Greetings, ladies and germs!
Tonight begins the exciting annual mecca undertaken by 16 teams, all with a singular focus. This myopic quest will engender joy, tears, blood, triumph, and despair--sometimes all in the same sixty minute span. This is a time when the third-line, blue collar plugger can emerge as the hero. A time when stars become superstars, and when moving on is achieved by those that can elevate their play to the very zenith of ability. Now is the time when the pretenders are culled from the contenders, until only one can grasp the 34.5 pound, 107 year old Holy Grail.
This is all of course just an eloquent way of saying that it's PLAYOFF TIME!
Since, like anyone, I want to flaunt my vast hockey experience and prognostication skills, I've decided to dedicate today's blog to MY picks, and why I'm making them. Being that we still have a few days until our own eagerly-anticipated series gets underway, I thought today might be a good time. As always, I encourage disagreement, so if I say something that ruffles your feathers, feel free to drop me a line via the comment section.
We'll start with the Eastern Conference:
(1) Washington vs (8) Montreal
My Prediction: Washington in 5
There's already a bit of a buzz about this series, on the heels of Montreal forward Tomas Plekanec's statement regarding the Capitals' goaltending, or lack thereof. Providing the offensively explosive Capitals with bulletin-board material may not have been a wise choice on the part of Plekanec. While it is true that Jaroslav Halak has been stellar for the Habs, and I do give them the edge in net, I'm not sure that it will be enough to overcome the offensive firepower of the Caps. The lack of mobility on the Montreal blueline might also mean problems when trying to contain the speed of Washington's forwards. Halak may steal a game in the boisterous Bell Centre, but look for a short series here.
(2)NJ vs (7) Philadelphia
My prediction: NJ in 6
There is no more important position in all of sports than a hockey goaltender. A good one can make an average team look unbeatable. A bad one can be the difference in heavy favorite or terrible disappointment. With that said, the matchup on paper does not look like a good one for "Nashville East." Brian Boucher hasn't been a playoff starter since the 99-00 series, whereas his counterpart boasts 3 Stanley Cups and 2 Olympic gold medals. The fact that flashy acquisition Ilya Kovalchuk finally started to look comfortable with the Devils down the stretch just spells even more trouble for Philly. The Flyers do have some dangerous weapons, and their punishing physical game should cause some problems for the smaller Devils, but in the end I think New Jersey takes this one. On the physical note, the Flyers need to remember the boundaries between finishing checks and playing stupid--not always the strong suit of rough customers Dan Carcillo and Scott Hartnell.
(3)Buffalo vs (6) Boston
My prediction: Boston in 7
To be honest, this is the hardest series for me to predict. I think the Sabres are somewhat overrated\inflated by their likely Vezina-winning goaltender Ryan Miller, but I also look at the Bruins and see no one area that particularly impresses me. I almost have to pick this series this way just so that I have an upset in the East, as well as a lengthy series. Statistically, there should be one...so why not here? :) On a more analytical note, both of these teams struggle to score goals. My not-so-bold prediction: rookie sensation Tuukka Rask falters early, and Tim Thomas earns some redemption to carry the Bruins to the win.
(4) Pittsburgh vs (5) Ottawa
My prediction: Pittsburgh in 6
This was the other series that I considered for the upset, but in the end, I'll go with the Penguins--at least for this round. The Senators, as I mentioned in a previous post, are my "adopted" Eastern Conference team this year, and I find it hard not to enjoy their combination of high-flying skill and brutal physicality. Like the Flyers, the Sens will need to find the line between physical and illegal. If the Penguins are given free rein on the power play, my 6 game prediction will never come to be. Ottawa may actually be able to stifle Crosby and Malkin, they have one of the best shutdown tandems in the league with which to work in Chris Phillips\Anton Volchenkov. However, the difference will be made by secondary scoring, as the Penguins get contributions from proven playoff performers like Jordan Staal once again. The Sens' rookie goaltender Brian Elliott has been a pleasant surprise for Ottawa, but the pressure will be on to match the performance of Cup-winner Marc-Andre Fleury.
(1) San Jose vs (2) Colorado
My prediction: San Jose in 4
The Sharks are my eventual cup-winner, so don't expect their annual upset, at least not here. The Avalanche stumbled into the playoffs, barely edging out the Calgary Flames for the eighth spot. First-year coach Joe Sacco has done an admirable job with a young group that was never expected to come as far as they have, but I think we saw some of that youth running out of gas down the stretch. Craig Anderson has done a good job of keeping the ship afloat, and the Avs received some good news in the imminent return of Matt Duchene, but I'm not sure it's enough. The Sharks look as deadly as ever, and there's too much on the line for them to fold early this year.
(2) Chicago vs (7) Nashville
See my post tomorrow, this one gets its own entry :)
(3) Vancouver vs (6) LA
My prediction: Vancouver in 6
I grant that the Canucks have a few questions to answer, going into this postseason. Roberto Luongo has looked decidedly human, if not downright mediocre in the second half of the season. Meanwhile, Jonathan Quick has been part of an exciting young nucleus for the Kings. Like the Avalanche, the Kings have ridden that youth to a level that no one believed possible, returning to the playoffs for the first time in several years. Like last year's St Louis Blues, I think they're in for a rude awakening when they meet the Canucks in the first round. I think they'll put up a better fight than the heavily overmatched Blues did, but the end result will be the same. Henrik Sedin could be the Hart trophy winner this season, and the shallow Kings defense won't be able to contain him.
(4) Phoenix vs (5) Detroit
My prediction: Detroit in 5
The Coyotes have been a great story, one that Preds fans can empathize with. We know how it feels to have the threat of relocation hanging above our heads. We're accustomed to low expectations, and the shock that comes when those expectations are exceeded. For all of their hard work and surprising success, their reward is a Detroit Red Wings team that lost 2 games in regulation in their last 23. The Wings got healthy, and suddenly everyone remembered why they had been to two straight finals and won 8 straight division titles. Phoenix has a lot to build on, and a lot to be excited about, but this will be a short series. Bryzgalov has enjoyed a breakout year that should see some Vezina nominations, but he won't be enough to withstand the relentless offensive blitz of the Wings. On the other side of the puck, Detroit's ability to possess and transition the puck is unsurpassed by any other team in the league. The young, inexperienced Coyotes forwards will have a difficult time generating meaningful shots, all the while praying that a lose puck doesn't trickle the wrong way. The Red Wings can take a bad bounce and deposit in the back of your net before you can say "octopus." As much as I hate to say it, the Wings will make short work of Phoenix.
That wraps up my first-round predictions! As I mentioned, feel free to tell me how wrong I likely am...that's why I write the blog :). Tune in tomorrow for my breakdown of the Blackhawks\Preds series that we're all waiting far too long for.
See ya in the funny papers--POMR.