Philadelphia, PA – If there's one thing that makes the Stanley Cup playoffs superior to the postseason in other professional sports leagues, it is unpredictability.
Sure, baseball and the NFL have seen their share of surprise champions in recent years, but the NHL consistently offers the best chance for a true surprise winner. Basketball, meanwhile, is hardly worth mentioning in this regard, as the NBA frequently has a clear-cut favorite like the Miami Heat followed by a short list of two or three teams that have a realistic chance of upsetting them.
In the NHL, however, we needn't look any further than a shining example from last spring, when the Los Angeles Kings won it all despite beginning the playoffs as the West's eighth seed.
On the flip side, it's been 12 years since the NHL last saw a pair of No. 1 seeds battle it out for the Stanley Cup. However, with a pair of dominant teams at the top of the East and West this season, could that streak finally end?
The last time the Stanley Cup Finals featured the top-seeded clubs from each conference was in 2001, when the Colorado Avalanche outlasted the New Jersey Devils during a classic seven-game showdown. Could the Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks be on a similar collision course in 2013?
Both the Penguins and Blackhawks have already wrapped up the No. 1 seed in the East and West, respectively, and each club enters the last few days of the regular season with double-digit leads over the next-best team in their conference. The teams also come with a recent pedigree of playoff success, as Pittsburgh won it all in 2009, and the Blackhawks answered with a championship the following year.
This season, Chicago and Pittsburgh have been so dominant en route to gaining their current lofty standing that one is tempted to anticipate a Stanley Cup Finals battle between the two teams. That is, if it wasn't so difficult to count on No. 1 seeds come playoff-time.
Of the two teams, it's fair to give the Blackhawks a better chance at reaching the final round for a few reasons.
Firstly, Chicago began the season on an unprecedented 24-game point streak and has cruised its way to an amazing 35-6-5 record and the franchise's first Presidents' Trophy in 22 years.
The 35 wins are tied with Pittsburgh for the NHL lead, and Anaheim is the next- best thing with 29 victories. While the Penguins were never bad this season, they did take longer to warm up than Chicago and were 13-8-0 before effectively pulling away from the East pack with a perfect 15-0 record in March.
However, unlike Chicago, which expects to enter the postseason with all of its big horses ready to go, the Penguins have dealt with a rash of injuries to key players down the stretch. None of those injuries loom larger than the fractured jaw of Sidney Crosby, who is reportedly seeking medical clearance this week and could be back for Game 1 of the playoffs. Still, Pittsburgh's captain and best all-around player hasn't played since getting hit in the face with a puck on March 30 and could be rusty at the start of the postseason.
Another factor that could give Chicago a better chance at making the Cup Finals is the team did very little to shake up the roster at the deadline, while the Pens made high-profile trades for guys like Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow, Douglas Murray and Jussi Jokinen.
Those deals have certainly made Pittsburgh resemble an All-Star team, but the issue of chemistry is no small matter and should never be ignored. In fairness, Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma has done a tremendous job in getting all the new pieces to play well together, but the fact that Chicago has had less roster upheaval on its way to a dominant season has to count for something. These Blackhawks have been on the same page since the second the season began back in January, while plenty of the current Penguins were busy playing in other NHL cities.
Chicago or Pittsburgh managing to win its respective conference this spring would hardly be a surprise, but seeing the two dominant franchises actually meeting for the right to lift Lord Stanley's Cup would be a rare treat.
For once, it would serve the NHL if the playoffs went according to the script and rewarded us with the marquee matchup. After all, if recent history is any indication, the No. 1 seeds wouldn't rule the roost for long.