June 2004. The eve of the Stanley Cup finals. The explosiveness of the top seed Tampa Bay Lightning vs. the grit of the No. 6 seed Calgary Flames. U.S. vs. Canada, new vs. old... it couldn't get any better than this.
While most sports media and casual fans ho-hummed about two "small market" teams meeting in the finals, I was salivating with plenty of other purists who appreciate that "small market" defines the NHL. It's not the NFL, or even NASCAR. It's a niche sport, and true fans are pretty happy in that niche, franchise values be damned. In what else can Edmonton be at the top of the world? (Not counting latitude, of course...)
Unlike the majority, I expected the 2004 Cup finals to be an instant classic, and I was not disappointed. The memories enabled me to get through the lockout with an enduring smile, a hangover of great hockey.
And now, with the 2007 playoffs set to begin, I have spent the last few days creating my own hype, analyzing what each series might bring (or not bring) over the next two weeks.
The winner: Ottawa vs. Pittsburgh
Despite four excellent series on tap in the Western Conference, this one trumps the pack. The young guns of Pittsburgh (Crosby-Malkin-Staal-Whitney-Fleury) offer a reflection of the 1981 Oilers and the 1993 Nordiques, both extremely young and extremely talented squads that showed a tremendous amount of promise early and went on to dominate in the coming years. Pittsburgh is THE team to watch in the NHL for the next while and could conceivably win it all this year. (Please God, make it happen, I put a fiver on 'em at 400-1 before the season began....) At the other end are the Ottawa Senators, still trying to shake the image as a one-line, not-playoff-friendly team. One line, maybe, but that is one HELL of a line! This will be a fun, run-and-gun series, with both Emery and Fleury seeing plenty of pucks. The trade-deadline addition of Gary Roberts ramps up the grit of this series considerably, especially because he's playing close to home.
Runner-up: Nashville vs. San Jose
An extremely difficult choice considering those other matchups in the West, but the rent-a-player splashes made at the trade deadline put both these teams on the hot seat early and should elevate the intensity. The winner will have been expected to win while the loser faces a significant fan backlash. Like President's Trophy winner Buffalo, the Predators can ice four scoring lines when 100 percent healthy, which unfortunately they are not. But it's difficult to bet against the ultimate warrior, Peter Forsberg, who at his best is still the best in the NHL. Nevertheless, I give the edge to the Sharks, who have been white hot over the past month even without Patrick Marleau and Bill Guerin at full steam. If those two get in gear, forget about it. But it'll be fun to watch anyway!
Still good: Everything else in the West
Even the 1-8 matchup of Detroit vs. Calgary looks excellent on paper. These two have a short but memorable playoff history and two of the most spectacular game-saving goaltenders in the game today. (Hasek is actually out of his element in Detroit, where he doesn't see nearly as much rubber as he used to.) Iginla has proven to be a bit of a junior Forsberg when it comes to playoff hockey. The other two series rank with Nashville-San Jose in terms of team expectations. Seriously. With apologies to Calgary, there are seven teams in the West that could easily and unsurprisingly advance to the Cup finals. Minnesota is a No. 7 seed?!?!?!
Not so much: Everything else in the East
Okay, Nolan returning to Buffalo is pretty interesting if you're a big "I Love the 90s" fan. That story is older than God. But the Isles did have to claw hard to get into the playoffs, so they deserve some props, and strangely enough I do actually root for the Isles. But against the Sabres they're pretty much outmatched in every area, particularly in goal without DiPietro. Good luck. Same thing to the Lightning if their regular season play extends to the playoffs. They'll lose in five with Lecav scoring eight of the nine Lightning goals, all assisted by St. Louis. Not a whole lot of drama there, other than Lamoriello playing Clemmensen in Game Four just so the Devils can collect on another home gate. (Amazingly, Eklund missed this TRUE reason for Julien's firing....) Atlanta vs. the Rangers has some intrigue, but nothing like in the West, and neither has much hope come Round Two so that tempers the enthusiasm some. I guess seeing if Alexei Zhitnik can extend his recent Housley-esque play into the postseason is worth a glance. (Can someone please add Housley-esque to Wikipedia....)
Many people, including myself (far too many times), have been grossly incorrect in playoff predictions. But that's what makes the Stanley Cup playoffs so great. You just don't know until they play the games. Best of luck to all 16, and Go Bruins in 2008! (I had them at 300-1.....)