The transition from the first round of the NHL playoffs to the second is always a tricky one for hockey fans. You go from having games on all evening to a much sparser schedule, and even the occasional night off. And more important, you go from having more than half the league’s teams on the ice to just more than a quarter.
That means, statistically, your team is probably out. And that development may have left you searching for a bandwagon to jump on.
If so, I’m here to help. Choosing a bandwagon team is a tough call — you have to strike just the right balance. You want the team to be good enough to have a realistic chance to win the Stanley Cup, but not so good that you look like some sort of front-runner. You want to be joining a fan base that’s large enough that you’ll feel welcome, but not so large that you’ll be lost in the crowd. And you want to make sure you’re going to be rooting for players who won’t make you feel all icky for doing so.
It’s a personal decision, and I can’t make your pick for you. But I can offer some guidance, in the form of this ranked list of the remaining teams and the pros and cons of cheering them on the rest of the way.
8. Chicago Blackhawks
The good: They have a ton of talent, led by Jonathan “Captain Serious” Toews, who’s recently been earning some “best player in hockey” chatter. They have Patrick Sharp, who looks like this. And coach Joel Quenneville has been known to bust a move when he’s not grabbing a crotch.
So they’re tons of fun to watch. They’re also good. Really good. They won the Stanley Cup last year, and also in 2010. If they win it again this year, they’ll be as close to an NHL dynasty as we’re likely to see in the salary-cap era.
Your mileage may vary: Patrick Kane basically comes across as every smug townie with a mullet you’ve ever known, which was annoying a few years ago but has somehow become kind of endearing.
The bad: You saw the part about them being the defending champs, right? If you jump on their bandwagon now, you’re a transparent front-runner and the hockey gods will smite your team.1
Unless you cheer for a team like the Leafs or Islanders, who come pre-smited, in which case go ahead and do anything that lets you remember what happiness feels like.
Bottom line: No. Just … no. Were you honestly thinking about picking the defending champs? Wakey wakey.
7. Los Angeles Kings
The good: For pure entertainment value, Darryl Sutter is the best coach in the NHL and it’s not close (as long as you don’t have to ask him any questions). And he’s got an awfully good team in front of him, including most of the key pieces from L.A.’s 2012 championship run. That includes guys like Drew Doughty and Anze Kopitar, as well as the Dry Island Twins.
It should not.
Your mileage may vary: How do you feel about the whole concept of “doing things the easy way”? Would you say that’s a deal-breaker?
The bad: The Kings are two years removed from a Cup, so you don’t really get any creativity points for picking them. Their games often end up being low-scoring, so they’re not a great choice if you prefer your wins mixed in with a ton of excitement. And their captain, Dustin Brown, has a reputation as one of the league’s most prolific divers.
Bottom line: Nope. Keep going.
6. Boston Bruins
The good: They’re an old-school team in a great market, and they’re packed with talent. Zdeno Chara is the NHL’s most terrifying defenseman, often with hilarious results. Patrice Bergeron may be the most underappreciated player in the league for one more year, at which point he’ll become the “so underrated he’s overrated” guy and everyone will be sick of him. Tuukka Rask seems fun.
And they also have Jarome Iginla, the leader in the “respected old guy looking for his first Stanley Cup” power rankings.3
The rest of the rankings: no. 2 Saku Koivu; no. 3 Danny Briere; no. 4 Robyn Regehr; no. 5 Martin St. Louis (since nobody really counts 2004).
And they’re almost definitely going to roll through the rest of the East, so you might as well get on board now.
Your mileage may vary: Over-the-top anthem guys: charming pregame tradition or embarrassing sideshow? Your feelings on this will turn out to be kind of important.
The bad: They won the Cup in 2011 and were back in the final last year, so there’s a strong whiff of front-running on this pick. They’re also not the most likable collection of guys. Shawn Thornton sucker punched someone. Milan Lucic speared a guy in the crotch. Twice. Owner Jeremy Jacobs is the Palpatine to Gary Bettman’s Darth Vader. And if you want to cheer for the Bruins, you apparently have to undergo a medical procedure that continually removes chunks of your brain until you start thinking Brad Marchand’s act is somehow OK.
Bottom line: I’m going to scrawl a big “hell no” on this one, but then again, I’m a Leafs fan, so … you know.
5. Pittsburgh Penguins
The good: They’re a very good team, led by the best player in the world, Sidney Crosby. Crosby has always been a divisive player, partly because of his playing style and mostly because of the league’s insistence on using him in so much of its marketing. But he’s all sorts of fun to watch, and he’s coming off a regular season that’s going to earn him his second Hart Trophy.
Crosby’s backed by a strong supporting cast, including Evgeni Malkin, Chris Kunitz, and James Neal. And they also have an inspiring story in star defenseman Kris Letang, who suffered a stroke earlier this season but returned in time for the playoffs.
Your mileage may vary: Despite winning a Cup in 2009, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury has earned a reputation as a shaky playoff performer. He didn’t help matters in the first round by doing things like this. But he was good enough to survive the series, and if you’re the sort of fan who likes to get behind players everyone else seems to be picking on, Fleury’s your guy.
The bad: They just eliminated the Columbus Blue Jackets, who were the year’s best underdog story. They made these guys feel sad. Screw the Penguins.
Bottom line: In an alternate universe where Columbus won, this list would just be “Blue Jackets” written 100 times. I’m just not sure I can forgive the Penguins.
4. New York Rangers
The good: First of all, they’ve got a great shot at beating the Penguins, which means you can feel good about yourself for picking an upset special.
Beyond that, they feature a generally likable group that includes veterans like Brad Richards and Rick Nash. Henrik Lundqvist is easy to root for as long as you don’t think too hard about how much better his life is than yours. And Dominic Moore’s return to the league has been one of the year’s best stories.
Also, seeing Alain Vigneault win a Cup would annoy Vancouver Canucks fans, which is always a nice bonus.
Your mileage may vary: Martin St. Louis is either a spoiled baby who forced his midseason trade out of Tampa Bay because he was sulking over an Olympic snub or a hero to anyone who’s ever been disrespected at work and wanted to tell their boss to shove it. It’s one or the other. People feel very strongly about this.
The bad: Enjoy cheering for Daniel Carcillo.
Bottom line: They’re a decent pick. I couldn’t blame you for taking them. But if you have to jump on a pro sports bandwagon, do you really want it to be the team from New York?
3. Montreal Canadiens
The good: As the only Canadian team to make the playoffs, they would have the support of an entire nation behind them if that’s how sports worked (it’s not). But even if you’re not Canadian, you could still talk yourself into getting behind Montreal.
For one thing, the Canadiens are arguably the league’s most famous and storied team, and they’re trying to end a record Stanley Cup drought.4 The roster is better than you probably think it is, they’ve got a great goaltender, and their building is going to be crazy. You could have a lot of fun with this pick.
It’s Montreal; 21 years counts as a drought.
Your mileage may vary: The hockey world is essentially split down the middle on P.K. Subban. Some fans love him. Some fans are wrong.
The bad: They’re a major long shot to win the Cup, and will probably lose to the Bruins.
More important, I’m honestly not sure I’ve ever met a Habs diehard who wanted other fans to join the bandwagon. Every other fan base will welcome, or at least tolerate, an occasional temporary boost in support, but Montreal fans aren’t interested. If you want to join them in cheering for the Habs, they can’t stop you. But they won’t acknowledge you.
Bottom line: Habs fandom is like wandering through downtown streets after dark — lots of fun if you know your way around, but if you look too much like a tourist there’s a good chance you’re getting stabbed.
2. Minnesota Wild
The good: As the only 4-seed to manage a first-round upset, they’re the undisputed underdog story.
Beyond that, Minnesota is a great hockey market, and the Wild are a reasonably likable team that features stars like Ryan Suter, Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu, and
Thomas Vanek.5 And the inspirational Josh Harding is still part of the team, even if he’s not playing.
Sorry, that last one won’t be official until the summer.
Your mileage may vary: Remember how we mentioned they were underdogs? Yeah, they’re going to get crushed by the Blackhawks.
The bad: Matt Cooke may be the most hated player in the NHL. He’s serving a seven-game suspension for his knee-on-knee hit on Tyson Barrie, but will be eligible to return in Game 4 against Chicago.
Bottom line: If you’ve read this far, you’re not afraid of a long shot. I like your style. Just remember to constantly remind everyone about how much you hate Cooke. Work it into every second sentence just to be safe.
1. Anaheim Ducks
The good: Teemu Selanne. Really, what else do you need? One of the greatest (and most beloved) players of his generation is in the final year of his NHL career and looking to end it with one last Stanley Cup run.
If that’s not enough, there’s Saku Koivu, the 18-year veteran and cancer survivor who’s trying to win his first Cup. Or how about franchise player Ryan Getzlaf, who took a puck in the face in Round 1 but returned to the lineup despite looking like this?
There’s also the unlikely rookie goaltender, the draft bust turned defensive stalwart, the tough guy who can actually play, and the guy whose name lends itself to easy Simpsons puns. Did we mention the adorable head coach?
Honestly, what’s not to love?
Your mileage may vary: OK, fine, maybe Corey Perry is not to love.
The bad: Despite their impressive record, it’s surprisingly hard to find many fans who take the Ducks seriously as legitimate Cup contenders,6 and they’ll probably be considered slight underdogs against the Kings.
The fancystats weren’t especially kind to them during the second half of the season.
Bottom line: If anything, their quasi-underdog status makes them even more lovable. The Ducks are a great pick. Teemu forever.