NEW YORK -- For players whose season doesn't end with them competing for the Stanley Cup, they try to get as far as they can from the game as they can whenever their offseason starts.
Calgary Flames forward Christopher Higgins says generally he's the same way. But since he missed the last month of the regular season with an ankle injury, he feels a little different.
"I had that mentality in the past where I wouldn't watch a lot of games once I got knocked out," he told NHL.com on a visit to the League's Manhattan headquarters Thursday. "But being hurt at the end of the year this year, I wanted to keep playing so much, I've got to watch the games now because I missed hockey so much."
Well, judging by all the action we've seen so far, Higgins picked a good time to become a couch potato.
Higgins said the series that's most captured his attention is the Eastern Conference clash between Northeast Division rivals Boston and Buffalo. The sixth-seeded Bruins lead the third-seeded Sabres 3-1 in the series following Boston's thrilling 3-2 double-overtime win Wednesday. They're two teams he got to know well during his five seasons with the Montreal Canadiens.
"The Boston-Buffalo series has been great," said Higgins. "That game (Wednesday) was unbelievable. That first overtime was one of the best overtimes I've seen in this year's playoffs. I don't think there was a whistle for the first 12 minutes ... phenomenal hockey, big saves at either end. (Michael) Ryder, who was probably my best friend in Montreal, sets up the winner. That was great to watch."
The better competition, however, is out West -- at least in Higgins' opinion. Having played in both conferences now -- Montreal and the Rangers in the East, and Calgary in the West -- Higgins said the competition in the Western Conference is far tougher.
"I think the Western teams are top to bottom better than the Eastern teams," he said. "I think there's a little more talent out West. The East plays a little more defensively, the West is a little faster, a little more creative offensively. The East is more a focus on team defense, more than anything."
The series out West that's most intrigued Higgins is the Kings-Canucks series, which has featured two overtime games and another that was a one-goal game until an empty-net goal in the final seconds. That series was tied 2-2 heading into Game 5 Friday.
"In the West, that L.A.-Vancouver series has been some good games, overtime games," said Higgins. "Just playing against the Sedins, I realize how good they really are. Watching those guys play, their intelligence is at another level compared to most of the guys in this League. ... Those guys are just phenomenal together. It's almost unfair that they know where each other is on the ice so much."
Powered by Henrik and Daniel Sedin, the Canucks were tied 2-2 in their Western Conference Quarterfinal series with the Kings heading into Game 5 Friday, but Higgins believes they now are one of the teams that can emerge from a conference full of talented teams and reach the Stanley Cup Final.
"I think Vancouver has a shot," said Higgins. "Pittsburgh and Washington from the East, Vancouver, Chicago and Detroit probably (from West)."
Higgins hedged his bets, however, on the two-time Stanley Cup finalists, but not because of any lack of talent or holes in their respective games.
"Watching a little bit now, Pittsburgh looks as good as ever," said Higgins, "but they've played 100 games the last two years, they'll play another 100 games this year if they make it all the way. That's a lot of games to be playing -- same with Detroit. But both those teams are supremely talented."
They're also healthy -- or at least, as healthy as any teams are at this time of the season. But neither has lost core players, unlike other competitors in Philadelphia (Jeff Carter, Simon Gagne), Buffalo (Thomas Vanek), Phoenix (Shane Doan), San Jose (Dany Heatley) and Nashville (Patric Hornqvist).
"It sucks to be the hurt guy, because you don't feel part of the team, but you understand the mentality that comes along with it," said Higgins. "You're not going to help the team, you're not going to hurt the team being out of the lineup, you're just gone -- you're just not there. It sucks being hurt because you're in that position, but that's reality."
"I had that mentality in the past where I wouldn't watch a lot of games once I got knocked out. But being hurt at the end of the year this year, I wanted to keep playing so much, I've got to watch the games now because I missed hockey so much." -- Christopher Higgins
"That's just the makeup of an athlete, playing the cards you're dealt with and rallying behind the guys that are putting on the sweater next to you," he said. "You're all trying to achieve the same goal, working as hard as you can toward the same goals you list before the game starts. You usually have five or six points up on the board, and these are the keys to winning. When you have 20 guys working toward that, no matter who's out of the lineup, who's in the lineup, it's a pretty powerful thing."
No team is perfect -- and you can look at all 16 teams that qualified for the postseason and find at least one fatal flaw -- Higgins said. Ultimately the team that is able to put all the distractions, all the injuries, all the issues behind them is the one that will hoist the Stanley Cup in late June.
"You could say that about everyone unless you repeat as a Cup winner," said Higgins. "Even before Pittsburgh won, everyone was unsure about (Marc-Andre) Fleury, everyone was unsure if (Evgeni) Makin and (Sidney) Crosby could win the big one. Every year ... the team wins it they're able to overcome their so-called weakness. Whether it be Chicago's goaltending this year -- are they able to overcome that?"
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