GIVE NOTHING, TAKE EVERYTHING

2007 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF PREVIEW

ROUND 1

 

Without a doubt, by now you’ve seen the NHL advertisements on television borrowing clips from the new epic motion picture “300”.  The movie, just in case you aren’t one of the millions who’ve already seen it, is a dark retrospective about the ancient Battle of Thermopylae, which saw a meager 300 Spartans and their King Leonidas go to war against Xerses and his massive Persian army.  It’s a story about insurmountable odds and displays endless courage and desire.  Sound familiar?  It should, because we’re about to witness Sports’ biggest showcase of courage, grit, finesse and endurance – the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

We’ve entered a new era in Stanley Cup history.  For the first time, ever, both finalists from last year’s playoffs missed their chance to defend their Conference/Championship titles.  In two cities where hockey rules above everything else, Toronto and Montreal, their fans will be merely sideline spectators.  Better yet, four of the Original Six teams aren’t represented, two teams who haven’t missed in more than 10 years, Philadelphia and Colorado, are out, only ½ of the Canadian based teams are in, not to mention all but one of the last four expansion teams are in, and as you’ll learn, they are very good.  Thanks to the much scrutinized “rivalry based” schedule (which for the record, I still hate), we witnessed arguably the most exciting playoff race ever, with the eighth and final playoff spots in both Conferences coming down to the final weekend (the final day in the East).  The bottom line, there will be a new champion crowned in 2007.  Somewhere within the doldrums of the NHL’s executive offices, Gary Bettman must be grinning from ear to ear.  His dream for a parity league has become a reality.

As for me, you’ve all witnessed me whine and groan all season about the misfortunes of my favorite team (rightfully so given the 180 degree turn they took from a year ago), so in the interest of sportsmanlike conduct, I give to you, my loyal readers, the most informative and objective assessment of what is still, in my mind, the most exciting time of the year in all of sports.  As I always do, with Edmonton’s season now over, I promise you so is any mention of them by me until the off season 

Even if hockey doesn’t appeal to you, the fact of the matter is, the Stanley Cup is the hardest trophy to win.  Soccer may be considered the most beautiful game, but hockey has the most beautiful trophy, hands down!   And let's be honest, if you weren’t even the slightest bit interested, you wouldn’t be here, would you?  So strap on your skates and get ready for the ride of your life!

 

2006-2007 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF PREVIEW

Eastern Conference

#1 Buffalo Sabres (53-22-7) vs #8 New York Islanders (40-30-12)

Season Series: Advantage Buffalo 3-1

It became evident very quickly the Buffalo Sabres weren’t about to allow themselves to suffer the same fate as Edmonton and Carolina.  Feeling the sting of losing Game 7 of the Conference Finals last year to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Hurricanes, the Sabres stormed out of the gate to the NHL’s best record, and by November it was pretty clear nobody was going to touch them.

The New York Islanders, on the other hand, made it into the playoffs on the last afternoon of the regular season, in the ultimate Hail Mary of clinching games – in a shootout no less.  In the process, an entire nation of blue and white supporters north of the border collectively hung their heads.  Is it really going to matter?  Let’s find out.

Buffalo is loaded with talent, and on paper this series should be a cakewalk.  It all starts in goal with Ryan Miller, and to back him up is Ty Conklin, who was forced into action during last year’s Stanley Cup Finals.  Miller can more than hold the fort, as evidenced by the final stretch where the Sabres went 7-3 to clinch their division and first ever President’s Trophy.

On defense, it’s as good as it gets.  Jaroslav Spacek signed here as a free agent last summer and has been instrumental to the team’s success – any team will tell you a puck moving defenseman is a must in the new NHL.  It doesn’t stop there, as most of last year’s defensive corps from Henrik Tallinder, Brian Campbell, Toni Lydman and Dmitri Kalinin are still here.  An interesting stat – Tallinder went through a couple of injuries this year and the team had a sub .500 record without him.

Up front the Sabres are just downright scary.  Daniel Briere, Maxim Afinogenov, Chris Drury, Derek Roy, and deadline acquisition Dainius Zubrus could all make the top line on just about any team.  Rookie Drew Stafford has earned a spot on the team down the stretch and will get a chance to play in his first NHL playoffs.

The New York Islanders have had their own share of big name acquisitions and big dollar contracts.  First year general manager Garth Snow has had a pretty good year, as he signed goaltender Rick DiPietro to that 15 year deal, and made out like a bandit at the deadline by getting Marc-Andre Bergeron and Ryan Smyth.  Unfortunately, DiPietro is recovering from a concussion, so the Islanders have had to and will have to ride the coat tails of two backups in Mike Dunham and Wade Dubielewicz.  Dubielewicz has helped the team through a handful of overtime and shootout games, but the shootout is not an option here.

Defense is certainly a weak spot outside of Bergeron and Sean Hill.  Tom Poti and Brendan Witt give a little bit of grit, but matched up against the Sabres’ top players, I just don’t see them keeping up.  For the Islanders to be successful they need all hands on deck and will have to play lights out.  Richard Park and Mike Sillinger need to keep finding the net, and Smyth needs to keep doing what he does best, crash the net.  All three players definitely bring playoff experience, but it’s going to take more than three players to win this series.  How about if Alexei Yashin actually decides to show up to the rink in person instead of sending his holographic twin brother?

I could talk to you about how the 8th vs 1st matchup is always the most intriguing, and how the elusive upset has happened more often than not – but I’ve got news for you and the New York Islanders– as dramatic as the road to the 8th and final playoff spot was, it’s not going to happen unless the roof crumbles in for Buffalo.  I’ll leave you with this – the New York Islanders aren’t strangers to the underdog position.  In fact, they’ve been here a couple of times previously.  In 2003, they faced an Ottawa Senators team who dispatched them in five games, in 2002 they took a top seeded Toronto Maple Leafs team to the distance before bowing out in 7, and in 1993 they faced a Pittsburgh Penguins team fresh off two consecutive Stanley Cups with high expectations for a 3rd.  That series went the distance, with the Islanders winning in 7.  1 out of 3 isn’t bad, I guess, but it’s going to take a miracle of epic proportions for history to repeat itself in New York’s favor.

The second season begins, and it is clear the Sabres have one goal in mind – win the Stanley Cup.  Anything less will be considered a failure.  The scary part is, until a team can eliminate them in a seven game series, they are the undisputed favorite to go all the way.  I certainly can’t picture the upset happening here, but these days you never know.

Prediction: Sabres in 5

 

#2 New Jersey Devils (49-24-9) vs #7 Tampa Bay Lightning (44-33-5)

Season Series: Advantage Tampa Bay 3-1

When you’re 1st in your division and well on your way to your second straight top three Conference seed, it must be time to fire the coach – right?  Lou Lamoriello’s eleventh hour decision to lower the boom on Claude Julien with less than a week to go in the regular season certainly sent shockwaves throughout the entire NHL, and for what?  Evidently, Lou didn’t like the direction the team was going (at least that’s his story and he’s sticking with it).  What’s next, a third stint behind the bench for Larry Robinson?

For New Jersey, Martin Brodeur has been and continues to be the man in goal.  He set a personal best record breaking season this year, breaking Bernie Parent’s single season record of 47 wins (Brodeur registered 48).  Of the 48 wins, 12 of them were shutouts.  With still a few years left in what could be his final contract, it’s not inconceivable for him to eclipse Patrick Roy and become the greatest goaltender of all time, if he isn’t already without achieving the milestone.

It’s hard to argue the Devils were one of the hardest hit teams by the introduction of the salary cap.  Not only did they lose Scott Stevens and Ken Daneyko to retirement, they lost Scott Niedermayer to the Anaheim Ducks.  Even one of these defensemen is hard skates to fill, but they’ve managed to remain competitive by hanging on to lesser known (but not less important to their team) like Brian Rafalski, Richard Matvichuk (who returns to action after missing all but one game to injury) and Colin White.  Rookie Johnny Oduya has been very solid, yet still learning the position.

The Devils have a very balanced attack and can score almost at will, at the most opportune times.  Down 2-0 going into the 3rd period?  No problem.  Besides the Pittsburgh Penguins, nobody in the Eastern playoff grid played more overtime games than the Devils.  They still have a few players who have been there before – Jamie Langenbrunner, Scott Gomez, Patrick Elias, Sergei Brylin, Brian Gionta and John Madden.  They’ve also enjoyed great years from sophomore Zach Parise and rookie Travis Zajac.  They’re certainly not lacking up front, and have the cup rings to prove it.

Tampa Bay, like New Jersey, found out just what life under a salary cap is like.  They concentrated the bulk of their salary structure on three players – the three big scorers – Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards and Martin St. Louis.  Before long, the realization was there wasn’t enough money to keep the likes of Nikolai Khabibulin on the payroll.  However, not a team to back down from adversity, they brought in Marc Denis and Johan Holmqvist, who on some nights looked downright awful, but when it counted, were able to get the job done.  The team’s playoff fate depends on which Jekyll or Hyde shows up for the playoffs.  Neither one has any NHL playoff experience, so the jury is out on how they will respond.

Short of the big three scorers, there isn’t much to write home about.  Vaclav Prospal and Ruslan Fedotenko have the ability to come up with a big goal, and may have to if the game plan is to neutralize the big three.

The defense is still anchored by local Ottawa boys Dan Boyle and Luke Richardson, but it tapers off very quickly from there.  Filip Kuba, Nolan Pratt and Paul Ranger are only household names in Tampa (or maybe Minnesota in Kuba’s case).  The only one of the six who will skate with a ring is Boyle.

John Tortorella is arguably one of the best motivational coaches to have.  Let’s face it, he’s been able to take a team three years removed from the Stanley Cup and at the very least stay competitive in a salary cap world.  Unless Denis or Holmqvist stand on their heads, and unless St. Louis and/or Lecavalier score a hat trick each per game, don’t expect an upset here.  They do have the experience from 2004, which can go a long way, but quite frankly, barring an injury, the road to the Eastern Conference championship will once again go through Brodeur.  Enough said.

The New Jersey Devils have only been able to stay as good as they are in a salary cap age because of the decision making process of Lamoriello.  The catch phrase over in East Rutherford has always been “In Lou We Trust”.  The end of an era is coming soon to an arena near you.  The brand new Prudential Centre will open up for business next season in Newark, and the Devils will affectionately move there and call it their new home.  How fitting would it be if the Stanley Cup could have one last go around of the Continental Airlines Arena parking lot? 

So far the franchise has won 3 Stanley Cups, and they could very well be on their way to their fourth.  If not, they will certainly make life very difficult for whatever team manages to get through.

Prediction: Devils in 5

 

#3 Atlanta Thrashers (43-28-11) vs #6 New York Rangers (42-30-10)

Season Series: Advantage Atlanta 3-1

A big welcome to the Stanley Cup Playoffs goes out to Atlanta, a team on the verge of making it for so long has finally done it with their first ever division title.  Coached by former Colorado bench boss Bob Hartley, the expectation of this team to make it here was theirs for the taking.  Well here we are.

The Thrashers have been somewhat of an enigma throughout the season.  On many nights they explode offensively, to the point of downright embarrassment to the other team.  On other nights, they look like they are just a first year expansion team.  Of course, the team will hope and expect the first scenario rings true at least throughout the first round.

As always, it starts in goal.  Kari Lehtonen was the highest drafted Finnish goaltender ever, and has shown us why this season.  Backing him up has been “The Moose” Johan Hedberg, who is more than capable should Lehtonen get the opening round jitters.

The explosive offense comes primarily from the extremely gifted winger Ilya Kovalchuk and sniper Marian Hossa.  Of all teams, Atlanta was probably the busiest at the trading deadline, and addressed some key holes up the middle, now plugged up by Keith Tkachuk and Eric Belanger.  Vyacheslav Koslov, Bobby Holik and team captain Scott Mellanby add even more offense to an already potent lineup.  Steve Rucchin, Jon Sim and Brad Larsen give the Thrashers a grinding checking line which matches up well against the league’s best.

On the blue line, outside of Greg DeVries, Alexei Zhitnik, Niclas Havelid and Garnett Exelby, the path to the net isn’t too hard to exploit, so if the Thrashers have a weakness, this is it.  Are you sensing a general theme building up here?

For the second straight year, the New York Rangers have managed to qualify for the postseason, and again sit in 6th seed.  Unlike their Long Island counterparts, they locked up their playoff spot with still a few games to go in order to tune up their game.  After being swept out in four straight games last year, the team knew they had to be better than just Jaromir Jagr, and they addressed this with the additions of Brendan Shanahan and everyone’s favorite agitator Sean Avery.  He’s the type of player you hate to play against but would love to have him on your side.  Jagr is only one offensive threat to worry about.  With Shanahan bringing more experience and offensive talent, the focus can shift away from Martin Straka and Michael Nylander.  Something to watch in this series will be how Marcel Hossa matches up against brother Marian.  The two have played against each other many times before when Marian was in Ottawa and Marcel in Montreal, but they’ve never faced each other in a playoff series.

The similarities to Atlanta on defense are astonishing, as outside of the top four of Karel Rachunek, Marek Malik, Michal Rozsival and Paul Mara you can basically roll the dice.

The biggest difference, in my opinion, will come in goal.  Henrik Lundqvist, 25, already has an Olympic Gold medal under his belt, and Kevin Weekes has been to the finals with Carolina.  With the lack of experience in this position for Atlanta, the Rangers are the clear cut favorites in this regard.

Don’t forget, the only reason Atlanta is in 3rd spot is because they won the Southeast Division.  Their 97 points are only 3 more than the Rangers, and New York has a better goals against average.  What does this mean?  Absolutely nothing!  Where the Thrashers go from here is entirely up to them.  I can tell you one thing, if ever there was a first round upset in the making, this is the one.  I just don’t think the Thrashers have enough experience, especially in goal, where the Rangers got a small taste of what it takes last year, and have made adjustments accordingly.  I just flat out like Lundqvist over Lehtonen and I believe ultimately he will be the difference in this series, not to mention the Rangers have far more experience in Jagr and Shanahan than the entire Atlanta roster combined.  Flip a coin and pick your poison, but the Southeast Division’s reign as Stanley Cup Champions is about to come to an end.

Prediction: Rangers in 6

 

#4 Ottawa Senators (48-25-9) vs #5 Pittsburgh Penguins (47-24-11)

Season Series: Advantage Pittsburgh 3-1

Remember the NHL television ad from last year where the two players are facing off at centre ice, and one goes to the other “Nervous?” and the response is “This is going to be fun!”  Well, this is by and large all you need to know about this series.  You have a team still trying to get the proverbial monkey off their back up against the most improved NHL team statistically this year, maybe ever.

The Pittsburgh Penguins had more wins in 2006-07 than they had their last two seasons combined.  They were only a few points removed from clinching the Atlantic Division, and ended up with the same number of points as their first round opponent.  A couple of more wins and they’d be starting at home instead of on the road.

The comparisons to the Penguins of yesterday have been pouring in all season long.  By now everybody knows about Sidney Crosby.  In just his second season, he won the scoring title at the tender age of 19 (just for the record it took Mario Lemieux until his fifth season to accomplish the feat).  The organization has surrounded him with some exciting and explosive young talent, with the right attitude.  You have Calder Trophy hopeful Evgeni Malkin, first year sniper Jordan Staal, who looks more and more like brother Eric every day, and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton AHL graduates Erik Christensen, Maxime Talbot and Michel Ouellet.

Needless to say, the kids are alright, but can’t be expected to go anywhere without veteran leadership, and the Penguins came out of the trading deadline with a goldmine.  Gary Roberts, since joining the team from Florida has been every bit as dangerous as he was in Toronto.  Georges Laraque plays the role of bodyguard for Sid the Kid.  Mark Recchi has now won the Stanley Cup twice, once with this very franchise, one with Carolina last year.  Jarkko Ruutu plays a role similar to Sean Avery, get under the opposition’s skin.  Nils Ekman, hardly noticed in San Jose, brings some stability to left wing.

In net is probably the biggest question mark.  As you might expect out of a young blossoming goaltender, Marc-Andre Fleury has definitely played better this year than any other year, but still has the ability to let in the questionable long shot.  Furthermore, Fleury, please – lose the yellow pads already!!!  Last time I checked, the Penguins changed the yellow to gold.  Players have said the yellow pads give them an advantage, as they can see where the puck is all the time.  It would certainly explain some of the weirdest goals you’ll ever see.  The Penguins will only go as far as Fleury will take them.  Jocelyn Thibault has never truly been able to play the number one role, but has proven to be a suitable backup.  However, I don’t like the team’s chances if they have to ride him all the way, veteran goaltender or not.

The Ottawa Senators probably have just as big a question mark in net, but with one difference – this year they at least have an option.  Last year, it was Ray Emery or bust (and we all know how that turned out).  This year, the number one spot has been Martin Gerber’s to lose and Emery’s to win.  Gerber was brought in to add some stability to the position, but early on it was evident the Senators weren’t going to get to 105 points with him in net.  In fairness, could you really hang last season on Emery?  This year he has helped the team through what has been yet another successful regular season.  If you had to rate a successful franchise on regular season alone, then Ottawa would probably have won six championships by now.  Unfortunately, a regular season does not a successful season make – as evidenced by what has become almost a yearly rite of spring – the snow stops, the nice weather comes, then the Senators get eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs.  It’s become more than just a joke on the local airwaves, it’s become almost a way of life – so much in fact the fans don’t know when to cheer or when to jeer anymore, not to mention the pre and post game shows have just become nauseating.

So needless to say, until Ottawa can win a championship, the team will always be known as a team whose bark is worse than its bite, ever the perennial chokers.  They certainly are deep enough and good enough to do it.  There are players on this team who would be on the top line of any NHL team, but are relegated to 3rd and 4th line status due to the offensive depth.  I’m talking about players like Mike Fisher, Antoine Vermette, Peter Schaefer, Oleg Saprykin, Chris Kelly and Patrick Eaves.  Were it not for the likes of Jason Spezza, Dany Heatley, Daniel Alfredsson, Dean McAmmond and Mike Comrie, these players would probably make up the top two lines, and be very successful at it.  Certainly nobody can blame Ottawa for not drafting/dealing well.

On defense, it’s the same story.  This year’s squad consists of stalwarts Wade Redden and Chris Phillips, the NHL’s shot blocking champion Anton Volchenkov (who, by the way, just signed a 3 year extension), Christoph Schubert, who is versatile both on the back end and up front, Andrej Meszaros, who just keeps getting better and better in only his second season, Joe Corvo, who is finally showing us why John Muckler acquired him from Los Angeles in the summer, Tom Preissing,  a top four defenseman in San Jose, relegated to the press box some nights in Ottawa, and Lawrence Nycholat, brought in from Washington at the deadline for some depth.

A few names you may not recognize and may not even see take a shift, Michal Barinka, Chanse Fitzpatrick and Nick Foligno, have all been called up to take in the action and get a taste of what playoff hockey in the NHL is like.  Should there be an injury along the way, you can probably expect to hear a lot more about these players.

So with arguably the deepest lineup outside of Buffalo, on paper, can the Senators finally get it right?  Only if they can just get what I now believe is a mental block out of their heads and just play the game they know they can if they just put their minds to it.  Toronto isn’t here to get in their way, and Buffalo has proven to be a very favorable matchup all season long.  Otherwise, it’s time to clean house – John Muckler, Brian Murray, John Paddock, Alfredsson, Spezza, and the whole lot of them should be sent packing if the Senators fail this off season.  There will be no more excuses, the fans won’t have it, and this city deserves to see the team be successful.  Now it is up to the team to execute, and if they do, the Penguins don’t have a chance, although I believe they will make it interesting, as they’ve shown us the last couple of regular season games between these two.  As I’ve said before, it’s now or never – and I think the team brass is serious this time.  Just in case, I hear the Team 1200 has hired sponsors and have reserved a special E-mail address for if and when they have to bring in J.R. for the all night wake. 

Prediction: Senators in 7, or else!

 

Western Conference

#1 Detroit Red Wings (50-19-13) vs #8 Calgary Flames (43-29-10)

Season Series: Even 2-2

Out of almost nowhere, the Detroit Red Wings once again clinched the Western Conference, after it looked for the longest time it would be Anaheim or Nashville.  Without the pressure of the President’s Trophy (Buffalo clinched it with more wins), you can be sure the comparisons to last year end here.

Detroit’s biggest problem last season was in goal, a problem they hope they’ve resolved by ditching Manny Legace and bringing back Dominik Hasek.  Knowing his recent injury history, they backed him up with Chris Osgood.  Both goalies have won it all for the Red Wings, and add versatility between the pipes.

With Steve Yzerman riding off into the sunset, this has essentially become Nicklas Lidstrom’s team, and he has once again led by example.  Chris Chelios continues to roll along at the ripe old age of 45.  I’m not sure if he was serious, but he made a comment recently which leads everyone to believe he’s going to try and stay in the game until he’s 51.  As already the oldest defenseman to play in the playoffs, only the great Gordie Howe played longer - until he was 52.

As both Yzerman and Brendan Shanahan have moved on, the Red Wings rely heavily on a skilled attack from Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, but as proven in past seasons, if these two are shut down, then it’s just a matter of time before the team gets worn down.  Enter Todd Bertuzzi at the trading deadline.  They’re hoping Big Bert can be every bit the impact player he was meant to be in Vancouver and Florida, but just never got the chance.  Time will tell.

The Flames lineup hasn’t changed all too much from the one we saw take it all the way to the finals in 2004.  Still leading the way is Jarome Iginla, whose production may have dropped off somewhat from previous years, but still as Iginla goes, so do the Flames.  Realizing he wasn’t going to get it done all by himself, the organization brought back Craig Conroy, who wasn’t doing too much to pad his stats in Los Angeles, but whose impact has been felt immediately upon returning to Alberta.  Two players who’ve really helped the offensive cause have been Kristian Huselius and Daymond Langkow.  Both had breakout seasons and will be counted on to produce.  Like Detroit, Calgary went out and got some grit in Wayne Primeau at the deadline, but in fairness, he’s no Bertuzzi.

The defense for Calgary continues to be solid, as Dion Phaneuf leads the way with Roman Hamrlik, Robyn Regehr and newly acquired Brad Stuart holding the fort.  In front of the mesh, Miikka Kiprusoff continues to get it done, even if the team in front of him doesn’t.  The result is low scoring games, and a grinding system which doesn’t often get blown out of the rink.

Calgary just barely coasted into the playoffs.  Had it not been for Nashville’s win over Colorado on the second last night of the regular season, we’d be talking about a Red Wings-Avalanche series.  Now, what has been one of the worst road teams travels to Joe Louis Arena to attempt the upset.  Can they do it?  I say it’s not going to happen, especially if Hasek plays like Hasek can.  Furthermore, you can be certain Detroit hasn’t forgotten the last time these two hooked up in the playoffs.  Then again, if history has any say, then the Flames could make a series out of it, but unless they've been saving their best for now, forget about it.

Prediction: Red Wings in 6

 

#2 Anaheim Ducks (48-20-14) vs #7 Minnesota Wild (48-26-8)

Season Series: Even 2-2

In this rematch of the 2003 Western Conference Final, two teams who have vastly improved since then will go head to head to decide who will move on to the second round.  The “mighty” label removed from their name, Anaheim has what has been nothing short of an impressive record breaking season, and on many nights they rival Buffalo in the East.

Minnesota, on the other hand, continue to play a style perfected by the New Jersey Devils – and even in the new NHL with the redline removed and the nets back where they belong, continue to be successful.

For the Ducks, they were fully aware their run to the finals in 2003 was missing a few key components which could have put them over the top against the aforementioned Devils.  For starters, they didn’t have a marquee number one puck moving defenseman.  Ironically enough, they now have two – former Devil Scott Niedermayer, and former Blue and Oiler Chris Pronger, the “twin towers” as they’ve been affectionately called by the southern California media.  They missed a game breaking forward or defenseman who could place a well placed hit or get into a fight to pump up the team – this year, tough guy George Parros has fit the bill quite nicely (pun intended).  Outside of maybe Paul Kariya at the time, they didn’t really have anybody to put the puck in the net.  They solved the dilemma by re-acquiring Teemu Selanne, and drafting more than a few gems in Corey Perry, Andy MacDonald, Dustin Penner and Ryan Getzlaf.  Of course, every team needs some veteran leadership, and if Niedermayer along with brother Rob isn’t enough, they brought in Todd Marchant from Columbus, Brad May from Colorado, and Ric Jackman from Pittsburgh.

In goal, they have two goaltenders who can get the job done.  J.S. Giguere took the team to Game 7 of the finals in 2003 and should be able to help guide this team to the promised land again if they can get on a roll.  If not, Ilya Bryzgalov saw a lot of action right up until the Conference Finals last year before the Ducks bowed out in 5.  With the team they have this year, they should be able to get over the hump.

But first, the Ducks have to contend with a goaltender who had the best goals against average in the entire league.  In his first year with the big club, Niklas Backstrom’s 1.97 was almost a full goal better than Hasek (his was 2.05).  With the loss of Dwayne Roloson at last season’s trade deadline and with Manny Fernandez succumbing to injury, Backstrom has answered the bell.  As we all know, though, the playoffs are a different game.  Thankfully, Fernandez should be well enough to return to full action.

Up front, the Wild are still very much a two line team, with Marian Gaborik and Pavol Demitra producing the bulk of the offense.  This is rounded out nicely with Brian Rolston’s NHL leading shot total, Todd White’s consistent play, and Mark Parrish’s clever moves.  Pierre-Marc Bouchard, unless he gets into a penalty shot situation, won’t be able to wow us in the shootout.

Where the Wild are weak is on defense.  Outside of Kim Johnsson and Keith Carney it’s hard to visualize this team wearing down the Ducks throughout a 7 game series.  We know they play a patient defensive system, so we shouldn’t see too many high scoring games, but this plays right into Anaheim’s game plan.  Unless they deviate from Jacques Lemaire’s system and go for it, I don’t see them taking this one, but it will be close. 

Prediction: Ducks in 7

 

#3 Vancouver Canucks (49-26-7) vs #6 Dallas Stars (50-25-7)

Season Series: Even 2-2

Winner of their 2nd division title in four years, the Vancouver Canucks are on a mission to get past the second round of the playoffs and do what Calgary and Edmonton before them have been able to do – make it to the finals.  They are in tough already though, with a Dallas Stars team also looking to erase playoff failures of the past.  Sound familiar?

Dallas actually had a better overall record, registering 2 more points than Vancouver, but because Anaheim was able to clinch the Pacific division, Dallas is relegated to 6th spot.  Like a certain team in the Eastern Conference, this is a team with loads of regular season success, but in the playoffs, even though they’ve been able to win it all once, more often than not they’ve bowed out way earlier than they should have.

Marty Turco has been the man for Dallas ever since Ed Belfour moved on to greener pastures and nicer weather, but has cracked under the pressure of the playoffs the last two seasons.  He needs to put this at the back of his mind if there is to be any success here.

On the back end, Sergei Zubov contiues to lead the charge, and with the return of Darryl Sydor this season, the Stars have been able to stabilize the position.  Bringing in Mattias Norstrom, Philippe Boucher and Jon Klemm gives as good a defensive mindset as you could ask for.  The Stars don’t lose very often, and if they do, it’s usually a one goal game.

Even though the captaincy was given to Brenden Morrow, Mike Modano is still a huge leader on this team, and continues to lead by example.  Mike Ribeiro has picked up where he left off in Montreal.  Jere Lehtinen is still as dangerous as he’s always been.  Eric Lindros, at times adds an enigmatic presence, while other times is every bit as effective as was expected years ago.  To say the least, if Vancouver is going to win this series, they will have their hands full.

If the Canucks made one important move last off season, it was the move luring Roberto Luongo out of Florida.  He has paid dividends, tying Bernie Parent for the most wins in one season with 47, one less than Martin Brodeur.  While he’s never experienced the Stanley Cup Playoffs, he’s seen a lot of action on the worldwide stage, winning the World Championship and the World Cup.  You may recall, it was Luongo who was in net when Canada faced the Czech Republic in the classic World Cup game which needed overtime to decide.  Certainly it goes without saying the team’s fortunes depend on him.

Markus Naslund has seen better regular seasons.  As captain of the team, he certainly can’t come out and say the team choked (yet), but more will be needed from him as you can bet Dallas will be concentrating on the Sedin twins, Brendan Morrison and Trevor Linden.  They brought in Brian Smolinski at the deadline for some added depth, and have enjoyed good seasons from Jeff Cowan and Matt Cooke.

The top four on defense for Vancouver can match up very well with Dallas’ top line.  Sami Salo, Willie Mitchell, re-acquired Brent Sopel and Mattias Ohlund were a combined plus 20, with All Star hopeful Rory Fitzpatrick adding another plus 12 rating.  Put simply, the defense has no problem moving the puck and it’s essential this continues.

Call this series a coin toss, but I do believe the Canucks will prevail.  Where they go after this depends on "Bobby-Lu"

Prediction: Canucks in 7

 

#4 Nashville Predators (51-23-8) vs #5 San Jose Sharks (51-26-5)

Season Series: Advantage Nashville 3-1

In what could very well be the most exciting first round Western playoff matchup, it’s the rematch of last year’s first round between these two teams.

Although still fighting the injury bug with both Steve Sullivan and Martin Erat (who could be close to returning) on the shelf, the most important difference between this year and last – Tomas Vokoun is healthy this year.

In last year’s first round series, the Sharks, led by the potent attack of Joe Thornton and Jonathan Cheechoo, made quick work of the Predators in five games, as Chris Mason was no match for them.  It was also said the Preds were not big enough and easily pushed around.  With Vokoun back and the addition of some toughness, this year’s series will be very different.

J.P. Dumont played deep into the spring with Buffalo last season, Jason Arnott was part of the 1st round Dallas collapse, and Peter Forsberg joined this team at the trading deadline.  All three give Nashville a dynamic they haven’t ever had before and a good chance to win every game.  Add Paul Kariya, David Legwand, the revitalized Vernon Fiddler, and impressive rookie Alex Radulov, and you have a pretty deep roster.  Jordin Tootoo, although a little hot headed at times, can settle things down in a hurry if the other team takes liberties with the stars.  Just ask Mike Modano.

But of course, as we know, unless you have good defense you can have all the offense in the world.  Kimmo Timonen, one of the original Nashville Predators, keeps getting better every year – his plus/minus +20 rating was second only to Legwand’s +23.  Not much gets by him.  He is complemented well by not-so-well-knowns (outside of Nashville) Marek Zidlicky, Ryan Suter, Dan Hamhuis, Shea Weber and Vitali Vishnevski.

The Sharks, on the other hand, are hungrier than ever after bowing out in round 2 of last year’s playoffs.  “Big Joe” Thornton registered 90 assists for the second straight season.  His line mate Jonathan Cheechoo lit up the lamp 37 times, most of them during the stretch run.  Patrick Marleau had 32.  Bill Guerin was brought in at the deadline to help bring the leadership the team feels they need.  Steve Bernier and Curtis Brown add depth, but aren’t known for putting up the numbers, but with everybody concentrating on Thornton, Cheechoo and Marleau, could become unsung heroes, particularly if overtime presents itself. 

Although in goal they are very good, so good they were able to let Nolan Schaefer go for a box of pucks, they lack the experience Nashville has on defense.  Evgeni Nabokov or Vesa Toskala will both put in an honest night’s work in goal, but outside of Craig Rivet, Kyle McLaren and Christian Ehrhoff, San Jose has many question marks with Rob Davison, Douglas Murray, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic (they call him “the pickle”).  Matt Carle played last year but took a beating, so you have to wonder how he will hold up against a team preferring to grind it out in the corners.

The Predators had the Sharks’ number all season, and I’m not too sure much will change in this series.  Even though there isn’t much breathing room between the two teams who faced each other last year and now, revenge is a dish best served cold.  With a healthy Vokoun in goal the Music City is ready to make some noise. 

Prediction: Predators in 7

 

The Final Verdict?

As always, here is my early playoff prediction of who we can expect to see go all the way.  Of course, if you can predict this any better than I and actually turn out to be right, you’re a better person than I.  May the best team win!

Eastern Conference Champion: Buffalo Sabres

Western Conference Champion: Anaheim Ducks

Stanley Cup Champion: Buffalo Sabres

Eastern Conference Dark Horse: New York Rangers

Western Conference Dark Horse: Nashville Predators

 

IF I WAS IN CHARGE…

Finally, the NHL has taken a lot of flack this season over the schedule and the points system and the playoff format – more so than previous seasons.  Let’s not forget, the NHLPA ratified this current bargaining agreement and believed at the time the current format is the best route to go.  For some reason, even the 30 general managers seem to be of the opinion we need to keep it the way it is.  However, if the fans can have any consideration whatsoever, it is becoming increasingly evident change is going to be inevitable.  If we’re going to keep the current format in place, here are a few suggestions I have to make the playoffs and the stretch drive even more exciting (if such a thing is possible):

1)      We’ve heard more than a few teams complain over the awarding of the extra point just for getting to overtime and keeping it even in a loss, and the bonus point going to the winner.  Well, here’s a thought – keep it the way it is – seriously.

2)      In leaving the points system the same, let’s also keep the seeding the same, with a difference – let’s modify the schedule to play less games.  Play no more than 74 games, and get rid of the 8 games vs division rivals, and schedule it in such a way where nobody plays on back to back nights, and everybody sees everybody at least once a year.  Start the season October 1st if you have to, but make it happen.

3)      Are you with me so far?  Good – then let’s bring back the preliminary round – with the current format, stage a best of three or best of five preliminary round where 7th seed plays 10th seed, and 8th plays 9th, for the right to move on to the tree of 16.  Using this example, in the event of an upset, the lower seed replaces the seed of the team they beat.  To make it interesting, let’s cross it over – 10th in the West plays 7th in the East, etc, etc.

Put simply, if the NHL wants to continue the format as it stands, and if they have any future plans for expansion, then to me this is the only way to do it.  Otherwise, we may as well break further with tradition and bring on the three point games!  Just food for thought…don’t even get me started on officiating.  I’ve had my say too many times on that issue, and quite frankly I have no more energy for it.

Now, go forth, enjoy the first round, and meet me back here in two weeks for more of what you really crave – the Puckin’ Around experience.  Can you believe we’re already here again?!?  Bring it on!

 

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