HERE WE GO AGAIN !

 

After 2,460 games spread over six long months, finally, at long last, the NHL Playoffs are here! It’s been a great season. There hasn’t been a more exciting season of hockey in quite some time. Six out of the sixteen teams in the tournament ended the season with more than 100 points, and two of them broke 110. This is unprecedented.

Whether it was the penalty crackdown (or lack thereof), a new influx of talent, or new blood grabbing the top seeds, we yet again have sixteen teams with one goal in mind, The Stanley Cup. While only one team can win it all, when you look at the quality of the teams who are in, you can’t help but wish they could have a trophy for everybody. But then, what would be the whole point of the madness we’re about to experience?

I don’t know about you fans out there, but the suspense is killing me, so here are my picks for the first round. All I can say is thank goodness for spring forward daylight savings time, as there is one less hour to wait for opening night of the NHL’s second season. Bring it on!

The Puckin’ Around Picks

Western Conference

1st vs 8th – Dallas vs Edmonton

Here we are again, the elusive 1st vs 8th match-up. It’s not like we didn’t see this one coming. We’ve only witnessed this match-up every year since 1997, with last year being an exception. How fitting is this series, then, with both these teams missing the postseason last year? Call it fate, call it luck, call it a royal pain in the hooga, whatever you call it, this is it. Here’s some more irony to add to the mix. Todd Marchant, the player who scored the Game 7 Overtime goal in 1997 is still here and was named the Oilers’ team MVP after scoring 20 goals yet again.

There’s no question the Stars have had the Oilers’ number over the years, even as far back as when they were still the North Stars of Minnesota. Who could forget the Conference finals in 1991 when Jon Casey broke the Oilers’ hearts? Edmonton went through somewhat of a rebuilding stage after this, and the Stars moved on to Texas. With the exception of the 1997 series, the Oilers have lost every series they’ve ever played against Dallas, but not without a fight! 2003 is another year.

The last time these two teams met in 2001 was a nail biter to say the least, with four out of the six games needing overtime to solve. Quite frankly, if Edmonton is ever to win their sixth Stanley Cup, they’ll have to get by Dallas. This is where something has to eventually give.

Key players to watch will be Mike Modano, Jason Arnott, and Jere Lehtinen. Edmonton should and will attempt to take advantage of the absence of Bill Guerin and Pierre Turgeon. Expect to see Ryan Smyth and Mike Comrie a lot, as well as Eric Brewer and newcomers Brad Isbister and Radek Dvorak. Two young forwards, Fernando Pisani and Ales Hemsky could certainly score an unexpected timely goal or two to help the cause. Ultimately the goaltender duel should be the deciding factor. Tommy Salo had better have his A-game against Marty Turco, or this one could potentially be over in a real hurry. But wait just a minute. These are after all the Edmonton Oilers. Over the years they’ve proven to be a playoff team and overcome the odds. While they didn’t finish the season as well as they would have liked, they really didn’t have to. Rather than squeak in on the final day of the regular season, they were able to clinch a playoff spot more than two weeks before the season was over, whereas Dallas wanted the top seed in the West, and just barely got it. The playoffs are a new season altogether and everybody has a clean slate.

Here are the reasons I’m picking a first round upset here. First of all, Marty Turco has no NHL playoff experience, Salo does, even though I’m sure he as well as everyone else is still thinking about what happened in Salt Lake City. Last time I checked, a 1.72 goals against average in the regular season doesn’t necessarily translate into playoff success. Just ask Ron Tugnutt, one of the Dallas Stars’ backups.

Secondly, the Oilers are used to playing Dallas in the postseason, and don’t think for a minute they haven’t been scouting the team and trying to figure out ways to beat them. They proved they can beat this team late in the season when they were able to lift themselves to a 4-3 victory at home. While it wasn’t a huge margin of victory, it was instrumental in helping the Oilers secure the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western conference. They will need to earn the split in the first two games and will have to use their home advantage to their advantage and let the seventh man, the fans, help lead this team to victory.

Third of all, the Oilers are healthy. They have players who have been here before, and they really have nothing to lose. The pressure in this series will be all on Dallas by virtue of them having the number one seed. Edmonton as usual are the underdogs, but you don’t hear them complaining. Carolina proved last year anything can happen and usually does. Expect this to be a physical, speedy, gritty battle right down to the end. Most likely we’ll be heading for overtime at least once.

Prediction: Oilers in 6


2nd vs 7th – Detroit vs Anaheim

Let’s not let the Dallas Stars kid themselves, the Red Wings were clearly worthy of clinching first in the West, and the only reason they’re second is because of an overtime loss against Chicago. In any event, they’re ready to defend their title and aren’t about to let a few Ducks get in their way.

I’ve been very impressed with the play of Anaheim down the stretch. After everyone was writing them off for yet another season, they went out and traded for a solid defenseman in Sandis Ozolinsh and a proven sniper in Steve Thomas to add to an already potent line with Paul Kariya and Adam Oates. It’s clear having watched them play over the past several weeks Thomas has brought back the missing link vacated by Selanne’s departure to San Jose. While there are rumors Selanne may re-sign in Anaheim in the off season, for now the Ducks have to contend without him. The weakest link seems to be the goaltender, but then again Giguere hasn’t really had an opportunity to prove himself. If the regular season is any indication, give this one to Detroit just on the basis of goaltending alone.

Then you have Steve Yzerman back from reconstructive knee surgery, Brett Hull with his 700+ goals, Brendan Shanahan, Chris Chelios, Sergei Fedorov, and newly acquired power play specialist Matthieu Schneider. In net, Curtis “Mad Dog” Joseph. While they aren’t unbeatable, they definitely hold the advantage over a team who has only been in the playoffs twice before.

Perhaps if Anaheim can take a page from Vancouver’s playoff notebook from last year they may be able to pull off the upset. Yeah, and pigs can grow wings and fly. Definitely not, but I do know this, the Red Wings are out to prove last year wasn’t a fluke.

Prediction: Red Wings in 5


3rd vs 6th – Colorado vs Minnesota

This should be the most intriguing match-up of the first round, simply because nobody knows what to expect. We have a team who has to prove they’re worthy of being called Northeast Division Champions going up against a team who really has nothing to lose. Nobody expected the Wild to be here, but since they are they may as well enjoy it.

From coach of the year candidate Jacques Lemaire through the goaltending tandem of Manny Fernandez and Dwayne Roloson, The Wild are solid on defense, with former New Jersey Devils Willie Mitchell, Brad Bombardir and Andrei Zyuzin. They have a healthy mix of veterans in Cliff Ronning, Wes Walz, Jim Dowd and Sergei Zholtok. As with any good team, good draft picks will complement the mix. Marian Gaborik is as exciting a player as we’ve seen in a long time. Lemaire plays a strong defensive trapping style and makes his players accountable for the plays they make (or don’t make). Don’t expect anything to change in the playoffs.

Then you have the Avalanche, who managed to break a record by winning their division for the ninth straight season. Mind you, they were helped along by Vancouver’s inability to nail it down, but nevertheless they have it. While they got off to a slow start, they managed to overcome the early adversity and still end up with two of the league’s top scorers in Peter Forsberg and Milan Hejduk. Captain Joe Sakic will be looking to lead the charge now he’s back and playing healthy, even though he still averaged a point a game. The power play is dangerous with Rob Blake and Derek Morris on the points. Patrick Roy may retire at season’s end, but not before he has one more shot at the cup he’s already won four times previously. This is Patrick’s time of year. No matter who or what gets in his way, you can be assured he will be ready. He makes it look so easy. If Detroit or Dallas can’t get it done, look for Colorado to be right in there looking for the Conference crown.

Prediction: Avalanche in 6


4th vs 5th – Vancouver vs St. Louis

It was theirs for the taking and they couldn’t pull it off. The Northeast Division title may have gone to Colorado for a ninth straight season, but only after the Canucks were not able to win their final two games of the regular season to put the title out of reach. There is little time to dwell on this now, however, as they will still get home ice advantage in the first round, which should provide a boost for a team who was so close to pulling off the upset against Detroit one year ago.

Markus Naslund came up with a great quote after the loss to Los Angeles. Put simply, they choked. Well they’d better hope Captain Canuck and company can come give themselves a Heimlich Maneuver and make a series out of the first round, or else!

Vancouver has been consistent all season long, coming up with the big plays when they needed them. They have balanced scoring from four lines with Naslund, Todd Bertuzzi, Brendan Morrison, and he Sedin twins. They can mix it up in the corners with tough guys Trent Klatt and Brad May. Defense is exceptional with Sami Salo, Ed Jovanovski, Brent Sopel, Marek Malik and Mattias Ohlund.

The biggest question mark for both teams will be goaltending. We can expect this series to be plentiful in scoring, and the real question will be can both goalies stay healthy? Dan Cloutier missed sixteen games with various injuries, but when called upon was solid as a rock. Then again, the Canucks have a very capable backup in Petr Skudra and Alex Auld could be recalled from Manitoba if absolutely necessary.

Chris Osgood was acquired late in the season by St. Louis for playoff insurance more than anything. When you go with seven goaltenders in the regular season, word gets out pretty quick you need to address the position real quick. Why Osgood? Why not? He has already won two Stanley Cups with Detroit, and while it still remains to be seen if he can win a third one with the Blues, he will be the man going into the playoffs. If need be, the Blues can bring Brent Johnson in and hope he can be half as effective as he was last season in the playoffs. With huge defenseman Chris Pronger back from injury and Al MacInnis quarterbacking the point, all the Blues need do is get their big guns in front of the net. Big guns like Doug Weight, Pavol Demitra, Scott Mellanby, Valerie Bure and Martin Rucinsky. Look for newcomer Eric Boguniecki to be in on a few key plays for St. Louis.

While I mentioned we can expect a lot of goals, look for the team who can capitalize on home ice advantage to prevail. Even though the Canucks couldn’t clinch their division, they were still able to finish in the top four which should prove to be the key. The Blues have a knack for pushing series right to the brink, and the Canucks should be able to hold their own.

Prediction: Canucks in 7

Eastern Conference

1st vs 8th – Ottawa vs New York Islanders

Let the Alexei Yashin bashing begin! Fans in Ottawa have waited for this playoff series ever since the money grubbing center was traded away from the confines of the Corel Centre, and folks, we are in for a treat. The Senators are in the post season now for the seventh straight season, a feat untouched by the other five Canadian teams. When you consider three out of the last four teams to finish first overall have gone on to win the Stanley Cup, you have to really like Ottawa’s chances.

Then out come the Leaf fans and bandwagon jumpers. Out come the naysayers who are out to do nothing more than flap off their mouths at Senators fans who don’t have the time of day for them. John Muckler has come in and turned this team into a contender based solely on what he was able to acquire by not giving up the very foundation of the team. It was said the team couldn’t score in the playoffs, but the Senators were patient and let their young stars develop. This season it paid off as they had six players with twenty goals or more, with Marian Hossa leading the way. It was said the Senators were too slow on their skates. They now have arguably the fastest skating team in the league who can skate circles around the best the league has to offer. It was said the Senators give up too many defensive zone opportunities. With huge Zdeno Chara playing with Wade Redden and/or Chris Phillips, they’ve been able to keep their defensive breakdowns to a minimum. It had been said the team was not tough enough. With that Muckler went out and got feisty winger Vaclav Varada and was able to get Rob Ray to come along with him. Add Brian Smolinski at the forward position and we now have a pretty good checking line. Let’s not forget the solid wall in net, Patrick Lalime. Lalime reminds me of a young Patrick Roy, he has the same fire in his eyes, he talks with great respect for his opponents, and wears the coolest mask of any goaltender in the NHL.

Of course, the Senators are fully aware unless they are able to translate their best regular season ever into their best Stanley Cup playoff run ever, they aren’t doing anything more than hitting the golf course, again. Look for the excuses to end now and the pucks to start ending up in the net. They are the clear favorite at this stage, and if they manage to pull it off, first in line for a Stanley Cup ring should soon to be former owner Rod Bryden. Without him would there even be a team here to watch?

The Islanders struggled down the stretch, but Yashin played like there was no tomorrow. While he has something to prove to the league in this series, don’t look for much to change in the goal department for Yashin. He doesn’t seem to understand the Stanley Cup playoffs or maybe just doesn’t care. In any event, he’s been fairly easy to shut down, and the Sens have every weapon available to continue to keep him off the score sheet. If Mike Peca can stay healthy he’ll be a threat, but behind him and Yashin is there anybody else? Goaltending is questionable at best with Garth Snow and Rick DiPietro. They both had good seasons in their own right, but this is the playoffs. With Ottawa’s firepower Snow or both goalies will need to literally stand on their head.

I must say this though, Yashin has been a member of the New York Islanders now for two full seasons, it’s high time the fans in Ottawa forget about this guy and focus on what a great team they have. There is no need to boo every time this guy touches the puck. The Senators come in the hottest team in the league in a long time, and the first Canadian team to win the President’s Trophy since 1989. Even though their regular season record means squat now, Ottawa has been able to beat every team in the NHL at least once, something not even the top seeds in the west can say. It’s time to cheer long and hard for this team and help them to victory. It’s now or never.

Prediction: Senators in 5

2nd vs 7th – New Jersey vs Boston

Talk about a lopsided goalie contest. On one end of the rink, we have Vezina trophy candidate Martin Brodeur, and at the other end, we have one of either Jeff Hackett, Steve Shield, Tim Thomas or Andrew Raycroft. History will tell you New Jersey should win this one just based on goaltending. However, it also takes offense and defense. The Bruins, however, will be the first to remind us about the Devils’ embarrassing first round loss to Carolina last season.

For the Devils, veteran players like Joe Nieuwendyk, Jeff Friesen and Jamie Langenbrunner are surrounded by the likes of Patrik Elias, Brian Gionta, Scott Gomez and John Madden. Defending Brodeur are heavyweights Scott Stevens, Colin White, and Ken Daneyko. Brodeur is only 30 years old, but already has two Stanley Cups and an Olympic Gold Medal. The players in New Jersey know they can depend on this guy should there be a rare defensive breakdown. Do the Bruins even have a hope?

While Boston is far from living up to their Big Bad Bruins nickname this time around, they still can play a physical game. Joe Thornton is quickly becoming a star but he also doesn’t take any crap from anybody. Glen Murray can score when needed. Martin Lapointe, Brian Rolston and Bryan Berard can take and dish out a hit. The only question mark is goaltending.

If Hackett can come in and play like he did early in the season in Montreal, the Bruins may have a shot at this. Otherwise, the Devils are on their way to the second round, it’s as simple as that.

Prediction: Devils in 6


3rd vs 6th – Tampa Bay vs Washington

In this Southeast Division match-up, we may yet again come down to goaltending. There’s no question both teams have it. Olaf Kolzig has been to the finals before while Nikolai Khabibulin has lived up to his “Bulin Wall” name all season long.

Tampa Bay came into the league in the 1992/93 season, expansion cousins to the Ottawa Senators. How fitting is it then for the Lightning to have five former Senators on their roster? Andre Roy, Darren Rumble, Janne Laukannen, Stan Neckar and Vaclav Prospal are all players who never panned out in Ottawa, yet have found a niche on a Lightning team which bears a scary resemblance to the Carolina Hurricanes of last year. Add to this a fine mix of talent with Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards, Martin St. Louis, and veteran forward Dave Andreychuk, and there’s every reason to believe the Lightning could be this spring’s Cinderella story. Only question is, how soon will midnight come for a team who has only seen postseason action only once before?

The Capitals come into the playoffs riding somewhat of a slump, but they need to put that behind them and focus on the series ahead. Kolzig will take care of the net if the defensive corps of Sergei Gonchar, Brendan Witt, Ken Klee and the surprising Jason Doig can keep the Lightning out of the zone. Peter Bondra and Jaromir Jagr will have to be watched like a hawk (no pun intended). Robert Lang and Michael Nylander both will need to produce. Dainius Zubrus would love to be able to recapture his form from 1996-97 when he played for Philadelphia. Sergei Berezin has enjoyed some playoff success with Toronto. There’s no question Washington has the firepower to be able to accomplish the upset, and these players only make up the top scoring lines. Mike Grier, Kip Miller and Brian Sutherby make up a pretty darn good checking line. Can the “Bulin Wall” stop them all? I say no way. Tampa Bay will give it a good effort, but it’s been said experience prevails. Washington has it, Tampa doesn’t.

Prediction: Capitals in 6


4th vs 5th – Philadelphia vs Toronto

It’s the Broad Street Bullies versus the most hated team in pro-sports. A recipe for disaster? You be the judge! What I do know is this, one of these teams will be going home early.

It seems to me we’ve seen this movie before. It kind of comes with the territory when you’re a team searching for your first Stanley Cup since 1967. There seems to be something in the water or in the air in Toronto. Maybe it’s the ghosts of Leafs past finding their way into the rafters of the Air Canada Center. Maybe Pat Quinn really truly is a genius. Or perhaps the Leafs have the sort of chemistry some teams can only hope to have. Or maybe it could be just an amazing coincidence. In any event, Toronto has managed to come through when everybody counted them out. They’re the only team to ever come back from a 3-0 series deficit. They’re the only team I know who could lose every star player and both goalies in the same playoff series and ride their goalie trainer to the Conference finals. Once there, however, they can never seem to make the next step. They thought Curtis Joseph would show them the way, but he bolted for Detroit just when they had something going.

Enter Ed Belfour and a new record for regular season wins. Bring in Owen Nolan, Phil Housley and Glen Wesley from last year’s Eastern Conference champion Carolina Hurricanes. Add a dash of Tie Domi and Darcy Tucker. What? Sundin did what? Oh, well tell that damn dentist to hurry up and just give him a partial or something, we have a series to play here.

Up until Doug Gilmour and Glen Wesley got injured, this team was downright scary. Well guess what? They’re the underdog again.

Philadelphia may have Tony Amonte, John Leclair, Jeremy Roenick, Claude Lapointe, Keith Primeau up front, and Eric Desjardins, Eric Weinrich, Chris Therrien, Kim Johnsson, Dmitri Yushkevich in the back, but the real question mark comes in goal. Roman Cechmanek was great all season long, and the Flyers have Ken Hitchcock behind the bench, but does it really matter?

Toronto may be the most hated team in pro sports, but one thing is for sure, they are also one of the most consistent. Love them or hate them, they aren’t going down without a fight. That’s the scary part. Philadelphia better be ready for this one.

Prediction: Maple Leafs in 7


Synopsis

For the first time in a long time, the NHL is wide open. It used to be you could pick the team to win it all and usually you’d be right. Not so this year. Anybody out of the sixteen teams in the tournament have a legitimate shot to upset the so-called contender in any given series.

Even so, I’m going to make an early prediction for Detroit to come out of the Western Conference again, and for Ottawa to win the Eastern Conference, which will result in a seven game Stanley Cup Final. All I can say is may the best team win!

There you have it, for better or for worse, my picks. Now it’s time to get your picks to me as soon as possible in time for the hockey pool. Again, you can e-mail your picks to puckin45@rogers.com and remember the deadline is Friday April 11 at midnight on the west coast (3:00 AM EDT). I want to thank all of you who have already sent me your picks, good luck!

Now come on everybody, it’s time to get Cup Crazy, stomp your hands and clap your feet, and sing along with Tom and I:

“Oh the good old hockey game, is the best game you can name, and the best game you can name, is the good old hockey game” (Stompin’ Tom Connors)


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