Greetings from Miami Beach, Florida!  Here I am spending a much deserved and relaxing vacation as I type this, yet I feel compelled to bring you my take on the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.  I’ve still yet to figure out the channel lineup here at the condo we’re staying, but I shouldn’t be long figuring out where the games are, as it appears there’s every channel you can possibly think of! 

While we were driving down here from Ottawa, a full 26 hours if you drive it straight without stopping (I didn’t), it seems I missed quite an exciting finish to the regular season.  We hit the road the very next morning (Friday) after the Edmonton Oilers, already eliminated from post season contention, played their role as spoiler perfectly and knocked off their pesky division rivals from Vancouver.  Unfortunately for them, their biggest rival will actually see some playoff action – even if it ends up being short lived (more to come)! 

So, without further ado, since the theme from Walt Disney World for 2008 is “The Year of a Million Dreams”, and since their ongoing theme is “where dreams come true”, since I’m in Florida I found it only fitting I use this as the theme for this year’s entire playoffs.  In about 2 months or less, one of sixteen team’s dreams will come true as the Stanley Cup will be hoisted yet again, for the 89th time.  Will it be the team Disney built, the Anaheim Ducks, repeating as champions?  Or will Detroit finally break what has become the President’s Trophy curse?  Can Ottawa make their way back to the finals and win it all this time?  Or has Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin’s time to shine finally come?  We’re about to find out the answers to these questions, and more – so buckle yourself up into your favorite theme park ride (pun intended!) and let’s go!


Eastern Conference 

#1 Montreal Canadiens vs #8 Boston Bruins 

OK, raise your hands if you ever thought for one second the Habs would finish 1st overall in the Eastern Conference.  Now put them down if you’re actually a Habs fan.  That’s what I thought.  Unless you’re a die hard fan or living in Quebec, nobody, and I mean nobody ever believed for one second Montreal would emerge as the team to beat in the East!  Even some fans I know personally have told me the team has exceeded even their expectations – but now, it’s on! 

Why Montreal should win: Put simply, the Canadiens rely on their special teams and balanced scoring from their top two lines, and quite frankly, the playoffs are all about special teams.  Led by Alex Kovalev, the strategy for anybody who meets them this spring is simple – stay out of the penalty box!  The Habs had the best power play hands down all season long.  And of course, to be successful this time of year, you need goaltending, and last season’s Calder Cup MVP, Carey Price, has passed the test with flying colors – so much that Cristobal Huet was deemed expendable at the trading deadline.  What may, and I stress may haunt the team is the loss of captain Saku Koivu and defenseman Mark Streit.  During the stretch run, though, the team still didn’t seem to miss a beat, but when the goals and games are on the line, I’m really looking forward to seeing how the Habs react.  Over the history of the league they’ve certainly been the masters at overcoming adversity, and they have all those Stanley Cups to prove it. 

How Boston could win: With all due respect to them and their great goaltending led by Tim Thomas, I don’t think they have a chance.  The Canadiens owned the Bruins in the regular season, completing the 8-0 sweep – something I haven’t seen since the current schedule format went into effect (and something thankfully we won’t see again since next year the schedule is changing for the better).  If you look at past playoff history between these two teams, it doesn’t look good if you’re a fan of the Bruins.  Although, New England has had a pretty good run of late – the Red Sox won the World Series, the Patriots were expected to win the Super Bowl, and went undefeated all the way to the big game, and the Celtics look like they’ll be the NBA’s team to beat as the basketball playoffs get closer.  The Bruins, on the other hand, will need a lot of things to go their way if they play to pull off the 8th vs 1st upset – not impossible, but not likely, especially since they are missing their entire top scoring line and top two defensemen.  Thomas is good, but he isn’t going to stop them all. 

Prediction: Canadiens in 5

#2 Pittsburgh Penguins vs #7 Ottawa Senators 

What a difference a year makes!  Last year it was the Sens taking over the Pens in a short five game series where Sidney Crosby and company were kept off the score sheet for the most part.  This time around, the tables have turned, and if Ottawa knows what’s good for them they’ll get this over with quick, or get set to settle in for a long summer. 

The season couldn’t have started any better for last year’s Eastern Conference Champion Senators – they went a scorching 16-3 before literally hitting the wall.  It didn’t help to lose components of their top scoring line of captain Daniel Alfredsson, Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza for periods of time due to injury.  Then again, you didn’t hear the Pittsburgh Penguins complaining when they lost Sid and Gary Roberts.  Unlike Ottawa, when the chips were down, they stepped up their game. 

Why Pittsburgh should win: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marian Hossa, Petr Sykora, Gary Roberts are simply scary: Crosby & Malkin for their scoring prowess, Hossa & Roberts for their past experience (especially Roberts, a traditional Ottawa killer).  Step out of line with the top stars of this team and the Sens will have the likes of Georges Laraque to deal with.  Marc-Andre Fleury, in my opinion, is still a question mark in goal, but looked damn good down the stretch, and quite frankly as long as you score one more goal than the other team, who cares?! 

How Ottawa could win: Pick themselves up and start playing like they can, not how they’ve been playing.  It’s going to be tough without captain Alfredsson and centre Mike Fisher, not to mention top penalty killer Chris Kelly.  Martin Gerber will have to play like the goalie the Senators thought he was when they signed him to the lucrative deal 2 summers ago.  They need to also get their big acquisitions going – Cory Stillman and Mike Commodore have been there before – start proving it.  For crying out loud, this team is the defending Eastern Conference champions!  However, I just don’t see them defending it – they’re too banged up and they just aren’t playing like they care anymore.  If the Senators lose this one, look for a lot of changes in Canada’s Capital this summer. 

Prediction: Penguins in 5

#3 Washington Capitals vs #6 Philadelphia Flyers 

I am looking forward to this series so much it’s not even funny – even though I probably won’t see too much of it unless Versus is carrying it (I discovered the Pens-Sens series, maybe I’ll get lucky!).  Here we have 2 teams who both missed the playoffs last year, yet here they are back in the hunt after both having great seasons.  Throw any experience factor out the window here, as both teams are just happy to have a shot. 

It’s so great to see Alex Ovechkin finally make the playoffs.  Like many people, I think it’s simply hogwash the Capitals needed to make it to have everyone chanting MVP.  Ovechkin broke an NHL scoring record for left wingers with 65 goals – if that’s not enough for the Hart trophy I don’t know what is.  And I don’t care how good your defense is, how do you even try to stop him? 

Why Washington should win: Ovechkin and Sergei Fedorov, centre Viktor Kozlov, rookies Mike Green and Nicklas Backstrom – they provide as good an offense as any team in the East.  Cristobal Huet was brought in at the deadline for a reason – to stop pucks – and he’s been doing alright! 

How Philadelphia could win: Keep doing what they’ve been doing – play hardhat hockey, the epitome of Flyers hockey.  Above all else – stay disciplined!  Martin Biron provides good goaltending, but like every year, not enough in my opinion to put the Flyers over the edge.  It’s been a great return to respectability for Philly, but they still have a lot of work to do. 

This one could go seven – flip a coin and decide – it’ll be a good one! 

Prediction: Capitals in 7


#4 New Jersey Devils vs #5 New York Rangers 

If you’re looking for a defensive minded series – you’ve come to the right place!  In the eight meetings between these two cross state rivals, a total of 29 goals were scored.  We have a great goalie duel in store between the veteran Martin Brodeur, and up and coming Henrik Lundqvist.  Both teams have experience in scoring as the Rangers have Jaromir Jagr and Brendan Shanahan; the Devils have Jamie Langenbrunner and Patrik Elias.  It’s a toss up to say the least. 

Why New Jersey should win: Brodeur and home ice at the new “Rock” – a.k.a. the Prudential Center – enough said.  If Marty starts looking human like he did last spring, things could be different, but I’ve always said never count out a Devils team with him in goal. 

How the Rangers could win: Jagr needs to play like he actually is interested in winning, otherwise forget it.  Sean Avery needs to do what he does best – play hard and antagonize.  Scott Gomez and Chris Drury, the two big free agent acquisitions for the Rangers need to make it look like money well spent.  Lundqvist has to outplay Brodeur. 

Expect a lot of overtime in this one – it seemed like every time these two met during the regular season they decided it either in overtime or the shootout.  Now we’ll go until somebody scores, as long as it takes.  Bring it on!! 

Prediction: Devils in 7


Western Conference 

#1 Detroit Red Wings vs #8 Nashville Predators 

It was yet another President’s Trophy year for the Wings, and about two months of battling for a playoff spot for the Predators – should be a lock for Detroit right?!  Well, maybe… 

Why Detroit should win: They are the team to beat outside of San Jose and Anaheim, they are the top team in the league, and for good reason.  Top scoring led by Pavel Datsyuk and Tomas Holmstrom, great defense led by the ageless Nicklas Lidstrom and Chris Chelios, and great goaltending led by the ageless veterans Dominik Hasek and Chris Osgood.  As if this wasn’t enough, experience matters with Kris Draper and Daniel Cleary.  Will it be enough?  On paper, the answer is a resounding yes. 

How Nashville could win: When everyone counted them out, they kept playing like there was no tomorrow, because there wasn’t.  J.P. Dumont and Radek Bonk have been great additions to this team after they literally cleaned house last off season, and they’ve been complemented nicely by Jason Arnott and, Martin Erat?  (I don’t make this stuff up folks!)  Since losing Tomas Vokoun to Florida, Chris Mason has proven capable, but it’s been the play of Dan Ellis which has literally vaulted them into the 8th and final playoff spot, beating out the likes of Edmonton, Vancouver and Chicago by a mere 3 points.  What they also have going for them is the karma of Detroit’s brutal playoff record when they finish 1st or 2nd overall.  With the exception of last season’s semi final appearance, the Red Wings have been eliminated in either the first or second round as 1st or 2nd seed every year since their Cup win in 2002.  Somehow I get the feeling this isn’t going to happen this year.  With all due respect to Nashville, they’ve had a great run, but the Red Wings are simply too deep – but this time of year you never know!  The Predators won 3 out of 8 meetings, and lost 2 more in OT, proving they won’t be intimidated. 

Prediction: Red Wings in 5


#2 San Jose Sharks vs #7 Calgary Flames 

This one is being billed as one of the most exciting series of the first round, and why not?  You have the former goalie versus the current goalie.  You have Captain Calgary versus Captain Joe.  You have two of the most exciting and dynamic defensemen playing the game.  And, you have two veterans who may be on their last legs offensively, but can still get it done when the games are on the line. 

Why San Jose should win:  They have the goaltender with the 3rd best goals against average in the entire NHL in Evgeni Nabokov.  Joe Thornton and Jonathan Cheechoo see each other on the ice and will be hard to contain.  They acquired the power play quarterback on defense they’d been looking for in Brian Campbell.  And Jeremy Roenick has simply looked awesome in a Sharks jersey – he seems invigorated (must be the California sun).  Everybody’s picking them in the Western Conference, and they may be right – personally, I won’t go that far, but I will pick them to win this series. 

How Calgary could win: They still have the core of the team intact from the 2004 Stanley Cup finals run – Jarome Iginla continues to lead by example, but he can’t do it alone.  The man they call “Kipper” needs to find some more of the magic from a few years ago.  The Flames also have a great power play quarterback on defense – his name is Dion Phaneuf.  Experience is always a factor – and they have a lot of experience behind the bench in Mike Keenan.  Love him or hate him, his track record speaks for itself.  What Darryl Sutter didn’t seem to realize though, is Keenan’s best years are behind him, and one of his best players from his best years is playing for the other team! (Roenick).  Then again, everyone (including me) seems to forget the Flames can counter with Owen Nolan.  Yeah, right.

Prediction: Sharks in 7


#3 Minnesota Wild vs #6 Colorado Avalanche 

Don’t let the final seeds fool you – the Northwest Division was once again one of the tightest divisions in hockey.  Right up until the final week, all five teams had a shot at making it to the dance, with three of them actually qualifying.  I’m not so sure we can be assured of anything here other than this will be a great series. 

Why Colorado should win: They may have finished in 6th, but they were one of the most improved teams at the trading deadline – improved in the sense they reunited a huge core of their former selves.  Peter Forsberg finally decided to return after a long hiatus.  Adam Foote rejoined the team at the deadline.  Joe Sakic may not play forever, but he’s showing no signs of slowing down.  Ryan Smyth at times has looked lost as a member of a former rival team, but is still one of the best in the game at parking himself at the front of the net.  Then you have Peter Stastny, one of the most exciting young players you never hear about.  He can, and has, won games all by himself.  Jose Theodore will be the only question mark for me in goal, but I think he’ll be good enough to get by the Wild, as long as he can manage the hair (OK, enough already!). 

How Minnesota could win: Home ice advantage.  Lose it, and lose the series.  Plain and simple.  Sure, the Wild have a dynamic first line with Marian Gaborik and Pavol Demitra.  Sure they have decent, yet suspect, goaltending in Niklas Backstrom.  Sure they have a great defensive coach in Jacques Lemaire.  Therein lies the problem – this is not a defensive league anymore.  The Wild can either shut you out with their trapping style game or get blown out of the building.  The Avalanche are too explosive a team to play what Pat Quinn used to call “rope a dope” hockey, and ultimately I think it will burn them.  Not to mention the revenge factor – the Avs still haven’t forgotten 2003, you can be sure of that! 

Prediction: Avalanche in 6


#4 Anaheim Ducks vs #5 Dallas Stars 

Two Pacific division rivals will go at it here for the right to represent in the second round.  And quite frankly, is it even fair one of these teams will go home early? 

Why Anaheim should win: They are the defending Stanley Cup Champions, and have shown no signs of slowing down, especially with Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne back in the lineup after taking half of the season off.  They’ve only lost two players from last year’s team – Dustin Penner and Andy McDonald, but coming the other way was Doug Weight.  J.S. Giguere has been and will continue to be the man in goal.  Has anybody else noticed Ilya Bryzgalov doesn’t play here anymore? 

How Dallas could win: Don’t even think about it.  I know they added Brad Richards at the deadline, but Marty Turco is not a playoff goaltender, period.  They stumbled down the stretch run with a 4-8-2 record, with most of those games against their own division, three of them against the very team they’re facing now. 

We haven’t seen a repeat Cup performance since the Detroit Red Wings of 1997 and 1998, but I think it’s about to happen as we hit 10 years since we’ve had a repeat championship.  If the Ducks don’t repeat, all bets are off, but I don’t think this one’s even going to be close. 

Prediction: Ducks in 5 


Now the part that keeps getting tougher and tougher, especially in a parity league, but here goes my fearless predictions: 

Eastern Conference Champion: Pittsburgh Penguins
Western Conference Champion:
Anaheim Ducks
Stanley Cup Champion:
Anaheim Ducks 

Eastern Conference Dark Horse: New York Rangers
Western Conference Dark Horse:
Colorado Avalanche

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I will now return myself to my regularly scheduled vacation.  Talk to you before the second round!

More Puckin' Around...