Sixteen teams are about to explore uncharted territory. Whatever’s behind them doesn’t matter anymore. All that matters is the treasure ahead – somewhere, to be found. No one has any idea what it will take to get there. Some think they might, but there’s no way of knowing the exact path, knowing what's ahead.
It all starts tonight. The 2007 Stanley Cup Playoffs. It’ll be like a jungle out there – every man, every team for themselves: survival of the fittest.
For months, red lamps will be lit, tenders will be screened and players will fall to the ice – headfirst – to try to block shots. Power-plays will be awarded, players will deke on clear-cut breakaways, gut-wrenching checks will be delivered and deflections will guide pucks to the back of the net. Through all of this, a separation will occur between the amateurs and the true troopers, the real warriors. Only a select few will be left standing.
We’ll see twists, turns, funny bounces, players playing out of character, costly referee errors and plenty more. All of these factors will combine to form storylines, for each round, each series, each team, each player.
The match-ups are intriguing. The storylines are already strong, sure to build. Who will come out on top?
I must first offer a disclaimer; then I’ll blatantly contradict myself. The NHL playoffs are impossible to predict. The swings of momentum, effects of seemingly minute plays like one-on-one battles and many other factors make that so. Even top teams are susceptible, usually when they least expect it. They may fall, and fall hard.
That being said, now I’m going to try to predict the first round.
Don’t let the seedings deceive you. In the New Jersey (No. 2) and Tampa Bay (No. 7) match-up, Tampa actually beat Jersey three times to one this season. They also have the experience and offensive prowess to fend off superstars like Marty Brodeur. But the higher seed will prevail, barely, under the leadership of rising star Zach Parise and Rochester native Brian Gionta. Devils in seven.
The third-seeded Atlanta Thrashers got a tough draw. Nobody wants to face Jaromir Jagr, a healthy Brendan Shanahan and the brilliant trade deadline acquisition of the hard-nosed Sean Avery. Not to mention Henrik Lundqvist in goal. Atlanta added a big name of their own in Keith Tkachuk, but they lack consistency in both defense and the net. The surging New York Rangers will win in just five games.
The Sens and Pens, a four-five match-up, is perhaps the most highly anticipated series of the first round. Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby is good, but the 19-year-old can’t single-handedly slay Ottawa. The Penguins have other young studs like Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal, as well as veterans like Georges Laraque and Gary Roberts, but Ottawa is one of the most underrated teams in the spread, period. The Senators fell just eight points shy of Buffalo for the NHL’s top spot at season’s end, despite a moderately slow start. They’re playing some of their best hockey and they’ll win in six games.
The eighth-seeded New York Islanders will throw everything at their disposal at the top-seeded Buffalo Sabres. It may even be more than Buffalo expects. The Isles will be prepared, with former Sabres coach (disciplinarian and work-a-holic) Ted Nolan at the head coach realm, and even in their dying moments they will not go without a fight. But the stingy Sabres, on a mission after last year’s heartbreaking defeat at the hands of Carolina, have too much depth, too much passion and too much heart. They have something to prove. Sabres in six.
The West is a set of near-equal teams bunched together in a single half bracket. The clubs aren’t necessarily similar in style or skill, but the parity in this conference is more than evident.
“Upsets” will happen. No. 8 Calgary will dispose of No. 1 Detroit, No. 7 Minnesota will give No. 2 Anaheim a scare but will fall just short and No. 5 San Jose will send No. 4 Nashville to the golf courses. However, No. 3 Vancouver, which uses a model similar to the Sabres, will take care of No. 6 Dallas.
Formerly known as the high-scoring West, the conference has tightened up considerably in the post-lockout NHL. Goals will be hard to come by in all of these series as a result. Defense and goaltending will be the story. That’s why Calgary and Miikka Kiprusoff will win (Dominik Hasek is injury prone, and also old, so he can’t be seen as reliable for Detroit), Anaheim’s Giguere-Brzygalov combo will hold off Minnesota, Roberto Luongo and his Canucks will move on and the Nabokov-Toskala Sharks duo will slice the Preds.
No matter how these playoffs unfold, they will surely be exciting. And the surprises, even to the avid hockey fan, will strike both soon and often. Anything can happen, and it will, because each of these teams earned their right to be there. Everyone starts fresh and “weaker” teams will use that to their advantage.
Best of all, Wednesday only marks the beginning. This ice cold tournament will carry its reach into sunny June, and that’s when we’ll crown a new champion. That team will parade the streets of some city in 80 degree weather, and tens of thousands of fans will serenade it, with lemonades in hand and music blasting. It’s every hockey fan’s paradise.