SIXTEEN CONTENDERS

2004 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS - ROUND 1 PREVIEW

Once upon a time, a team could be virtually guaranteed a playoff spot if they could manage 82 points during the regular season.  Well, not anymore!

Here we go again, with the 2004 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and not one team challenging for the beloved Holy Grail has less than 90 points.  An unprecedented 10 teams have 100 points or more.  The Eastern Conference could almost be renamed the North-Eastern Conference, as four out of five teams in the Northeast Division are represented here.  We haven’t seen four teams from any division qualify for the playoffs since the days when we only had four divisions.  Only one team is here from the Southeast Division, but somehow they managed to secure first place in their conference.  The defending Stanley Cup Champions from New Jersey are as much of a threat as ever, even though they only placed 6th out of 8th.  The final playoff spots in the Western Conference came right down to the final weekend, again, with Nashville getting in literally by the skin of that big fang on their logo!  It’s almost not fair for the teams on the outside looking in, but this is how the cookie crumbles!  With so much parity in the league today a good case can be made for a change to the existing playoff format, but maybe (hopefully) this will be explored by the league at a later date.

With so much uncertainty over whether or not we’ll even have a season next year, most Canadian hockey fans can cheer hard as five out of six Canadian teams are in, at least for the first round, as two out of the five will be going home early.

Sixteen teams, one champion.  Who will it be?  You could probably flip a coin and have a better chance at analyzing each individual match up, but what fun would that be?  I’ll tell you what, I’m certainly glad I’m not in charge of making the odds in Las Vegas.  There isn’t one team without a legitimate shot at hockey’s ultimate prize, and I wouldn’t at all be surprised if my predictions turn out to be 100% wrong.  Don’t let the final standings and playoff positions fool you, it’s just been too close all year long, and now the fun begins.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

#1 Tampa Bay (46-22-8-6) vs #8 New York Islanders (38-29-11-4)

Season series: Advantage New York (3-1-0-0)

I’ve always said you have to learn how to lose before you can win in the NHL, and nowhere is this more evident than with this year’s edition of the Tampa Bay Lightning.  After having their most successful season in club history last season, they bowed out in the second round to this year’s defending Stanley Cup Champions.  Fast forward to this season, and the Lightning went undefeated against New Jersey on their way to a 106 point season, good enough for the best overall record in the Eastern Conference.

Tampa Bay has the luxury of being able to roll four quality lines, and have two goaltenders who feed off each other and can both get the job done.  Led by Art Ross winning and Hart trophy contending forward Martin St. Louis, the Lightning have a slew of players who can score, most notably Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards, Cory Stillman, and Fredrik Modin.  This is complemented by veterans Dave Andreychuk and Tim Taylor.  Darryl Sydor has brought experience and has been a welcome addition to an already solid blue line consisting of Dan Boyle, Pavel Kubina, Cory Sarich and Jassen Cullimore.  Nikolai Khabibulin picked up where he left off last year, and John Grahame has proven he can step up to the plate if needed (I’ll never let him live it down, but he just needs to hang on tight to his stick). 

If there’s one uncertainty heading into the playoffs with these powerful Bolts, it’s their depth.  They haven’t had to deal with any major injuries, and have rolled along because of it.  Many of the contenders from the East have had to deal with injuries all season long, and while they aren’t making excuses, the impact has been felt in the standings.

The New York Islanders are one of the few teams in the East with a winning record versus the Bolts this season, winning all but one meeting in their season series.  The Islanders are heading to the post season for the third straight year after what seemed like an eternity of futility (their cousins the Rangers know exactly what I’m talking about), although again they weren’t able to place higher than the final playoff berth.  It goes without saying they were scoreboard watching down the stretch as Buffalo made an interesting charge to make it within one win and six points of kicking the Isles out of contention.  Of course it didn’t happen, and the entire team can thank goaltender Rick Di Pietro for stopping the rubber more often than not.

Adrian Aucoin again led the team in defensive ice time, but had some help on the back end with former Edmonton D-men Janne Niinimaa and Roman Hamrlik, as well as Kenny Jonsson and Eric Cairns.  Up front they have 10th year NHLer Michael Peca, Alexei “the 9 million dollar man” Yashin, Mark Parrish, and Oleg Kvasha.  Rookie sensation Trent Hunter was in contention virtually all year for the Calder Trophy, but fell short during the stretch run.  Nevertheless he had an impressive first campaign on Long Island and will be a star in this league.  Mariusz Czerkawski is enjoying his second stint with New York and can literally score at will.  Jason Blake is an offensive-defensive specialist, and will see a lot of time on the penalty kill.  Cliff Ronning was signed halfway through the season to be an offensive spark plug, but his offense has come in spurts.

One question mark for me after an otherwise satisfactory season is Yashin.  Will he disappear again now at the most crucial time of the year as he has in playoffs past?  Also questionable is Di Pietro – is he the answer in goal or will “the Snowman” Garth Snow be forced into action?

If both teams can stay healthy this could be a long series, one in which Tampa should prevail if for nothing else but their recent success.  The Lightning just seem to have more chemistry playing as a team and have more offensive weapons, where the Islanders still seem to rely on individual efforts.  As expansion cousins of the Ottawa Senators, Tampa seems to have built their team in a similar fashion, sticking with what they have, and they now have an opportunity to reap the benefits of a few years of patience with the younger players.  The Islanders on the other hand haven’t forgotten the fact they’ve been eliminated in the first round two years in a row and should make it interesting.  Give the edge to the Bolts given they have the most experienced coach of both teams in John Tortorella.  The Islanders with first year coach Steve Sterling have already exceeded everybody’s expectations.

Prediction: Lightning in 7

#2 Boston (41-19-15-7) vs #7 Montreal (41-30-7-4)

Season Series: Advantage Boston (3-0-1-2)

It’s the dreaded #2 vs #7 match up, almost as precarious as 1st vs 8th.  Just ask the Detroit Red Wings about last year’s series against 7th place Anaheim.  Well, maybe not, but it seems almost fitting these two age old rivals are meeting yet again in the postseason.  We can’t, however, question the fact this is the positional match up which has yielded the most upsets in the first round ever since the NHL started using the current playoff format.  Given these two play in the same division, this time it won’t be much of an upset no matter who wins.

The Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens both came into this season looking to better their results from a year ago.  Boston finished in 7th and faced New Jersey in Round 1.  Before they knew it they were playing golf.  Montreal failed to qualify for the playoffs at all after making positive strides the year previous.  What a difference a year makes.

The Bruins kept us all on edge until Game 82 before taking the Northeast division title, on the road in New Jersey no less.  Led by Calder Trophy candidate Andrew Raycroft in net, they boast two of the most potent scoring lines in the league, with Captain Joe Thornton leading the way.  He’s questionable for the start of the series, however, as he suffered an “upper body injury” over the final weekend of the regular season, but indications are he shouldn’t be out long.  The team fared alright in his absence, as go to guys like Glen Murray, Sergei Samsonov, Brian Rolston and Travis Green have all lit the lamp.  Patrice Bergeron had an outstanding rookie year stopped short with a shoulder injury just after the All-Star break.

Understanding the need to get better defensively, the Bruins brought in veteran defenseman Jiri Slegr, who won a Stanley Cup in Detroit, and they were one of the first in line when Washington held their fire sale before the trade deadline, landing Sergei Gonchar who has helped improve Boston’s power play.  Already with solid blue liners Hal Gill, Ian Moran, Sean O’Donnell and former Ottawa 67 Nick Boynton, the B’s think they now have enough depth to make some noise.

Montreal has managed to clean up their act both on and off the ice, right from the hiring of general manager Bob Gainey.  Gainey has instilled confidence in a team guilty of underachieving and through coach Claude Julien has made every player accountable for their actions.  For the most part, he stuck with the roster he had, calling up some players from their AHL affiliate in Hamilton.  Gainey managed to claim checking forward Steve Begin off waivers, and the move paid off.  Starting in goal, Jose Theodore has put last season’s abysmal play behind him and played like the player we saw when he won the Hart trophy.  Michael Ryder led all rookies in scoring and should get as many votes as Boston’s Raycroft for the Calder trophy.  Michael Ribeiro was given an opportunity to develop and he ended up the team’s points leader.  Saku Koivu had a tough season with both his team and the media, as his captaincy was questioned.  The team pulled through and silenced the critics, for now.  Richard Zednik, Jan Bulis continued to contribute, and Yanic Perreault remained a face off specialist.  Liking what he saw, Gainey decided to give the Habs some more help at the trading deadline, acquiring Jim Dowd and Alex Kovalev, both veterans in their own right.

Patrice “Broken Wood” Brisebois led a defensive corps solidified by former New Jersey D Sheldon Souray, who had an outstanding year despite suffering yet another “upper body injury” late in the season.  He is still good enough to be effective, but the Habs really missed his offensive prowess on the power play down the stretch, but have Craig Rivet, Stephane Quintal, Andrei Markov and Francois Bouillon to pick up the slack.

This is the 30th time both teams have met in the playoffs.  The Habs hold a 22-7 advantage all time in postseason play.  The last time they met two years ago, Montreal won the series in six games.  Even though the Bruins have improved significantly since then, don’t expect much to change this time around.  Montreal has been given a mindset which was missing from this team for a long time.  Gainey helped the team realize the tradition of what it means to wear the “CH” logo and while I expect Boston to put up a good fight, I just don’t see them overcoming the adversity of losing Thornton and having an inexperienced playoff goaltender.  They do have Felix Potvin to put in if needed, but he hasn’t seen as much playing time as Raycroft has.  Boston held a slight advantage in the season series, but it’s the overtime record which concerns me, as they failed to win once against the Habs in the extra frame.  This will just not get it done in the playoffs.  My colleague uLAr boldly predicted Montreal to win the Stanley Cup by 2010, but if they have their way, it will happen this year or next.  Expect another classic, and expect the Blue, Red and White to prevail, again.

Prediction: Canadiens in 6

#3 Philadelphia (40-21-15-6) vs #6 New Jersey (43-25-12-2)

Season Series: Advantage Philadelphia (3-2-1-0)

They placed 3rd and 6th in the conference standings respectively, but only one point decided home ice advantage and the Atlantic division title for Philadelphia.  Given neither team has to travel very far, will home ice even matter in this series?

The Flyers held the advantage against the defending champions, winning 3 and tying 1 during the regular season, but don’t think for one second this automatically makes Philadelphia the favorite in this series.  It is a given they have enough offensive stars to get the job done, with the former Chicago connection of Jeremy Roenick, Tony Amonte and Alexei Zhamnov, veterans Keith Primeau, John LeClair, Claude Lapointe, and Mark Recchi, along with the often underrated Simon Gagne.  Primeau and Roenick are both returning from concussions, Roenick from a broken jaw, so their effectiveness remains to be seen.

Eric Desjardins returns from a broken arm, but if he doesn’t get it done on defence, Philly will have to rely on sophomore Kim Johnnson and rookie Joni Pitkanen.  Danny Markov will bring some experience, but will it be enough?

In net, Robert Esche will be up against his biggest NHL test yet.  If he doesn’t get it done, the Flyers have Sean Burke to bring some stability, but neither goalie comes even close to the man at the other end.

The Devils have faced their own adversity this season, most notably Scott Stevens who suffered a concussion in January and hasn’t played since.  He may not return, and at this stage the team can’t even tell us where he is, let alone give an idea as to when and if their captain can lead another charge to the Promised Land.  Brian Rafalski suffered a leg injury during the second half, but seems to be back just in time for the series.  The only question is he 100% or making like Bobby Baun?  With two gaping holes on defense, Scott Niedermayer has had to pick up the slack and has met the challenge head on.  Colin White has gotten himself into penalty trouble and will have to tone it down for this big series.  Tommy Albelin should be ready to fill in for Stevens and has the experience to make a difference.  Bottom line, New Jersey’s defense should be fine.

Even though Joe Nieuwendyk left for free agency and Ken Daneyko retired, New Jersey still has a potent offense which can still get it done.  Proven playoff performer Grant Marshall is also injured, but may return in time to salvage a game or two.  John Madden and Patrik Elias represent the biggest offensive threat, along with Jay Pandolfo and Brian Gionta.  David Hale and Paul Martin (not to be mistaken for Canada’s Prime Minister) have both been impressive rookies.

It was rumored and hoped by New Jersey fans and media the organization would bring in a man destined to be a Devil, Miroslav Satan of Buffalo, but it wasn’t to be.  Instead Viktor Kozlov and Jan Hrdina were brought in as defensive specialists who should fit into New Jersey’s defensive style, although they’ve yet to prove anything.  Of course, let’s not also forget 43 year old workhorse Igor Larionov, who doesn’t replace Stevens or Nieuwendyk, but still brings leadership.

New Jersey could win this and any series with goaltending alone.  Martin Brodeur is clearly the man, and everybody in the East knows the road to the Stanley Cup will go through New Jersey.  Pat Burns and Ken Hitchcock will match wits, but at the end of the day whoever can stop the puck will win, period.  The Devils go into the playoffs with the least amount of goals against over any team in the league, proof Brodeur still has it.

Prediction: Devils in 6

#4 Toronto (45-24-10-3) vs #5 Ottawa (43-23-10-6)

Season Series: Advantage Toronto (4-1-1-0)

Take every cliché you know and throw it out the window.  The circus has officially arrived back in town.  This is Round 4 of the always entertaining Battle of Ontario, and this promises to be the most fun filled series yet! 

Here we have two teams, equally deserving to move on to round 2, but one will not.  Both teams have faced adversity all year long with injuries and not always meeting the expectations of fans and media alike.  Nobody is making excuses and both teams look ready to go.  This time at least there aren’t any complaints over the playoff schedule.

Toronto comes into this year’s edition of the playoffs healthy and stocked up, with the exception of one Owen Nolan.  On paper if you go up and down both rosters you’d have to wonder how Ottawa can even win a game.  You have Ed Belfour with all his playoff experience and one Stanley Cup, Joe Nieuwendyk with three, his most recent one coming just last season, 41 year old Ron Francis who enjoyed some playoff success with the Carolina Hurricanes a couple of years back, former New York Rangers captain Brian Leetch who has a Stanley Cup, Gary Roberts who has vivid memories of his Stanley Cup with Calgary, and current Leafs captain Mats Sundin who would like nothing more than to give the fans in Leaf Nation their first championship since 1967.  The names I just mentioned would be any team owner’s dream roster, but it doesn’t stop there.  Alexander “Al-Mo” Mogilny, Darcy Tucker, Tie Domi, Matt Stajan and Alex Ponikarovsky round out an impressive roster, but is it a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth?  We’re about to find out.  John Ferguson, in his first year as Leafs general manager, certainly hopes not, although he’d better not plan the victory parade just yet.

The trade which moved Leetch from Broadway to the Air Canada Centre improved an already solid defense.  Calle Johansson came out of retirement on trade deadline day to join the likes of Brian McCabe, Bryan Marchment, and Tomas Kaberle.

The only thing I can foresee being detrimental to Toronto’s playoff run is the collective age of all the players, not to mention the lack of a proven backup goalie should “Eddie The Eagle” Belfour’s back woes come back to haunt him.  With eight players over 35 and 17 over 30, the time is clearly now for the Leafs to get the job done.  Then again, this team has placed a skeleton crew roster on the ice before, so from the get go the sky is clearly the limit.

The Ottawa Senators had a good season despite backlash from fans and media over their often times lackluster play on the ice.  They still finished strong with 102 points, one point removed from home ice advantage and two points removed from clinching the Northeast division.  After their pedal to the medal President’s Trophy winning season from a year ago, I get the impression this was intentional, but you’ll never get the players to admit it.  This is a team with all the pieces needed to go all the way, now they just need to prove they’re worthy and make it happen.  They led all teams in scoring with 262 total goals, 7 more than Detroit, and were up there with the best of them in goals against, proving their goaltending situation isn’t as bad as everybody thinks.  For whatever it’s worth Patrick Lalime has the best playoff goaltending record over the past three seasons (1.72 GAA), yet he is questionable with a lingering knee injury which should be fine for the series start.  For the time being both teams deservedly get some much needed rest.

Ottawa has the deepest defense of any team in the Eastern Conference.  Wade Redden along with Chris Phillips both have shown they’re ready during the final stretch.  Anton Volchenkov returns from a shoulder injury and has already proven to be very effective.  Newly acquired Greg De Vries has a Stanley Cup ring from Colorado, as does Curtis Leschyshyn.  Let’s not also forget the tallest player ever to play in the NHL, Zdeno Chara, a whopping 6’9’’ off skates.  This guy is so tall he somehow managed to take out one of Florida’s broadcasting cameras with his stick, giving new meaning to “high sticking”.  Brian Pothier has done well in his first full year since being traded here from Atlanta, and Todd Simpson has fit in nicely since his trade from Anaheim.  The Senators have the luxury of rotating all of these defensemen, something not too many teams can say.  They even have more defensive depth on the farm in Binghamton if needed.  The Leafs are clearly outnumbered here.

On offense, take your pick of Daniel Alfredsson, Marian Hossa, Radek Bonk, Martin Havlat, Antoine Vermette, Peter Schaefer, Brian Smolinksi, Josh Langfeld, Mike Fisher, Shaun Van Allen, and Todd White.  I don’t care how many future Hall of Famers Toronto thinks they have in their lineup, they aren’t going to be able to stop everybody.  Maybe Bonk will make up for a sub par season by his standards and surprise everybody.  He certainly has the ability and an opportunity here to redeem himself, and it has to happen now.

The Senators also added grit last year with Rob Ray but never had an opportunity to make use of him as they never faced Toronto.  He came out of semi-retirement midseason to rejoin the Senators as a free agent (he was actually doing color commentary for Buffalo when John Muckler came calling!).  Chris Neil is also a tough customer but he needs to keep his emotions in check.  Rugged winger Vaclav Varada has also returned in record time from an ACL tear which was expected to keep him out of action until at least May, but he will be back as well.  He too needs to concentrate more on the intimidation factor but not take dumb penalties.  Unless Tie Domi or Darcy Tucker does something stupid, he should just stay away from both of them and concentrate on getting Sundin, Roberts or Mogilny off their games.

Ottawa got a huge scare during the last game of the regular season as newly acquired Peter Bondra was hit from behind by Tie Domi and was listed as day to day with, you guessed it, a “lower body injury”.  He seems to have shaken it off and should be fine for Game 1.  Sophomore forward Jason Spezza was also missing from the lineup and was day to day, but apparently will be ready to go.  For the first time ever the team seems to show the sort of “swagger” general manager Muckler has been looking for and actually talks about winning it all.  After all if you can’t talk about winning the Cup, you can’t be expected to do it.  Now is when we will see if all the so-called smart moves will pay off, or to use another cliché, this is where we separate the men from the boys.

Count on this series being another emotional one, with both teams wanting to put the other away early.  It has all the makings of another classic, and although they say home ice means nothing in the playoffs, the Leafs always seem to come through when it matters most.  It will be up to Ottawa to match their work ethic, or else it will be another bitter end for Canada’s capital.  I’m a little bit baffled over the fact almost everyone is counting out the Senators, including their own fans, yet the series has yet to begin.  Sure, history may repeat itself if they come out stale from the gate, but consider this: in 2001 the Senators had home ice advantage and the third best record in the conference, only to lose Game 1 in overtime and eventually get swept in four straight.  While I’m not suggesting Ottawa will turn the tables and sweep Toronto, I don’t think they can be counted out, and while a sweep is definitely possible, not likely against a team who wants it just as much as they do.  They gained valuable experience in their run last year, and if they can get away from the Toronto karma and mind games and just play their game, they will be alright.  I can guarantee you one thing: if they play the way they did during the last game of the regular season versus these same Leafs, they will be done in four straight like everyone seems to be predicting.  If they come out strong with the same kind of emotion and poise shown in the game the previous night in Philadelphia, they will beat the Leafs for the first time in their playoff history.  It’s now or never, for both teams.  Bring it on!

Prediction: Senators in 6

WESTERN CONFERENCE

#1 Detroit (48-21-11-2) vs #8 Nashville (38-29-11-4)

Season Series: Advantage Nashville (3-2-0-1)

Winning the President’s Trophy and winning the Stanley Cup are expected to go hand in hand, but don’t tell the Detroit Red Wings.  They’ve posted the best overall NHL record now for a fourth time since 1990, the most of any team, but only have one cup to show for the feat.  Nevertheless, there’s a reason why they call Detroit “Hockeytown”.  The organization has built and sustained a tradition of winning, winner of 11 total Stanley Cups, 3 since 1997.  Only two teams in NHL history have more, Toronto (13) and of course, Montreal (24).

After what started out as a season of uncertainty for Motown with the Hasek vs Cujo goalie controversy along with several major injuries (Derian Hatcher, Henrik Zetterberg, Steve Thomas), the Wings continued to get it done with not only their depth but with All-Stars Brett Hull, Steve Yzerman, Chris Chelios, Brendan Shanahan and Nicklas Lidstrom.  General manager Ken Holland once again resorted to free agency and the trade winds to complement these veterans well with folks like Robert Lang, Ray Whitney, Steve “Stumpy” Thomas.  Flashy players like Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk represent the future for the team, now.  The “Grind” line of Kris Draper, Darren McCarty and Kirk Maltby is as strong a checking line as you’re bound to see.  Another variation of this line also sees Tomas Holmstrom fill in nicely.

On defense, Chelios and Lidstrom could win a Stanley Cup all by themselves, but the addition of former Dallas captain Hatcher added a new dimension to the Red Wings blue line.  Mathieu Schneider could challenge Lidstrom for the Norris trophy, and Jiri Fischer pairs up well with Mathieu Dandenault to give Detroit much needed depth.

The biggest question mark season long was in goal.  Dominick Hasek came out of retirement and was expected to be the go to guy, at least until his groin gave out.  Curtis Joseph has filled in fairly well, yet has been hampered with an ankle problem he’s had ever since he played in Toronto.  Everyone had expected him to be traded but management stuck with the rabid dog.  This leads us to Manny Legace, who is starting to prove he’s worthy of more than simply backup status, and could actually end up starting this series if Cujo isn’t 100% ready.  The Wings also have rookie Marc Lamothe who I’ve seen play a couple of times and have been very impressed with.

On the other end of the ice will be the Nashville Predators, as they qualify for the postseason for the first time ever, and it wasn’t easy.  They built up quite a rivalry with Detroit along the way, going almost even in the season series, proving along the way they can keep up and match the Wings’ one on one.  The playoffs, however, are a different story, for two reasons: 1) Detroit hasn’t forgotten about Anaheim last spring, and 2) Nashville doesn’t have a proven goaltender or the experience needed to win.  This isn’t to say Tomas Vokoun won’t make a few heads roll.  He finished the season with 34 wins, tied for third best in the league, and was named to the Western Conference All-Star team.

Up front, Greg Johnson and deadline acquisition Sergei Zholtok are faceoff specialists on a team with some modest firepower.  Martin Erat, Vladimir Orszagh, and Andreas Johansson make up the speedy European line, Scott Hartnall, Adam Hall and the “Tootoo Train” rookie, Jordin Tootoo, make up a fine checking line.  Steve Sullivan, acquired from Chicago in another deadline deal, has increased scoring tremendously on a team which is defensive minded for the most part.  This was arguably the biggest trade for any team this year, as Sullivan’s speed mixed with his ability to light up the lamp is a major reason why the Predators are in the playoffs to begin with.

On defense, Nashville is mediocre at best, with Kimmo Timmonen, Jason York, Marek Zidlicky, Mark Eaton, and rookie Dan Hamhuis.  Brad Bombardir and Shane “The Sheriff” Hnidy were summoned into Music City at the deadline to give the Predators more options.

Nashville hasn’t had the pleasure of seeing a coach get fired yet, as Barry Trotz has instilled a system into the squad similar to the style played by Minnesota and Anaheim.  With teams in the East aware of what’s going on, will it be enough to help the Preds pull off the upset?  I give them a home game or an overtime win, perhaps even a win on the road, but one thing they will not do is sweep Detroit.  Goaltending issues aside, even without Sergei Fedorov, the Red Wings are still the team to beat in the West.  This looks like the only series which will be over early.

Prediction: Red Wings in 5

#2 San Jose (43-21-12-6) vs #7 St. Louis (39-30-11-2)

Season Series: Advantage San Jose (2-1-0-1)

The Sharks were picked by many last season to go deep in the playoffs, but they didn’t even make the playoffs, and ended up in a semi-rebuilding phase, sending Owen Nolan to Toronto, and allowing Teemu Selanne to sign in Colorado.  They started off this season just as flat, getting almost a quarter of the way through before they finally scored a win at home.  From there they never looked back, and won the Pacific division.

San Jose had so much depth in goal at the beginning of the season, they allowed Mikka Kiprusoff to get away to Calgary, as Evgeni Nabokov and Vesa Toskala held the fort all year long.  Believe me when I tell you the Flames owe a lot to this team for helping Kipper develop into the player he is.  Nabokov is expected to be the man in the playoffs, and he should be able to get it done.

A brutal backend in 2002-03 got it together for 2004, as Brad Stuart, Mike Rathje Scott Hannan and Kyle McLaren looked pretty good as they helped teach the ropes to newcomer Tom Preissing.

Offense came from everywhere, as five players scored 20 or more goals.  Unfortunately, one of those players was Marco Sturm, but the Sharks still have Patrick Marleau, Alyn McCauley, Jonathan Cheechoo, and Nils Ekman.  Vinny Damphouse, Scott Thornton and Mike Ricci bring much needed experience.  Alexander Korolyuk had a great year on the fourth line with strong Wayne Primeau and Scott Parker.

St. Louis’ 24 year playoff streak very nearly came to a grinding halt as they were on the outside looking in until they smartened up and clinched themselves their 25th straight playoff berth with literally one day to go in the regular season.  Ironically enough, it was a win against Nashville which sealed the deal for the Blues.

Led by proven goaltender Chris Osgood, and a thin defense led by Chris Pronger, Eric Weinrich and Murray Baron, the Blues for the most part rely on one big line for all their scoring.  Keith Tkachuk, Doug Weight and Pavol Demitra are the team’s most lethal scoring line, and Scott Mellanby adds needed scoring depth.  Put simply if San Jose can stop these three, they shouldn’t have a hard time in this series.  The Blues are missing a couple of their big names in All-Star defenseman Al MacInnis, who many think won’t play again, and last year’s Calder Cup winner Barret Jackman.

There’s the easy part.  This match up has yielded some interesting results in the past.  The first time around in 2000, it was San Jose taking the series in 7 games, in what was an entertaining 8th vs 1st upset, in a year St. Louis had the best overall record in the NHL.  A year later in 2001 St. Louis got revenge over the Sharks in 6 games going in as only the 4th seed.  This one is tough to call as during the season the teams only met four times and results were fairly even.  The Sharks are coming off their best offensive year both goals wise and in the standings, and St. Louis doesn’t want to be left singing the blues after the first round.  Goaltending will tell the story in this one, as it usually does.  I had to flip a coin in this one because I like both teams (why not flip a coin for all the match ups this year?!).  Given the history between these two I’m picking a long series.

Prediction: Sharks in 7

#3 Vancouver (43-24-10-5) vs #6 Calgary (42-30-7-3)

Season Series: Advantage Vancouver (3-2-1-0)

After 8 seasons of hard work and determination, the Calgary Flames are finally back in the postseason.  Just to give one an idea of how long it’s been, there’s only one member of the current Flames roster who played the last time the team made the playoffs, their captain Jarome Iginla.  Back then he was called upon as a rookie against Chicago, but it wasn’t enough and for some reason the Flames haven’t seen the playoffs since.

Iginla leads all Calgary Flames in scoring by a long shot (which is probably why everybody who’s entered our hockey pool has picked him), but he isn’t the only means of offense this team has.  Craig Conroy, Shean Donovan, Matthew Lombardi, and Martin Gelinas along with newly acquired veterans Chris Simon, Ville Nieminen and Marcus Nilsson will all have to light the lamp if this team has any hope against the Northwest division winners from Vancouver.

Calgary has a very talented and balanced defense made up of Jordan Leopold, Rhett Warrener, Robyn Regehr, Toni Lydman, Andrew Ferrence, and Denis Gauthier.  The biggest defensive player of them all comes in goal with Mikka Kiprusoff.  The Flames knew what they were doing when they acquired Kipper from San Jose, and they never looked back since.  In February, Kiprusoff posted a record of 5-3-0 and a goals against average of 1.98.  The numbers weren’t far off all season, and clearly the reason the Flames are here is the goaltending.  They need this to continue if they’re going to get by the Canucks.

Many have said the Vancouver Canucks tarnished their chances of coming out of the West the second Todd Bertuzzi sucker punched Colorado’s Steve Moore.  Of course as we all know by now, Bertuzzi won’t play, taking away the “two” in the team’s 1-2 punch line.  If the Canucks miss Bertuzzi, you’d never know it from their play during the final week, yet they did struggle significantly down the stretch.

Vancouver will clearly go as far as their goaltender can take them, and Dan Cloutier has to find a way, although backup Johan Hedberg has proven in the past with Pittsburgh he can take a team on a run as well, so fans don’t have too much concern there.

Marcus Naslund needs to find his scoring touch, and to help him will be a whole team of proven veterans and skill.  Matt Cooke will need to step up big in Bertuzzi’s absence, along with Geoff Sanderson, Trevor Linden, Brendan Morrison, Mike Keane, and the Sedin twins.

Defense shouldn’t be a problem, with Sami Salo leading the charge with Brent Sopel, Ed Jovanovski, Mattias Ohlund, and Marek Malik.

This is the first time Vancouver and Calgary have met each other since 1994, a series won in seven games by the Canucks on their magical run to the finals in which they lost in Game 7 to Mark Messier and the New York Rangers.  Trevor Linden was around for Vancouver then, but admits it is unfair to compare this team today to the team then, and he along with the team firmly believe this is the year the Canucks can make some noise in the West.  They’ll have to beat a very good Flames team to do it.  Look for this to be the most exciting and entertaining series of the first round, one which will most likely go the distance.  It’s a shame one of these teams will be going home, but that’s how it goes in the playoffs.

Prediction: Canucks in 7

#4 Colorado (40-22-13-7) vs #5 Dallas (41-26-13-2)

Season Series: Advantage Colorado (3-1-0-0)

When Colorado faces off against Dallas in this year’s playoffs, they’ll have to play without one of their big forwards in Paul Kariya, as he is out indefinitely with a sprained ankle suffered in the last game of the regular season against Nashville.  But don’t let the loss of one forward dampen the spirits of an Avalanche team still hot under the collar after losing an opportunity to win their division for an unprecedented 10th season.  This team is every bit as dangerous without Kariya as they are with him.

The Avalanche come into this series having won 3 out of 4 meetings against Dallas.  The Stars were strong down the stretch and managed to secure their position with a win on the final day of the season.

While everybody was and still questions whether or not David Aebischer can get the job done in net for Colorado, the team seemed to do just fine.  Just in case, Pierre Lacroix acquired Tommy Salo at the trade deadline and he will play the role of backup if push comes to shove.  Aebischer is up against Marty Turco at the other end of the ice, a goaltender who was asked the same types of questions after taking over for Ed Belfour.  He, like Aebischer, seemed to answer the bell quite nicely, thank you.

This series will clearly come down to a goaltending duel, with both teams capable of scoring when it counts.  Colorado has the usual suspects of Joe Sakic, Milan Hejduk and Peter Forsberg, and have added Steve Konawalchuk, Chris Gratton, Matthew Barbaby, Teemu Selanne, and Andrei Nikolishin.  Dallas will counter with Mike Modano who needs to redeem himself after a sub par season by his standards, Bill Guerin, Jason Arnott, Jere Lehtinen, Stu Barnes, Scott Young, and newcomer Valeri Bure.

Both teams have oodles of playoff experience on defense.  Colorado has Rob Blake, Derek Morris and Adam Foote.  Dallas has Sergei Zubov, Jon Klemm and Teppo Numminen.

It should be a dandy series ahead, but a very good team will again be going home early, something neither team is used to as these two usually match up closer to the Conference finals.  I’m going to go with experience over unproven goaltending and pick the Stars to come out on top, even though Colorado has home ice.  It doesn’t mean a thing here, because as good as David Aebischer has been and as good as he may be, he isn’t Patrick Roy, and if the Avs end up having to go with their backup Tommy Salo, they’re in big trouble.

Prediction: Stars in 6

Just before I sign off, I’d be remiss if I didn’t wish all the best to Adam Oates after a stellar 19 year NHL hockey career.  He recently announced his retirement after Edmonton’s Game 82 loss to Vancouver, a game which broke the hearts of the Oilers and Alberta hockey fans (well at least half of them, given Calgary is in).  Oates amassed 1,420 total points, 1,079 of them assists.  He reached the 100 point plateau four times and was known as a proven playoff performer who made it to two Stanley Cup finals, most recently with Anaheim last spring.  He was an outspoken veteran presence for every team he played for, and led by example both on and off the ice.  He should be all but guaranteed a spot in the Hall of Fame.  Without question he taught the young Oilers team a thing or two about how to win, and you know they will be a better team for it when the NHL drops the puck on their next regular season.

And with that, bring on the playoffs and may the best team win!  Join me after the first round for more predictions, and keep track of our annual hockey pool results.  The link is on the left navigation bar.

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