The 2014 Quest for the Stanley Cup

Stanley Cup Playoff First Round Preview

Jonathan Toews and the Chicago Blackhawks didn't surprise
many by raising the Stanley Cup in 2013.  Only a truly
great team is capable of making the run to the Cup. (Getty)
This is my favorite time of the year in the sports world.  Sure, I love October because almost every sport is in season (and because it's my birthday), but nothing beats the Stanley Cup playoffs.  Nothing.

It's like March Madness in college basketball, but so much better.  Instead of one Cinderella upset game, the Stanley Cup playoffs are grueling best-of-seven battles.  The playoffs themselves will last nearly two months, as the 16 contenders race to become the first (and only) to win 16 games.  This format doesn't favor Cinderella.  The only team that's capable of winning the Stanley Cup this season is the best team in hockey.  And, this tournament will determine that.

There is no fluke Stanley Cup winner.  Perhaps a hot goalie can carry a team unexpectedly through the first round of the playoffs; perhaps a defensive system slows down an offensively-gifted squad; or perhaps a sniper gets hot for a series.  That only goes so far.  Sooner or later, in this grueling war, a battle won't be won, and adversity will create a time of reckoning.  After which, only the best team in the league will march forward and emerge victorious in this two-month war.

Here's a look at the First Round matchups:


The Van Is Lost

All that's wrong with the Vancouver Canucks and a plan for rebuilding

Daniel Sedin and the Canucks are no
longer among the best in the West. (Getty)
Just two years removed from back-to-back Presidents' Trophies, the Vancouver Canucks look well on their way to missing the playoffs.  What went wrong so fast?

Nobody saw it getting this bad this quickly, but the writing has been on the wall for the demise of the Canucks since they missed their best chance in history to hang the city's first banner.  The culmination of several cracks that were ignored for far too long have resulted in a full on-collapse, and it's time for the team to rebuild.

At the expense of seeming like I'm gloating (which is not my intent), the issues with the Canucks started with their Stanley Cup Final loss to the Boston Bruins in 2011.  The problem wasn't that they lost, it was how they lost.

They blamed the Bruins physical level of play, and they blamed Ryan Kesler's injury.  There were plenty of excuses, but there was no accountability.  The truth was that they got beat by a team that outworked them, despite the Canucks' advantage in talent.  Their inability to ever acknowledge that shortcoming has led to their fall from grace.

In 2014, the team lacks leadership.  It lacks accountability.  And, it lacks the work ethic required to standout in a league that has relative parity across all 30 teams.

Even now, Vancouver has as much, if not more, raw talent than some of the league's top teams, like St. Louis and Boston.  But those teams have all the intangibles listed above, and the Canucks do not.

So, how does Vancouver fix that?


Where He's Going Is Not Where He's Been

Daytona 500 win marks completion of Junior's transformation

Dale Earnhardt Jr. looked both excited and confident
after winning the 56th Daytona 500 on Sunday. (Getty)
Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the first (and most high-profile) race of the 2014 season on Sunday, and joined elite company in becoming a multiple-time winner of the Daytona 500.  The win puts him on top of the NASCAR world, at least for a week, and he doesn't look ready to budge from his new found heights.

Aside from his 11-year stranglehold on the title of "Most Popular Driver," Dale Jr. has rarely stood taller than the rest of the NASCAR field.  His journey to this position has been one that's woven through small peaks and deep valleys, but finally appears to have ascended toward a mountain's summit.

Entering 2014, Junior had won just two races since the end of the 2006 season, when he finished fifth in the standings - and both of them were at Michigan International Speedway.

From 2007-10, he finished no better than 12th in the standings, and that included season finishes of 21st and 25th in the final standings.  To put that in perspective, Danica Patrick finished 27th last year as a rookie and her performance came under a lot of fire.

Things began to turn in 2011, as Junior vaulted himself back into the Chase and finished seventh.  In 2012, he snapped a 143-race winless streak and even spent time as the points leader before a concussion suffered in a wreck at Talladega cost him two races and dashed any title aspirations.


Chasing the Unpredictable

A preseason look at the 2014 Chase contenders

The new Chase format makes it harder to predict a winner, but
Jimmie Johnson will still be among the top contenders. (Getty)
NASCAR's new championship format is designed to open the window of opportunity for more drivers to have a shot at making the Chase for the Sprint Cup.  It's supposed to make things more unpredictable, and for prognosticators like myself, it's just that: harder to predict.

Gone are the days where you can pick the Chase field simply by standings and maybe a few inconsistent Wild Cards that tend to make regular visits to victory lane.  This year, a win with a top-30 standing is about all a driver needs to make the Chase, which means that there could be a real underdog or two in championship contention.

In the past three years, David Ragan, Marcos Ambrose and Regan Smith would have made it in 2011, Ambrose in 2012, and Ragan in 2013.  They might not have made it past the first ("Challenger") round, but they would have made it nonetheless.

That makes this year's Chase field much harder to predict.

Let's start with the drivers that are easiest to guarantee and move into the question marks: