CHRISTMAS, EASTER, OR APRIL MADNESS?

2009 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF PREVIEW

ROUND 1

 

Somebody, please, tell me, where has the season gone?

I’m not complaining, really, I’m not.  We just enjoyed Easter and I’ve just returned from two weeks vacation.  This time of year it feels more like Christmas if you’re a hockey fan.  16 NHL teams, best of 7, then 8 teams, best of 7, then 4, then 2, then – the most beautiful trophy in all of sports.  Then we have the summer to whine and moan about no hockey until October.  I’m not even thinking about it right now.  I like to refer to this time of year as April Madness.  The NCAA tournaments are over, the World Hockey championship is about to get going, however overshadowed it may be – and, the Stanley Cup Playoffs.  There isn’t a greater time in all of sports – period.

This year there is a great mix of teams in the hunt for the silver mug – all but one original six team is represented.  We have a team making their first ever Stanley Cup Playoff appearance, which means all 30 NHL teams have now made at least one appearance.  We have a few teams making their first playoff appearances in several years.  We have last year’s Stanley Cup winner and runner up both here looking to defend their conference titles.  And of course, we have a couple of teams who are here literally by the tape holding their sticks together – they know who they are!

So, here it is – let’s analyze the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, and throw every cliché out the window, and whatever you do, don’t blink – because the playoffs are here!

 

EASTERN CONFERENCE

#1 Boston Bruins vs #8 Montreal Canadiens

Haven’t we seen this movie before?  Last year, you’ll recall the tables were turned, as the Habs finished first in the Eastern Conference, and were taken all the way to 7 games by a very determined and spirited Bruins squad.  Well, this year, Boston is equally as spirited – they’ve gotten bigger, tougher, and, well what can I tell you, they are good.

It’s hard to analyze just what exactly went wrong in Montreal this season, but if anybody thinks the 100th anniversary of the Bleu, Blanc et Rouge is their ticket to another Stanley Cup, you’re delusional.  This team just got in by the tape holding their sticks together.  In fact, Florida played playoff hockey since the All Star break and finished with an identical record.  The only reason the Habs are here instead of golfing?  Two words – goal differential.  This is precisely why we need a better tiebreaker system – either a best of three, or even an additional one game showdown at the end.  It couldn’t have hurt the NHL’s bottom line to see one additional regular season game, could it?  Anyhow, it doesn’t matter anyway – the puck stops here and now.

Why Boston should win the series: This has been the Bruins best season in 15 years, and their toughest looking team in more than 2 decades.  They won their first division title in 5 years.  Nobody is going to stop the big Z, Zdeno Chara, from getting into position, and nobody from the Habs is going to want to block his monster shot.  Marc Savard may just be the most underrated player in the league, and for the third straight season he quietly led the B’s in scoring with 88 points.  Tim Thomas led the NHL in both save percentage and goals against average – the first goalie to do so since Marty Turco in 03-04.  Phil Kessel and Milan Lucic reminded many of Adam Oates and Cam Neely respectively.  Blake Wheeler finished 7th in rookie scoring, and led all rookies in plus-minus.  All of the above would have probably been enough, but at the trade deadline they added veteran Mark Recchi, who has fit in nicely.  I just can’t see how Boston can lose this one.

How Montreal could pull off the upset: Forget about it – it’s not going to happen. Unless Carey Price stands on his head and unless the Habs can somehow miraculously get back their best defenseman Andrei Markov to give them somewhat of a power play, this one will be done quickly.  Last we heard Markov was lost for the season, and one of their other power play specialists, Mattieu Schneider, is playing hurt (original reports were he too was done for the season).  Unless Guillaume Latendresse all of a sudden becomes Guy Lafleur, the Habs are toast.  Saku Koivu can’t do it all alone.  Happy 100th Anniversary, Montreal!

Prediction: Bruins in 5

 

#2 Washington Capitals vs #7 New York Rangers

They haven’t met in the playoffs since their old Patrick Division days, but when they did meet, it was always interesting.  Lifetime the two teams have split four meetings.  Who could forget 1994, when the Rangers beat the Caps on their way to the Stanley Cup?  How about 1986 when John Vanbiesbrouck (remember him?) upset a 107 point Washington team in the second round?  In 1990 the Caps returned the favor, as they eliminated the first place Rangers behind a John Druce who came from nowhere.  Ironically enough, the Capitals would eventually meet their match in Boston in the semi finals that spring.  Is history about to repeat itself?

Why Washington should win: This year’s Maurice Richard trophy winner Alex Ovechkin got a taste of the playoffs a year ago, in a long 7 game series against Philadelphia, and shows no signs of slowing down.  Mike Green, who was also part of last year’s team, is coming off a 73 point season, 31 of them goals – no other defenseman in the league was even close.  The Capitals have four players who averaged a point per game, Ovechkin, Green, Alex Semin and Nicklas Backstrom.  No team has done that since Pittsburgh back in the Mario Lemieux/Jaromir Jagr days.  In comparison, nobody from New York scored 30 goals or 60 points, and none of their defensemen scored double digits for goals.  The big question will be in net – while Jose Theodore had his best season in recent memory with 31 wins, can he outduel Henrik Lundqvist?

How the Rangers could pull off the upset:  As we will all remember, the Rangers’ Lundqvist was a finalist for the Vezina trophy in each of his first three NHL seasons.  This year he became the first goaltender in NHL history to open his career with four straight 30+ win seasons.  He has played all but one of the Rangers’ 24 playoff games in the last 3 years.  If anybody could steal this series for New York, Lundqvist could.  They’re going to need him too, because Washington is going to be shooting a lot of rubber his way.  Furthermore, Scott Gomez and Chris Drury are on this team because of their past playoff experience.  Ditto for Wade Redden.  They will need their deadline acquisitions of Sean Avery, Derek Morris and Nik Antropov to produce.  John Tortorella joined this team as head coach on Feb 23 after the team lost an abysmal 10 of 12 games.  Since then, the Rangers were 12-7-2, and needed every point to get in.  Essentially, the Rangers have been playing playoff hockey for 2 months.

This will be a fun series to watch.

Prediction: Capitals in 7

 

#3 New Jersey Devils vs #6 Carolina Hurricanes

The rubber match we’ve been waiting for since the Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup in 2006.  You’ll recall it was Cam Ward who outdueled Martin Brodeur as he helped the former Hartford Whalers win their first championship.  Keep in mind something, every time these two have met previously (since the Hurricanes moved to North Carolina), the winner of the series has managed to make it all the way to the finals.  Carolina has a finals win and loss, and New Jersey has the other finals loss.  Something has got to give, one would think.

Why New Jersey should win:  It’s been all about Brodeur this year, as he broke the all time wins record, and still works towards the all time shutout record.  Consider this – Martin needs 2 more playoff shutouts to tie Patrick Roy for the all time playoff lead, and next season if he stays healthy should be able to break Terry Sawchuk’s regular season record.  Moral of the story, don’t count out the goalie, he’s pretty good.  The Devils still play defense first hockey, but have bolstered their lineup with some players who can score.  Zach Parise gives the team scoring they have rarely seen – he placed 5th in overall league scoring and set career highs in just about every category.  Patrick Elias set a franchise record on Mar 17 when he surpassed John Maclean with his 702nd career point.  His 78 points was his best offensive output since 2000-01.  The addition of Brendan Shanahan gives the team some much needed experience, something you can’t discount this time of year.  If Shanahan isn’t enough, consider Bobby Holik and Brian Rolston were brought back to this team last summer, not to mention past playoff producer Jamie Langenbrunner is still here.

How Carolina could pull off the upset: If it’s true what they say about going home again, the Hurricanes must be ecstatic having re-hired former head coach Paul Maurice, and re-acquiring Erik Cole.  Maurice was able to help virtually the same team make it to the finals in 2002 – one of the main differences was they didn’t have Cam Ward in net.  He has been far from the same goalie since, however, so I’m not confident he can get back to the form he had in 2006, but this is a new season.  The other intangible here, Kevin Weekes, who was on the 2002 team, is now part of the Devils roster!  Cole was not a factor in the Stanley Cup win, so with him healthy the Canes should be lethal, especially on the power play.  Not sure why it didn’t work out for him in Edmonton, he showed signs of his former self, but ever since the trade deadline he has been on fire since rejoining Carolina.  Eric Staal has continued to be dominant scorer on this team, as has veteran Ray Whitney.  The addition of Jussi Jokinen has helped too, but unfortunately there are no shootouts in the playoffs.  I like Carolina’s chances if they can steal a game on the road, but they’ve not enjoyed great success in the new Prudential Center.

I just can’t see the upset happening here, as far as I’m concerned New Jersey is icing their deepest team since their last Cup win.

Prediction: Devils in 6(66)

 

#4 Pittsburgh Penguins vs #5 Philadelphia Flyers

In this rematch of last year’s conference final, it’s either going to be a story of revenge or a story of been there before, looking to do it all over again.

Of course, last spring it was the Penguins who made their way through the East virtually unscathed until they went up against the toast of the west.  I get the feeling this year things could be different.  Last time around Pittsburgh barely worked up a sweat and Philadelphia ran out of gas.  This time around, the Flyers are stronger and healthier.  If I had to pick a dark horse in the East, Philadelphia gets my vote, even though both teams had an equal amount of points at the end of the season.

Why Philadelphia should win: Forget home ice advantage – both teams play within a two hour drive of each other, so travel fatigue should not be a factor here.  The longer these teams last against each other, the better it should be for both.  Make no mistake, both teams can score and score often, and both teams can come from behind.  In Philadelphia, 6 players scored 25 or more goals, with Jeff Carter leading the way with 46.  Scott Hartnell scored 30 for the first time in his career.  Simon Gagne, despite missing 57 games last season, also eclipsed the 30 goal plateau.  His 12 power play goals tied Jeff Carter for the team lead.  Special teams are absolutely sick on this team – 16 shorthanded goals for, only 1 against all season – the 1 shortie against came on the final weekend.  Stay out of the box against this team, period.  Oh yeah, and the guy wearing the mask?  Martin Biron?  He’s not bad either.

How Pittsburgh can prove they deserve the 4th seed: Stay out of penalty trouble, get great goaltending from Marc-Andre Fleury, and keep the Flyers’ 3rd and 4th lines away from Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.  When they’re allowed to strut their stuff, they are as dynamic a duo as any in the league.  Crosby has been a different player since Bill Guerin joined the team, which could spell bad news if they get going.  I still think they will miss the presence of Marian Hossa, Gary Roberts, Ryan Whitney and Mark Recchi, with all due respect to Guerin.  Chris Kunitz wasn’t a bad pickup at the deadline, but he can’t even begin to fill the skates of even one of the aforementioned.  On D, Sergei Gonchar will have to stay healthy – easier said than done this time of year.  It’s been a good run for Pittsburgh, one which will eventually fall short.  The rest of the conference is much improved.

Prediction: Flyers in 7

 

WESTERN CONFERENCE

#1 San Jose Sharks vs #8 Anaheim Ducks

Wow!  It’s the first time two California based teams meet each other in a playoff series since 1969 – then it was the Los Angeles Kings against, get this – the Oakland Seals.  To this day people who remember the Seals still say if only they could have won the series, things could have been different (the Kings won in 7).

Now I know this is a 1 vs 8 matchup, but it is going to unfold as anything but.  Both teams have powerful scoring, both have great defense, and both have great goaltending.  Both have a great power play.  Where do I even start to analyze this?

Why San Jose should win: I have to give a slight edge to the Sharks based on their overall season record, which means nothing now, I know, but they are this year’s President’s Trophy winners after all.  Maybe it won’t count for a hill of beans, but they’ve managed to run with #1 all season long, even as Detroit made their usual late season charge.  The Sharks seem to have assembled the right mix of experience, scoring, defense, and the will to win.  At times, one wonders where they’re going, while most often they look like a team ready to challenge beyond the second round.  Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau again led the charge in scoring, and Dan Boyle with Rob Blake gave the Sharks their best defensive line to date.  Then, faster than you could say Claude Lemieux, the man himself decided to stage a comeback which earned him a spot on the roster.  Bring back Jeremy Roenick, and you have a combined 504 games of Stanley Cup experience on the roster, as well as 8 rings.  If San Jose can’t shake the “Ottawa Senators of the West” label this year, they never will.  They are the clear favorite to go all the way, on paper.

How Anaheim could pull off the upset: And the only reason it would be an upset is because they are the 8th seed.  Make no mistake, this Ducks team is very capable of returning to the Stanley Cup Finals – they’ve been there before, and they still have some key components of their 2007 run – Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger are still here.  Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf are still here.  Teemu Selanne still has a little magic left in him.  Trade acquisitions Ryan Whitney, Peterri Nokalainen and James Wisniewski add some depth.  Bobby Ryan this season proved he was worthy of being drafted 2nd only to Sidney Crosby, leading all rookies in goals with 31.  Evgeni Malkin was the last rookie to break the 30 goal plateau in 2006-07.  In goal is the only question mark.  The word on the street is Jonas Hiller will take the reins in net, at least in the early going.  As far as I’m concerned, as trying a season as it has been for J.S. Giguere, the team will live and die with him.

Expect a classic series here – I can’t wait!

Prediction: Sharks in 7

 

#2 Detroit Red Wings vs #7 Columbus Blue Jackets

It’s taken 9 seasons, but this year we finally welcome Columbus to the Stanley Cup playoffs.  It’s been a great season for the Jackets, and everything seems to be coming together at the right time.  They’ve had outstanding goaltending (from a rookie no less), they managed to acquire 401 games of playoff experience since last season, and they have arguably one of the best head coaches in the game.  If they could ever pull off the upset in this series, the Jackets could be this spring’s Cinderella story.

Why Columbus should be able to pull off the upset: Two words – Steve Mason.  If he doesn’t crumble under the pressure of his first NHL Stanley Cup Playoff, he will be fine and should help the team achieve their goals.  It’s been said to be the best you have to beat the best, but then again it’s also been said you have to learn how to lose before you learn how to win.  The Jackets have two players who have seen this movie before – Michael Peca and Raffi Torres – you’ll recall they were both on the 2006 Edmonton team who also upset Detroit in round 1 and eventually made it all the way to Game 7 of the finals.  Rick Nash, the prolific scorer, is appearing in his first post season, but has produced at the international level.  Deadline pick up Antoine Vermette has played in the finals before.  So too, has defenseman Mike Commodore.  I’m now also hearing Fredrik Modin, who has been injured, could play. Here’s something to consider – if for whatever reason Mason can’t get it done in net, backing him up is former Islander Wade Dublielewicz, who has shown signs of brilliance in his own right in the past.  The league’s worst power play will have to play a lot better, but more importantly, the Jackets will have to play disciplined as Detroit had the league’s best power play again this season.  It didn’t seem to matter on March 7, though, when the Jackets routed the wings at the JLA by a score of 8-2 – their highest offensive output in franchise history.

How Detroit will have to prove they are the defending champions: Play their game and don’t be distracted by all the pundits who are picking Columbus to win.  Don’t look beyond game 1.  The Red Wings are virtually unchanged from last season – they added Marian Hossa as a free agent, but otherwise they are the same team they were last spring.  At times they have shown why they are still a team to be reckoned with (case in point, the New Years Day game at Wrigley Field against Chicago), and other times they show signs they are running out of gas.  All I can say is if they have to rely on Ty Conklin instead of their horse Chris Osgood, then I don’t like their chances.  Ozzie is going to have to play a lot better than he did down the stretch, or else it’ll be another story of going from champs to chumps.  It’ll take more than Johan Franzen’s “mule” heroics against a young and determined Columbus team.   Personally, I smell the upset here.  Consider this – between 1997 and 2006, a #7 seed knocked off a #2 seed every year. 

Prediction: Blue Jackets in 6

 

#3 Vancouver Canucks vs #6 St. Louis Blues

Two more teams who have been missing from the playoff fold over the past few seasons return to once again renew their rivalry.  You’ll recall in 2003 the Canucks battled back from a 3-1 Blues series lead to win in 7 games, and then fell in 7 to the Minnesota Wild.  While Vancouver has made 2 playoff appearances since, the Blues have floundered in the basement of the Western Conference before finally getting their game back to respectable last season, and here they are.

I’m torn in this series – you have arguably the NHL’s best goaltender and one of the hottest teams during the second half, against another of the hottest teams during the second half.  The Blues were last in the West before going a remarkable 25-9-7 to clinch a playoff spot for the first time in five years.  After just missing last year, the Canucks were looking like they may miss again, but they too engineered a comeback of their own, not only going 23-7-2 since Feb 1, but also catching Calgary to clinch the Northwest Division.

Why Vancouver should win: Home ice hasn’t been kind during the regular season to the Canucks, but there’s something about G.M. Place in the playoffs – if the fans get their game on, the team should respond.  Luongo played outstanding down the stretch, and if he keeps it up, will be tough to beat.  Clearly if the Canucks are going anywhere during this playoff run, “Lucky Lu” will be the key.  By the way, those are not boos you will hear from the crowd, it will be the crowd chanting “Lu”  If the Sedin twins continue to produce at a point per game pace, if Mats Sundin can ever get back to ½ the player he was with Toronto during their semi finals runs in the late 90s early 2000s, and if secondary scoring from Pavol Demitra and Steve Bernier continues to be plentiful, then Vancouver wins.

How St. Louis could pull off the upset: There are rumblings Paul Kariya could return to this team, but the team isn’t exactly entertaining conversation about it (witness Andy Murray’s rant about the younger players needing to step up to the plate).  If he could get into the lineup the Blues are that much better.  In net, former Nashville Predator Chris Mason ran with the starting job after Manny Legace couldn’t stop a beach ball.  His five shutouts tied him with Nabokov of San Jose and Ward of Carolina during the stretch run.  Watch out for Brad Boyes, Keith Tkachuk, and the player Vancouver wanted so bad they signed him to an offer sheet, David Backes.  Of course, the Blues matched the offer, and it has paid dividends.  Another former Duck, Andy McDonald, is here because Anaheim couldn’t fit him under their cap, and the Blues are happy to have his scoring prowess.  Rookie T.J. Oshie has been outstanding (I have him in my playoff pool!).  You might have heard he got top votes for goal of the year.  Check it out on the NHL’s website.

To the Blues’ detriment, they are very weak on defense, so if the last line of defense Mason doesn’t stop the puck, this series won’t last long.  I don’t have a lot of confidence in Carlo Colaiacovo, and I don’t care what anybody says, Erik Johnson is not 100%.  It will be up to Barret Jackman and veteran Jay McKee to hold the fort.  Stranger things have happened.  I do think St. Louis has enough left in the tank to give the Canucks a good run.  Historically these two teams hate each other, and the rivalry is renewed again.

I have to give the edge to Luongo in this one.  Clearly there is more at stake in Vancouver, while J.D. and the boys will revel in the experience, but don’t underestimate them.

Prediction: Canucks in 7

 

#4 Chicago Blackhawks vs #5 Calgary Flames

So much for being the toast of the Northwest Division – can somebody tell me just what exactly happened to the Calgary Flames?  Or better yet, will the real Calgary Flames please stand up?  Right up until a week after the trade deadline, the Flames appeared to have the division all but sewn up, then the wheels fell off.  Where has Olli Jokinen gone?  What happened to Miikka Kiprusoff?

If you’ve been paying attention, the Central Division is hockey’s hottest division this year, by a long shot.  If it wasn’t for Anaheim’s late season charge, then perhaps Nashville would be here as well.  Chicago, the team and the fans, must be relieved to finally be back in the post season after so many years of wishing and hoping.  And as I said before, I know they will make some noise now they’ve arrived.

Why Chicago should win:  Two words: Nikolai Khabibulin.  Check the stats for yourself if you must, but the “Bulin” wall has a ridiculous lifetime record against the Calgary Flames.  As recent as 2004, when he was then with the Tampa Bay Lightning, the “non-goal” aside, Khabibulin was outstanding in the finals against a squad which is virtually unchanged.  The Hawks have outstanding defense with Brian Campbell and Duncan Keith, they have a plethora of exciting and dynamic young talent who can all score – Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Martin Havlat, Kris Versteeg, even tough guy Dustin Byfuglien can get in on the act.

How Calgary could pull off the upset: And in a 4th vs 5th matchup, it technically wouldn’t be an upset – the Flames almost won the Northwest Division, but for whatever reason were unable to sustain their winning ways down the stretch.  In fairness, they were missing defenseman Dion Phaneuf for a brief period, and short of the first two games after the trading deadline, seemed to be still finding their chemistry.  Jarome Iginla, Craig Conroy and Jokinen are going to have to light the lamp, and Kipper is going to have to get it done between the pipes.  The Flames, to me, seem a little too banged up, and as I predicted earlier in the season, getting Todd Bertuzzi will prove to be a big mistake.  If they prove me wrong, good on them, but I see a team in Chicago similar to the Calgary team in 2004 – they have waited a long time to get here, and they are going to make it count.  I don’t think they’ll go all the way, mind you, but the Hawks are back.  This is a good thing, and this should be a good series!

Prediction:  Blackhawks in 6

 

Early playoff predictions:

Eastern Conference Champion: Boston Bruins

Western Conference Champion: San Jose Sharks

Stanley Cup Champion: San Jose Sharks

Eastern Dark Horse: Philadelphia Flyers

Western Dark Horse: Columbus Blue Jackets

Conn Smythe Trophy: Evgeni Nabokov

 

Let the games begin!!!

 

 

 

 

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