Tuesday, April 14, 2009
For me, the Stanley Cup Playoffs are the best postseason tournament in all of sports. March Madness for college basketball may come close, but the run for the Cup is unmatched. No other playoff can have me on the edge of my seat in Game 1. Goals can happen at any time, and a fluky bounce or something in the first minute of Game 1 could set the tone for the entire series. By the same token, one team could be peppering the goalie with pucks for minutes at a time only to have the other team pop the puck in at the other end. Things can change so quickly in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and that's what makes it riveting. What's also odd is that usually from game to game, momentum doesn't really matter -- usually it seems like a within-game thing. Also, for the most part, home ice really doesn't matter until Game 7.
That said, I'll do some mostly ill-educated guesses on who gets through the first round...
(1) Boston Bruins v. (8) Montreal Canadiens
After the running of the team into the ground by Jeremy Jacobs, it's nice to see the Bruins finally succeed despite Jacobs. That fan base really needed something to cheer about, and they had one hell of a team this year. As for the Habs, the centennial celebration of the Canadiens in Montreal was nice, but the season for the team on the ice was a turbulent one. Everything was criticized in a topsy-turvy season, from Alexei Kovalev to the goalie situation to GM/coach Bob Gainey to Ryan O'Byrne's own goal. Guy Carbonneau failed to survive the season as the bench boss of the bleu, blanc et rouge. As much as I thought Carey Price was an awesome junior goalie for Tri-City and as much as I think he'll be a solid goaltender in this league one day, he (or Jaroslav Halak) has his work cut out for him with this Boston team. Consider for a second the crap the Boston brass got when they traded Brad Boyes for Dennis Wideman. Boyes hit the 30-goal plateau for the Blues this season. That notwithstanding, the Bruins still scored a crapton of goals this season, and the Canadiens seem a bit shaky and not on the strongest foot entering the playoffs. Still, it's an Original Six rivalry, which makes it immediately watchable.
Bruins in six
(2) Washington Capitals v. (7) New York Rangers
It'll be fun to see how high Alexander Ovechkin elevates his game in the Big Apple. Ultimately, the Caps aren't going to win this series with their defense. Not defensively, anyway. Defenseman Mike Green scored way too many goals for a defenseman this season, which shows just how offensively minded the Capitals are. However, Washington's goalie is Jose Theodore, who I still don't think is anywhere close to what he was in Montreal (in odd news, where is David Aebischer now?). Thus, Washington will want the ice tilted to the Rangers' end not just to hold Henrik Lundqvist under siege and score as many goals as possible, but to keep the puck nowhere close to Theodore. I don't think they want their defensemen having to actually play defense. So, the Caps have the firepower advantage with their forwards, while the Rangers have the better goaltender. Worse yet for the Rangers, they don't really score a lot. Still, Chris Drury and Scott Gomez have all kinds of good playoff experience. Markus Naslund, on the other hand... well, at least they don't look to him for leadership abilities.
Capitals in five
(3) New Jersey Devils v. (6) Carolina Hurricanes
The Devils had an incredible regular season and they played a majority of it without Martin Brodeur. Tim Clemmensen got a whole bunch of wins in net, and I'm pretty sure if the Devils manage to win the Cup, he'll get his name etched on it without even playing a minute in the playoffs. As for the Hurricanes, they really got it together and reaped the benefits of getting Erik Cole back into a Canes uniform. In net, it's a matchup of Cup-winning goaltenders with Brodeur going up against Cam Ward, whose team beat the eighth-seeded Edmonton Oilers in the Final the year after the lockout, bringing the Cup to the South, but sadly not to Hartford. Still, the Devils were a great team in the regular season, and it's not a Jacques Lemaire team -- they score way more than they did back in the day. That said, I think Carolina could steal a game or two.
Devils in five
(4) Pittsburgh Penguins v. (5) Philadelphia Flyers
Here's the other rivalry series in the East. The Battle of Pennsylvania pits the Penguins, who in another lifetime I could see myself liking, against the Flyers, who had a rash of dirty players not too long ago and who I hate. There's not much I like about the Flyers. A lot of it stems from the fact that Comcast's hockey studio for Versus is in Philadelphia and as a result they were shoving Flyer games down our throats even when the team was complete crap. The Penguins have the well-documented names of Crosby and Malkin. Marc-Andre Fleury won't be content with just getting to the Final this time. As for the Flyers, Jeff Carter and Mike Richards scored way too many goals this season, and Simon Gagne brings the experience and leadership and that good stuff. If I were a Flyer fan, though, I'd be a little weary of putting my hopes upon Martin Biron in net. Yikes. Also add to the situation that the Flyers could have had home-ice in this series if they could have beaten the Rangers at home in their final game of the season.
Penguins in six
(1) San Jose Sharks v. (8) Anaheim Ducks
The Sharks and Ducks are the two teams I fear the most as a Canuck fan because they could physically dominate the Canucks with their size and physical play. The good thing would be that if the Canucks and Sharks advanced past the first round, the Canucks wouldn't draw the Sharks until the West finals. The Canucks could only drawn the Ducks in the second round if both Detroit and San Jose got taken out in the first round, and there's no way that's happening. The Sharks, like the Red Wings, were a bit sluggish in the last week or so of the season, but managed to snag the President's Trophy regardless. As we know, however, the President's Trophy does not necessarily a Stanley Cup winner make. Of course, that advantage gets them the Shark Tank crowd for any Game 5 and Game 7 throughout the playoffs, and what an advantage that is. I really hope the Bay Area is giving a crap about this team, because let's face it, what other team in Bay Area sports right now isn't crap or coming off a crap season? As for the Ducks, it took them a while to find their stride. I thought they might have trouble when they lost Dustin Penner to Kevin Lowe's offer sheet tactic, but now they've just plugged in Bobby Ryan with Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf, and Ryan's now the better player than Penner. The Ducks won the Cup a mere two years ago, and most of that nucleus is still intact. This won't be your usual 1st against 8th seed matchup.
Sharks in seven
(2) Detroit Red Wings v. (7) Columbus Blue Jackets
Along with Sharks/Ducks, this is the other intra-division rivalry in the West playoffs. Obviously, it's the elite organization against the new kids on the block. Detroit stumbled through the last week or so of the regular season, and many are a bit wary of Chris Osgood's goaltending. No one's doubting what the man's done in the past in terms of Stanley Cup wins, but he's getting up there in age and lately, well, there's been shakiness. The Blue Jackets were a very hot team for a good part of the season to finally vault themselves into the playoffs for the first time, though they did level off a little. Still, if I had a sum of money riding on whether Chris Osgood or Steve Mason could steal a game right now, I'm going to have to go with Mason. Sure, experience is on the side of Osgood, but Mason is having this beginner's luck like Cam Ward when he rode all the way to the Cup. Columbus may also be getting Derick Brassard back, which will help. Also, Rick Nash is an elite and hungry young player, while RJ Umberger scored some huge goals for the Flyers in last year's playoffs. If Detroit had solid goaltending right now and a healthy Marian Hossa, they'd win this series in a walk. I'm eager to see if Ken Hitchcock outcoaches Mike Babcock. I think he might. Contrasting styles, you know.
Blue Jackets in seven
(3) Vancouver Canucks v. (6) Saint Louis Blues
As a Canuck fan, I'm probably more afraid of this series than I should be. The teams split the season series, but the Blues are a pretty good young team and a pretty hot team right now. People have hailed TJ Oshie as a Mike Bossy clone. The Blues matched the Canucks' offer sheet to David Backes, and he had a great season for Saint Louis. Chris Mason left Nashville but appears to have gotten back on the tracks with the Blues. It's not all just young players for the Blues, though. Keith Tkachuk has tons of experience in the league, and Paul Kariya could be waiting in the wings. Also, Andy McDonald won a Cup with the Ducks. What do the Canucks have going for them? Hopefully two scoring lines and an incredibly focused goaltender. I think if they pass well out of their own end and avoid stupid penalties, everything should take care of itself. For the record, the Canucks' two-month tear from 13 points down at the end of January all the way to the division lead was 20-5-1. After the Canucks grabbed only one point out of a possible six to start the month of April, they returned to their defensive strengths, allowing only one goal over the final three games (i.e., Luongo ended with two shutouts). Of course, the Twins have to look more like they did during the regular season. This year, though, the Canucks don't look like a team that will easily get pushed around. If Mats Sundin has anything good to add to this conversation, I'm all ears.
Canucks in six
(4) Chicago Blackhawks v. (5) Calgary Flames
I've seen places that aren't giving Calgary any chance at all in this series, saying it'll be a sweep. While it would be hilarious for a Mike Keenan-coached team to get swept in the first round, I think a team with Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff on it is too good to get swept. They'll luck themselves into at least one win. Of course, it took Calgary's injury spate and late-season swoon to blow a 13-point division lead to the Canucks. The problem is that the Flames never really got it back toward the end of the season. When the Canucks started pulling the Flames and Blackhawks closer in the standings, I thought they'd just get the fourth seed and that the division title was out of reach. What happened wasn't what I planned -- the Flames stayed pedestrian, but the Blackhawks seemed to be getting their swagger back, putting the Northwest leaders at either a third seed for a division title or losing home-ice advantage in the first round and facing the Blackhawks. That's the bad news for the Flames -- they haven't been clicking for a couple of months, and the Blackhawks might have found their mojo again. Chicago also has a Cup winner in net. I don't think the Flames can win by doing it with offense because Chicago can outdo them in terms of offensive firepower, and I don't think the Flames are strong enough on defense to control the game that way. Some are saying bloodbath, but I won't quite go that far.
Blackhawks in five
...and we'll have some more fun.
(1) Boston Bruins v. (4) Pittsburgh Penguins
Bruins in seven
(2) Washington Capitals v. (3) New Jersey Devils
Devils in six
(1) San Jose Sharks v. (7) Columbus Blue Jackets
Sharks in six
(3) Vancouver Canucks v. (4) Chicago Blackhawks
Canucks in seven
(1) Boston Bruins v. (3) New Jersey Devils
Devils in six
(1) San Jose Sharks v. (3) Vancouver Canucks
Sharks in six
Stanley Cup final
(E3) New Jersey Devils v. (W1) San Jose Sharks
Sharks in seven
...of course, what I really want to happen would be to put the Canucks over the Sharks and winning the Cup. I also wouldn't want New Jersey in the Cup final, and I'm sure the NHL's marketing department sure as hell doesn't want that. They also want the complete opposite East final given the semifinal matchups I came up with. The NHL would crap themselves if they got a Washington/Pittsburgh East final.