It’s been two
long years since we last saw a team hoist the Holy Grail of Hockey – The Stanley
Cup. Almost seems like an eternity doesn’t it? Well, finally they’re here –
The Playoffs – hockey intensity at its finest. The crème de la crème, the best
of the best, you know what I mean. What little hair I have left is sure to take
a beating in the coming weeks.
I heard a few
teams breathing a sigh of relief this past week once they knew they were going
to the dance, and even a few more teams expressing their devastation over
falling short. For those who made it in, don’t think for one second the
playoffs will be easy. And don’t expect the top seeds to steamroll their way
through either. The eighth place seed in any respective conference has just as
good a shot of any team. The dress rehearsal is over, now the main event is
here. Since we still need to let the teams themselves decide who will play for
all the marbles, I can’t say with any degree of certainty which will be the last
team left standing, but I do know this – we’re in for one hell of a ride!
Before I analyze
the bedlam about to ensue, I need to give honorable mention to Atlanta, Toronto,
Vancouver and Los Angeles for making the playoff races interesting down the
stretch, but not interesting enough to punch their ticket to the post season. I
also wonder if Rick Nash and Adam Foote could have stayed healthy all season if
Columbus could have had a shot. They had one of the best second halves in the
entire league. A quick glance at the final standings and it seems clear there
are a lot of good teams not represented here who probably deserve to be. Better
luck next year?
I mentioned this
before, but it’s worth repeating here - in the future if the NHL revisits the
scheduling and playoff format, perhaps a preliminary round where 9th
and 10th go up against 7th and 8th will
separate the pretenders from the contenders. Or, maybe just maybe we need to
refrain from awarding the bonus overtime points. You be the judge.
aside, here are my fearless first round and early Stanley Cup predictions – and
I won’t feel the least bit bad if I don’t even get one right – as always
anything can happen, and usually does.
#1 Detroit Red Wings
(56-18-8) vs # 8 Edmonton Oilers (41-28-13)
Season Series: Even
This is not as
lopsided a series as you might think. OK, so Detroit are the President’s Trophy
winners and the top seed in the Western Conference. OK, so maybe, just maybe
they still have what it takes to go all the way, again. Now it’s time to wipe
the slate clean and stop with all the clichés. This is going to be a fun series
Out of the four
games these two played against each other, three of them went to overtime.
Edmonton won two and lost one in a shootout. The other Edmonton loss came
recently in Motown, a 2-0 shutout on a night Detroit all but wrapped up yet
another best overall campaign, and on a night where, suffice it to say, for
whatever reason, the Oilers were flat. Home ice hasn’t meant anything, at least
not during the regular season at least, with both teams winning one and losing
one in their respective buildings.
The Red Wings
were supposed to be one of the teams who felt the harsh economic reality of the
new NHL, yet here they are, first overall, again. They may have had to buy out
a few of their higher priced players, but it seems they kept the right pieces of
the puzzle. Of course, it didn’t hurt to play three of the weakest teams in not
only their division, but the entire NHL, a total of 24 times, but on the other
hand, they also executed their game to perfection when they needed to,
especially against these so called weaker links. All of you who read my columns
already know my position on this, so at the risk of beating it to death, I’ll
leave it alone and hope the NHL schedule makers take a few of my suggestions to
When you’ve gone
through as many stretch runs as the Edmonton Oilers have gone through and
continuously miss by mere fractions of a point, at some point something has to
give. Somehow along the way, the Oilers also managed to avoid their biggest
playoff nemesis (for now) in Dallas. If they manage to be the Cinderella story
of this year’s playoffs, they’re sure to meet up with them at some point.
The prep work
for this season began right around the time we knew the NHL and NHLPA had
finally ironed out a deal. The Oilers boss, Kevin Lowe, liked their team, but
also knew in order to be competitive they had to try and lure a few household
names to the city of champions. As soon as the Chris Pronger deal was done,
life all of a sudden changed. Less than 24 hours later, Michael Peca was also
an Oiler. Although Peca has yet to really show his worth on the ice
statistically, he’s still managed to do some of the little things that make a
team successful, the kinds of things you don’t see reflected on the scoreboard.
Things like winning face offs, grinding it out in the corners, bringing energy
to the team when it needs it most, and even chipping in with a goal once and
awhile. Believe me when I tell you the Michael Peca you saw with the Buffalo
Sabres and NY Islanders will come to the forefront now, and the team brass will
bet the farm on it.
Ales Hemsky. Ethan Moreau. Raffi Torres. Jarret Stoll. Sergei Samsonov.
Georges Laraque. Fernando Pisani. Shawn Horcoff. Dwayne Roloson. All of
these players have something to prove. Especially keep an eye on Hemsky, who
scored two clutch goals down the stretch in two very important games, one
against San Jose, and the other against Anaheim. Dwayne Roloson is looking to
build on what he was able to accomplish with Minnesota three years ago, and in
my opinion he has a lot more talent in front of him this time around. Lowe made
two key acquisitions long before the deadline by getting Jaroslav Spacek and
Dick Tarnstrom to solidify an already decent blue line. Samsonov has found a
new niche after coming over from Boston and set up one of the prettiest goals
I’ve seen all year. As far as extra time goes, no team in the playoffs has gone
to overtime more often than Edmonton. The best part of all – there are no
shootouts in the playoffs!
more than likely will call it a career once this playoff run is over, so you can
be sure he will be fired up beyond belief as he usually is this time of year.
Whether he ends it on a winning note will be up to him and the rest of the team
around him, and his surrounding cast is no slouch to say the least. Chris
Osgood backstopped this team to the Cup back in 1998, but will back up a hot
Manny Legace, who doesn’t have much playoff experience, yet has got it done all
year. Brendan Shanahan has been there before with this team, as has Nicklas
Lidstrom, still regarded as the best defenseman in the world. The “Swedish
Connection” of Lidstrom, Tomas Holmstrom and Henrik Zetterberg have continued to
pile on the points since winning Olympic Gold, much to the delight of fans in
If Detroit does
advance beyond this round, it’s not going to be easy. If this series goes the
distance I like Edmonton simply because they’re younger, faster and have added a
few playoff veterans along the way. Whichever team can execute their game plan
better will advance, plain and simple. Both teams have the ability, and the
pressure is clearly all on Detroit to bring home another cup, while the Oilers
will be happy to just get out of the first round. Most importantly, Edmonton
believes in themselves, where I haven’t exactly heard the Detroit players say
anything remotely resembling any confidence. These two teams have met twice
before, with the Oilers taking both series 4-1 (1987 and 1988). Both times, the
Oilers went on to the win it all. Another stat to consider – the last time the
Oilers had 40 wins in a season, they also won it all. If history repeats
itself, this will be considered a monumental upset. Bring it on!
Oilers in 6
#2 Dallas Stars (53-23-6) vs # 7 Colorado Avalanche (43-30-9)
Advantage Dallas 3-1
A bit of a role
reversal this time around with Dallas getting the home ice over Colorado, but it
doesn’t make the rivalry any less intense.
The Stars were
another of those teams expected not to fare very well in the new NHL, yet
somehow with the new salary structure they were still able to keep the main
components of their team intact, and have very quietly gone about their business
as the NHL’s most consistent team all year long.
really explained what happened, but I recall Mike Modano was rumored ready to
sign with an Eastern Conference team when all of a sudden he settled on coming
back to the only team he has ever known. The explanation Modano gives (and he’s
sticking with it) is he couldn’t picture himself anywhere else. After a horrid
campaign in 2003-04 which saw the Stars fall to Colorado in the first round,
Modano has come back with a vengeance and is looking like he has the fire back
in his game. Bill Guerin and Jason Arnott have put up their usual output of
points and will be looking for blood when the puck drops.
shootouts won’t be a factor, rookie Jussi Jokinen has been a pleasant surprise
not just for the run he went on in the extra frame, but for the energy he has
brought to a veteran laden team which never seems to age. Sergei Zubov very
quietly has had another fine season on defense, and was also a shootout
specialist. Phillipe Boucher has enjoyed his free agent time in Dallas so much,
he decided to renew his contract. In net, Marty Turco has been every bit as
good as Giguere, Kiprusoff and Brodeur has been to their respective teams. The
third string goalie on Team Canada, one has to wonder why he was never given a
chance to play at the Olympics.
Theodore was traded from Montreal to Colorado for David Aebischer, a sense of
déjà vu was all anybody has been talking about to this day. Theodore still
hasn’t found his Hart trophy form, but one has to think if he’s going to get
hot, now’s the time. The Avalanche will need it too, as they haven’t come close
to resembling their championship counterparts from 1996 and 2001. This could
very well be the weakest edition of the team since they moved from Quebec, but
at least they still have Joe Sakic, still regarded one of the best wrist shots
in the game. Outside of Sakic, Patrice Brisebois and Rob Blake, the Avalanche
aren’t as deep as they once were. Pierre Turgeon has added somewhat of an
offense to this team, but not enough for Denver to start planning the
championship parade. It’s too bad rookie Marek Svatos is injured as he would
have been exciting to watch. You can bet revenge will be on Dallas’ mind as
they will look to win their 3rd series in 4 tries against Colorado.
I get the sense this one will be over early.
Stars in 5
#3 Calgary Flames
(46-25-11) vs #6 Anaheim Mighty Ducks (43-27-12)
Season Series: Even
Calgary has had
a score to settle ever since Game 7 of the 2004 Stanley Cup Final, and so far
they’ve managed to deliver by winning both the Northwest Division title and the
William M. Jennings award for having the goalie with the least goals against in
the NHL. How fitting is it then to go up against the team wanting to settle a
score dating back to Game 7 of the 2003 Stanley Cup Final?
Miikka Kiprusoff or
Jean-Sebastien Giguere. Which goalie would you rather have? Both have had
a sniff, and both want the opportunity to get it right this time.
It wasn’t always
easy at times for the Ducks, as at times early on in the season their game was
as exciting as watching paint dry. But something happened shortly after Scott
Niedermayer came back from knee surgery, or maybe it was Giguere’s temper
tantrum against Ryan Smyth of Edmonton. I don’t know if a panic mode set in or
if the team finally found their chemistry or if their opponents just gave up,
but like San Jose, Anaheim has had a stellar stretch run and have earned their
spot in the post season. Niedermayer continues to log many minutes on defense.
His brother Rob continues to be one of the top scorers on the team. Teemu
Selanne plays like a player possessed, similar to what we witnessed back in his
Winnipeg rookie days. He had his first 40 goal campaign since 1989.
is slow the game down to a tempo where they can impose their will on the other
team. Once again the Flames were one of the best home teams in the league, and
they did it by keeping things simple, yet playing hard. Jarome Iginla seems to
have had a quiet season, but when you look at the statistics he had another fine
year. Dion Phaneuf, resembling a young Al MacInnis, has looked like he’s been
in the league for a few years with his solid defensive style and hard point
shot. The Flames brought in Tony Amonte for his playoff prowess, 51 points in
86 playoff games, and two trips to the Semi finals. Darren McCarty will have to
put his bankruptcy behind him and just play.
Both teams will
play a patient style and wait for the other team to make a mistake or take a
penalty. The key to this series will be whichever team can win the special
teams battle, as neither goalie is going to give an inch. I get the feeling the
style the Flames thrive on will eventually get to Giguere, and when it does,
it’s all over. In the meantime, hold on tight as Calgary is sure to be serving
up plenty of roasted duck in the coming weeks.
Flames in 7
Predators (49-25-8) vs #5 San Jose Sharks (44-27-11)
Season Series: Even
Given the way
the season was going for the Sharks at the halfway point of the season, nobody
could have predicted they’d even make the playoffs, let alone solidify 5th
in the conference. But here they are, and all indications are they will be a
tough team to play against.
No matter what
happens in this series or the rest of the way for San Jose, I will say this –
Joe Thornton deserves the Hart Trophy for what he’s been able to do this year.
He already has the Art Ross with 123 points, 3 better than Jaromir Jagr.
Without him, the Sharks wouldn’t be here, and Jonathan Cheechoo wouldn’t have
won the Maurice Richard trophy – period. This isn’t to say the Sharks couldn’t
have made a late season charge, but there’s no way they would have clinched 5th
in the West. How good have these two been? They were co-winners of the Player
of the Week award, a rare feat in itself.
Cheechoo for becoming the first ever Shark to score 50+ goals.
Keep an eye on
rookies Steve Bernier from Quebec and Matt Carle from Alaska. Carle was this
year’s Hobey Baker winner and helped San Jose put the final nail in Vancouver’s
coffin. Both players were instrumental down the stretch and added to the
already potent Thornton & Cheechoo combination. Don’t forget too, Joe’s cousin
Scott Thornton also plays on this team. The Sharks are loaded on defense as
well, with Kyle MacLaren, Christian Ehrhoff, Tom Preissing and rookie Josh
One of the
beneficiaries of the new salary cap structure has to be the Nashville Predators,
and they already had a pretty decent team. They got even better with the
acquisition of both Paul Kariya and Mike Sillinger. In Kariya they have a
proven sniper to complement Steve Sullivan, and in Sillinger they have another
solid centre who can win a lot of face offs, even though they already have face
off specialist Yanic Perreault.
On defense, the
Predators are also solid, but have become downright lethal with the addition of
Brendan Witt from Washington. The knock against this team has been their size.
Even with all of their offense, they just don’t stack up to other teams,
especially San Jose.
Up until Tomas
Vokoun bowed out with a blood clot problem, I would have said this would be a
classic series to go 7 games, and Nashville will be a force to be reckoned with
in the West. The series itself still could end up one for the ages, but not
likely with Chris Mason in goal. This is no disrespect meant against Mason, but
Evgeni Nabokov has been to the semi-finals already, Mason has never played a
playoff game. If need be, Vesa Toskala is also a capable netminder. After
Mason, Nashville has to rely on Finnish rookie Pekka Rinne, which may not be a
bad thing considering he helped backstop Karpat Oulu to the Finnish Elite League
championship in 2004 and 2005.
With all of the
offense the Sharks have, on paper the winner of this one should be a no brainer,
unless Mason or Rinne somehow become the surprise goalie of these playoffs. I
haven’t even mentioned Patrick Marleau, Scott Hannan, Ville Nieminen and Alyn
MacCauley, and with Thornton and Cheechoo, I may not need to.
If Nashville can
pull it off, it will be the feel good story of the first round, hands down.
Even though both teams have matched up well this season, at the end of the day I
can’t and don’t see it happening. This series will be a blast.
Sharks in 6
#1 Ottawa Senators
(52-21-9) vs #8 Tampa Bay Lightning (43-33-6)
Advantage Ottawa 4-0
A team that’s
been forever close to winning it all against the team who won the last time the
Stanley Cup was awarded. While it’s true Tampa Bay are the defending champions,
they sure have their work cut out for them in this series, at least on paper.
While regular season statistics mean nothing now, it’s worth noting the
Lightning are still looking for their first win against the Senators this
season, and has only won once in Ottawa’s barn in their last 14 tries. Don’t
expect much to change from here on in.
went into this season with a new coaching staff, a new attitude, and some new
faces, yet they have continued to roll along as one of the NHL’s best regular
season teams. If they awarded Lord Stanley’s Cup on regular season merit alone,
Ottawa would have become a dynasty many years ago. Unfortunately, regular
season success doesn’t necessarily mean playoff success, and the knock on the
Sens has always been their performance at this time of year, their uncanny
ability to disappear meekly into the sunset as one of the usual suspects of
Detroit, Dallas, Colorado or New Jersey move on to take the coveted mug.
Martin taught the team a defense first philosophy, Bryan Murray has managed to
coach the team to play the way they’ve never seemed able to before, gritty,
cocky, and with the swagger John Muckler swears a team needs to make it to the
promised land. The change in attitude has been refreshing to say the least, and
when this team has all of their top players in the lineup, they are fun to
The biggest injury
of them all for Ottawa has been in goal, as “the Dominator” Dominik Hasek was on
the verge of giving Miikka Kiprusoff a run for the Jennings award up until he
went down at the Olympics with a strained adductor muscle. While I still have
no idea what exactly this muscle is or does, it sounds painful, and has looked
painful as Hasek has yet to this day to participate in a full practice. This
has paved the way for Ray Emery to prove he is the goaltender who will take this
team into the future. Given the fact Hasek is no closer to returning today than
he was a month ago, Emery will be the go to guy, and he has proven he can do the
job. I’ll go out on a limb now and say if this team can go all the way and
Hasek still hasn’t returned by the semi-finals, he may not be given the chance.
As far as I’m concerned, if Emery gets it done, Hasek doesn’t deserve to play.
How do you like that for a goalie controversy? Apparently the coach agrees with
me as he sent Hasek off the ice in a recent practice to give Emery more time to
gear up for the greatest ride of his life.
Ottawa tear up the ice and put plenty of pucks in the net all season long. 304
goals for, 211 goals against, the best plus-minus in the league, the most potent
scoring line in the league, and two of the toughest yet highly skilled checking
lines in the league. They rewrote their own record book this year as both
Daniel Alfredsson and Dany Heatley led the team with 104 points, the most of any
Senator. Heatley became the first Senator to score 50 goals. Special teams?
Forget about it. Ottawa ranked fourth overall on the power play (#1 at home),
and they led the NHL in shorthanded goals. In the past teams would centre on
Alfredsson, Alexei Yashin or Marian Hossa and it would be good night Irene for
the Senators. Nowadays this team can beat you just about any way you want with
four balanced scoring lines. Shut down the Alfredsson-Jason Spezza-Heatley
line? Not likely. But if you do, here comes Peter Schaefer-Mike Fisher-Martin
Havlat to tear up the twine, or Patrick Eaves-Antoine Vermette-Brian Smolinski,
or Vaclav Varada-Chris Kelly-Chris Neil. Four lines who can score and mix it up
when they need to. I haven’t even mentioned deadline pickup Tyler Arnason, who
in all probability won’t play. Need I remind anyone of the defensive corps this
team has? Only the biggest defenseman to ever strap on skates in Zdeno Chara, a
veteran in Wade Redden, a promising young gritty rookie in Andrej Meszaros, the
“A-Train” Anton Volchenkov, “Philly Cheesesteak” Chris Phillips, and “the
German” Christoph Schubert. In the reserves, coming up from Binghamton (to
experience the playoff rush more than anything) are Kelly Guard, Steve Martins,
Denis Hamel and Filip Novak. While it’s highly unlikely Guard would ever get
put in net over Emery or Mike Morrison, it’s not entirely out of the question.
Martins is a Gatineau, Quebec native, so he could end up a fan favorite in the
event there’s an injury. Gentlemen, start your engines!
But not so fast!
The Tampa Bay Lightning are after all the defending champions, and will be
damned if they will let just any team take it away from them. The core of the
championship team is still here, with Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards and
Martin St. Louis, yet they have lost a few major components to the finely tuned
engine of 2004. The biggest loss was in goal, as Nikolai Khabibulin tried his
luck in Chicago (and failed miserably I might add), but it also didn’t help to
lose their captain Dave Andreychuk, and a solid defenseman in Ben Clymer. The
player with the most experience on this team nowadays is Darryl Sydor, no
slouch, but he can’t do it all by himself.
have shown signs they’d break out into the team everybody seemed to fear in
2003-04, but sputtered into the playoffs playing little better than .500
hockey. Had the trials and tribulations of Atlanta and Toronto not fallen short
of the mark, this team could easily have gone from champs to chumps faster than
you can drop the puck.
I get the sense
this Tampa team has tuned out their coach John Tortorella and is saying “OK, we
won it once, whatever, get off our backs”, then other times it appears as though
they want to do it all over again. If they are able to repeat, they are going
to need current goaltenders Sean Burke or John Grahame to become an impenetrable
shield around the net, as the Senators will be firing on all cylinders.
Although it remains to be seen, it seems Ottawa has taken a page from Tampa’s
book this year and seem ready for anything.
Is a proverbial
passing of the torch about to happen here? We certainly can’t count out the
defending champs until they’re done like dinner, but I say South Florida bows
out to their expansion cousins, quickly and painlessly.
Senators in 5
Hurricanes (52-22-8) vs #7 Montreal Canadiens (42-31-9)
Advantage Carolina 4-0
Raise your hand
if you thought the Carolina Hurricanes would be in the running for the Eastern
Conference title right down to the last day of the regular season. Be honest
This season was
the best season of any team to ever play in Raleigh or Hartford, yet going into
the playoffs one gets the sense this will not be a playoff to remember for
Losing Erik Cole
to injury really hurt this team, yet they still managed to wrap up the Southeast
Division. Up until the injury, the team was rolling along at a pace faster than
the Ottawa Senators (and had actually beaten them in two straight games). To
save face, the Canes traded for the only legitimate centre on the market, Doug
Weight, who has been anything but the Doug Weight of old. He’s shown a few
flashes here and there, but has done little more than add an aura of
respectability to a team needing a veteran presence.
This isn’t to
say the Hurricanes don’t have a potent offense. Au contraire. Eric Staal had a
breakout year, becoming the first Carolina/Hartford player to hit the century
mark in points since John Cullen in 1990-91. Rod Brind’Amour is the Hurricanes
version of the Energizer Bunny, he keeps going and going and going. This season
he averaged 24:17 in ice time, which is virtually unheard of amongst forwards.
If you want to talk about face off specialists, well he is as good as it gets.
Rod won 347 more face offs than any other NHL player. Getting a year off to
heal old wounds was a blessing in disguise for Brind’Amour. Justin Williams
also had a career year in his first full season away from Philadelphia, 31 goals
and 45 assists. It all starts in net, and Martin Gerber has had a banner year
with 38 victories under his belt. He was equally as impressive for Team
Switzerland at the Olympics, but seemed unable to ward off Team Sweden when it
counted most. The lack of experience is sure to catch up to him sooner or
The Habs seemed
to have one of those years like they were playing in four different time zones.
They started off with one of the hottest records of any team, winning 12 of
their first 16 games (only Ottawa was better), and then the wheels fell off as
they struggled to win 7 of their next 25. This was when Jose Theodore’s started
to punch his ticket out of Montreal while Saku Koivu, Alexei Kovalev and Andrei
Markov recovered from injuries. Claude Julien lost his coaching job as a result
of the poor record. Enter Bob Gainey and a 23-15-3 record the rest of the way,
and some help from Washington (to eliminate Atlanta) and Montreal is back in the
change was just one piece of the Montreal puzzle. Cristobal Huet was forced
into action as Theodore struggled to find his game, and wouldn’t you know, Huet
would go on to post 7 shutouts in the second half of the schedule. One can only
wonder what he could have done with a full season to strut his stuff. Nobody in
the Eastern Conference knew who this guy was, but fans of the Los Angeles Kings
know full well the gem they gave up to make salary cap room on their roster.
While Mathieu Garon is no slouch, I wonder how much the Kings regret the trade
Then the inevitable
happened. Just hours before the trading deadline, Theodore was sent packing
to Colorado for David Aebischer, a capable backup goalie if nothing else. It
was clear Huet was going to be the guy down the stretch, yet somehow the fans
and media in Montreal managed to turn this into a goalie controversy. To me
there’s no controversy at all - just ride the hot goalie.
So the Habs have
their goaltender, they have Koivu, Markov and Kovalev back in the lineup, they
have Michael “C.C.” Ryder “riding” a personal best 30 goal season, and most
importantly, they’re in the playoffs again. Where they go from here is
anybody’s guess, but if recent history is any indication, they are more than
capable of pulling off the first round upset. I’ve said it before and I’ll say
it again – never ever count Montreal out. It’s the very reason some hockey fans
cheer for A.B.M. – Anybody But Montreal. Time is running out for the Habs to
keep their streak of at least one Stanley Cup per decade alive, and if Gainey
and company have their way, they will have a lot to say about it this year.
Centre Bell will be rocking, this much I know for sure!
Canadiens in 6
#3 New Jersey Devils
(46-27-9) vs #6 New York Rangers (44-26-12)
Season Series: Even
No team is
hotter going into the playoffs than the New Jersey Devils, winners of 11
straight, coming from behind in dramatic fashion in game 82 against Montreal to
shock the entire Atlantic Division. By virtue of one more win over
Philadelphia, they managed to pull off the division win by eating up a 19 point
spread since January 6. This beats the 1993-94 Detroit Red Wings, who managed
to overcome an 18 point deficit to win their division. The Devils will now claim
home ice advantage as they will face the team who led the Atlantic for most of
the season, the New York Rangers. While it’s probably true the Rangers are
happy to just be in the playoffs for the first time in 9 years, it must be a
bitter pill to swallow when all they had to do was win their last game to clinch
the division, something they had many opportunities to do if you look at the box
what a team can do when they decide they’re going to face adversity straight in
the eye and go for it. Before this season even started, the Devils lost two of
their best defensemen in Scott Stevens (retirement) and Scott Niedermayer
(Anaheim), and then when the season was barely at the quarter mark, they lost
both Vladimir Malakhov (retirement) and Alexander Mogilny (salary cap issues).
Then just as it looked like the team was turning the corner, they started to
regress to the point where coach Larry Robinson threw in the towel, paving the
way for Lou Lamoriello to right the ship. And did he ever. Of course, getting
Patrick Elias back from a bout with hepatitis was a huge boost, as the E.G.G.
line was born (Elias, Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta). Gionta has had a career year,
breaking a team record in goals with 48, a record previously held by Pat Verbeek.
Centering the E.G.G. line, Gomez also had a personal best 33 goals and 51
assists. He attributes last year’s ECHL campaign as time well spent, even
though the competition is nothing like what he faces in the NHL. Brian Rafalski
was the Devils fourth leading scorer, and he’s a defenseman. John Madden (no
relation to the football broadcaster) should be considered for the Selke trophy
again this year. New Jersey wouldn’t be the same without their diamond in the
rough, their anchor, their goalie, Martin Brodeur. It appeared to me Brodeur
had a rough time early on adjusting to not only the new rules and improved speed
of the game, but also the smaller equipment. Missing six games with a knee
injury couldn’t have helped his cause either, but the laid-back Marty is back in
business and ready to go for it all over again. His relaxed demeanor helps keep
the team focused.
For the Rangers
to have any hope in hell in this series (pun intended), I have two names for
you. Henrik Lundqvist and Jaromir Jagr. Jagr can be both the best player in
the world and a colossal whiner, all at the same time. When Jagr is on his
game, the Rangers are on theirs and usually come away with a win. When he
isn’t, they aren’t. Lundqvist is looking to achieve hockey’s version of the
Triple Crown, a Swedish Elite League Championship, an Olympic Gold Medal and the
Stanley Cup. If he can get on a roll the Rangers have a good a shot as any team
in the Eastern Conference. It will certainly help if Michal Nylander and Petr
Prucha can get back to the pace they were scoring at before the Olympics.
Again, this will require Jagr to find them in scoring position with his
signature pass on the tape.
Both of these
teams have a lot of playoff history and both will want this series equally as
bad as the other team. It’s all about bragging rights. Since the Rangers last
won the Stanley Cup in 1994, the Devils have owned them. I can hear the
“Rangers/Devils Suck” chants already.
Devils in 7
#4 Buffalo Sabres
(52-24-6) vs #5 Philadelphia Flyers (45-26-11)
Advantage Buffalo 3-1
have even flinched had Philadelphia won the Atlantic Division, and up until the
Devils came from behind in their final game to beat Montreal and claim top spot,
everyone thought it was all but wrapped up. One win separated Philly from New
Jersey, and one more point separated both from the Rangers. And they said the
Northwest Division was tight!
In any event,
the Flyers are coming in as the apparent underdog in this series, and given the
way the Sabres have played all season long, you have to think it will get
interesting really quick.
even expected to challenge for the 8th and final playoff spot, let
alone clinch the fourth and final home ice advantage seed in the conference.
They’ve done it with their sheer speed, grit and consistent goaltending. Ryan
Miller has been nothing short of outstanding, and he was missing for a good
portion of the season. When everyone thought Martin Biron was going to be the
odd goaltender out, it actually ended up being Mika Noronen who got shipped to
Vancouver at the deadline, and now everybody knows why – the Sabres are in and
the Canucks are golfing.
While all teams
went through injury troubles, they never seemed to affect this team, despite the
fact they were without Miller, Daniel Briere, Tim Connolly and J.P. Dumont for
extended stretches. Never willing to use the man games lost to injury as an
excuse, the Sabres plugged away night in and night out, and managed to finish
off the campaign just 3 points shy of the Northeast Division and Conference
Titles. The style this team plays is similar to Calgary in the West, lull your
opponent to sleep and capitalize on mistakes.
If you thought
the goalie controversy in Montreal was bad, don’t tell the Philadelphia media.
Robert Esche was the man in 2004 when the Flyers made it within one goal and one
win of the Stanley Cup Finals, and for many stretches this year didn’t even come
close to looking like he’d regain his form. A lockout year will do that to
you. He seemed to play better down the stretch, and will start this series.
Should he not be successful, Antero Nittymaki has proven he can play at this
level and has last year’s Calder Cup championship under his belt to prove it.
another team forced to buy out a few players and shrink payroll to get under the
$39 million limit imposed by the league. In retrospect, though, what it allowed
them to do was get back the player they’ve wanted ever since they traded him for
Eric Lindros, Peter Forsberg. Forsberg has proven time and time again he can be
a force in a game, in a series, and if he stays healthy, he will be instrumental
to whatever success the Flyers enjoy this postseason. Simon Gagne, Joni
Pitkanen and Mike Knuble add a decent supporting cast to Forsberg’s smart
My worry with
Philadelphia is the same concern I have every year – is the defense tough enough
and are they too old? Derian Hatcher is back, but can he be effective? Does
Eric Desjardins still have what it takes? Can Chris Therien, Mike Rathje and
Kim Johnsson pick up the slack if those two can’t bring it? All questions will
be answered in good time.
The real test
for this team is can the younger cast of Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, R.J.
Umberger and Branko Radivojevic step up and complement the stars? If they
can’t, it will mean another early exit for the Flyers.
Sabres in 7
And there you
have it, my take on the insanity which should already be underway by the time
you finish reading this. Enjoy the first round, and be sure and check back for
more predictions in less than two weeks! Before you go, check out some of my
forward looking predictions, and may the best team win!
THE FINAL VERDICT?
Prediction: Dallas Stars
Prediction: Ottawa Senators
Prediction: Ottawa Senators
Dark Horse: San Jose Sharks
Dark Horse: Buffalo Sabres
Favorite: Edmonton Oilers