Well, the regular season has been decided and there were a couple of surprises- most notably that of the Montreal Canadiens- and a couple of disappointments (none more notable than the Ottawa Senators, who wasted a great start)- so that means time to dust off the old crystal ball and see how the playoffs will be determined. In last season’s playoffs I was correct in eight of 15 playoff series, and, in this regular season I correctly predicted 12 of the 16 playoff entrants. So here goes with another set of predictions:
#1 Montreal Canadiens vs. #8 Boston Bruins
This will be the 31st instalment of the one-sided Montreal-Boston playoff rivalry (the Canadiens have won 23 of the previous 30 series) but this figures to be the most intriguing. Neither team were expected to be playoff teams yet both took the Eastern Conference by storm in qualifying for unexpected berths. They both play the same way- to borrow a tennis analogy they are “aggressive counter-punchers”, relying on great defence to create offence, with both boasting a great compliment of great checkers (Mike Komisarek and Maxim Lapierre for Montreal alongside Andrew Alberts and PJ Axelsson for Boston) with great scorers (Alexei Kovalev for Montreal and Marc Savard for Boston). The difference is going to be in net, and that is what will give Montreal their 24th victory in their playoff encounters- as good as Tim Thomas is for Boston, he’s not comparable to sensational rookie Carey Price, who looks primed to be the Patrick Roy of his generation. The series might be closer because of the (prospective) absence of Canadiens captain Saku Koivu, but there’s no reason to believe Montreal cannot escape comfortably to the second round.
Canadiens 4, Bruins 2
#2 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. #7 Ottawa Senators
A re-match of last season’s opening round series, only this time it’s the Penguins who are the higher seed. Last season the Senators dominated Pittsburgh by throwing around Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin & Co. who looked out of sorts in their first playoff series, but, now that they know what the NHL playoffs is like, they’ll be better prepared and ready to face the Ottawa assault. A lot will be made of the fact Ottawa backed into the playoffs by slumping from first to seventh during the course of the season (with the Senators done in by shaky goaltending and huge lapses in defensive zone coverage) and the absence of a second-line centre really hurt the team this season, but make no mistake- the Senators still have a lot of their weapons from last year’s great playoff team (Jason Spezza, Dany Heatley, Wade Redden, Chris Phillips, etc.) and thus they are still a very potent team that has a lot more skill than their seeding suggests. The Penguins shouldn’t feel comfortable playing the Senators, who just might feel they could make a similar run the 1999 Buffalo Sabres did, a team that, like Ottawa, was once first in the Eastern Conference only to slump at the end of the season. This series will be fun to watch, and whoever wins will only do so barely- and the crystal ball is clearly displaying the grand logo of the Ottawa centurion.
Senators 4, Penguins 3
#3 Washington Capitals vs. #6 Philadelphia Flyers
The Capitals are the NHL’s version of the Colorado Rockies, a team that came from nowhere to win its division. Winners of 13 of their last 16 games and their last seven overall, Washington stealthily stole the division (and a playoff spot in the process) from the Carolina Hurricanes and enters the playoffs full of confidence and youthful enthusiasm with home-ice advantage to boot. They’ll face a Philadelphia Flyers team that is emerging from the rubble of last season’s debacle and thus has something to prove, and might feel “lucky” to face a Capitals team that really should be ranked eighth. They’ll be boosted by the fact that several veterans of the Flyers’ playoff runs of yesteryear (Derian Hatcher, Simon Gagne, Mike Richards) are still around and key contributors, but the Capitals will be anything but a cakewalk. Alexander Ovechkin established himself as the league’s best player in potting an astounding 65 goals this season as well as adding an element of defence and hitting to his game, making him just as well-rounded as Jarome Iginla or Vincent Lecavalier. Of course, the Capitals are more than just Ovechkin, boasting great rookie Nicklas Backstrom as well as super youngster Alexander Semin and deadline-day acquisitions Sergei Fedorov and Cristobal Huet, the latter of whom went a long way in solidifying their playoff spot. The big variable will be whether or not the Capitals’ young guns will be ready for the playoffs and while Fedorov and Huet have experience, neither of them have been out of the first round since 2002 (when Fedorov won his last Cup with the Detroit Red Wings). Washington should have enough to give Philadelphia a push, but the Flyers’ experience should be enough to carry the day.
Flyers 4, Capitals 3
#4 New Jersey Devils vs. #5 New York Rangers
Rematch of the 2006 series the Devils dominated, but this year’s Rangers team is miles ahead of the “happy-to-be-here” version that was soundly clocked by New Jersey. The Devils also don’t have a lot of the talent they had in that series, as Brian Rafalski is in Detroit and Scott Gomez is across the Hudson- and playing against them in this series. The Rangers should also be buoyed by the fact they gave the favoured Buffalo Sabres a run in the second round last season and the addition of Gomez as well as former Sabre Chris Drury to that team gives a New York team that already has Brendan Shanahan and Jaromir Jagr quite the offensive punch, and the addition of Christian Backman at the deadline gives the Rangers the puck moving defenceman they needed. Plus, this may be the year that Martin Brodeur’s armour starts to fade- he’ll be 36 in May and didn’t look at all like himself in last year’s playoffs, so Henrik Lundqvist is primed to outplay the legend. The fact New Jersey has home ice should give them a bit of a lift, but this series has “Rangers” written all over it.
Rangers 4, Devils 1
#1 Montreal vs. #7 Ottawa
The “Highway 40 Series” (denoting the highway that links Ottawa and Montreal together), this should be the series where Koivu comes back to Montreal (if he doesn’t come back against Boston). That should give the Canadiens a lift against the potent Senators, against whom they figure to have a high-scoring series (both teams are the two highest scoring teams in the league), so the determining factor will be who can make the best defensive adjustment. That team is Montreal, who are just that much better than the Senators are at defence and should carry them to the Conference Final.
Canadiens 4, Senators 2
#5 New York vs. #6 Philadelphia
After facing Brodeur in the first round, the Rangers will feel relieved they get to face Martin Biron, who isn’t a bad goaltender in his own right but certainly isn’t Brodeur. Still, the Flyers have a lot more at their disposal other than Biron- including more offensive weapons than New York- and that alone is going to give the Rangers quite the test. Not only that, but the much more physical Flyers should figure to push the Rangers around (Sean Avery will have his hands full, if not bloodied, by the end of the series), meaning if New York advances they’ll have nothing left for the Conference Final. That won’t happen though- the combination of Philadelphia’s energy in both the physical and scoring departments and the Rangers’ lack of weapons in response will see the Flyers advance to their first Conference Final since 2004.
Flyers 4, Rangers 2
#1 Montreal vs. #6 Philadelphia
The Canadiens should figure they’ll be prepared for the Flyers after playing the big Bruins, but Philadelphia is a different beast. The Flyers are big but can also score, whereas the Bruins are just big, which will pose countless problems for the Montreal coaching staff. The Canadiens measure up more than others might think with the likes of Guillame Latendresse and Komisarek, but even there, line-for-line, pound-for-pound, the Flyers are simply better. Montreal should push Philadelphia to the brink, but by the point the Canadiens will have nothing left, spurring the Flyers all the way to the Cup Final.
Flyers 4, Canadiens 3
#1 Detroit Red Wings vs. #8 Nashville Predators
If it wasn’t for the Canadiens, the Predators would be the surprise of the season. Left for dead after the dismantling they went through in the off-season, Nashville- led by the likes of ex-Sabre Jean-Pierre Dumont (who finally showed he can carry a team), long-timer Marek Zidlicky and the goaltending tandem of Dan Ellis and Chris Mason- channelled the spirit of their plucky 2004 selves and made the playoffs against incredible odds. They’ll need to work similar magic if they expect to get past the powerful, President’s Trophy-winning Red Wings, who look more like a soccer team than a hockey team with their puck possession approach. There are still question marks on the Detroit roster- size for one, plus a distinct lack of finishing ability (as good as Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk are, they’re playmakers not snipers) and the fact their goaltending is ancient (Domonik Hasek’s and Chris Osgood’s best days are long behind both). However, the Predators don’t have nearly enough weapons to exploit any of those weaknesses, and while the hockey world figured they passed their expectations just by reaching the playoffs, there may those who will wonder if that’s good enough after realizing Nashville still hasn’t won a playoff series.
Red Wings 4, Predators 0
#2 San Jose Sharks vs. #7 Calgary Flames
The Sharks- hockey’s greatest tease- finally got over the hump by winning the Pacific Division after two straight seasons finishing in fifth, knocking out Nashville in the first round and getting bounced themselves in Round 2. Thus, San Jose could actually deliver on all that promise they offered, especially after the addition of Brian Campbell from Buffalo makes the team that much faster. However, the familiar refrain in the Bay Area is the fact Joe Thornton has yet to lead any team past the second round, and compounding the problem is the fact that despite all the talent on San Jose’s roster- arguably the deepest in the NHL- they will face the equally talented but also equally underachieving Calgary Flames, out to prove they’re not going to have another run of 15 consecutive seasons without advancing from the first round. This could be the closest of all the playoff series, as San Jose and Calgary match up extremely well on paper- both teams have elite-level goaltending (Evgeni Nabokov and Miika Kiprusoff), great checkers (Joe Pavelski and Ryan Clowe for San Jose vs. Stephane Yelle and Owen Nolan for Calgary), elite-level forwards (Thornton and Jarome Iginla), good secondary scorers (Milan Michalek and Jonathan Cheechoo for San Jose and Alex Tanguay and Daymond Langkow for Calgary) and a deep blueline (led by Christian Erhoff, Matt Carle and Campbell in San Jose and Dion Phaneuf, Robyn Regehr and Adrian Aucoin in Calgary). Not only that, but each team’s weaknesses cancel each other out- the Sharks lack an elite-level sniper (Thornton led the team with 29 goals) while the Flames lack an elite-level playmaker (Iginla led the team with 48 assists), and San Jose’s offensive-minded defence corps will be countered by Calgary’s shutdown-oriented counterparts. What just mind win the day is experience, and the fact of the matter is despite the fact the Sharks haven’t been to the Conference Final since they played these very Flames in 2004 (during Calgary’s magical Stanley Cup run), the Sharks have still managed to get past the first round against talented sides, even if that side was Nashville both times. So expect the series to go to the wire- maybe even overtime in Game 7- but it’ll be the Sharks who will move through.
Sharks 4, Flames 3
#3 Minnesota Wild vs. #6 Colorado Avalanche
A lot was made of the Senators’ troubles this season, but equally disappointing was Colorado, a team pegged to win the Northwest after snagging Ryan Smyth in the off-season. It was perhaps this disappointment that led to the Avalanche to hold a reunion of sorts on trade deadline day, acquiring old Stanley Cup stalwarts Peter Forsberg and Adam Foote and so nearly convincing Patrick Roy to come out of retirement (okay, that last one was a joke). The result is a pastiche of a team that looks stronger than it actually is, since for every talent the team can boast (such as Joe Sakic, Smyth, Paul Stastny, Jose Theodore and Forsberg), it has two question marks right beside it (no defenceman scored more than Jeff Finger’s eight goals, and Wojtek Wolski produced only 18 goals and 48 points in a second-line capacity). Still, despite all their weaknesses, the Wild are not so much better than they are that the Avs don’t have a shot. Minnesota’s offence is comparable in overall talent to Colorado’s, as even though Marian Gaborik is Minnesota’s only 80+ point producer with 83, the Wild have six players who passed 40 points, two past sixty (counting Pavol Demitra) and a defenceman over 10 goals (Brent Burns with 15), compared to Colorado’s five past 40 points and only one past sixty (Stastny); and, as good as Niklas Backstrom is in net for Minnesota, he’s no comparison to Theodore. At the end of the day, though, it’s worth pointing out that Minnesota did win the toughest division in hockey- the Northwest- and, playing against a Northwest team in Colorado, it should signify that the Wild have what it takes to advance. Paper may suggest the Avalanche, but games are won on the ice and Minnesota has already shown it can win there.
Wild 4, Avalanche 2
#4 Anaheim Ducks vs. #5 Dallas Stars
No worries for a Stanley Cup hangover here, as the Ducks finished in a comfortable fourth position despite a horrid start and looking like the Cup winners they were last year, especially after Teemu Selanne and Scott Niedermayer came back. In front of them this year is Dallas in the first round, a team that filled a significant hole by acquiring Brad Richards at the trade deadline. Richards gives Dallas that elite-level centre to pair with Brendan Morrow they were lacking all season (since Mike Modano is past his prime) and makes Dallas a very scary No. 5. Not only that, but Marty Turco no longer has the “great regular season goaltender” tag dogging him anymore, meaning the Stars’ talent is very real and gives an Anaheim team a tough first round test a year after breezing through the first two rounds. However, Anaheim won without much depth last year, but the story is different- Todd Bertuzzi and Mathieu Schneider provide a nice compliment to Selanne and Ryan Getzlaf up front and Chris Pronger, Niedermayer and Francois Beauchemin on the back end; plus Anaheim has an elite level goaltender themselves in Jean-Sebastien Giguere. The two teams match up very well, but what will set the two apart is Anaheim’s size and experience, as the Stars haven’t been out of the first round since a 2003 loss against a then-upstart Anaheim team. It won’t be a deserved first-round exit, since Dallas looked so much stronger, but the Stars consigned themselves to this fate by their own poor start.
Ducks 4, Stars 2
#1 Detroit vs. #4 Anaheim
The 2007 Conference Finals, Part II. Anaheim won last year because of their size, smacking around a clearly undersized Red Wings team that still isn’t up to that task, and, worse, has to contend with a much deeper Ducks team in this go around. Add to that the sieve-like goaltending the Michiganders are receiving and this has the potential to get ugly. There’s nothing else for Anaheim to do except win this series handily thus guaranteeing themselves another easy trip to the Conference Final.
Ducks 4, Red Wings 0
#2 San Jose vs. #3 Minnesota
From “faux elite” to elite, the Wild will also have their hands full against a deep Sharks team whose only fault for this series might be how winded they are after facing Calgary. That said, the defensively-sound Wild boast enough offence this time around to give the Sharks a fight, especially considering San Jose is an offensive-minded team and thus will have a very difficult time fighting through Jacques Lemaire’s positionally smart bunch. What will again be Minnesota’s undoing is a lack of offence, because even though the Wild should figure to contain the Sharks’ offence, it has enough weapons to find a way through meaning at some point the Wild will need to counterattack; and as long as the Sharks focus on Gaborik (Minnesota’s only threat), that will prove impossible. It won’t be a cakewalk for San Jose, but Minnesota just doesn’t have enough to bring them over the hump.
Sharks 4, Wild 2
#2 San Jose vs. #4 Anaheim
The Battle of California…maybe it’s not as romantic as a Los Angeles Kings-Anaheim Ducks confrontation, but the fact they’re both from the same state will make this match-up spicy enough. Anaheim will be buoyed by an easy second round and pumped to get back to the Cup Final for a second year in a row, while San Jose will be a team full of confidence after proving they’re finally capable of making good use of the embarrassment of riches they have. These two teams also match up considerably well, both being very energetic sides that can score and hit, meaning we just may have a new rivalry on our hands by the time this series is over (especially considering Pronger is still loathed in San Jose from his days as a St. Louis Blue). This will also be a very close series, but the Ducks have enough firepower and more experience to see them through to a second-consecutive Cup Final, leaving the Sharks again empty-handed- but at least with something to build upon for next season.
Ducks 4, Sharks 3
STANLEY CUP FINAL
#4W Anaheim vs. #6E Philadelphia
The New Broad Street Bullies vs. The Original Broad Street Bullies, there’s enough intrigue here to fill the sports pages on both sides of the border. At first glance, one knows there will be blood in this series, since the Flyers are definitely going to set out to prove that they are still the NHL’s toughest team and not the upstart Ducks, while Anaheim will be out to prove that it too can stand alongside the ’74 and ’75 Flyers in the annals of hockey history. Not that fisticuffs will be the only thing featured in this series- there will be lots of goals, great saves and loads of energy, so much so that this just might be the most entertaining Cup Final in recent memory even if it won’t go down to the wire. Standing above it, though, will be Anaheim, who are just a hair deeper than the Flyers are and that will prove the difference. Still, Philadelphia will give the defending champs quite the run and warm many hockey hearts in the process so even if they don’t lift hockey’s ultimate prize, they’ll still have a lot to hold their heads up high to.
Ducks 4, Flyers 2