It's every puckhead's favorite time of the year (unless you're a Leafs fan): playoffs. Business time. Downtown Beardsville. When the Canadian media is overrun with predictions and analyses, and American media is brimming with indifference, and discussions about Brett Favre's latest comeback. Well, this year is no different. There are plenty of story lines writing themselves in the days leading up to the start of the 'second season', and most of them don't even have anything to do with Brett Favre (sorry, America).
The most intriguing by far has to be the best in the west, the Vancouver Canucks, facing off with the reigning Cup champs, and recurring nightmare incarnations, the Chicago Blackhawks. The 'Hawks barely snuck into the playoffs this year, and are a far different team than the one that spanked the 'Nucks the past two playoffs. On paper it would seem that this is Vancouver's year; Chicago is relying on a rookie netminder, and there's no more Byfuglien unfolding his lawn chair in Luongo's crease and enjoying a relaxing spring picnic. To write off the 'Hawks however would be foolish. Jonathan Toews is an absolute beast in pressure situations, and Vancouver is missing two key cogs in their bottom six in Manny Malhotra and Raffi Torres (not to mention a perpetually battered blue line). Upsets are bound to happen and this might be the sleeper that compulsive gamblers are looking for. I'm still taking Vancouver in seven.
The Red Wings could have their hands full with a Coyotes team that most people are writing off before the puck even drops. Bryzgalov is an elite goalie and that could be a huge difference in the series as Jimmy Howard has been beat up down the stretch and is struggling. Having Joey MacDonald on the bench isn't very encouraging either. Add to that a pair of hobbled stars in Zetterberg and Datsyuk, and the time might be just right for a 'Yotes upset. Smart money takes Goliath though, no matter how good David is with a sling. Detroit in seven.
The Sharks should be able to take care of a depleted Kings squad, but are they deep enough to exercise their demons and go on a legitimate run? I doubt it. Niemi was brilliant winning the cup for Chicago last season, but San Jose is nowhere near as well rounded as that team was. San Jose should fizzle out by the second round. Sharks in five.
Nashville and Anaheim has the potential to be a seven game slobber-knocker, and a lot of experts seem to be leaning towards the Ducks. Not a bad assumption, given how Anaheim blazed down the stretch to clinch home-ice advantage in the first round, and Corey Perry's MVP-calibre season. Nashville however is one of the best defensive teams in the league, and Pekka Rinne has grown into a bona fide star between the pipes for the Preds. He's got to be a finalist for the Vezina this season, and everybody knows goaltending wins cups. Anaheim has the edge, but Rinne could very easily be this year's Niemi. Anaheim in six.
In the east we see some usual suspects at the top of the standings, with Washington taking first place yet again. Although their seeding hasn't changed this year, the method by which they attained that seeding certainly has. These Caps, while still being an offensive heavyweight, have a newfound commitment to team defence, which should bode well for a team with three young goalies who all have upside, but are also all far from being upper-echelon. This team is deeper, bigger, tougher, and should make quick work of a Rangers unit that will be reliant on King Henrik to carry them on his back. Lundqvist is bound to have a lights-out post-season sooner or later, but it's doubtful it will happen against an Ovechkin-led powerhouse that has home-ice advantage. Washington in five.
Buffalo is the trendy pick this year as the most likely upset, over the struggling Flyers. Current team ogre Chris Pronger is battling the injury bug and is doubtful for game one of the series, which could be a major blow to Philly's blue line. Bobrovsky is an unproven rookie tender who has shone behind one of the league's deepest rosters all season, and would likely be in over his head in a goalie's duel against Ryan Miller. Buffalo plays a stifling trap system that would be ideal for shutting down the talented Flyers. Hard to count out a team that boasts Mike Richards, Danny Briere, Jeff Carter, and Claude Giroux, but Philly may very well be a victim of the match-up game. Buffalo in six.
Another very intriguing matchup is Pittsburgh versus Tampa Bay. Not many people would have picked Tampa as a playoff team this season, but they quickly established themselves in the "not-effing-around" category early on. The prolific Pens on the other hand have cobbled together another fantastic season despite missing two of the best players on the planet. That says alot about your team's depth, tenacity, goaltending, and coaching. Those are all qualities equated with playoff success so Pittsburgh is by no stretch of the imagination a pushover. Tampa has had an amazing season, as Stamkos continues to shine as one of the world's best, St. Louis has re-established himself as a top player in the league, and Roloson has provided stability in net. This is going to be one hell of a series, as both teams match up very evenly. Too close to call, but I'm saying Pittsburgh in seven.
The juiciest rivalry of the year has been between original-sixers Boston and Montreal. There is so much bad blood between these two teams, with bench-clearing brawls, classless taunting, and one unfortunate instance of a near-crippling. Montreal doesn't have the same make-up as last year's Cinderella team. This year's Habs are more rouge and mascara: SOFT. The big bad Bruins will have their way with les Habitants, no matter how brilliant Carey Price can be. There's a guy on the other side of the rink named Tim Thomas who led the league in GAA, and set a new record in save percentage. Yeah, he's okay. Oh, and if he gets injured there's this Finn on the bench who led the league in GAA and save % last season. With the addition of Kaberle, and one of the deepest forward units in hockey The B's are as poised as ever to go deep. Boston in six.
As for the big picture, I'm sticking with the picks I took at the beginning of the year, and I think The Vancouver Canucks will fall in six games to the Boston Bruins. No matter how it shakes out this spring, it's going to be one hell of a show. Get out your shovels and dig it.