NHL Playoffs

To hockey fans, there is nothing in the sports world to compare to playoff hockey. Granted this is the same demographic that popularized the “mullet” as an acceptable hair style. But hockey fans also have a peculiar level of arrogance that leads them to believe that one game, one playoff game, is all that need be attended to turn a non-believer into a rabid, plan-your-honeymoon-around-a-game fan.

MLB? Um, they put on those little figure skating gloves and turtlenecks when it gets nippy. Please. NBA? Don’t. Go. There. The NBA is the least compelling professional league in the world to begin with. Take away the threat that an “also-ran” knocks off a “contender” on a mid-January night and you’ve got a “sport” utterly bereft of intrigue. NFL? I will give the NFL credit for being intense all season long (as well as being perfectly marketed), and that doesn’t change in the playoffs – but it doesn’t really ratchet up either. NASCAR? That’s the one with the car wrecks, right?

Knock my teeth out? I’ll spit them out and take down your number for later. Broken bones, lacerations, torn muscles, concussions, not to mention doing it all on ice…sorry, no other sport can touch hockey for the sheer sack required to play.

This year’s iteration of the NHL is about to embark on the playoffs to determine who is allowed to touch Lord Stanley’s Cup. It will be two-plus months of grueling, breathtaking, inspiring action. I mean, not even the Democratic nomination process can promise that!

Here’s a look at the first round series.

Eastern Conference

#1 Montreal vs. #8 Boston

This is a classic series, if you like history. Les Habitants vs. the Bs harkens back to a simpler time in the NHL – when there were only six teams to worry about and games were in Gardens and Forums.

In 2008, the Habs have quietly been an excellent team. So good, in fact, that they shed their apparent #1 goalie (more on him later) at the trade deadline to ride a rookie (Carey Price) – at the most demanding position in sports – into the playoffs. This particular strategy may seem curious, but it has worked out for Montreal in the past (see 1986 and some rookie named Patrick Roy).

The Bruins have exceeded nearly all expectations coming into this season, and overcome significant adversity (read: Patrice Bergeron) to be where they are. Their season will be deemed a success regardless of the length of their tenure in the playoffs this season – and deservedly so – but I suspect that will have an impact on their mentality and, thus, their play. *Bergeron has apparently been cleared to participate in full contact practices. It is not yet known when he will be in the lineup.

Montreal wins if: They stay healthy and the better team prevails. Montreal has the #1 ranked power play unit in all the land this season, but their penalty kill is only 15th-best. Les Habs MUST cash in on the opportunities on the power play that the young Bruins are sure to give them.

Boston wins if: Their unheralded youngsters (Krejci, Lucic, etc) are able to step up in the playoffs even more than they have during the regular season. Without Bergeron the Bs are remarkably starless, and that’s a style that fits nicely with Coach Claude Julien’s style.

Prediction: Montreal in 6.

#2 Pittsburgh vs. #7 Ottawa

Oh, how the mighty have fallen. The Senators started this season 16-4. They were 25-9-4 at the end of 2007. They started 2008 going 4-1-0 in their first five games…and have gone 15-21-4 since then to fall all the way from first in the east – and Stanley Cup safe bet – to 7th in the east and almost-playoff-also-ran.

The Pens, on the other hand, were a somewhat-fashionable preseason pick for the Finals, but had to deal with some adversity along the way. Namely, NHL uberkind Sidney Crosby suffered through a couple injuries. That might have been a blessing in disguise, though, as it afforded Geno Malkin an opportunity to show people that he might be – at worst – #1A to Crosby’s #1. There is some question as to whether or not Fleury can deliver in the playoffs, in keeping with the trend in the east (Price). Clearly the Pens are a team on the rise. How far they will rise this season remains to be seen.

No shortage of firepower in this series, so don’t be surprised to see the scoring higher than it usually is in the playoffs.

Pittsburgh wins if: Their kids can ignore the hype, and the sandbagging that the “underdog” Sens are trying to lay on them. If they can get MVP-caliber performances from Sid and Geno the Pens will be in good shape.

Ottawa wins if: They can overcome the drain on confidence that the nightmare second half of the season was for them. With Gerber there is more playoff experience in the Sens’ crease than the Pens’, but not by much. A big playoff would elevate Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza to god status in Canada. This team is a nightmare for an opponent as an underdog…can they play that role?

Prediction: Ottawa in 7.

#3 Washington vs. #6 Philadelphia

Speaking of MVPs…Alexander Ovechkin is simply amazing. A singular talent, but also a star sniper who hits, backchecks, is good with the press and exudes leadership – all in a non-native language. He is charismatic where Sid is reserved, ebullient where Geno is stoic and, oh, by the way, maybe the single best hockey player on the planet right now. GM George McPhee absolutely won the trade deadline by acquiring Cristobal Huet from the Habs to push aging (and the consummate pro) Olaf Kolzig in goal, Sergei Fedorov (how DO you say “mensch” in Russian?) to anchor the centers and the defensive effort up front and superpest Matt Cooke to bring some sandpaper.

The Flyers – from GM Paul Holmgren out – did a masterful job reinventing themselves this season. Yes, they had a little trouble staying in good graces with the league during a disturbing rash of egregious plays. But the bottom line is that contending for the Cup is an annual expectation for this team, and they addressed that amply last summer and this season – despite some significant injuries of their own (Gagne).

Washington wins if: They can keep from waking up – or their leadership keeps them grounded. Hottest team in the east right now – and if you think it’s just AO you’re mistaken.

Philadelphia wins if: They can outhit and outlast the Caps. The Flyers make no bones about playing Broad Street Bullies style hockey. You dance with the girl you brought.

Prediction: Capitals in 6.

#4 New Jersey vs. #5 New York Rangers

The Devils versus the Anti-Christ. Interesting.

Yes, the Rangers got back to their free-spending ways last summer (bringing in Chris Drury and Scott Gomez) and they were another not-unfashionable pick for Eastern Conference champs in the pre-season. But though they were staunch defensively (lead by super Swede Henrik Lundquist), they were pitiful offensively – something not too many teams with Jaromir Jagr have been able to say.

The Devils opened the season with a 9-game road trip whilst their new digs (The Prudential Center) were completed. They survived that and flirted with the division and even conference titles right up to the end of the season. No team is as machine-like as Jersey. They’re just a bunch of Terminators out there. But they’re lead by an artist by the name of Martin Brodeur.

New Jersey wins if: They score two or more a game. You know the defense will be there, and against an offensively-challenged Blue Shirts team to boot. If the Devils can get a few past Lundquist they win.

New York wins if: Their offense wakes up. You don’t get a Drury, Gomez, or Shanahan for a meaningless game in December. You get them for April. This would be a series where you bet the mythical under.

Prediction: Devils in 7.

Western Conference

#1 Detroit vs. #8 Nashville

This shouldn’t even really be a series…should it? On paper, the Red Wings are mighty and the Predators are plucky – on their best night. But, and it’s not a throwaway “but,” the Preds won a few games against the Wings this season. They don’t have a lot of star power, but they just sort of get it done.

Detroit has certainly been mighty, but that has not precluded the odd losing slump. Part of me thinks that was due to boredom as much as anything, but could it be a flaw in the diamond?

Detroit wins if: They play their game. Their sights are set considerably farther down the road, but they’re too professional to look past anyone.

Nashville wins if: Um…Nashville wins if…Nashville…Sorry Predators fans, it’s going to take an act of God (or maybe ebola) to keep the Wings from prevailing in this one.

Prediction: Wings in 4.

#2 San Jose vs. #7 Calgary

This is the Olympians against the Titans. No one has been hotter than the Sharks down the stretch. Until their last two games, the Sharks had gone 18-2 in their preceding 20. Ridiculous. The Sharks did put more miles on goalie Evgeni Nabokov than an old Gaz, but he didn’t show too much adverse reaction to the work. This is a big, fast, strong, defensively sound, offensively gifted and well-coached team. Further, coach Ron Wilson needs a solid playoff run on his record.

The Flames are the one “low” seed that no one wants to play. They have the goalie (Miikka Kiprusoff – interestingly, originally property of the Sharks), the stud defenseman (surly Dion Phaneuf) and the warrior game breaker (All-Universe Jarome Arthur-Leigh Adekunle Tig Junior Elvis Iginla). This is a big, strong, defensively better-than-average, offensively plucky and uniquely-coached team. Should be a great battle – but who has “panic” on their side?

San Jose wins if: Marleau salvages a disappointing season and everyone who HAS been contributing keeps it up. And it would help if Nabokov’s wheels don’t fall off.

Calgary wins if: Jarome wills it to be so. He’s that good. Kipper must outplay Nabby – and you know he’ll be motivated to do so. And Phaneuf needs to straddle the line successfully the whole season. Attrition plays a big part in this one.

Prediction: Sharks in 7.

#3 Minnesota vs. #6 Colorado

It’s been old home week in Colorado since just after the trade deadline by when GM Francois Giguere reunited Adam Foote and Peter Forsberg with Joe Sakic and Milan Hejduk to try to rekindle the success of the early 2000s. This is a team deep enough on paper to relegate Ryan “Captain Canada” Smyth to third line duty! The Avs Achilles heel has been goaltending all season, and that’s never more prevalent than in the playoffs when a hot goalie can cover all kinds of warts on other areas of the lineup.

The Wild celebrated their first-ever division title this season, by being the most consistent team in the Northwest Division down the stretch. Along the way they got goalie Nik Backstrom back into form, got star Marian Gaborik to realize the chrysalis from potential to stardom starts with listening to his coach and got renewed buy-in up and down their lineup. Unfortunately, they also lost their #4 defenseman Kurtis Foster along the way, and, in a potentially fatal blow, just lost their #2 defenseman (and best defensive defenseman) Nick Schultz to an appendectomy.

Minnesota wins if: They play their system and take the initiative from the start of the series. Backstrom needs to be at his Finnish, cool, unflappable best. Gaborik has an opportunity to take the team on his back and lead them to victory – and earn a HUGE contract extension in so doing.

Colorado wins if: The old guard is able to fire up the Flux Capacitor and travel back to 2001 form. Make no mistake: this will be a series. And now with Minny’s injuries the Avs might just sneak this one out.

Prediction: Wild in 7.

#4 Anaheim vs. #5 Dallas

This is another very intriguing series. The Ducks boast a truly epic defense corps, the top four of which is Chris Pronger, Scott Neidermayer, Mathieu Schneider and Francois Beauchemin. That’s like an outfield of Ken Griffey Jr., Torii Hunter and Tony Gwynn – all in their prime. Nasty. They have a battle-tested goalie in JS Giguere, and a diverse group of forwards. This team is primed for the rare run at a repeat in a salary-cap sport.

The Stars, on the other hand, are a bit more enigmatic. Take their goalie, Marty Turco. They traded a very good young goalie in Mike Smith to underscore to Turco that he is, in fact the man. And the man has a brilliant regular season career record so far. But he has struggled mightily in the playoffs. They are flush with solid role players (Morrow, Ott, etc) but one gets the feeling this is a touchstone year for the Stars and their two new GMs.

Anaheim wins if: They don’t look past the Stars. They are the better team, top to bottom. They just need to play like it from the drop of the puck in game one.

Dallas wins if: The sum is greater than the whole of its parts. And Turco is the key in that formula. Can they beat the Ducks? Sure. They need to embrace the “underdog” mentality and play it up, though.

Nick Henry is the father of two little girls. He grew up in the Midwest, went to college on the east coast, ran around Colorado for a few years and has since settled in Rochester, New York. A music major in college, Nick chose the financial industry for his “day job.” He enjoys playing, watching, and writing about hockey and sports in general. His work can also be seen at http://hittingthepost.blogspot.com.

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