It’s that time of year again. Dragging ass into work the morning after a good west coast game. Using the road games to recover those vocal cords for the next home game. Only turning off Versus long enough to turn on FSN Pittsburgh. It’s playoff time, baby!
Time to commit some predictions to a blog.
#1 Montreal Canadiens vs. #8 Boston Bruins
Montreal: 47-25-10, 104 pts, 8-1-1 in last 10, 8-0-0 vs Bruins. My preseason prediction: Playoff bound.
Boston: 41-29-12, 94 pts, 4-2-4 in last 10, 0-7-1 vs Canadiens. My preseason prediction: Draft-ready.
Montreal played well beyond anybody’s expectations this year. Alexei Kovalev stopped being enigmatic for a year, Mike Komisarek and Andrei Kostitsyn had breakout years, and Carey Price earned the front office’s trust so completely, the Habs felt safe to trade Cristobal Huet to Washington.
The Bruins also did better than some expected. Claude Julien’s defense-first philosophy worked well with the team’s young talent, and Tim Thomas emerged as strong starter after big free agent signing Manny Fernandez was injured early.
That defense didn’t amount to much against Montreal, though. The Habs swept the regular season series. Boston can win one out of desperation in this series, but I don’t expect much more than that.
Prediction: Montreal in 5.
#2 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. #7 Ottawa Senators
Pittsburgh: 47-27-8, 102 pts, 6-3-1 in last 10, 1-3-0 vs Senators. My preseason prediction: Contender.
Ottawa: 43-31-8, 94 pts, 3-6-1 in last 10, 3-0-1 vs Penguins. My preseason prediction: Contender.
Thanksgiving Day was a turning point for both of these teams. Going into their game at Scotiabank Place, Ottawa had the best record in the East, and Pittsburgh was an inconsistent .500 hockey club. After a chippy, defense-free roller coaster of a game, the Pens came away with a shoot-out victory, thanks to Jarkko Ruutu and his one breakaway move.
After that game, Ottawa started sliding downhill. The offense lost its scoring depth, Martin Gerber lost his momentum, Ray Emery lost his ever-lovin’ mind, and John Paddock lost his job. Bryan Murray returned to the bench, and barely kept the team from missing the playoffs entirely.
The Penguins, meanwhile, found a spark of confidence in that game. Then Marc-Andre Fleury suffered a high ankle sprain. What happened? Ty Conklin grabbed the starting job away from Dany Sabourin, and ran off a ridiculous streak of wins and the 2nd best save percentage in the league this year. Then Sidney Crosby suffered a high ankle sprain. What happened? Evgeni Malkin was unleashed. With first-line playing time, he went on a scoring binge that briefly put him ahead of Alexander Ovechkin in a scoring race that looked like it was wrapped up.
The Senators have a picture of last year’s handshake line in their locker room. Murray has accused the Pens of tanking their season finale just so they could get revenge on the Sens. Ottawa will learn soon that the Pens aren’t looking back on their past. They see a Cup in their future.
Prediction: Pittsburgh in 6.
#3 Washington Capitals vs. #6 Philadelphia Flyers
Washington: 43-31-8, 94 pts, 9-1-0 in last 10, 2-2-0 vs Flyers. My preseason prediction: Playoff bound.
Philadelphia: 42-29-11, 95 pts, 7-2-1 in last 10, 2-1-1 vs Capitals. My preseason prediction: Draft-ready.
Thanksgiving Day was a turning point for the Caps, too. They had the worst record in the NHL when coach Glen Hanlon was fired. They promoted their AHL affiliate’s head coach, Slap Shot extra and Kyle Gass look-alike Bruce Boudreau. He took one look at the make-up of his team, looked at the trap system Hanlon was running, and threw the playbook in the trash. OVIE TIME!!! was born. A deadline deal for Cristobal Huet took the pressure off Olaf Kolzig’s aging body. The Caps turn-around finished with a 7-game winning streak to clinch the Southeast division in their last game of the season.
Philly has had an up-and-down season. After a hot start, injuries pulled them back to earth before bouncing back down the stretch. They’ve been winning games with grit, hustle, and some occasional thuggery.
The Capitals have the talent to beat the Flyers under most circumstances. The Caps are also where the Pens were last year, though. Lack of playoff experience has chewed up and spit out teams great and small. I have a feeling that Washington can exploit the Flyers’ lack of speed.
Prediction: Washington in 7.
#4 New Jersey Devils vs. #5 New York Rangers
New Jersey: 46-29-7, 99 pts, 4-5-1 in last 10, 1-4-3 vs Rangers. My preseason prediction: Playoff bound.
NY Rangers: 42-27-13, 97 pts, 5-1-4 in last 10, 7-0-1 vs Devils. My preseason prediction: Contender.
Jersey is Jersey. What more can you say? Except that maybe Martin Brodeur was overworked, and age is starting to creep up on him. Or that they don’t have nearly enough scoring depth. They made the playoffs again, but they’re not a threat to go very far.
The Rangers are exactly where they were last year. Just enough offense, just enough defense, and Henrik Lundqvist making up the difference. If somebody has to light a fire under Jaromir Jagr’s ass, the Rangers are in trouble. But the playoffs are why New York brought in Chris Drury.
The Rangers had New Jersey’s number during the regular season, and I don’t see why that won’t continue through this series.
Prediction: NY Rangers in 5
#1 Detroit Red Wings vs. #8 Nashville Predators
Detroit: 54-21-7, 115 pts, 7-2-1 in last 10, 5-3-0 vs Predators. My preseason prediction: Contender.
Nashville: 41-32-9, 91 pts, 6-3-1 in last 10, 3-3-2 vs Red Wings. My preseason prediction: Playoff-bound.
Pick a team statistical category, and you’ll probably see the Red Wings in the top 3. (8th in penalty killing? Slackers.) They were five wins clear of the next best record in the league. So, of course, when they were awarded the President’s Trophy at their last home game, Nicklas Lidstrom treated the trophy like it was radioactive. The Red Wings know, from experience, that having the best record in the regular season means nothing in the playoffs. Home-field advantage only goes so far.
Nashville is just happy to be anywhere. After the off-season ownership turmoil, punctuated by suitor Jim Balsillie advertising season ticket plans in Hamilton, and an associated fire sale, just playing the game was a relief. The biggest story on the ice was the emergence of Dan Ellis as the #1 goalie, taking the job from a struggling Chris Mason.
Anybody expecting Detroit’s annual post-season flameout shouldn’t expect it here.
Prediction: Detroit in 5
#2 San Jose Sharks vs. #7 Calgary Flames
San Jose: 49-23-10, 108 pts, 7-2-1 in last 10, 1-1-2 vs Flames. My preseason prediction: Contender.
Calgary: 42-30-10, 94 pts, 5-5-0 in last 10, 3-1-0 vs Sharks. My preseason prediction: Playoff-bound.
The Sharks are loaded. They are the most complete team in the NHL entering the playoffs. The Wings had the better record, but the Sharks are the favorite to win the West, if not the Cup.
The Flames had a rough go in the early season, with Miikka Kiprusoff getting a shaky start. Mike Keenan has the team playing a solid, disciplined game, but they lean a bit too much on Jarome Iginla.
Don’t let the regular season record fool you. This won’t last long.
Prediction: San Jose in 4
#3 Minnesota Wild vs. #6 Colorado Avalanche
Minnesota: 44-28-10, 98 pts, 6-2-2 in last 1o, 5-2-1 vs Avalanche. My preseason prediction: Playoff-bound.
Colorado: 44-31-7, 95 pts, 5-4-1 in last 10, 3-5 vs Wild. My preseason prediction: Playoff-bound.
Minnesota thugged up for the playoffs, adding Chris Simon to a lineup that already included Derek Boogaard, Todd Fedoruk, and Aaron Voros. They were pushed around by Anaheim last year, and they don’t want it to happen again this year.
Colorado, on the other hand, geezered up. They spent most of the season waiting for the ageless Joe Sakic to come back from injury, signed Ryan Smyth before the season, traded for Adam Foote at the deadline, and took a big gamble on Peter Forsberg’s fragile lower body. And Andrew Brunette was their second leading scorer. That’s a lot of thirtysomethings. But this will work to the Avs’ advantage, since it will take some pressure off young stars like leading scorer Paul Stastny, Wojtek Wolski, and Jaroslav Hlinka.
Something tells me that the Wild’s tough-guy makeover will backfire.
Prediction: Colorado in 7.
#4 Anaheim Ducks vs. #5 Dallas Stars
Anaheim: 47-27-8, 102 pts, 8-2-0 in last 10, 3-5-0 vs Stars. My preseason prediction: Contender.
Dallas: 45-30-7, 97 pts, 3-5-2 in last 10, 5-2-1 vs Ducks. My preseason prediction: Playoff-bound.
Anaheim had to wait for Teemu Selanne and Scott Niedermayer to make up their minds, but they decided to come back. Their returns gave the Ducks a bit of a boost down the stretch. The playoff will prove if they’ve elevated the Ducks from “good” to “great”, or merely “very good”.
Dallas is Jersey West. Except that we don’t know if last year’s dominant Marty Turco will show up, or past years’ soft Marty Turco. The trade for Brad Richards looked good at first, but he faded down the stretch. And we still don’t know if Sergei Zubov will be near 100%.
Call it a hunch, but Anaheim may feel like they have to prove they’re still capable of winning the Cup.
Prediction: Anaheim in 6.
#1 Montreal vs. #5 NY Rangers
The Rangers just don’t have enough to get past the Habs.
Prediction: Montreal in 5.
#2 Pittsburgh vs. #3 Washington
Sid vs. Ovie. Or, if you prefer, Geno vs. Ovie. Either way, the NHL Marketing Department has been dreaming of this matchup all season. Sid and Geno have the better supporting cast, though, and the Caps will have been beaten up by Philly.
Prediction: Pittsburgh in 6
#1 Detroit vs. #6 Colorado
Hide the women and children.
Prediction: Detroit in 7.
#2 San Jose vs. #4 Anaheim
The Sharks will not be denied by the Ducks. Not this year.
Prediction: San Jose in 6.
#1 Montreal vs. #2 Pittsburgh
History would suggest the Canadiens. But can Carey Price follow in the footsteps of Ken Dryden and Patrick Roy? I don’t think so.
Prediction: Pittsburgh in 5.
#1 Detroit vs. #2 San Jose
The Sharks have had some memorable upsets over the Red Wings over the years. Nobody will call this an upset.
Prediction: San Jose in 7.
Stanley Cup Finals
San Jose vs. Pittsburgh
It would be easy to say that San Jose’s completeness would carry the day over the Penguins. But the Pens have proven throughout this season that they can ride a wave of momentum.
Prediction: Pittsburgh in 7.