WAR ON ICE

2006 NHL PLAYOFF PREVIEW - ROUND 1

 

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. 

All clichés 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.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

#1 Detroit Red Wings (56-18-8) vs # 8 Edmonton Oilers (41-28-13)

Season Series: Even 2-2

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 to watch.

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 heart.

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.

Ryan Smyth.  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!

Steve Yzerman 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 Hockeytown.

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!  

Prediction: Oilers in 6


#2 Dallas Stars (53-23-6) vs # 7 Colorado Avalanche (43-30-9)

Season Series: 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.

They never 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.

Although 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.

When Jose 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.

Prediction: Stars in 5

 

#3 Calgary Flames (46-25-11) vs #6 Anaheim Mighty Ducks (43-27-12)

Season Series: Even 2-2

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.

Calgary’s game 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.

Prediction: Flames in 7

 

#4 Nashville Predators (49-25-8) vs #5 San Jose Sharks (44-27-11)

Season Series: Even 2-2

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.  Congratulations to 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 Gorges.

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.

Prediction: Sharks in 6

 

EASTERN CONFERENCE

#1 Ottawa Senators (52-21-9) vs #8 Tampa Bay Lightning (43-33-6)

Season Series: 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.

The Senators 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.

While Jacques 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 watch.

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.

We’ve seen 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.

The Lightning 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.

Prediction: Senators in 5

 

#2 Carolina Hurricanes (52-22-8) vs #7 Montreal Canadiens (42-31-9)

Season Series: 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 now.

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 Carolina.

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 later.

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 playoffs.

The coaching 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 today.

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!

Prediction: Canadiens in 6

 

#3 New Jersey Devils (46-27-9) vs #6 New York Rangers (44-26-12)

Season Series: Even 4-4

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 score.

It’s amazing 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.

Prediction: Devils in 7

 

#4 Buffalo Sabres (52-24-6) vs #5 Philadelphia Flyers (45-26-11)

Season Series: Advantage Buffalo 3-1

Nobody would 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.

Buffalo wasn’t 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.

Philadelphia was 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 playmaking abilities.

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.

Prediction: 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?

Western Conference Prediction: Dallas Stars

Eastern Conference Prediction: Ottawa Senators

Stanley Cup Prediction: Ottawa Senators

Western Conference Dark Horse: San Jose Sharks

Eastern Conference Dark Horse: Buffalo Sabres

Sentimental Favorite: Edmonton Oilers

 

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