The Stanley Cup playoffs, the best postseason tournament of them all, begin tonight. This is one thing the NHL gets right, and will continue to get right as long as they never replace sudden-death overtime with that godawful shootout.
And don't listen to that "every team makes the playoffs" crap. Only 16 of the 30 teams make the playoffs. It's been that way for years. If every team made the playoffs it wouldn't have been necessary for seven teams to fire their coaches during the season.
Here's a look at the opening round, the Conference Quarterfinals:
(1) Boston Bruins (53-19-10, 116 pts) vs. (8) Montreal Canadiens (41-30-11, 93 pts); Season series: Boston 5-0-1
The Canadiens were flying up until mid-January and then faded rapidly, barely hanging on to the final postseason berth. They've historically handled the Bruins in the playoffs but not this year. I'm not sure how far the Bruins can go this year, but it should be at least into the next round. Boston in 5.
(2) Washington Capitals (50-24-8, 108 pts) vs. (7) NY Rangers (43-30-9, 95 pts); Season series: Washington 3-0-1
Alex Ovechkin and company were ousted in a tough seven games in this round by the Flyers last year, but are stronger this year. The Rangers had to change coaches and bring back Sean Avery to right the ship after a hot start. Goaltending is the key: if Jose Theodore falters, the Rangers could pull off the upset. Washington in 7.
(3) New Jersey Devils (51-27-4, 106 pts) vs. (6) Carolina Hurricanes (45-30-7, 97 pts); Season series: Carolina 3-1
The Devils won the tough Atlantic Division despite the loss of Martin Brodeur for 50 games due to elbow surgery. Curiously, though, after a strong initial return by Brodeur the Devils had a 1-6-1 stretch before winning 4 of their last 5. The Canes went on a 17-3-2 tear before losing their last two games. Brodeur is certainly well-rested but the Devils have only gotten out of the first round once since their last Cup in 2003. New Jersey in 6.
(4) Pittsburgh Penguins (45-28-9, 99 pts) vs. (5) Philadelphia Flyers (44-27-11, 99 pts); Season series: Pittsburgh 4-2
The Pens were floundering until they changed coaches and made two smart trades. They're 18-3-4 under new coach Dan Bylsma, and the additions of Chris Kunitz and Bill Guerin solidified the forward lines. The Flyers have six players with 25 or more goals but carelessness with the puck, particularly by their defense, has been a problem all season. If that happens in this series Sidney Crosby will have a field day. Pittsburgh in 6.
(1) San Jose Sharks (53-18-11, 117 pts) vs. (8) Anaheim Ducks (42-33-7, 91 pts); Season series: San Jose 4-2
Can the Sharks finally shed their reputation as playoff failures? They finished with the best record in the entire league and added a number of players with past Cup success – even 43-year-old Claude Lemiuex, who had been retired since 2003. But the Ducks come into the series on a 10-2-1 run and still have a lot of key players from their 2007 Stanley Cup-winning team. San Jose in 7.
(2) Detroit Red Wings (51-21-10, 112 pts) vs. (7) Columbus Blue Jackets (41-31-10, 92 pts); Season series: tied 3-3
The Red Wings added Marian Hossa to last year's Cup winners but lost their last 3 and 7 of 10 at the end, failing to overtake San Jose. In the last decade no champion has been able to repeat, but it's hard to see Detroit losing to a Columbus team that is in the playoffs for the first time ever and playing with a rookie goalie. As good as Steve Mason was, he's still a rookie. Detroit in 5.
(3) Vancouver Canucks (45-27-10, 100 pts) vs. (6) St. Louis Blues (41-31-10, 92 pts); Season series: tied 2-2
Both teams finished strongly. Since February 1 Vancouver is 23-7-2, and St. Louis' 25-9-7 record is the best second-half record in the league. The Blues are in the tournament for the first time since the lockout, but the Canucks have only one year of postseason experience during the same span, in 2006-07. Kudos to John Davidson for resuscitating the St. Louis franchise, but I think Roberto Luongo will be the difference here. Vancouver in 6.
(4) Chicago Blackhawks (46-24-12, 104 pts) vs. (5) Calgary Flames (46-30-6, 98 pts); Season series: Chicago 4-0
The Flames fell from first place in their division to fifth in the conference. They were in such bad shape salary cap-wise that they couldn't call up minor league replacements after a series of injuries and in recent games were 2 or 3 skaters short on the bench. There's no cap issues during the playoffs, but it won't matter. The Blackhawks, in the playoffs for the first time since 2002 and on a 9-2-1 at the end of the season, should be able to move on. Chicago in 6.
Hmmm. I've picked all the higher-seeded teams. Where's the fun in that? So I'll rank the series that have the best chance of upsets, in order from most to least likely: Hurricanes over Devils, Ducks over Sharks, Rangers over Capitals, Blues over Canucks, Flyers over Penguins, Blue Jackets over Red Wings, Flames over Blackhawks, Canadiens over Bruins.