There are two teams I'm jealous of this post-season and it's probably not who you think. There's a good chance neither of them takes home the Stanley Cup when the dust settles. But that's almost irrelevant to why I'm jealous.
Both teams are really stickin' it to the man this Spring. Both are defying the prevailing wisdom that they in no way, shape or form would actually be competitive this season. And yet here they are, not just in the playoffs, but putting up some excellent performances so far.
[Note for the commenters: Consider this post tonight's playoff thread as well.]
After an awful 2010-11, this season's Senators were written off as a re-run before they even went on the air. Bringing back much of the same cast but with a rookie head coach, not much was expected, especially from the veterans. Alfredsson's old, Michalek's a mystery, Spezza's a disappointment and Craig Anderson is Craig Anderson. The focus would most likely have been on losing even more and building up their already impressive cupboard of prospects.
But lo and behold, all of the aforementioned vets, including Filip Kuba and Chris Phillips, had outstanding seasons. Spezza might even get some Hart Trophy votes. Anderson was still Anderson, a.k.a. "Mr. Hot and Cold," but he was more hot than cold this year, at least when he wasn't getting attacked by cooking utensils.
Top it off with a Norris Trophy season by defenseman Erik Karlsson and you've got a team that was sitting pretty comfortably in a playoff spot all season before finally finishing in the eighth seed by virtue of a single game difference in the tie-breaker.
The Coyotes saga is as long and as hostile as the Arizona desert. There's no need for another rehashing of that mess. Needless to say, a team owned by the NHL with a tenuous arena situation courtesy of some comically inept politicians and roster of mostly cast-offs playing in front of no one wasn't expected to do much this year.
But with a stifling yet mobile defense, just enough scoring and an almost mistake-free goalie, the Coyotes won their first ever division title this season. Watching them now, you can see how disciplined and tight they are (save for one giant idiot). It's not exciting, but it works beautifully. Or beautifully enough to win a million playoff games in a row in overtime.
Tonight, each will have a chance to make another statement. The Coyotes can close out the Blackhawks and win their first playoff round since 1987 when they were still the Winnipeg Jets version 1.1*. The Senators can shock the Rangers at MSG and go back to Ottawa with an opportunity to upend the No. 1 seed in the East. There's a good chance neither of these events take place. Maybe both do. Maybe both teams get smoked in Round 2. Maybe they meet in the Stanley Cup final. Maybe the Coyotes win the whole damn thing and STILL move to Quebec or Seattle or Venezuela or wherever they're rumored to go next.
Whatever happens will be unexpected due to a lot of seriously low expectations. And that's awesome.
I hear what you're saying, though. Poo-pooing pre-season picks through hindsight is pretty much fish-in-a-barrel type stuff. Every hockey writer has to play Nostradamus every year just to get clicks and no one truly knows what's going to happen in over 1,000 combined games or which of the 700-plus players in the NHL is going to have that breakout season no one saw coming. So I'm kinda being the jerk here.
But I also know what it's like to root for a team that's been written off as "dismal," "lousy" or "talent-poor" in a pre-season preview that underscores low attendance figures and the high probability of a move to parts unknown. I know they made me wonder if I wanted the season to start at all.
These guys are doing what I wish the Islanders would have done this season or will do next season. They're letting the games do the talking, shining in the spotlight and breaking crystal balls along the way. And getting everyone to shut up for a least a little while.