While looking back at the 2003-04 season, I couldn't find any predictions that Tampa Bay would battle Calgary for the Stanley Cup, let alone Tampa Bay winning it all. It was almost the same in 2002-03, when Anaheim surprised everyone by winning the Western Conference before bowing to New Jersey in seven games. The Devils did it with the goaltending of Martin Brodeur, while the Mighty Ducks reached the finals with netminder Jean-Sebastien Giguere. Tampa did it with new Hawk Nikolai Khabibulin and the Flames had Miikka Kiprusoff. Chicago coach Trent Yawney, along with most others, says the key to success in the NHL begins with the goal keeping, which is why general manager Dale Tallon's main target was landing Khabibulin.
Getting back to this season's predictions, the choices in the East favor the Philadelphia Flyers with the addition of Peter Forsberg and Ottawa as the Senators coaxed Dominik Hasek from retiring. The defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning was the third choice amongst the experts, while the Boston Bruins were also mentioned.
In the West, opinions were widely divided with eight different teams being named as possible champions. Calgary, off their 2003-04 performance with goalie Kiprusoff and Jarome Iginla, had a slim lead over Vancouver. But San Jose and Detroit were close behind. A couple of other votes went to Edmonton, Dallas, Colorado and Nashville.
As far as the eventual Stanley Cup champion, Philadelphia was the front-runner, followed by Calgary, Ottawa and Vancouver.
The Blackhawks were selected by many to return to the playoffs because of Khabibulin, Adrian Aucoin and the return of many promising players like Tyler Arnason, Kyle Calder and Tuomo Ruutu. The first month of the schedule has certainly demonstrated the importance of the specialty teams in penalty killing and the power play, along with the new rules opening up the game for a faster offensive style. In the early going, coach Yawney has tried to get the message across to his players regarding penalties and hopefully it will pay off.
Meanwhile, the great thing about making predictions -- if you happen to be right -- is that you can always say, "I told you so back in September." Otherwise, if you are wrong, you hope no one remembers.
Years ago, there was a Chicago newspaper sports columnist who always seemed to make some predictions every time he wrote, but only reminded you when he was right, which wasn't too often.
It's still a long way off before June when the 2006 Stanley Cup champion will be crowned. As has been the case the past two seasons, in a short series it's the goalie with a hot glove who will probably decide the outcome.
Harvey Wittenberg's book, "Tales from the Chicago Blackhawks", is now available at HawkQuarters and Fandemonium at the United Center.