Wednesday, April 09, 2008

The HockeyNation Crystal Ball

Time for the annual tempting of the fates, a chance to gaze into the future of these NHL playoffs and see where we shall be in two months time…

At great risk of ridicule and with no better an idea than the next blog, here are our picks for the 2008 Stanley Cup Playoffs

The hardest grind in sports, the opening round will bring a few surprises and a lot of the expected as the sixteen are whittled down to eight.

Ottawa and Pittsburgh

It’s redemption time for the Sens, after what was perhaps the closest near collapse of the ages; the Sens have another chance to show the faithful that all is not lost. And while many may suggest that they will make a quick exit, we don’t quite share that thought here. Instead we think this first round is just what the Sens require, a high flying opponent who will keep the tempo high and push the Sens to atone for their horrid end of season meltdown.

The Sens are not that different from the team that went to the Stanley Cup final last season, while its true there has been a disconnect as the season went on, the path they traveled last year and the rocky road of this season should serve to provide all the motivation they will need.

Pittsburgh while impressive all year, is still a young team, one destined to be a league leader for years to come, but there were occasional signs of inconsistency there as well, the Sens if they finally can get their heads into their game can take advantage of the Pens youth and inexperience in pressure situations.

It’s not money in the bank, but we see the Sens taking the Pens in six, an entertaining series which will prove to be quite beneficial for the confidence seeking Senators.


Montreal and Boston

It’s an original six match up and one of the great rivalries that the NHL has seen, but truth be told, we’re probably a few years away from those epic battles of the seventies as made famous in many a Don Cherry vignette. The Bruins were not very good for most of the season; the Canadiens were playing far above expectations.

This does not bode well for the Bruins, who while making strides in the latter part of the season, are not quite ready to be giant killers this season. While it’s good that the loyal and hockey savvy fans of New England will finally get some meaningful hockey to watch again in April, we regret that their stay in the playoffs for 2008 will be a short lived affair.

The Habs are firing on all cylinders at this particular moment, there really shouldn’t be any lapses in their play as they return to the NHL playoffs as a favourite, a spot that they haven’t been familiar with in many a season.

With that in mind, it will be a short series, if the Bruins can catch the Habs napping one night they might grab a win, though we don’t think that is likely.

Instead we see the Bruins finding that while returning to the playoffs has been fun, it won‘t be long lasting.


New Jersey and New York

The Metropolitan New York rivalry is alive and well as the city slickers meet up with the Jersey boys in what should be a fairly interesting series. The Rangers an enigma at times have been planning for a lengthy playoff run thanks to a few key acquisitions in the off season. While at times it seemed as though they were ready to once again fade from view, they began to battle back hard as the season was winding down, playing a physical game when challenged while still showing some of their offensive skills that too often were missing this season.

The Devils always seem to be there, quietly lying in the weeds ready to make their charge just as the playoffs get underway. Thanks mainly to the outstanding ability of Martin Brodeur to keep pucks out of his net; the Devils are never to be taken lightly.

The two teams are perhaps the most closely matched up squads that there are in the first round, making for close games, no doubt an occasional overtime or two and if all goes to plan a full seven games of entertainment.

The Devils will be anxious to add to the playoff dates for the Prudential Centre in downtown Newark, but for this season the Newark nightlife will be a short-lived experience. When all is said and done, hockey will continue on in Manhattan for a little while longer.


Washington and Philadelphia

One of the most exciting teams in the game over the last six weeks will tackle the ages old obstacle known as the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round. As Alexander Ovechkin seeks to fill up Marty Biron’s net with pucks, and then prepares to duck as we suspect more than one or two Flyers comes his way.

Interestingly enough both of these teams looked nowhere near ready for a playoff appearance when the season first started; the Capitals were going in the wrong direction fast as they would face loss after loss, which finally culminated with the departure of their head coach at Thanksgiving.

The Flyers in the meantime seemed bent of reviving the Broadway Bullies era, finding themselves more often than not the discussion topic of the day when it came to hockey violence all the while finding new ways to lose hockey games at an alarming clip.

Somewhere along the way however, they began to turn their season around, the glaring headlines of headhunters at large faded away for the most part, replaced by a dedicated work ethic that finally assisted them into a playoff spot in the furious race over the final two weeks of the season.

If momentum is the foundation of a champion though, then it surely must be the Washington Capitals that will be making the most noise in this first round. The Caps built upon win after win in the final month of the season, finding some key additions at the trading deadline were more than ready to step in and make their mark.

With Ovechkin dominating the scoring race and exhibiting sheer joy in the game this season, the Caps quickly became a team that hockey fans were starting to notice. We’ll have a bit more time to keep an eye on them as well, as they survive a hard nosed battle that runs almost the full distance.


Detroit and Nashville

Ho hum, another season and the Wings once again are top of the heap, their appearance at the top of the standings is so common now that most folks just look for the number two team and work their way down the list from there. It seems like it’s been forever that we start the playoffs off with the Red Wings having cruised through a regular season.

Their opponents this time around should have been so lucky. Nashville which more or less gutted their roster at the end of last season, so as to prepare for the fire sale that was to follow by all rights shouldn’t have been anywhere near the playoffs. Yet, despite the uncertainty of the franchise over the summer, the eventual sale to interests that may or may not keep the team in Tennessee for the long run, the Predators once again will make an appearance with the opening 16.

It’s a testimony to Mr. Poile and Mr. Trotz and their ability to keep their team focused on the goal at hand and making the most of their collection of almost gypsies.

The first round is always a perilous place for the Wings; more dreams have been dashed in Motown in the first round of the NHL playoffs than the locals might care to count. It seems that once out of the opening round the Wings settle down and get on with their eventual march, but getting out sometimes is problematic.

That won’t be the case this time around, Nashville can take some pride in battling through the final month and grabbing a playoff spot while the Western teams stumbled, but that run of skill and luck ends in the first round.


Colorado and Minnesota

A few months ago the Avs were looking like a museum piece, their best days behind them and every conversation prefaced with a “remember when” A trade deadline pick up or two along the way and the Avs have suddenly jumped back into the playoffs, granted they come back with a decidedly retro looking line up and more than a few questions about longevity, but here they are ready to return to their glory days.

The only problem for them is that the Minnesota Wild have been retooling as well, not quite the dump and chase squad of a few years ago, they can on occasion show some rather quick offensive bursts that quickly turn a game around for good. And once they have that lead, the Lemaire doctrine on how to shut a game down gets a full presentation.

As they made their dash for the playoffs the Avs were frequently found making a comeback, down two or three goals they still managed to storm back to steal the win usually in the last stages of a game.

It was exciting hockey and we hope that it’s remembered well, for we doubt if we’ll see much of it in this series. Should the Avs find themselves behind early on, there’s a very good chance they’ll be behind at the end of the game.

Minnesota has added to their tool belt but still find that the best way to guarantee a win is to make sure the other team can’t score.

Despite their high octane offensive potential, the Avs are going to be sufficiently countered by the Wild’s defensive play that the first round will be their only round.


Dallas and Anaheim

The Stanley Cup champions have been quietly returning to the hard hitting form that guided them through last years tournament and eventual Stanley Cup win. With their collection of semi-retired call ups now back in shape and ready to begin their defence, the road for Stanley will be filled with crushing body checks we suspect.

Dallas which was considered one of the big winners on trade deadline day has stumbled through the end of the season, a worrisome trend that has struck the Stars over the last few years.

While the Ducks were busy preparing for the arriving hordes, the Stars were returning to the sloppy play and lack of consistency that has marked more than a few of their previous early exits.

There’s no reason to doubt that it won’t be the same again this year, as Anaheim bullies, bashes and brings on the required goals to put the Stars away.


Calgary and San Jose

The Flames were another one of those confusing teams down the stretch, they would look ready to challenge for the Cup on one night and the next would look quite at home with a record worthy of making the number one choice at the upcoming amateur draft.

Their near death experience in the final week only served to highlight the inconsistencies that the Flames have provided over the course of the season, Flame fans are no doubt hoping that now that their in, that they Flames will settle down and get ready to launch an upset in the first round.

San Jose has been expected to challenge for the Cup for a number of seasons now, each year providing a new adventure in disappointment for the Bay area hockey fans. Many suggest that this is the final chance for this group of Sharks to swim together in their bid for a Cup championship.

Should they fall short again, its expected that a fairly healthy house cleaning will be set for the Shark tank, leaving few familiar faces around by the time the 2008-09 season gets underway.

The two teams should provide an entertaining series, strength against strength, with intangibles perhaps providing the edge. With a coach as enigmatic as Mike Keenan there is the potential over the course of seven games for any number of possibilities, a mistimed comment or unusual decision that could change the dynamic of the series. Since his arrival, the Flames haven’t exactly changed their occasionally troubled ways, making them a bit of a wild card in this series.

Or maybe an offensive breakdown by the Sharks will leave them open to a Calgary steal, while they’ve been quite impressive over the last two months of the season, there have been some moments where questions once again popped up about team chemistry and the ability to string together the necessary 16 wins to claim a Cup.

While the intensity will be strong and the potential for yet another disappointment great, this seems very much like it could be the year for the Sharks. They make their first step in this first series.


So there we have our first round selections. As it’s traditional to make a final pick, we’ll tempt the hockey Gods and look for a second season rebound for the Ottawa Senators, who chastened by their near disaster of a regular season, will take charge of their destiny once again.

From the west, we like the Sharks, who have been building for this moment for a number of years now and really are in a case of do it now or prepare for changes.

The Sharks and the Sens in June, we’ll check back then and see how close to the mark we were, or whether our crystal ball needs a little more polishing…

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