2. Does that tell you enough? Also Steven Stamkos, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov were all born after 1989. They should be great for a very long time.
Now there’s a chance that they'll be schooled again in the playoffs (they were swept by Montreal last year) and that Detroit’s wily old Henrik Zetterberg will steal their lunch money (I’m sort of hoping that happens,) but this is a perfect time to become a Tampa Bay Lightning fan. Get on board! They’ll get it right one of these years.
• If you’re a fan of the rich kids, root for the Rangers.
They’re league’s No. 1 team. They’re one of the Original Six. They're loaded with stars and they play in the bright lights of Manhattan, not far from Broadway. It’s hard to come up with reasons to throw in with the Rangers because they always get whatever they need.
But I will say this. It would be cool to see Henrik Lundqvist get his Cup. That dapper genial Swede straight out of the pages of GQ has suffered genuine heartbreak in his quest for the crown while continuing to be one of the nicest men in hockey. Watch this video of him playing “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and tell me you don’t want to root for him. Come on.
• If you’re a fan of underserved franchises, root for the Wild.
They’ve been mediocre at best throughout their entire existence, but their attendance is consistently high. The people in the midwest just love hockey, and they’re willing to sit through middling season after middling season to get their fill. But this year, the Wild are very good, much thanks to the January acquisition of goaltender Devan Dubnyk who turned their season around. I’m just happy that the people of Minnesota finally have a team with a legit shot at reaching the Cup finals, even if that means ripping hearts out in St. Louis.