It’s the most wonderful time of the hockey year: the Stanley Cup playoffs. To win the Cup a team needs to win 16 games, four best-of-7 series, with few days off between games in a series and limited days off between series if their series goes the full seven games. It’s a grueling proposition. Throw in sudden-death overtime -- there is nothing better in sports, and no, there won’t be any lame shootouts ending games in the playoffs -- and you have the best championship tournament in sports.
Let’s take a look at the opening round, the conference quarterfinals. I’ve made a particular note of each team's record in games played after the February 26 NHL trade deadline. Unlike other leagues in recent years, the NHL trade deadline brings trades, lots of ‘em, and often they’re significant deals involving star players. When they work out, they turn an also-ran into a contender and a contender into a champion. When they don’t work…well, you get the idea.
(1) Montreal Canadiens (47-25-10, 104 pts.) vs. (8) Boston Bruins (41-29-12, 94 pts.)
After trade deadline: Montreal 14-4-1, Boston 9-6-6
Season series: Montreal 8-0-0, Boston 0-7-1 (note--these records reflect the overtime/shootout points; in this case, for example, one of Montreal's wins went to a shootout)
The biggest key to the series -- and the Canadiens’ playoff hopes in general -- might be rookie goalie Carey Price. The Habs traded Cristobal Huet to Washington, giving Price the job. Price has little NHL experience, but was in goal for a Canadian team that won gold at the World Junior Championships and followed it up with an AHL Calder Cup championship. If he can handle Stanley Cup playoff pressure, the Canadiens will be fine.
The Bruins made a nice run to get into the postseason, and Tim Thomas had a .921 save percentage during the season. But Montreal is more talented and has much more scoring depth. Montreal in 6.
(2) Pittsburgh Penguins (47-27-8, 102 pts.) vs. (7) Ottawa Senators (43-31-8, 94 pts.)
After trade deadline: Pittsburgh 12-6-1, Ottawa 7-10-2
Season series: Ottawa 3-0-1, Pittsburgh 1-2-1
Coming off their appearance in last year’s finals, the Senators started out 15-2-0 this season, but didn’t clinch a playoff spot until their very last game. Internal turmoil (Ray Emery, having lost his starting goaltender job, took a page from the Allen Iverson Book of Practice-Avoiding and got away with it) and injuries to Daniel Alfredsson and Mike Fisher plague the Sens. No wonder Pittsburgh tanked their final game of the season -- had they won, they’d be involved in a rougher series with the Flyers instead.
Pittsburgh lost two key players to high ankle sprains. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury missed almost three months, but backup Ty Conklin was stellar in his absence. Then superstar Sidney Crosby missed a month and a half but, led by Evgeni Malkin, the Penguins held things together, and got stronger at the trade deadline by adding Marian Hossa. A year ago the Senators dropped the Penguins in 5 games in the first round. This year, Crosby and company get payback. Pittsburgh in 5.
(3) Washington Capitals (43-31-8, 94 pts.) vs. (6) Philadelphia Flyers (42-29-11, 95 pts.)
After trade deadline: Washington 15-4-0, Philadelphia 11-4-4
Season series: Philadelphia 2-1-1, Washington 2-2-0
Oh, those streaky Flyers. If you take away their 0-12-4 record from their losing streaks of 6 (in mid-December) and 10 (in February), the remaining record of 42-17-7 looks a lot better. Even with those 16 games, though, they still finished 39 points ahead of last year’s total. And they finished rather well, ending the season on a 7-1-1 run.
The Flyers have 7 players with 20-plus goals (including Vinny Prospal, who scored most of his goals with Tampa Bay), more than any other team. The Capitals have Alexander Ovechkin, my favorite non-Flyer player, who scored 65 goals and 112 points by himself. The Caps were 6-14-1 when they fired coach Glen Hanlon on Thanksgiving, but thrived under Bruce Boudreau, and deadline additions Cristobal Huet and Sergei Federov helped key the Caps’ run to the Southeast Division title. However, this series doesn’t start until Friday. Will the extra days off help cool down the scorching-hot Caps?
The Flyers have been shaky on defense and inconsistent in goal all season, but their finest performance by far came in their most desperately needed game, a 3-0 win over the Devils in the next-to-last game of the season. Martin Biron was also sharp in the season finale, a 2-0 win, though Pittsburgh really tanked that one (see above). Biron has never played in a playoff game, and Washington’s Huet has played in six.
This might be the closest and most entertaining series of the opening round. This is a bit of a homer call, but…Philadelphia in 7.
(4) New Jersey Devils (46-29-7, 99 pts.) vs. (5) NY Rangers (42-27-13, 97 pts.)
After trade deadline: New Jersey 9-8-2, NY Rangers 10-3-5
Season series: New York 7-0-1, New Jersey 1-4-3
These are two teams that don’t score a lot of goals, and both have tough goaltenders, the Devils’ Martin Brodeur and the Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist. The Devils struggled down the stretch, winning just 4 of their last 10, with none of those wins coming in regulation time. The Devils’ only win against the Rangers this year came in the last game of the season, and it did give New Jersey 4th place and home ice advantage for the series. But the Devils won’t have much of an advantage, as plenty of Rangers fans will make their way to the Prudential Center. The Rangers have a little more scoring power, and come into the postseason with more momentum, and they should prevail in this round. Rangers in 6.
(1) Detroit Red Wings (54-21-7, 115 pts.) vs (8) Nashville Predators (41-32-9, 91 pts.)
After trade deadline: Detroit 12-4-2, Nashville 9-8-1
Season series: Detroit 5-3-0, Nashville 3-3-2
The Predators traded for Peter Forsberg late last year to make a playoff run, which was cut short. With owner Craig Leipold cutting the budget prior to selling the team, the Preds lost Forsberg and Paul Kariya to free agency after the season, traded the rights to Scott Hartnell and Kimmo Timonen before losing THEM to free agency, and traded starting goalie Tomas Voukoun.
Despite all of that, the Predators made the playoffs this year. They won’t be around long, though. Detroit has the best record in the league, and is too strong in all areas, despite the relative closeness of their head-to-head matchup (2 of Detroit’s 5 wins were in overtime/shootout). Yes, the Red Wings have shown a tendency to underperform in the playoffs. In 2006 they won the Presidents’ Trophy for best overall record before being bounced in the first round by the Edmonton Oilers, who carried that momentum into the finals. I don’t see that happening for Nashville, though. Detroit in 5.
(2) San Jose Sharks (49-23-10, 108 pts.) vs. (7) Calgary Flames (42-30-10, 94 pts.)
After trade deadline: San Jose 16-2-2, Calgary 9-8-2
Season series: Calgary 3-1-0, San Jose 1-1-2
The Flames haven’t won more than two games in a row since the trade deadline. This can’t be what was expected when they replaced first-year coach Jim Playfair with Mike Keenan. The team finished with one less win than last season, when they went out in the first round at the hands of Detroit. The Flames have Jarome Iginla and his 50 goals and 98 points, but after that there’s a huge dropoff to Kristian Huselius’ 66 points.
While the Flames have been meandering, the Sharks have sizzled in that same span. After acquiring Brian Campbell from Buffalo they were 16-0-2 before losing their last 2 games, both of which meant nothing as they had the Pacific Division and second seed in the West locked up. They’ve looked strong in other years and fell short in the playoffs, though. In order for Calgary to have a chance, they’re going to have to get stellar netminding from Mikka Kiprusoff. But the Sharks have Evgeni Nabokov, who led the league with 46 wins this year, one year after Martin Brodeur set the new single-season record for a goalie with 48 wins. San Jose in 6.
(3) Minnesota Wild (44-28-10, 98 pts.) vs. (6) Colorado Avalanche (44-31-7, 95 pts.)
After trade deadline: Minnesota 10-5-5, Colorado 13-5-1
Season series: Minnesota 5-2-1, Colorado 3-4-1
The Wild is…the Wild. They don’t get much attention from anyone. Their biggest star is Marion Gaborik, not exactly a household name. Their only acquisition at the deadline was the oft-suspended Chris “Simple” Simon. (Simon’s appeared in 10 games for the Wild. While averaging just under 8 minutes’ ice time per game he’s picked up zero points and 16 penalty minutes.) Yet they quietly won the Northwest Division. They have the 4th-best penalty killing in the league and are in the top 10 in power play success. They’re much better than the Avalanche in both categories.
Colorado welcomed back a pair of former Avs at the deadline, trading for Adam Foote and signing Peter Forsberg, who sat out the entire season to that point with a slow-healing foot injury. (Forsberg played just 9 games but scored 14 points.) They also got Joe Sakic back after he missed 38 games with a hernia. The Avs went 5-0-1 in their last six to get into the playoffs and the sixth seed, thus avoiding Detroit and San Jose. They need to stay healthy (especially Forsberg) to have a chance. Minnesota in 7.
(4) Anaheim Ducks (47-28-8, 102 pts.) vs. (5) Dallas Stars (45-30-7, 97 pts.)
After trade deadline: Anaheim 11-4-1, Dallas 6-8-2
Season series: Dallas 5-2-1, Anaheim 3-5-0
The Ducks dropped the “Mighty” from their nickname and promptly won the Stanley Cup. They then saw Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne “retire” Roger Clemens-style. The Ducks were a .500 team until Niedermayer returned in mid-December, but they didn’t see much improvement in the standings until Selanne returned in February; Anaheim went 20-5-1 with Selanne in the lineup.
Dallas made a big acquisition at the deadline, getting Brad Richards from Tampa Bay, but the Stars struggled down the stretch. They’re another team with a history of playoff folds in recent years, thanks in part to the struggles of Marty Turco in net. Turco was outstanding in a losing cause last season, though, and the Stars have more offensive firepower. This is a tough call. I’m biased against the idea of players “retiring” and then returning mid-season, though. Dallas in 7.
At this point, my pre-playoff pick for a Stanley Cup final is a matchup of Pittsburgh and San Jose. Despite the star power of Crosby and Malkin, I like the Sharks to keep the Cup in California this year. -- Joe Guckin