There are few postseason tournaments that bring the same kind of excitement and unpredictability of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Often the Cup is taken home by one of the top teams from the regular season, but in the past decade alone a sixth seed, a seventh seed and an eighth seed have all gotten within one win of hoisting Stanley. In 2010, the seventh-seeded Flyers didn't clinch a playoff berth until the final day of the season and wound up two wins shy of their first championship in 35 years.
To be sure, the NHL.com Re-Draft is not reality, but in our brand of preseason make-believe there is some borrowing from the real world in the form of upsets. In EA SPORTS' simulation of the NHL.com Re-Draft, seven different series ended with the lower seed advancing, including four in the first round alone. Each conference features a potential Cinderella run and the Stanley Cup Final pits two recent champions against each other in a series that goes the distance.
But much like the actual Stanley Cup Playoffs, it's a long and winding road that leads us to the Carolina Hurricanes
and Chicago Blackhawks
shaking hands after Game 7 in Raleigh.
Here's how the Re-Draft's postseason played out:
(1) Carolina over (8) Philadelphia
As the top seed in the East in the regular season, Carolina boasted a dynamic top line in Taylor Hall
, Patrick Sharp
and Steven Stamkos
, with a solid defense and 2006 Conn Smythe-winner Cam Ward
in net. Philadelphia's top line of Milan Lucic
, Jeff Skinner
and Brad Boyes
is a solid mix of firepower and grit, but the eighth-seeded Flyers provided little trouble for the Canes, who dispatched their first-round foe in five games.
(7) Tampa Bay over (2) Buffalo
The No. 2 seed in the East wasn't quite so lucky, however. In what easily registers as the biggest shock of the Re-Draft's first round, Buffalo suffers a full-scale collapse at the hands of seventh-seeded Tampa Bay. Perhaps it was the ageless wonder that is Dwayne Roloson
in the Lightning's net that made the difference, but despite a group of forwards that is both relatively thin and inexperienced, the Bolts pull off a stunning sweep of the Sabres in round one.
(6) Montreal over (3) NY Islanders
The Islanders may have won the Atlantic Division in our simulation, but they actually finished with one fewer point than Montreal in the regular season. Not coincidentally, the Isles and the Habs got caught up in a dogfight in their first round series, with Jaroslav Halak
bringing the mojo he had in his 2010 postseason run back to Quebec, as the Canadiens emerged victorious in Game 7 at Nassau Coliseum.
(5) Florida over (4) Ottawa
Montreal's second-round foe had just as tough a time of it, as the Panthers and Senators gutted out a seven-game showdown. Despite having the Vezina winner in net, however, Ottawa's offense proved too thin against a Florida team with Alex Ovechkin
, David Krejci
and Marian Hossa
on its top line. The Cats' firepower was too much for Roberto Luongo
, and it carried them into the conference semifinals.
(1) Carolina over (7) Tampa Bay
The East's second round showed that most of the conference's power in the Re-Draft might lie below the Mason-Dixon line. Three teams from the Southeast Division advanced to the conference semifinals with the most unlikely of them all -- Tampa Bay -- doing so in impressive fashion. Any Cup dreams for the Lightning were ended swiftly in the second round, however, as Carolina turned the table on the upstart Bolts by making them a victim of a sweep.
(6) Montreal over (5) Florida
Florida and Montreal had a tighter series than the other conference semifinal, with the Panthers' top line giving the Canadiens' defense a hefty workload, but Halak stayed hot behind a very deep group of forwards to land Montreal back in the Eastern Conference Finals in a six-game series win.
(1) Carolina over (6) Montreal
Goalie - MTL
Being the No. 6 seed doesn't make a run to the Stanley Cup Final impossible, but it does make one unlikely. Montreal made a stirring run to the conference final with Halak between the pipes in 2010, before that dream came to an end in a five-game loss to Philadelphia. This time a similar outcome was in the cards as Carolina continues its romp through the East with a five-game win over the Habs, putting the Hurricanes back in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 2006.
In their run through the first three rounds of the playoffs, Cam Ward
put on a show in net as the Canes lost just two games en route to capturing the Prince of Wales Trophy.
(1) Columbus over (8) Phoenix
For a team with no postseason wins in its history, the Blue Jackets might be more unfamiliar with the pressures of a top seed than most teams would be after an impressive 115-point Presidents' Trophy-winning season. But despite a top line in which all three players -- Jonathan Toews
, Rick Nash
and Nathan Horton
-- are 27 years old or younger, this is a team that carries a hefty bit of postseason experience among its youth. Toews and Horton both have won Stanley Cups, as have starting goalie Tuukka Rask
and second-line center Andy McDonald
. With that kind of pedigree, these Jackets were undaunted by the bright lights of the playoffs and it showed in a smooth four-game sweep of Phoenix in the first round.
(2) Edmonton over (7) Anaheim
's Oilers got a stiffer challenge from a plucky Ducks team, which brought some offensive weapons into this rematch of the 2006 Western Conference Finals in the form of Alex Semin and Anze Kopitar
, but in the end Edmonton's green goaltender, Anders Lindback
, held the guns at bay, as the Oil advanced to the second round in six games.
(6) St. Louis over (3) Los Angeles
St. Louis continued to show the strength of the Central in our simulation, as Ilya Kovalchuk
and the Blues guaranteed three of the West's final four would reside in the same division. The Kings had some bona-fide playmakers like Brad Richards
and Kris Versteeg
, and the major strength was in net where both Tomas Vokoun
and Jean-Sebastien Giguere
have strong resumes, but those elements couldn't prevent the Blues' five-game upset of the Pacific-champion L.A. Kings.
(4) Chicago over (5) Nashville
The final matchup of the opening round may be proof that in a division that strong, the only way to beat a team from the Central is to be a different team from the Central. Chicago and Nashville both featured deep, talented rosters that each accumulated 104 points in the standings. Unsurprisingly, the two heavyweights went the distance, but eventually the Blackhawks sent Zach Parise
, Jeff Carter
and Jonas Hiller
home early in seven games.
(1) Columbus over (6) St. Louis
Goalie - CBJ
Despite the lift of a first-round upset win over L.A. the Blues were unable to carry the momentum in the West's second round, but an inspiring victory doesn't always help when faced with a Mack truck moving at full speed. That just might be what the loaded Blue Jackets are, as they moved past St. Louis and into the third round with ease, crafting their second four-game sweep in as many series.
(4) Chicago over (2) Edmonton
With the Campbell Bowl on the line, Columbus would have to deal with a familiar opponent. Chicago carried the momentum of its seven-game win over Nashville into its showdown with Crosby's Oilers. Sid may have been a force in his Hart Trophy-winning regular season, but defensemen Sami Salo
and Jamie McBain
, as well as Chicago grinders like Troy Brouwer
, clamped down on the dynamic pivot in a six-game upset.
(4) Chicago over (1) Columbus
After playing 13 of a possible 14 games through the first two rounds, one might think the Blackhawks would face an obstacle of exhaustion, particularly considering Columbus is well rested after two short series. But Chicago also boasts a goalie in Tim Thomas
who plays a decade younger than his 37-year-old bones are, as he showed in his remarkable Cup run with Boston this past season. Add that to a roster that has strong two-way play from Ryan Kesler
, dynamic scoring from Martin Havlat
and championship experience from Teemu Selanne
, and the perfect recipe was there for Chicago to pull off the upset of the postseason to earn a berth in the Stanley Cup Final.
STANLEY CUP FINAL
(1) Carolina over (4) Chicago
Goalie - CAR
CONN SMYTHE WINNER
Considering they took down a team that hadn't even lost a playoff game in the conference finals, toppling a finely-tuned machine like Carolina should seem like old hat for the Blackhawks. After all, if Columbus hadn't lost a game before falling to Chicago, why should the Hawks be intimidated by the Hurricanes' 12-2 record in the East?
Indeed, the series played out just that way, with Chicago and Carolina going the full seven games to decide the NHL.com Re-Draft's champion in its EA SPORTS simulation.
For the Final, the seeds are misleading if one wants to bring up the notion of an upset, though. Chicago finished with just five fewer points than Carolina in our simulation, in what was the toughest division in the League. As far as championship pairings go, this one appears about as evenly matched as it can get. In the end, however, Chicago, perhaps run ragged by playing 27 of a maximum 28 possible games in a Stanley Cup playoff season, couldn't muster one last win against Ward and the Hurricanes.
It was Carolina which lifted the Stanley Cup after seven games in our NHL.com Re-Draft simulation. Ward, with a 16-5 overall record in the playoffs, took home his second Conn Smythe Trophy as postseason MVP.
It can't be surprising that one of the best regular-season teams with a top-flight goaltender and an extremely potent first line wound up dancing with Stanley, but there were several unpredictable results that led us to our hypothetical Game 7 in Raleigh. There were plenty of surprises along the way and there was plenty of fun, too -- so much so that we at NHL.com just may do the whole thing over again next summer.
Before that happens, however, we'll let the professionals do their thing. Opening night is just 36 days away.