I know this has been done to death by everyone who knows just the slightest bit about hockey, but thought I'd get my picks on the record!
#1 Buffalo Sabres vs. #8 New York Islanders
Buffalo should make short work of the Islanders. The Isles showed great grit and determination in making the playoffs but they did it by beating a bunch of teams that weren’t very good and with their 3rd stringer, Wade Dubielewicz in net. Rick Dipietro is skating on his own but it is unlikely he’ll be back by the start of Round 1. The Sabres have arguably the fastest, most skilled group of forwards on the ice who’ll make mincemeat out of “Dubie”. Miller won’t even be a factor as Vanek, Afinogenov et al. fill the net at the other end of the ice.
Sabres in 4.
#2 New Jersey Devils vs. #7 Tampa Bay Lightning
Two words that should send shivers down the Lightning’s spine: Martin and Brodeur. Marty always saves his best play for the post-season and the fact he had 12 shutouts, 48 wins and a save % of .918 does not bode well for T-Bay. However, Rocket Richard trophy winner Vinny Lecavalier, who is coming off a season where he nearly doubled his previous career bests in points, goals and assists, won’t be taking it lying down. NJ’s stifling defensive play and TB’s offensive abilities will make this series a teeter-totter of momentum shifts. In the end I’ll go with the goalie.
Devils in 6.
#3 Atlanta Thrashers vs. #6 New York Rangers
The Thrashers rode into the playoffs on the coattails of Marian Hossa’s 100-point season and Kovalchuk’s 42 goals. Between the two of them they scored 35% of the team’s goals. Unfortunately, the defense will be their downfall. They scored 246 goals but gave up 245. Lehtonen can shut the door but the defense needs to do a better job in helping him out. The Rangers finished off the season on a good run moving from 12th up to 6th in the final two months of the season. Jaromir Jagr is getting hot at just the right time (9 points in his last 5 games). The additions of Shanahan (whose experience will help out greatly with some of the younger players) and Avery (whose edge and annoyance will drive the Thrashers crazy and into bad penalties) will eliminate the embarrassment of another 4-game sweep.
Rangers in 6.
#4 Ottawa Senators vs. #5 Pittsburgh Penguins
With Crosby, Malkin, Staal, Whitney, and Fleury you knew the Pens had talent but thought they were a few years away from making the playoffs. Well you were wrong. This team is ready now and ready to do some damage. We all know where the offense is going to come from and no matter how many men defend against Crosby he still manages to get the puck to the net. Gary Roberts will add that needed experience and Georges Laraque will provide protection for the young guns. The Senators are young and talented as well but they don’t have that experienced player ala Roberts. This may hurt them. However, the Senators defense is superior than that of the Penguins (2.71 GA/G vs 3.00 GA/G) and the offense is better on paper (3.51 GF/G vs. 3.38 GF/G). Both goalies are inexperienced come playoff time but Ray Emery did have the run of 10 games last season, while Fleury is getting his first taste of playoff action. This will be one hell of an exciting series.
Penguins in 7.
#1 Detroit RedWings vs. #8 Calgary Flames
The Red Wings just keep winning the West despite losing key players like Shanahan and Yzerman. The main thing standing in the Wings way are “ifs”. If Bertuzzi can regain his health and power forward abilities, if Hasek’s groin can stand-up to the rigours of playoff scheduling and if the offense can crack Mikka Kiprusoff’s armour the Wings should take this series. However, if they don’t this could be another early exit for Detroit. Calgary is a quietly dangerous team. They only clinched a spot on the 2nd last day of the season but don’t let that fool you. This team is scary good. Iginla is a monster when it comes to playoffs and Calgary’s D from blueline to the net is one of the strongest in the league. This series will be a good one.
Flames in 7.
#2 Anaheim Ducks vs. #7 Minnesota Wild
The Ducks give the Flames blueline a run for their money as strongest in the league simply due to Niedermayer and Pronger. But beyond those two and Beauchemin the Ducks are pretty thin on the blueline. The offense lead by the ageless Teemu Selanne and Andy McDonald is deadly especially on the power play (tied for 1st among playoff teams with San Jose at 22.4%). But, the Wild are not a team to take lightly. Smart additions in the offseason (Pavol Demitra, Niklas Backstrom) drove this team to the top 8 of the West. Backstrom is more than a wall in net with a GAA below 2 and a save percentage pushing .930. Couple that with the Wild’s 86% penalty kill efficiency and the lowest goals allowed in the league will give the Ducks scorers fits. And with Marian Gaborik being healthy (thankfully) the offense will be taken care of. Gaborik had 17 points in 18 games in the Wild’s playoff run of 2003, and he’s only gotten better since then.
Wild in 6.
#3 Vancouver Canucks vs. #6 Dallas Stars
Roberto Luongo gave the Canucks what they wanted: a playoff berth. Luongo single-handedly gave the Canucks many of his 47 wins and he’s been craving playoff action in his six years stuck on the Island and in Florida. He’s got something to prove to all the people doubting his elite goalie talents due to the fact he’s never played a playoff game. The D in front of him is not bad either led by Sami Salo, Mattias Ohlund and the surprising Kevin Bieksa, they kept opposing teams to 201 goals and led the league with an 86.9% PK. The ‘Nucks offense is good but if anything happens to the Sedins they may be in trouble. Dallas is led by the resurgent Mike Modano and the finally healthy Brenden Morrow. D’s D isn’t half bad either allowing the second fewest goals in the league (197). The question mark lies in goal. Can Marty Turco shrug off that playoff jinx that seems to be resting on his shoulders? I don’t think so.
Canucks in 5.
#4 Nashville Predators vs. #5 San Jose Sharks
This series will be the highlight of first round. Both of these teams are stacked with talent at all positions. Joe Thornton and Jonathan Cheechoo provide one hell of a top-line and when Patrick Marleau is moved up to the left wing you have an unstoppable line. Combined those three had 261 points. Bill Guerin adds much needed experience and depth to the young forward core. On the blueline the steady, dependable play of Scott Hannan, Kyle Mclaren and the deadline added Craig Rivet helped keep opponents to only 199 goals this season. Evgeni Nabokov and Vesa Toskala patrol the nets in an impressive one-two punch, if one stumbles the other can easily grab the reins and carry the team. Nashville is loaded up front with the newly added and hopefully healthy Peter Forsberg (55 points in 57 games) leading the way. Paul Kariya, David Legwand, Alexander Radulov and Scott Hartnell are snipers in their own right. Unfortunately injuries to Steve Sullivan, the Preds sparkplug, may be a problem. The defense, led by Kimmo Timonen, is dependable although they are offensively minded. Tomas Vokoun and Chris Mason (like the Sharks) provide a solid backend. This series will be one for the ages.
Sharks in 7.
Those are my two cents and I'm sticking to them!
I'll be back with my win/loss records and more predictions as the playoffs chug along.
Enjoy the greatest game on Earth! I know I will be.