Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
Every hockey fan's favorite time of the year is here once again as the 2009 playoffs are set to get underway.
From October to early April, NHL teams battle for postseason positioning and the right to play for the Stanley Cup or, as the NHL likes to call it, "The Most Famous Trophy in Sports".
What makes the NHL's second season so unique is that among the North American professional sports it traditionally offers underdogs the best chance of winning it all.
On three separate occasions in this decade, a team seeded sixth or below has made the Cup finals, including an appearance by No. 8 Edmonton in 2006. All three of those clubs ultimately failed in their quest for the chalice, but still the possibility of a low-seeded champion is not out of the question.
By the same token, only once since 1994 have the top two seeds from the respective conferences met in the Cup finals. That was in 2001 when Colorado defeated New Jersey in seven games.
With that in mind, let's take a closer look at this year's opening round matchups to see whether this will be a year for the favorites, or if a Cinderella story can emerge.
(1) BOSTON vs. (8) MONTREAL
The Bruins have had very little success against Montreal in the playoffs through the years, as the Habs have taken 24 of the 31 postseason series between the Original Six rivals. However, history is about all the Canadiens have going for them in this series as all signs point to a Boston win. The injury to defenseman Andrei Markov, who is the engine that makes the Habs power-play run, spells doom for Montreal. The Canadiens lost their final four games of the regular season without Markov in the lineup and there is no indication that he will be ready to play at all in this series. The Bruins also won five out of six regular-season meetings between the clubs, and should be aiming to end this matchup in a hurry.
Bruins in 5
(2) WASHINGTON vs. (7) NY RANGERS
Last year, the Capitals seemed happy to be in the playoffs and fell behind three games to one in their opening-round series to Philadelphia. Washington fought back and pushed that series to seven games before the Flyers won the deciding test in overtime. With some postseason experience behind them, expect Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals to get off to a quicker start this year. New York goaltender Henrik Lundqvist may be able to steal a game or two in this series, but the Rangers' lack of offensive weapons will ultimately be their undoing as it seems unlikely that the Blueshirts will keep pace with Ovechkin and company.
Capitals in 6
(3) NEW JERSEY vs. (6) CAROLINA
The last time the Devils and Hurricanes met in the postseason, Carolina goaltender Cam Ward stood on his head in frustrating New Jersey's offense en route to five-game series victory in the 2006 conference semifinals. With the way Ward has been playing down the stretch, the Devils should be having nightmares about facing Carolina's young backstop again. Not that New Jersey and its legendary goaltender Martin Brodeur will simply lay down and die, but the Devils seemed lost during the regular season against Ward and the 'Canes. Ward went 3-0 with a 1.67 GAA against the Devils this season and the club's lone win against the Hurricanes came on April 11 with Michael Leighton between the pipes. Carolina comes into the playoffs as one of the NHL's hottest teams, while the Devils struggled down the stretch with just four wins in their last 11 games.
Hurricanes in 6
(4) PITTSBURGH vs. (5) PHILADELPHIA
The Battle of Pennsylvania has been owned by the Penguins in recent years with Pittsburgh taking four of six meetings during this year's regular season as well as seven of 10 and 15 of the last 22 matchups overall. And that doesn't even count Pittsburgh's five-game series win over the Flyers in last year's conference finals. The biggest problem for the Flyers against the Penguins is, not surprisingly, the club's inability to stop Pittsburgh's dynamic duo of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Crosby has 46 points (20g, 26a) in 26 career games against Philly, while his Russian counterpart has 13 goals and 18 assists in 18 tests against the Flyers. Part of Philadelphia's problem down the stretch was its inability to put together a consistent defensive effort, and those problems will likely be compounded by playing a potent offensive team such as Pittsburgh.
Penguins in 5
(1) SAN JOSE vs. (8) ANAHEIM
The Sharks have been labeled as playoff underachievers, and the club has certainly earned that title by heading into each of the last three postseasons as Cup favorites, only to lose in the conference semifinals. San Jose has a new head coach this year in Todd McLellan and he had quite a rookie campaign as the Sharks won their first-ever Presidents' Trophy after setting new club marks in wins (53), points (117) and home victories (32). McLellan now has a chance to become the first rookie head coach in 23 years to win a Stanley Cup. The Ducks are very familiar with the Sharks, as the teams are Pacific Division rivals, but this marks the first postseason meeting between the clubs. It's also the first time a pair of California teams are facing off in the NHL playoffs since the Los Angeles Kings beat the Oakland Seals in seven games of the 1969 quarterfinals. Expect San Jose to weather the storm against its divisional foes, and to earn another pass to the second round.
Sharks in 6
(2) DETROIT vs. (7) COLUMBUS
The good news is Columbus finally earned a trip to the postseason after sitting out of the playoffs in each of its first seven NHL campaigns. The bad news is the Blue Jackets have drawn the defending Stanley Cup champion Red Wings in the first round. Columbus does have a big edge in an important area, as rookie goaltender Steve Mason has played the best hockey out of any goaltender on either team. Mason, who has a chance to win both the Calder and Vezina Trophies this year, has certainly outperformed Detroit netminder Chris Osgood, who has yet to regain the form that won him a second Stanley Cup title as a starting goaltender last year. Still, with the likes of Nicklas Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Marian Hossa, the Red Wings have more than enough firepower to fluster Mason and avoid the first-round upset.
Red Wings in 6
(3) VANCOUVER (6) ST. LOUIS
This series is shaping up to be a duel between Vancouver netminder Roberto Luongo and St. Louis backstop Chris Mason. Luongo is widely considered to be the NHL's most-gifted puck-stopper and performed well in his first and only postseason two years ago. Mason, meanwhile, shook off a poor start to the season and was the Blues' savior down the stretch, starting in the final 33 games for St. Louis. Neither team boasts a great deal of offensive weaponry, but the Canucks' addition of future Hall-of-Famer Mats Sundin back in January will pay dividends now that the postseason is at hand.
Canucks in 7
(4) CHICAGO vs. (5) CALGARY
The Blackhawks, with a roster of young and talented players, are back in the postseason for the first time since 2002 and have to like their matchup in the opening round. Chicago won all four regular-season meetings against the Flames this year and outscored Calgary by a 19-7 margin in those contests. Unless the Flames figure out a way to reverse the trend, they're headed for fourth straight first-round exit since making the Cup Finals back in 2004.