With the regular season behind us, the 2008 NHL playoffs get underway on Wednesday and Thursday night. The matchups look to be some of the most exciting in recent memory. Let’s take a look:
Montreal Canadiens (1) vs. Boston Bruins (8)-
The numbers favor the Canadiens in 23 of 30 head-to-head playoffs series’, as well as a perfect 8-0 record during the regular season against the Bruins. However, Boston has been playing with a bee under their bonnet for the entirety of the regular season. Unfortunately, though, they’ll be without key players Chuck Kobasew (tibia) and most likely Patrice Bergeron (concussion). If the Bruins wish to turn their luck around against Montreal, they’ll have to play rough-and-tough hockey in order to slow down one of the game’s fastest and least-physical teams. Boston can battle with the best of them, but injuries and lack of depth could prove fatal against one of the NHL’s most well-rounded clubs.
Pick: Montreal in 5.
New Jersey Devils (4) vs. New York Rangers (5)-
Another great battle in store when two of the game’s best goalies go head-to-head. Matchups between the 4 and 5 seeds are always great, and this should be no exception. The Devils come in with a better record and a much more established postseason goalie in Brodeur — though Lundqvist is no slouch — but the Rangers will look to capitalize, using the experience of their big-game players. Count on Brendan Shanahan, Scott Gomez, Jaromir Jagr, Sean Avery, and the always-clutch Chris Drury to get things done. In 9 games against New Jersey this year, Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist sports a record of 7-0-1, with a 1.12 GAA. Talk about having someone’s number!
Pick: New York in 7.
Pittsburgh Penguins (2) vs. Ottawa Senators (7)-
It’s always fun when two of the leagues most highly-touted offenses get together. The Penguins have been on a roll since goalie Marc-Andre Fleury returned from the DL, and captain Sidney Crosby finally looks to be in good health.The Senators, however, are a bit of a different story. After starting the season 13-0 and being heavy favorites for the finals, Ottawa’s injuries and goalie controversy has hurled them into a downward spiral. In the last 30 games of the season, the Senators were a miserable 11-15-4. With captain Daniel Alfredsson out for the playoffs, the boys from Ottawa could be in over their heads. Look for the Penguins to thrive off of Ottawa head coach Bryan Murray’s comments, which suggested the Penguins intentionally lost their last game of the season in order to play his stumbling club.
Pick: Pittsburgh in 6.
Washington Capitals (3) vs.Philadelphia Flyers (8)-
Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin lead the NHL in nearly every scoring category, finishing with 65 goals and 112 points. In the remaining games of the regular season, Ovechkin’s Capitals leapfrogged their way to the number 3 seed and don’t intend on looking back. They certainly have a tough matchup against the revamped Flyers, who have received exceptional play from Mike Richards, Daniel Briere, Martin Biron, and Vaclav Prospal as of late, but the ice and momentum favors the Capitals and their star. If it seems like Philly’s key to success rests in their ability to keep Ovechkin at bay, think again. Even if they manage to somehow contain the NHL’s best player, they’ll have the brick wall that is Cristobal Huet, playmaker Nicklas Backstrom, and budding superstar Mike Green to deal with.
Pick: Capitals in 5.
Detroit Red Wings (1) vs. Nashville Predators (8)-
With 54 wins, the Detroit Red Wings have established themselves as the best regular season hockey team. But do they have what it takes to go deep into the playoffs? Well, maybe not deep, but they should make it out of the first round with no trouble. If they don’t, chances are, you can find coach Mike Babcock’s resume on Monster.com. It is true, though, that you never know what you’ll get in net with the Red Wings. But Nashville also has some goalie issues. Chris Mason has been the starter for most of the season — an inconsistent one at that — but backup Dan Ellis has been keeping Nashville’s net warm with 2 shutouts and 4 wins in the last 6 games. It will be interesting to see how this dilemma pans out. Based on sheer talent alone, this matchup has to go to the men from Motor City. Even if the Wings have some trouble between the pipes, Nashville’s going to need a string of great games to pull of a huge upset.
Pick: Detroit in 5.
Anaheim Ducks (4) vs. Dallas Stars (5)-
When Anaheim’s Scott Niedermayer and Teem Selanne decided to come out of retirement nearly half-way through the season, their goal was clear: Win Lord Stanley’s Cup for the second year in a row. As the Ducks look to repeat, the Stars hope that their record of 5-3 against Anaheim can motivate them to get past the first round, something they’ve failed to do for the past 5 seasons. With Chris Pronger back from his suspension, expect this to be a very physical, Western Conference-style series. If the Ducks intend on moving on, they’ll have to play with a mix of focus and force. The series, however, could shift in an instant if Dallas’ Steve Ott gets under Anaheim’s skin, forcing them to take stupid penalties. Look for both Chris Pronger and George “Who wants a mustache ride?” Parros to keep the Stars in check.
Pick: Anaheim in 6.
San Jose Sharks (2) vs. Calgary Flames (7)-
Most likely, this will be the most physical and hard-hitting series of them all. The Sharks are recently coming off of a game against Dallas which saw 160 penalty minutes and plenty of good battles. Momentum combined with Flames head coach Mike Keenan’s comments about the physical approach his club will take, should be more than enough to get this series going. After acquiring defenseman Brian Campbell at the trade deadline, San Jose went on a 18-0-2 run to finish off the season — but don’t count the Flames out just yet. After all, they have quite a team of their own with Jarome Iginla, Kristian Huselius, Dion Phaneuf, and Mikka Kiprusoff. When it comes down to it, though, the Sharks are a team that does nearly everything well. Ultimately, their multifacetedness will prove victorious.
Pick: San Jose in 7.
Minnesota Wild (3) vs. Colorado Avalanche (6)-
In terms of talent, the Minnesota Wild have more than what it takes to advance beyond the first round. What they also have, though, is trouble scoring with that talent. Even with snipers Brian Rolston and Marian Gaborik, it takes quite a bit to get this club going, which could lead to their demise. Colorado, on the other hand, will look to generate offense from Peter Forsberg, Joe Sakic, and Paul Stastny, all of whom are recently healthy and should be fresh for this series. Right now, it looks like Forsberg’s decision to come back to the NHL with only a few weeks left could loom large. The Avalanche’s rock-solid offense and goalie Jose Theodore should be able to take the Wild out of the playoff equation if they stick to their guns.
Pick: Colorado in 6.
Eastern Conference champions: Pittsburgh Penguins
Western Conference champions: San Jose Sharks
Stanley Cup champions: San Jose Sharks