Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
After months of jostling for playoff positioning, the NHL is finally ready to begin its real season.
Is it just me, or did the 2009-10 campaign seem to go by quickly? Perhaps that perception comes from it being an Olympic year. There are many detractors (mostly NHL team owners) of the league's decision to stop the season for the Winter Games, but it breaks the year up nicely and gives the fans a head-start on watching games that actually seem to matter.
Anyway, with the Olympics in the rear-view mirror and Team Canada crowned as gold medalists it's time to begin the battle for the Stanley Cup or, as the NHL likes to call it, "The Most Famous Trophy in Sports".
The Caps should get what they couldn't in the opening round last year: a quick and easy series.
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 pulling off upsets.
Just ask the San Jose Sharks, who won the Presidents' Trophy last year for finishing the regular season with the league's best record but still wound up losing in the first round to eighth-seeded Anaheim. San Jose is back as the West's top seed once again, while the Ducks failed to even make the playoffs.
Will we see another eight seed knock off a No. 1, or will this be a year for the favorites? Let's take a closer look to see what the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs have in store.
(1) Washington vs. (8) Montreal
The Capitals set franchise records in points (121) and wins (54) this year and, by earning the club's first Presidents' Trophy, Washington assured itself of home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs. The first-round should prove to be a small obstacle for Alex Ovechkin, Mike Green and the rest of the explosive Caps, who were the best offensive team in the NHL by leaps and bounds. Montreal does have a strong defensive unit led by superb blueliner Andrei Markov, but it won't be enough to slow down Washington. In short, the Caps should get what they couldn't deliver in the opening round last year: a quick and easy series.
Capitals in 5
(2) New Jersey vs. (7) Philadelphia
The Flyers won five of the six meetings with the Atlantic Division champion Devils this season, but it's nearly impossible to pick Philadelphia to win this series. New Jersey has a huge advantage in net with Martin Brodeur over Brian Boucher, and the Devils also boast the two best offensive players in this series in Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise. The Flyers should be confident thanks to their success against the Devils this year, but it won't be enough to propel them to a series win.
Devils in 6
(3) Buffalo vs. (6) Boston
In what should be a defensive battle, the Buffalo Sabres have the edge with Ryan Miller in net. Already a hero in Buffalo, Miller endeared himself to millions of Americans during Team USA's surprising run to the gold medal game at the Winter Olympics in February. Although the U.S. lost out to Canada for the gold, Miller still skated away with the tournament MVP, proving he could turn in his best performances under enormous pressure. Boston's goalie is no slouch either, as Tuukka Rask led the NHL in GAA (1.97) and save percentage (.931) while starting 39 games as a rookie this year. Give the Northeast Division champion Sabres the edge because of a better offense and a more experienced netminder in Miller.
Sabres in 6
(4) Pittsburgh vs. (5) Ottawa
This is my pick for the most lopsided series of the opening round. That's not so much a slight on Ottawa as it is an acknowledgement of the Penguins' killer instinct when it senses a wounded opponent. The Senators will play this series without top defenseman Filip Kuba and key forward Alex Kovalev. Add to that an inexperienced goaltender in Brian Elliott, who will be making his postseason debut for Ottawa, and you have a recipe for disaster if you are a Sens fan. With all-world centermen Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on its top two lines, Pittsburgh simply has too much firepower for the Senators to contend with. Add a superb defenseman in Sergei Gonchar to the mix, along with Pens' sturdy goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, and it becomes clear that this shouldn't take long.
Penguins in 4
(1) San Jose vs. (8) Colorado
The Sharks couldn't possibly lose to an eight seed in the first round again, could they? If you'll recall, San Jose was the top seed in the West last spring as well, and was bounced out in the opening round by the Anaheim Ducks. Unlike last season, the Sharks do have some momentum this time around. They went 5-4-1 in their final 10 games a year ago, but wrapped up 2009-10 with a four-game winning streak and an 8-1-1 mark in their last 10. The Avalanche, meanwhile, had just three wins in their last 13 games and nearly missed out on the postseason altogether. San Jose's top line of Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley and Patrick Marleau needs to set the tone early in this series and I believe they will do just that. Sorry Avs fans, no first-round upset here.
Sharks in 5
(2) Chicago vs. (7) Nashville
The Blackhawks made it all the way to the Western Conference finals last year, but that was with Nikolai Khabibulin manning the crease. With the Bulin Wall gone, can this year's Central Division champions make another deep postseason run behind either starting netminder Antti Niemi or backup Cristobal Huet? Yes. The Blackhawks are so strong in every other aspect of the game outside of goaltending and the club's deep defense and balanced scoring attack will help them make quick work of Nashville in the opening round. I'd stop short of saying Chicago can win the Stanley Cup with either Niemi or Huet, but another deep run is certainly in the cards. As for the Predators, they are in the postseason for the fifth time in six seasons, but have yet to win a playoff series or even a road playoff game. Facing the Blackhawks in the opening round means Nashville is headed to another one-and-done postseason.
Blackhawks in 4
(3) Vancouver vs (6) Los Angeles
The Canucks are the Northwest Division champs for a second straight year, and this season the club won it with more than excellent goaltending from Roberto Luongo. Henrik Sedin captured the Art Ross Trophy after leading the league with 112 points and, along with twin brother Daniel, will lead a powerful offensive attack for Vancouver, which also boasts 35-goal-scorer Alex Burrows. The Kings, meanwhile, are one of the best young teams in the league and are back in the postseason for the first time since 2002. Centerman Anze Kopitar, defenseman Drew Doughty and goaltender Jonathan Quick give LA tremendous talent in each facet of the game, but playoff inexperience will prove to be the Kings' downfall in Round 1.
Canucks in 5
(4) Phoenix vs. (5) Detroit
Unless you are a Red Wings fan, how could you possibly root against the Phoenix Coyotes? The Desert Dogs defied the odds to make the playoffs for the first time since 2002, after spending most of last summer in bankruptcy court rather than courting free agents. With the specter of relocation looming over the franchise, Wayne Gretzky stepped down as head coach just over a week before the season began, and apparently The Great One's departure made all the difference. Dave Tippett took over coaching duties and led the Coyotes to franchise records in wins (50) and points (107). Unfortunately, Phoenix has drawn a dangerous fifth-seeded Detroit club in the opening round. The Red Wings failed to win the Central Division for the first time since 2000, but Mike Babcock's club closed the regular season with a 10-1-1 mark and is primed to knock off the Cinderella Coyotes. The 2009-10 Phoenix season is a magical story, too bad it's likely to end in the first round.
Red Wings in 6
ROAD TO THE STANLEY CUP FINALS
Rather than go round by round, let's cut to the chase with my predictions for the Cup Finals.
I was tempted to pick the Capitals to make it to the big stage, but eventually thought better of it. Nothing has changed since last June 12 (when Pittsburgh edged Detroit in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals) to make me believe the Penguins won't be the East's representative in the final round once again. In my mind, the best the Caps could hope for is to meet the Penguins in the conference finals this year, rather than losing to Pittsburgh in the East semis like last spring.
While it was easy for me to pick the Penguins as East champions it was extremely difficult in coming up with a West champion. The former Campbell Conference is stacked with great teams from San Jose to Chicago and Vancouver to Detroit. Each of those teams has a great shot at winning it all, but for my money, the Canucks have emerged as the team to beat out West.
The Canucks impressed me on so many levels this season. I was already sold on Luongo as the best goaltender in the game, but the emergence of an offense that involves players with surnames other than Sedin is the clincher in picking Vancouver to win the West. Only Washington scored more goals than the Canucks this year, proving that the club has come a long way since the spring of 2007 when it basically sat back and prayed for a Luongo shutout.
Another factor was how well the Canucks weathered an NHL-record 14-game road trip, an epic swing necessitated by the city of Vancouver's Olympic host duties. The Canucks went 8-5-1 during the trek, which featured eight games before the Winter Games and six games after. The club also had one of the best home records in the league at 30-8-3.
Expect Chicago to be there until the end in the West, but the Blackhawks still seem too young to win it all. The Blackhawks had a tendency to let teams crawl back into games late, especially towards the end of the season, and that weakness will likely rear its head at some point during these playoffs.
Unfortunately for Canadians dying to see a team from the Great White North lift the Cup this year, memories of the 1993 Montreal Canadiens' title will have to suffice. The Penguins' lethal combination of Crosby and Malkin up front and Fleury in the crease should be more than enough to give Pittsburgh its second straight Stanley Cup.
Stanley Cup Prediction: Penguins beat Canucks in 6