Ok, I'm gonna talk about the playoffs. Despite the fact that the Avs finished far from the playoffs, this is still a very exciting time. I love the Stanley Cup Playoffs! There are some great first round matchups this year. The great thing about the NHL Playoffs is that there are no clear-cut favorites. Very, very rarely in the NBA do you see a #8 seed upsetting a #1 seed. The #8 Indiana Pacers will not beat the #1 Chicago Bulls and the #8 Memphis Grizzlies will not beat the #1 San Antonio Spurs. However, last year in the NHL, the #8 Montreal Canadiens defeated the #1 Washington Capitals and the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins. This year, the Caps are again #1 and will face the Blue Shirts. If Henrik Lundqvist gets hot, who knows what could happen? He's certainly more proven than Varlamov or Neuvirth. In the West, the #1 Vancouver Canucks will face the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks.
With that said, I do expect both #1 seeds to advance. Where we could see an upset, is more likely in either 4 vs. 5 matchup. The Ducks have found a way to keep it going after their all-star goalie Jonas Hiller went down with vertigo. Will he be ready for the playoffs or will they rely on the resurrected Ray Emery and Dan Ellis to carry the load? They do have plenty of offensive weapons in Rocket Richard winner and this year's lone 50-goal scorer Corey Perry who was the offensive MVP of my fantasy team! What a 5th round pick that turned out to be! They also have the ageless Teemu Selanne. Why couldn't he play like this when he was with the Avs? They will be facing the Nashville Predators. Here's a team who, seemingly every year, is projected to finish on the outside looking in and every year, makes the playoffs. The negative of course, is that they've never won a playoff series. Last year, they did give the eventual champion Blackhawks some trouble. They looked like they were going to take the series for a bit. I think this is their year...not to win the Cup, but to at least get out of the first round. My advice to them; have Carrie Underwood sing the National Anthem at all their home games. Actually, let's get Carrie to sing the Anthem at all of the Avs' home games. Anyone else tired to death of Jake Schroeder?
The Pens/Lightning series will come down to one word...goaltending. You expected me to say Crosby, didn't you? Actually, goaltending could be the key to win any playoff series, but I especially like the Fleury/Roloson matchup here. Early in the year, Fleury struggled and fans and experts were declaring him a bust and that the starting job should go to veteran backup Brent Johnson, who is a good backup and a good fighter (ask Rick DiPietro), but certainly not a franchise netminder. Crosby carried the team for the first half of the season and looked like a runaway for every MVP award and scoring title. A hit in the Winter Classic and another one by Victor Hedman changed all that. Crosby's been out for the last 4 months now and there's still no word on his return. The Conn Smythe winner from their Cup run in '09, Evgeni Malkin, has also been injury plagued this year, most notably with his torn ACL and MCL, which will keep him on the shelf until next year's training camp. Fortunately for the Pens, Dan Blysma has wisely transformed the team from an offensive juggernaut to a defensive-minded team. Fleury has also turned a 180 from his early struggles. I love his attitude. He was one of my favorite players to watch during the HBO 24/7: Pens/Caps series. How can you not love a goalie doing push-ups and jumping jacks during a shootout? Since his late season debut on January 1st, Jordan Staal has also come on strong. He's had to live in Crosby and Malkin's shadow his whole career, not to mention currently being the junior Staal brother in the NHL. However, he has embraced his new top line center and leader role. Similarly to Crosby and Malkin, let's not forget that Fleury and Staal were #1 and #2 overall picks respectively in their own right. Speaking of offensive juggernauts, Tampa Bay is loaded with Stamkos, St. Louis, Lecavalier, Gagne, and former Penguin, Ryan Malone. They also have their most reliable goalie since Khabibulin in Dwayne Roloson. He used to give the Avs fits when he was with Minnesota and Edmonton. This will be a good, exciting series. As the old saying goes, offense sells tickets, defense wins championships. Pens in 7 (6 if Crosby returns).
Another really good matchup will be the Boston/Montreal series. Two Original Six teams, division rivals, not to mention the controversial Zdeno Chara hit on Max Pacioretty. You think Chara will have a 6'9" bullseye on him? Absolutely! Do I think that hit was dirty? I can see both sides. I don't think Chara's a dirty player. Sure, he's a big hitter, but it's not his fault he's 7 inches and 50 lbs. bigger than Pacioretty and virtually the rest of the league. On the flip side of the coin, if I were a Habs fan or part of the team, I would be livid at the hit and also the lack of discipline the NHL punished Chara with. Will they go after him in this series? Hard to say. You can't let emotions get the best of you in the playoffs. And how do you go after a giant like that anyway? The old stone right between the eyes David and Goliath style? The men between the pipes are a great story in this series. Both had very forgettable seasons last year in which they lost their starting jobs, only to regain them this year along with all-star status. Weren't Thomas and Price even sitting together during the all-star draft talking about not wanting to get hit by Chara's shots? Well, Price is going to have to if Montreal is going have a change in the series.
I think the Sharks will beat the Kings. The Kings are a good team, but the Kopitar injury will just be too much to overcome. The Sharks got a taste of playoff success last year, making it to the Western Conference Finals before bowing out to the eventual champs. As much as I would like the Coyotes (or should I say the Jets) to beat the Red Wings, I don't think it's going to happen. Even without Zetterberg, the Wings just have too much talent. If I had one wish for these Stanley Cup Playoffs, it is for the Red Wings to lose. I will NEVER go for a team with Todd Bertuzzi on it. Period. The guy does not deserve to be in the NHL, let alone win a Cup.
Finally, here are my first round predictions:
Capitals in 5
Flyers in 5
Bruins in 7
Penguins in 7
Canucks in 6
Sharks in 5
Red Wings in 5
Predators in 7