For the first time in NHL history the two teams that last skated for Stanley a year ago, won’t even make an appearance in this years playoffs.
With both Carolina and Edmonton pondering what when wrong, the path is open for a new champion, with more than a few surprising success stories ready to show that they are all substance and not flash.
We begin our examination of the Stanley Cup playoffs with a look at the Eastern Division match ups. Eight teams looking to avoid a mis step that may sideline their plans for a chance to hoist the famous mug from Lord Stanley
BUFFALO HOSTS THE ISLANDERS
While it’s probably Canadian heresy to say this, I was hoping that the Islanders would sneak by both the Leafs and Habs for spot number eight. This match up offers the most drama and the most interesting side story of all eight playoff matches in this first round.
It marks the return of Ted Nolan the NHL playoffs, and hey look at where he makes his return. He’ll be standing behind the visitor’s bench in his old stomping grounds of Buffalo, the last NHL outpost he served in before his far too long exile from the NHL.
The one time coach of the year was unceremoniously dumped by the Sabres in a bizarre power struggle, which saw John Muckler issue the Ace of spades and subsequent banishment from the NHL.
Since his return to the rather strange land of the Islanders, Nolan has managed to stay out of the politics of the front office stuff and just coached, and done a terrific job of it by most accounts. While his Islanders just barely made it into the playoffs, they were for a while in the regular season looking like a team that could have some staying power. Untimely injuries and few players that don’t always give 100 per cent seemed to have slowed them down during the final weeks, but the last four games of the regular season gave hope for islander fans that the worst is over.
While it would be a fair bit of justice to see the Islanders come into Buffalo and take the series, reality dictates that Buffalo is still the stronger of the two teams. Lindy Ruff had his team playing perfect hockey for most of the season; they were the definite class of the East and a full value for their favourite status.
Much as we’d enjoy watching Nolan take his Islanders forward (and maybe even a reunion with John Muckler, eh) we suspect that the rebuilding program will have to continue on Long Island a little bit longer.
Nolan has had a successful return to the NHL, proving that there are a large number of misguided NHL GM's who missed the boat for far too many years. However, his team is going to come up short in his playoff return.
The Sabres, unless they take the Islanders too lightly, should have few problems advancing to the next round. We’ll give the islanders a win at home, but the giddy feeling is about to end.
WINNER: SABRES TAKE THE SERIES 4 games to 1.
NEW JERSEY AND TAMPA BAY
Lou Lamoriello hasn’t met a coach he doesn’t like, at least one named Lou. The Devils GM and President shocked the hockey world in the last week of the season with his sacking of Coach Claude Julien. With the Devil’s fairly well placed in the standings heading into the playoffs, many wonder about the control issues that the Devils boss man seems to have.
Regardless, Lou’s the man in charge now and for his team that’s probably a comfortable thing. Of course a drastic move like the Julien firing is probably easier to make when you have an all world goaltender such as Martin Brodeur in the nets and a style of play that requires only one or two goals a night to secure a victory.
The Devils seem ready to make another march for the Cup and the fact that their competition the Lightning have struggled at times this season bodes well for their efforts. Tampa at one time looked to be in danger of actually missing the playoffs. Despite the amazing scoring skills of Vincent Lecavalier, far too often this year, the Lightning have appeared unprepared or disinclined to fight for a win.
Compare that to the seemingly never say die work ethic of the Devils and well sorry Tampa fans, but this will be short lived playoff experience this time around.
WINNER: DEVILS WEAR DOWN THE LIGHTNING 4 games to 2.
DIXIE PLAYS BROADWAY
If hockey is an unusual thing for Georgians, playoff hockey must seem completely alien. The heroes of Dixie ice make their first playoff appearance in their reincarnated form this season, a hopeful event that the Thrashers have been preparing for all season.
Unfortunately for them, they have come up against a team that has begun to put all their pieces together and resemble the unit that many thought was going to make great strides this year.
The New York Rangers were finding that the latter portion of the regular season was much to their liking as they began to build confidence on the way to their seventh place berth. Tom Renney must have wondered if his shelf life was short earlier this year as his team struggled out of the gate, but by the time the regular season had come to an end, quite a few observers were marking the Rangers as a team to watch in the playoffs.
It’s not a normal thing to find a seventh place team considered a favourite by so many, but that seems to be the case in this series. Too many questions still come to mind about the Thrashers and considering their relative inexperienced state in the playoffs, it may be too much to expect a breakthrough year in their first post season appearance.
They have made solid progress in Dixie, but Broadway will most likely rule this time around.
WINNER: RANGERS OVER THE THRASHERS IN SIX GAMES
PITTSBURGH’S KIDS VERSUS OTTAWA’S VETERAN LINE UP
It’s the most exciting possibility of the playoffs in the east this year. The surprising Pittsburgh Penguins led by the franchise player for the NHL Sidney Crosby, facing off against an Ottawa team that has been expected to win the cup in more than a few Stanley Cup playoffs only to find themselves banished to the sidelines.
Fifteen Penguins make their first appearance in an NHL playoff game, while most of the Senators are heading into a familiar part of the second season, though one they hope to hang around a little longer for this time.
While fans in Pittsburgh are right to feel positive about their young guns and the future ahead, this year, experience should trump youthful exuberance.
Ottawa has made the playoffs in each of the last ten years, their failures have been well documented and to a degree hang over the Scotiabank centre like a fog rolling in off the Ottawa River. But this is far too talented and ready team to fold in a first round match up.
They can roll a couple of dynamic lines full of offensive potential and provide some solid defense along the blue line. Ray Emery more than proved that he’s an A list goaltender last year, taking over from the enigmatic Domenic Hasek and coming up just short of extending the Sens playoff season.
The Pens have had a remarkable year; they are for sure the team with most potential to build a dynasty in the years to come. But that process won’t begin with this playoff round.
This should be the Senators year, they have played impressive hockey for the most part of the second half of the regular season, and the time to step up their game in the playoffs has come. It won’t be one that they let slip away in the first round.
WINNER: SENATORS OVER THE PENGUINS IN FIVE GAMES
Tomorrow we wander over to the west and examine the match ups from a very tight grouping of teams.