The Matchup: (1) Montreal versus (8) Boston
The Story: Montreal is one of the most surprising stories of the season due in large part to the NHL’s comeback player of the year Alexei Kovalev. Throw in a dash of history with a rookie goaltender, Carey Price, leading the team into the playoffs, much like Patrick Roy and Ken Dryden did for the franchise years ago, and there is a sense of strange destiny here. They possess the league’s best powerplay and have scoring ability on all top three lines. However, injuries have taken their toll as their captain Saku Koivue is questionable for the first round with a broken bone in his foot while Mike Komisarek, maybe the team’s best defensive defenseman, has yet to be cleared for full contact practice. Oh, by the way, the Canadiens won the cup behind Roy and Dryden those years…just keep that in mind.
Boston is a heart and soul team that despite numerous injuries has battled to the very end to stay in the playoffs. Tim Thomas has proven that he’s one of the top goaltenders in the league, despite some inconsistency, and Zdeno Chara deserves to be considered for the Norris Trophy. The team has also received good news as Patrice Bergeron appears likely to play in the first round. It will be the first time he’s played since October and should provide an emotional lift. However, they are still waiting for leading scorer Marc Savard to return from a broken bone in his back, which was a result of a nasty cross check, and are far from healthy entering post-season play.
The Verdict: If Carey Price continues to play as well as he has since taking the number 1 job and inspiring, through his play not his words, the trade of Cristobal Huet then Montreal should sail through in 5 games and possibly be healthy for the second.
The Matchup: (2) Pittsburgh versus (7) Ottawa Senators
The Story: It didn’t take long for the words and accusations to start flying in this series as Brian Murray, GM and coach of the Senators, accused the Penguins of throwing the last game of the season against the Flyers to assure a first round matchup with his team. The Penguins have denied it, but they certainly weren’t the same team in that game as they were in the previous matchup with the rival Flyers. If the Penguins did throw the game, it’ll be interesting to see how they feel about it after the first round. The Senators exposed the Penguins in the first round last year. They came out and set a physical tone that the finesse-based Penguins simply couldn’t match. Frankly, not much has changed so Ottawa will certainly come out with same level of intensity. In fact, Ottawa may come out an angry team with every analyst in the world expecting them to fall easily and quickly. Ottawa was the NHL’s hottest team through the first 20 games but has fallen apart as of late. Whether the playoff pressures, and loss of Captain Daniel Alfredsson for at least the first round, will bring the team together and push them apart remains to be seen.
Pittsburgh is riding high coming into the post-season as they are finally healthy for the first time this year. Evgeni Malkin matured rapidly when Sidney Crosby went down with a high ankle sprain and Malkin eventually finished second in the scoring race behind fellow countrymen Alexander Ovechkin. Fleury, who also went down with a high ankle sprain, came back a confident goaltender and led the team to a division title. The Penguins went for broke at the trade deadline in acquiring Marian Hossa, arguably the biggest fish in the trade deadline pool, but did so at the expense of grit. And ironically, grit is exactly what cost them the first round last year. Ryan Whitney has recently been moved from forward back to his natural position at defense and the brief demotion seemed to have little impact on his decision making as he was positively dreadful in the last couple games of the season. He was possibly the worst player on the Penguins roster in the playoffs last year and he could single handedly cost them at least a game in this series.
The Verdict: I think this series is nowhere near automatic and the Penguins will have to learn how to play tough, nasty, playoff hockey in a real hurry. Their second to last game of the season against the Flyers showed that they have the ability, but can they do it consistently? I hope so. Pittsburgh in 6.
The Matchup: (3) Washington versus (6) Philadelphia
The Story: The NHL’s Cinderella team set numerous records this year not only behind league leading scorer Alexander Ovechkin and his historical campaign, but also as a team with one of the greatest comebacks of all time, a comeback that revitalized hockey in Washington. They come into the post-season streaking and have proven that they can beat anyone. Sergei Fedorov is alive again and brings a sense of calm to an otherwise young and inexperienced team with players like Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin and even Alexander the Great himself making their playoff debut. The role players for the Caps, players like Brooks Laich, Matt Cooke, and Eric Fehr, will need to continue their high level of play and disrupt the Flyers. Cristobal Huet, who’s been incredible as of late, comes in with a lot to prove. He’s playing for a contract and I’m sure he would love to make his way to Montreal and eliminate his former team.
The Flyers are a manic team. They started off the season with so many suspensions that the league quietly warned them about their play. They then streaked to the top of the Eastern conference and then, just as rapidly, tumbled down and nearly missed the playoffs. They have depth up front and solid defense and were one of my early picks for teams to watch in the playoffs. They come into the playoffs playing some of their best hockey in awhile, but it all comes down to Martin Biron displaying the consistency he showed early in the season.
The Verdict: I have to go with Cinderella on this one. The team of destiny, if you will, is streaking right now and I can’t pick against them. However, this will be a very close series and if the youngsters in Washington get caught up in the spectacle of the playoffs, it could be over quickly for them.
The Matchup: (4) New Jersey versus (5) New York Rangers
The Story: These two teams faced each other in the last game of the season for home ice advantage and the Devils won in a shootout. This should give us an idea of what to expect in this series as it should be a close, hard fought battle. However, each team is coming from very different angles.
The Devils made few changes in the off-season and struggled early on as the team didn’t quit seem to be on the same page. The Rangers, on the other hand, made a number of high profile acquisititions in the off-season including Mr. Playoffs Chris Drury and former Devil Scott Gomez. Both players will get a chance to earn their long contracts as all of the traditionally edgy New York fans and media certainly won’t let it slide if they don’t.
The Verdict: The Devils had possibly the greatest goaltender of all time in Martin Broduer, while the Rangers will lean on Henrik Lundqvist who, despite some inconsistency, seems to have re-discovered his game. Henrik will also be playing to justify his long-term contract extension but this won’t be his first time in the show. The scoring depth of the Rangers is the difference here and even Broduer can’t save them. Rangers in 6.
The Matchup: (1) Detroit versus (8) Nashville
The Story: Detroit was easily the best team in the NHL through most of the regular season, but they did expose some weaknesses late in the year. When Detroit isn’t getting secondary scoring from guys like Daniel Cleary and Johan Franzen they can be beaten. They place their Stanley Cup hopes on 43 year old Dominik Hasek who appears to be completely healthy for the first time in a long time, whether or not he’ll stay that way, remains to be seen. The Redwings were often criticized for the lack of toughness over the last few years and they appeared to take it to heart as they went out and added Aaron Downey, Dallas Drake and secured the return of hometown favorite and playoff veteran Darren McCarty. While they still have a few injuries on the back-end, they appear to be poised for yet another deep playoff run.
Nashville held a firesale in the off-season sending Tomas Vokoun, Paul Kariya, Peter Forsberg, Kimmo Timonen and Scott Hartnell all out of town. They now want to do more with less behind the surprising Dan Ellis who has only allowed 5 goals on the last 182 shots he’s faced. Health or, more specifically, weight is a concern for Ellis who has been trying to find a way to stay hydrated during games after he lost a whopping 13 pounds in a single evening.
The Verdict: The Predators would need a Conn Smythe performance from Dan Ellis to even have a shot. Detroit in 4.
The Matchup: (2) San Jose versus (7) Calgary
The Story: The Sharks were a team with two personalities for much of the season. They were great on the road and mediocre at home. Few expected them to compete for the division, but something changed at the trade deadline. The Sharks went out and acquired Brian Campbell, a puck moving defenseman from Buffalo, and the team rattled off a franchise record 20-game points streak to win their first division title. Evgeni Nabokov finished one win shy (46) of Martin Broduer’s record for wins in a season and, in my opinion, deserves the Vezina Trophy for this year for the league’s best goaltender. Joe Thornton and crew, much like Detroit, have often been criticized for being too soft but in the last game of the season the Sharks earned 95 penalty minutes against the Dallas Stars. A game that saw Joe Thornton and Milan Michalek both drop the gloves. It could be considered a statement, now they need to show that they can do that and stay within the rules.
Calgary is another schizophrenic team. The Flames have struggled to build momentum, failing to win two straight games since late February, but when they do win and play well, they are one of the best. Miika Kiprusoff, a perennial favorite for the Vezina, hasn’t been his normal dominant self this season posting decent, but unspectacular, numbers. The biggest advantage the Flames have going for them is Jarome Iginla and the mentality of this team. Jarome put up his second 50-goal season this year and continues to be one of the best all-around players in the league and easily, in my opinion, the greatest captain in the sport. Kristian Huselius was scorching hot through much of the season, including streaks of 13 points in 4 games and 12 points in 5 games, but disappeared in the last month. The secondary scoring of the Calgary Flames, which includes Daymond Langkow and Alex Tanguay, is the key to the series along with physical play. The mentality of this team is to always be a tough team to play against. This is especially the case in the playoffs and they will attempt to wear down the Sharks with the most physical series in recent memory.
The Verdict: This is a tough series to call. San Jose has always underachieved in the playoffs while the Flames can beat anyone on any night and then follow it up with a loss to a cellar-dweller. Every year we have a 7th seeded team defeat a 2nd seed, so I’ll pick the Flames in 7.
The Matchup: (3) Minnesota versus (6) Colorado
The Story: Minnesota won their first division title in franchise history this year and finished strong securing points in all but 2 of their final 14 games. A number of their young players are coming off of career years, including Marian Gaborik (42 goals) and Pierre-Marc Bouchard (50 assists) and Nicklas Backstrom continues to be one of the league’s best between the pipes. Minnesota is a defense first hockey team, which could serve them well in the playoffs if they can produce on the powerplay and use their counterattack to produce timely goals.
Colorado reached into the history books and tried to rebuild a winner of old when they signed Peter Forsberg and acquired Adam Foote at the trade deadline. The team struggled with injuries, including Joe Sakic, throughout the year but appears to finally be healthy and ready for what should be a great playoff series. One of the league’s most surprising stories of the year has to be Jose Theodore, whom everyone has been waiting to see crumble. He shows no signs of doing so and his playoff experience is invaluable. Youngster, and star-to-be, Paul Stastny will make his playoff debut and both he and Ryan Smyth will need to produce against the Wild’s stingy defense if they Aves hope to win.
The Verdict: This is possibly the most even series of the playoffs, but I’m going to go with the Wild in 7. If the Wild can’t get any secondary scoring or the Avalanche are able to push around the Wild’s somewhat finesse group of defensemen, it could be over rather quickly.
The Matchup: (4) Anaheim versus (5) Dallas
The Story: The Stars were rapidly closing the gap between themselves and the Red Wings, added a tremendous offensive piece to the puzzle in Brad Richards and seemed to be on their way to a division title when suddenly the wheels fell off. The Stars went 4-9-2 over their last 15 games and fell to the fifth seed. They were lucky to have not fallen further. Now with an injury to key defenseman and powerplay quarterback Sergei Zubov, Dallas isn’t limping into the playoffs, they’re crawling.
The reigning Stanley Cup champions Anaheim Ducks are both better and worse this year than they were the last. They have less depth down the middle with the trade of Andy McDonald for the somewhat impact-less, yet battle tested, Doug Weight. Corey Perry is likely to return in the first round but certainly won’t be there for the first couple of games as he’s still recovering from the laceration of his thigh. His absence puts a lot of offensive pressure on the other forwards known to contribute offensively, namely Ryan Getzlaf, Todd Bertuzzi, Chris Kunitz and the always solid Teemu Selanne. The Ducks strength is clearly their defense, as they have what is possibly the greatest defensive core assembled in the last decade. Jean-Sebastien Giguere is a bright spot for the Ducks as he’s been stellar down the stretch. Overall, they are a team lacking offensive balance but all it would take is a guy like Ryan Carter or Bobby Ryan to step up and the Ducks will repeat.
The Verdict: The Ducks will pound the Stars throughout this series. They will wear them down with their size on both ends of the ice and win the series in 5 games. Anaheim will also come out of the West. Doug Weight, while quiet as of late, will be a big part of their run.
Wednesday, April 9, 2008