(1) Detroit Red Wings – (8) Calgary Flames
Calgary is one of the few teams that isn’t afraid of going up against the mighty Wings in the first round of the playoffs. They match up fairly well, and that should bode for a tight, well played series. The Wings finished the regular season going 5-1-4 in their last 10 games while Calgary was 6-4, but lost 4 straight headed into the playoffs.
The Red Wings are deep throughout, but are truly lead by their defensive core and goaltender. Domink Hasek played well again this season, and Niklas Lidstrom is on his way to winning another Norris trophy. The biggest question mark for Detroit will be up front. Henrik Zetterberg has been battling back problems, and no one is sure how well he will perform in the postseason. Pavel Datsyuk is going to be key for Detroit to succeed. The last several years, he has disappeared in the playoffs. In a series that looks as though goals will be hard to come by, Detroit will need the likes of Tomas Holmstrom and others to pick up the offensive slack and get key goals
Calgary has what they didn’t last year and that is offense. Led by Jerome Iginla and Alex Tanguay, Calgary also received a lot of production from Daymond Langkow and a breakout year by Kristian Huselius. The Flames also boast a strong blueline corps led by second year standout Dion Phaneuf. With the likes of Phaneuf, Robyn Regehr, Roman Hamrlik and Brad Stuart, the Flames physical style should give the Wings forwards fits. Calgary is fast and physical and this should allow them to compete very well with Detroit. Also, Calgary has a goalie in Miikka Kiprusoff that can steal a series even though he hasn’t been as dominant this year as in years past.
These two teams tied their season series at 2 games a piece and there is nothing that points to one team dominating the other in the playoffs. Calgary is great at home and has gotten better on the road towards the end of the year. Though my heart says Calgary will win, my head says Detroit in 7
(2) Anaheim Ducks – (7) Minnesota Wild
With the acquisition of Chris Pronger to go along with Scott Niedermayer on the blueline, it’s no surprise that Anaheim finished second in the West. The pair give Anaheim the best defensive tandem in the league with the ability to eat up a lot of minutes between them and add offensive punch. Up front, Teemu Selanne is still playing extremely well, and keeps playing well with Andy McDonald. The Ducks also have a group of young, talented forwards such as Ryan Getzlaf, Chris Kunitz, Corey Perry and Dustin Penner that can give teams nightmares when it comes to matchups. In goal, Anaheim has two legitimate number 1 goalies in JS Giguere and Ilya Bryzgalov. Giguere will be the man to start the series, but if anything happens, Bryzgalov showed last year that he is more than capable of leading the team deep into the playoffs.
Minnesota has seemingly quietly put together a solid season and has been playing great the last month of the season and is 7-2-1 in their last 10 games. Even with their number one goalie, Manny Fernandez going down in the second half of the season, Niklas Bakstrom stepped in and played extremely well, leading the league in save percentage (.929) and goals against average (1.97). The defense doesn’t do anything flashy, but they are sound and do their jobs. The Wild offense is led by Marion Gaborik who can be a human highlight reel, and Pavol Demitra. . Minnesota’s forwards are fast and play well in their own end as well. If they get a lead, they don’t give it up very easily.
The difference in the series could come down to special teams, and which group can outdo the other. Anaheim was 3rd in the league on the power play and Minnesota’s PK was 2nd. At the same time, Minnesota had the league’s 6th best power play and the Ducks were 4th in the league in killing penalties. Something has to give. As we have seen in years past defense wins in the playoffs, and I think the edge in this series goes to Anaheim. That’s why I am saying Ducks in 6.
(3) Vancouver Canucks – (6) Dallas Stars
Vancouver was led to the Northewest Division title and the number 3 seed by Roberto Luongo who has definitely been an MVP candidate this year. He is by far one of the best goalies in the league, but how will he fare in his first go in the playoffs? The Sedin brothers carried the Canucks on offense this year, and are a joy to watch play. They always know where the other is, and that has often times led to amazing plays. But outside of their line, scoring has been hard to come by. The production from Brendan Morrison and Markus Naslund has declined, and Vancouver is going to need somebody to step up and score against a tough defensive team in Dallas. The D has been banged up this year, especially lately, but they have had guys fill in admirably to get the job done.
On the subject of scoring futility we can turn to Dallas. No other team has been hurt as much as the Stars when it comes to injuries up front. Mike Modano, Brenden Morrow, and Eric Lindros have all been banged up and Jere Lehtinen was the only guy to score at least 20 goals. The defense is deep and led by Sergei Zubov and Philippe Boucher, who also provide a lot of offensive punch. In goal, Marty Turco is looking to forget about his trouble playoff past. Annually one of the best goalies in the regular season, Turco seems like another person in the playoffs. With Dallas’ troubles scoring goals, his performance is going to be magnified.
This could be the lowest scoring series in the West and will come down to the goalies. We have two great regular season goalies. One with no playoff experience, and the other with playoff demons. This could be Marty Turco’s year. I like the way Dallas matches up against Vancouver, and I think they will move on after winning game 7
(4) Nashville Predators – (5) San Jose Sharks
How crazy has this year been? The two teams tied with the most wins by western conference teams (51) are the 4th and 5th seeds. Nashville is very good up and down the lineup, and hopefully everyone is healthy. With Peter Forsberg, Paul Kariya and Steve Sullivan leading the way on offense, The Predators are quick and talented up front, and have the ability to score a lot of goals. As good as they are up front, the defense is just as solid. Marek Zidlicky, and Kimmo Timmonen are the leaders, and Shea Weber is coming into his own. They will be tested though against a talented San Jose team. Nashville also has the benefit of having two very good goalies. Tomas Vokoun will be the man to start, but if Chris Mason has to come in for any reason, he has put up comparable numbers throughout the year and can lead this team to victory
San Jose was one of the hottest teams down the stretch going 7-1-2 in their last 10. They also happen to have one of the league’s best offensive talents in Joe Thornton. Thornton and Jonathan Cheechoo combined with Patrick Marleau and Bill Guerin give the Sharks one hell of a 1-2 punch. Throw in guys like Milan Michalek and Steve Bernier and you have a team that can put points up on the board. The defense is young and aggressive, and tailor-made for the playoffs. Kyle McLaren and Scott Hannan aren’t fun to play against, and Matt Carle can provide offensive help. Craig Rivet has helped since being acquired at the trade deadline as well. Like the Preds, the Sharks have two number one goalies in Evgeni Nabokov and Vesa Toskala. Nabokov has played well in the second half and will be goalie 1A headed into the playoffs.
The Sharks had the league’s 2nd best power play, but Nashville was #3 in penalty killing. Nashville bodes well if they can play 5-5 and keep penalties to a minimum. I have no idea who has the edge in this series. I don’t think there is one. Sharks in 7
(1) Buffalo Sabres – (8) New York Islanders
It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that Buffalo ended up with the number one seed in the East and the President’s Trophy. The Sabres are loaded with talent up front, and even though injuries plagued them this year, every guy that stepped in made an impact. Chris Drury, Daniel Briere, Tomas Vanek, Jason Pominville, and Maxim Afinogenov lead a team that is fun to watch on offense. Oh, and they are getting Tim Connolly back. And Drew Stafford keeps scoring. Buffalo’s defense can skate and move the puck well, but they aren’t the toughest or moist physical group. That could hurt them in the later rounds, but shouldn’t be a huge factor in this series. Ryan Miller had another fine year in net, and has entrenched himself in the upper echelon of the league’s netminders.
The Islanders were the last team into the playoffs thanks to a shootout win over New Jersey on the last day of the season. They also made the best move at the trading deadline picking up Ryan Smyth from Edmonton. Now they get the honor of playing Buffalo. Without their top goalie. Jason Blake led the team in goals and points. The Isles are deep up front, and are going to need to muster as much as they can to keep up with Buffalo and make up for the loss of Rick DiPietro. The defense is big and tough with Brendan Witt and Tom Poti. With Rick DiPietro still out due to concussions, former DU Pioneer Wade Dubielewicz helped get this team into the playoffs, and will have to stand out to give this team a chance.
The Islanders have been a good story this week, but that’s gonna change. Buffalo should be able to win this series in 5 games
(2) New Jersey Devils – (7) Tampa Bay Lightning
The Devils probably have the most playoff experience of any team in the league. They have a great mix of forwards with guys like Brian Gionta, Scott Gomez and Zach Parise who can put the puck in the net, and guys like John Madden and Jay Pandolfo who are two of the best defensive forwards in the league. The defense isn’t as stacked as it has been in the past, but they are tough and mean. Plus they have a pretty good guy behind them if they do make a mistake. Martin Brodeur set the single season record in wins this year with 48 and is in the running for the Hart and Vezina trophies. With him in net, your team always has a chance.
Vincent Lacavalier had a career year and led Tampa Bay and the rest of the league in goals with 52. Together with Martin St. Louis and Brad Richards, the Lightning have some top offensive talent. Richards also plays extremely well in his own end. The back end is full of veterans, whose main focus is keeping the puck out of the net. Outside of Vaclav Prospal, the Lightning D aren’t offensive threats. In the end, Tampa Bay’s success is going to be tied to its goaltending. Marc Denis was brought in from Columbus to solidify the situation but has been terrible. Johan Holmqvist played well throughout the year, but he is streaky.
The Devils have Martin Brodeur, and Tampa Bay doesn’t. That will be the difference in this series. Tampa played the Devils well in the regular season going 3-1, but this is a whole new season, and the Devils will win in 6
(3) Atlanta Thrashers – (6) New York Rangers
Atlanta can score goals. They boast a good 1-2 punch between Slava Kozlov and Marian Hossa backed by Ilya Kovalchuk and Keith Tkachuk. Mix in a guy like Bobby Holik and some grinders and the Thrashers could make some noise in their first playoff appearance in franchise history. The defensive is gritty and is getting better. Greg DeVries has been here before and Alexei Zhitnik has played really well since being traded from the Islanders. Like many other teams, the biggest question mark is in goal. Kari Lehtonen has shown he can be a great tender at times, but he can be shaky. He will be in his first playoffs, and will be tested
The Rangers have been playing as well as any team in the East. They are 7-2-1 in their last 10 games and are clicking on all cylinders. Jaromir Jagr and Brendan Shanahan lead a solid group of forwards. The addition of Sean Avery (yes, that bumhole) has turned this team around. He’s been an agitator and a major contributor on offense. Martin Straka and Michael Nylander have also pitched in a ton this season. The Rangers defense consists of puck moving two-way defensemen like Michael Rozzival. They are able to help start the offense and protect their own end. It took a while but goalie Henrik Lundqvist returned to the form he showed last year. He played big when the Rangers needed him down the stretch to get into the playoffs, and now he will need to do the same to get this team to the second round.
This matchup has upset written all over it. The Thrashers have to stay out of the box as their 26th ranked penalty killers will be going up against the potent 8th ranked power play of New York. If Henrik Lundqvist stays hot, the Rangers will win in 6
(4) Ottawa Senators – (5) Pittsburgh Penguins
This may be the most anticipated series. The young Penguins led by NHL poster boy and MVP candidate Sidney Crosby take on a team that has performed well in the regular season but underperformed in the playoffs in Ottawa.
Ottawa has the talent up front with Dany Heatley, Jason Spexxa and Daniel Alfredsson, but they need to perform that way in the playoffs. When it matters. The Sens have solid guys up front throughout that are good at both ends of the ice. There is a good chance that these guys will have to pick up some slack if the top group can’t produce. On defense, the Senators are good. They have 5 solid defenders in Joe Corvo, Chris Philliips, Wade Redden, Anton Volchenkov and Tom Preissing. Not only are these guys good in their own end, they contribute on offense and on the power play. The question for Ottawa will be in goal and how will Ray Emery perform. Martin Gerber was expected to lead this team deep into the playoffs, but he never met expectations.
The Penguins may be the best story of the year. A lot of people though this team was a year or two away from where they went this year. Sidney Crosby led the league in scoring. Evgeni Malkin led rookies in scoring and is the odds on favorite to win the Calder. Jordan Staal has been a pleasant surprise. Mix in experienced veterans like Mark Recchi and Gary Roberts and other younger talent and you have a very good set of forwards. The Defense is led by Sergie Gonchar and Ryan Whitney who both play a big part of the Pens power play. Together, they combined for 126 points. This group will have its hands full with the talent that Ottawa will put on the ice. Marc-Andre Fleury will be in net and will get his first tast of the playoffs. There were times that he fell out of favor throughout the year, and he will need to come up big for Pittsburgh to get through this round.
Ottawa has consistently been at the top of the East for several years, but that has not transferred into playoff success. There is a lot of pressure on them. Nobody thought Pittsburgh would be in this position, and they are young and hungry. This could be a bad combination for Ottawa, and if they lose game 1, things could go downhill quickly. I don’t think Fleury and Pittsburgh are quite there yet, and Ottawa will win in 7
Let the games begin. This time is like Christmas for me, there is honestly noting better than playoff hockey.