After one round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, last year’s two finalists are already gone. There hasn’t been a repeat champion since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998, and the 2006-07 champion Anaheim Ducks were sent packing by the Dallas Stars. The Ducks become the fifth consecutive Cup winner to either not make the playoffs at all or be eliminated in the opening round. The other 2007 finalists, the Ottawa Senators, were swept by the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Enough of that unpleasantness. Time to move on to some predictions for the conference semifinals, whch begin tomorrow. Flush with success, I called 7 of the 8 series correctly in round one, including 3 out of 4 where the lower-seeded team beat the higher seed. (Channeling my inner Ryan Seacrest) The East is next...after the break!
(1) Montreal Canadiens vs (6) Philadelphia Flyers
How they got here: Montreal over Boston in 7 games; Philadelphia over Washington in 7 games.
Season series: Montreal won all four games, all in regulation.
This is a much tougher opponent for the Flyers than Washington, their first-round opponent. The Canadiens don’t have one dominating player like Alexander Ovechkin but they have more speed and talent overall than the Capitals. However, it’s not an impossible task for Philadelphia. This matchup features the top two power plays during the regular season but Montreal was only 3 for 33 with the advantage during their series with Boston. The Bruins, who lost all 8 games to the Habs during the regular season, forced Montreal to a seventh game. If the Flyers play to their maximum level, they can do the same, but I think their defense ultimately won’t be able to keep up. Montreal in 6.
(2) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (5) New York Rangers
How they got here: Pittsburgh over Ottawa in 4 games; NY Rangers over New Jersey in 5 games
Season series: the Rangers won 5 of 8 games. Two of Pittsburgh’s 5 losses were in overtime.
A very intriguing series. The Penguins have more young talent (Crosby, Malkin, Staal); the Rangers have more veteran experience (Jagr, Shanahan, Gomez). The Penguins like to run-and-gun; the Rangers are more patient, waiting to take advantage of mistakes. They’ve really bought into coach Tom Renney’s system. Even more than usual, this series will be decided by goaltending. Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury and New York’s Henrik Lundqvist will both be tested. Neither team has a particularly strong corps of defensemen. I can easily see the Rangers winning this series, but I said at the start of the playoffs that Pittsburgh would get to the finals, and for now I’m sticking with them. Pittsburgh in 7.
(1) Detroit Red Wings vs. (6) Colorado Avalanche
How they got here: Detroit over Nashville in 6 games; Colorado over Minnesota in 6 games
Season series: It was all Detroit -- 4 games, 4 Red Wings wins, all in regulation, and 3 were shutouts.
Between 1996 and 2002 these teams met in the playoffs five times. This is the first meeting since then, but with the Avs’ back-to-the-future approach at the trade deadline there are quite a few players around who played in that series in 2002 (Detroit rallied from a 3-2 deficit to win the Western Conference title). I still maintain that for Colorado, it’s all about staying healthy. However, they got surprisingly good goaltending from Jose Theodore in the first round. Detroit made the switch from Dominik Hasek to Chris Osgood during the Nashville series. Detroit dominated during the regular season (see above) but none of those games occurred after the trade deadline. The Red Wings will have a tougher time with the revamped Avs but they’ll advance. Detroit in 7.
(2) San Jose Sharks vs. (5) Dallas Stars
How they got here: San Jose over Calgary in 7 games; Dallas over Anaheim in 6 games
Season series: The teams split 8 games. Two of the Sharks’ wins were in overtime or shootout.
Two teams that have disappointed in recent postseasons came through in the first round of 2008. The Sharks had a much tougher time putting away Calgary, though. They blew a 3-0 lead obtained less than four minutes into game 3; after winning games 4 and 5 they were shut out by the Flames in game 6. It took a huge 4-point performance by Jeremy Roenick, who briefly retired prior to the season and was benched for game 6, to lift the Sharks in the deciding game. Dallas knocked out the defending Cup champion Anaheim (as I predicted…not to toot my own horn again) and can definitely take out the Sharks. However, like my Penguins-Rangers pick, I’m sticking with the team I think will win the Cup -- but the Sharks will have to seriously step it up. San Jose in 6. -- Joe Guckin