Prognosticating playoff teams before the season is a fool's errand. Every year a surprise team lifts a middle finger to those predictions and makes everyone look like idiots.
But rarely (if ever) do we see so many teams counted out early, just to blow to hell everything we thought we knew about the sport. Four teams that weren't on anyone's radar to start the season are still alive at the end, while behemoth's like Los Angeles and Boston hit the links early. Which one of them is the biggest surprise, though?
Two years of early summers, a new coach, a hodgepodge of misfit toys, and a goaltender with injury questions. You were excused if you didn't exactly see the appeal of the Preds back in September.
We're familiar with the script by now, however. Peter Laviolette worked his magic, rookies and younger players ramped up their play, and Pekka Rinne laid to rest the whispers about him not being able to return to Vezina form.
Still, it's easy to forget just how tempered expectations where when training camp started, and how the team blew those out of the water. Even if they stumbled over the finish line, everything before that was impressive and impossible to foresee.
Like Nashville, Winnipeg was high on no one's list. In fact, just about every prediction I remember had them in the basement of the Central. Their biggest offseason acquisition was Mathieu Perreault, they made no splashy trades to bring anyone in, and didn't look any different than the teams that had disappointed since the Atlanta days.
Well, thanks to The Great Avalanche Regression of 2015, and Dallas failing to live up to the hype that was bestowed upon them, they seized an opportunity. Ondrej Pavalec played like a competent goaltender, and Michael Hutchinson made a spectacular rookie debut. They were also one of the better possession teams in the league this year, proving that their team was much improved from previous campaigns.
It almost came down to the wire, but additions of Drew Stafford, Tyler Myers, Lee Stempniak and Jiri Tlusty (actual player for player trades!) helped them secure the franchise's second playoff berth, and first in Winnipeg.
The Flames have been the defiant little hellion of the NHL all year. When the franchise finally decided to trade Jarome Iginla (several years too late by many estimations), it was known that it would take several years to get back to competing again. Going into this season, it was understood that they had a good foundation of a team but it would be another year or so for it to mature.
So when they started out hot? They'll cool down. When they continued to rack up wins as the season got older? They'll lose more games eventually. Spending most games getting outshot and out possessed? Those numbers will take their toll. Losing Mark Giordano? Cooked. Done. Thanks for playing.
Calgary was doubted at every turn this season, yet they spat in the face of all logic and common sense to end a remarkable season with a trip to the playoffs.
If there's anything we can learn from this season, it's that necromancers exist and they are employed by the Senators. Ottawa was dead in the water in February before they started one of the most impressive hot streaks I think I've ever seen by a sports team. Andrew Hammond emerged as a cult hero, when weeks before no one even knew he existed. Remember: he's only lost 3 (!) games in his 25 starts.
Even more miraculous is how much help the Sens needed above them, and that they got it. Detroit, Pittsburgh and Boston all tried as hard as they could to suck, and eventually that caught up with the Bruins. The Senators were an afterthought even before the year started, and now they're being talked about as a team that could upset the Canadiens in round one. Hockey, everyone.
Which team are you more surprised at seeing having a chance to compete for the Stanley Cup this summer?