Man, I am pumped! The opening round of the playoffs in any sport is usually the most exciting time for fans -- games are on constantly and getting your playoff pools in on time is more important than making sure the cover sheet is on your TPS reports ("Ahhhhh...Yeah. It's just we're putting new coversheets on all the TPS reports before they go out now. So if you could go ahead and try to remember to do that from now on, that'd be great. All right!" -- Lumburgh, you kill me). The thing that separates playoff champs from playoff chumps is usually one key matchup between the two teams. Whoever can elevate their game in that particular matchup usually wins. Case in point -- last year's final was determined by Anaheim's checking line being able to shutdown Ottawa's topline. Here are my key matchups for round one:
Ottawa V. Pittsburgh -- Gerber V. Fleury
I've gone into this team match up earlier, so I won't be too long winded here. Neither Gerber nor Fleury has a storied history in the playoffs, but Fleury has played infinitely better down the homestretch (even in the controversial "thrown" game). Ottawa and Pittsburgh both have some big-time point getters playing against some average defences. Whoever can stop the most pucks (because there will probably be alot of them) here wins...duh.
Montreal V. Boston -- Boston's PK V. Montreal's PP
Pretty straight forward -- Montreal has five players with more than 10 PP goals, and six players with more than 20 PP points, while Boston is 28th in the PK. Physicality may slow but won't stop this PP -- agressive sticks, good reads, and hard dumps will. Chara is going to have to use every inch of his height and every ounce of his unnaturally large (in a hockey sense) body to keep Kovy and friends in check, and Timothy Thomas Jr. will need to absorb everything coming his way...maybe he can get some pine tar from Jake Peavy for his glove.
New Jersey V. New York Rangers -- Brodeur V. Lundquist
An intriguing battle takes place in opposite ends of the rink in this series. Brodeur, the all-time almost everything when it comes to goaltending, has referred to Lundquist's style as "weird," which Hank found equally weird. This statement may have been what prompted Scott Gallof to write "When Hank looks down the ice and sees Marty's double chin hanging from under the mask, he just seems to take it up another notch." Regardless, The King's 10 shutouts aren't weird, unless having that many of them in a season is, nor is his 2.23 GGA (4 and 2.17 for Marty). This is a match-up of the recent/past best against the possible future best, but also a test to see if Lundquist can keep Brodeur out of his head.
Philadelphia V. Ovechkin...I mean Washington -- Richards V. Ovechkin
This is literally Philly's only chance. Mike Richards needs to shadow Ovechkin from puck drop in Game One until the final buzzer of the deciding game. If Ovechkin gets any lee-way, this will be painful for the Flyer faithful to watch. Why Richards? Ask a Flyer fan or anyone from Kenora -- the guy is about as complete a hockey player as you can find.
Detroit V. Nashville -- Storied franchise V. Struggling franchise
Detroit is the President's Trophy winner and an original six franchise; Nashville is the eighth seed and needs to up it's fan support to keep the team where they are. I have always thought Detroit's regular season record was over-valued, as they play in the second weakest division in hockey, but that argument doesn't fly here because Nashville shares that division. If Predator fans embrace this team and the team buys into that support, they have more then enough to pull off the upset. Brandon Felder wants fans of Eastern teams to adopt a Western team -- well, I'm adopting the Preds, so don't let me down!
San Jose V. Calgary -- Campbell V. Phaneuf
I love this matchup! San Jose has been virtually unstoppable since acquiring Campbell, while Calgary is a punishing team that made the playoffs out of an arguably much tougher over-all division. Though Campbell and Phaneuf don't play the same style, if either establishes that they are the best defenseman on the ice, that team is winning this series. Huselius V. Marleau was a close second, as these two could have an impact on how this series plays out, but not as much as the two D-men in question.
Minnesota V. Colorado -- Burns V. Forsberg
Brent Burns is a superstar in the making, and to further his career learning curve he is going to have to shutdown one of the NHL's all-time most prolific playoff scorers. Forsberg may have lost a step, but he has history and chemistry on his side. I never get the opportunity to watch either team play very often, so this isn't very indepth, but I am quite interested to see the physical matchup between these two.
Anaheim V. Dallas -- Recent Champs V. Recent Chumps
Pretty simple -- the 2007 champions are firing on all cylinders; Dallas last year lost in the first round in seven games while only scoring EIGHT goals. That's right -- they managed to stretch a series to seven games while averaging 1.14 goals per game. Goaltending clearly isn't the issue in Dallas -- their forwards, specifically Ribeiro, Morrow, Modano, Richards, and Lehtinen need to follow these simple instructions: Step One - shoot puck on net and score; Step Two - if puck does not go in the goal, get rebound and put in goal; Step Three - If rebound is collected by other teams, get puck back and repeat Step One. I don't mean to be facetious, but Dallas needs to get more goals to have any chance against the Ducks. Overcoming the stigma of repeated playoff defeat while playing the reigning champions isn't easy, but after everything Turco has done to keep the puck out of the net for this franchise it is time for his forwards to pay him back.
***** Kudos to Boston RedSox fans at Fenway yesterday for giving Bill Buckner a huge ovation and taking that burden from his shoulders.