STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS 2007-1st Round

For the first time in the modern history of the National hockey League, both Stanley Cup Finalists (Carolina & Edmonton) failed to qualify for the playoffs in the following season. That said, it is now time to seperate the men from the boys. The Playoffs are upon us, two conferences, 16 teams, each of said teams needing to amass 16 wins to achieve that ultimate goal of sipping the bubbly from Lord Stanley’s hallowed Cup. Kinda gives ya’ goosebumps eh ? We Shall begin out West.
(1) Detroit vs. (8) Calgary – The Red Wings finished the regular season with the best overall record in the Western Conference. The Flames didn’t qualify for the playoffs until next to the last day of the season. This would seem to be a mismatch, and on paper it is, but not when one considers the intangibles. Last year, Detroit was knocked out in the 1st round by an Edmonton team which qualified for the playoffs on the last day of the season. Pavel Datsyuk, one of the Wings’ most talented players, has not scored a playoff goal since 2002…yes, 2002. Goaltender Dominik Hasek, a six time Vezina Trophy (best Goaltender) winner and two time Hart Trophy winner (regular season MVP) was their man between the pipes when they won it all in 2002, and has played well this season but is definitely past his prime. The Calgary Flames were Finalists in 2004 and still remember the sting of their 1st round exit last season, a season in which they won their division, and Mikka Kiprusoff won the Vezina Trophy. The Flames addressed the need for more scoring by adding Alex Tanguay in the offseason and actually did score more goals in the regular season (258) than did Detroit (254). Defenceman Dion Phaneuf is one of the hardest hitting players in this league in only his second season and is on his way to becoming All-World. Two teams seeking vindication. Rumblings in Detroit that another early round exit will mean the end for coach Mike Babcock. This series has all the makings of a classic. I believe the X-Factor here is Mikka Kiprusoff who is capable of stealing a series, much the way Hasek could (and did) in his prime. Detroit did have a great regular season, but sometimes life just ain’t fair. Mike Babcock, get your resume updated. Flames win.
(2) Anaheim vs. (7) Minnesota – The Ducks are no secret, after a surprise run to the Conference Finals last season, they added Defenceman Chris Pronger who along with Scott Niedermeyer gives them the best blueline combo in the NHL. Goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere has come back strong after a shaky 2006 postseason in which he was replaced by Ilya Bryzgalov and was the subject of trade rumors in the offseason. The key for the Ducks in this series and throughout this Playoff will be the goal production of their baby-face second line of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Dustin Penner. As long as that line which was put together late in the season can produce, the Ducks are more than capable of going deep into the Playoffs. The Wild will be relying on their strong defensive play in the neutral zone to counteract the relentless forecheck of the Ducks. 1st year Goaltender Niklas Backstrom who replaced Manny Fernandez midway through the season has been a more than pleasant surprise as he enters the playoffs as the leader in Goals against average and Save percentage. Niklas posted five shutouts in only 36 regular season starts. If the Wild are to pull the upset, Niklas will have to be gargantuan in this series. The Wild have hope for the future, but the Ducks’ time is now. Ducks win.
(3) Vancouver vs. (6) Dallas – Last season, the Canucks were a lock to make the Playoffs with a Month to play but then took one of the great nosedives in the history of the sport and were eliminated on the last day of the season. A season after which the Canucks dismissed coach Marc Crawford who was at the helm when that plane went into a flat spin, and shored up the goaltending by trading forward Todd Bertuzzi to Florida in exchange for goaltender Roberto Luongo, a trade that will go down as grand larceny when all is said and done. The Dallas Stars have always been a strong regular season team, and their goaltender Marty Turco has always been a terrific regular season netminder. But, it is now Playoff time. Marty Turco is beginning to be roundly criticized as a playoff choker. The former Michigan Wolverine won two National Championships and went to the Frozen four 4 times during his collegiate career, but for some reason seems to buckle under the pressure of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The may be his last shot at redemption.
Roberto Luongo was for several years the only bright spot on a dreadful Florida Panthers’ team. Luongo has been one of the league’s best since January. Roberto is absolutely giddy over this, his first playoff appearance and has been waiting a long time for this moment. The Canucks and Stars were almost identical in the regular season. Dallas finished with 107 points, the Canucks with 105. Dallas scored 226 goals, the Canucks 222. Dallas allowed 197 goals, the Canucks 201. Suffice to say that on paper it’s a toss up. Playoff games are not decided on paper. At the time of year when goaltending is paramount and goal scoring can be rather scarce, I’m willing to ride Luongo over Turco and his shaky Playoff history. Dallas is a fun town and I really enjoyed the All-Star game festivities when I was there in February but……
(4) Nashville vs. (5) San Jose – Hmmm. Both teams were strong all season. San Jose has a good fast young team built around the terrific playmaking skills of Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton and the goal scoring prowess of Jonathan Cheechoo.
Nashville has followed a plan put in place by Barry Trotz – the only head coach they’ve ever had. Nashville has always had great team speed and attacks like a swarm of gnats. They’ve been steadily improving since they came into the league in 1998. On the other hand, remember the Sharks improved their standings every year for 5 straight seasons. These teams are almost a mirror image. The Predators scored 14 more regular season goals than the Sharks, but allowed 13 more. The Preds finished with 110 points, the Sharks with 107, both teams won 51 games. The Preds added Paul Kariya in 2005 & Jason Arnott during the 2006 offseason; the Sharks picked up Joe Thornton in 2005 & Bill Guerin at the trade deadline. It’s almost a shame that one of these two great teams will have only a first round playoff exit to show for all their hard work and a great regular season. Flip a coin. Mine came up tails – Sharks win.
EASTERN CONFERENCE
(1) Buffalo vs. (8) New York Islanders – The Sabres burst out of the gate this year and had the league’s best record virtually the entire season before ending up tied with the Detroit Red Wings for best overall record in the league, but did win the Presidents Cup by virtue of their overall total of 53 wins vs. 50 for Detroit. The Isles were a pleasant surprise this season, a season which saw the return of coach Ted Nolan who had been blackballed by the league after being named NHL coach of the year in 1997-1998, a season after which he was fired by these same Buffalo Sabres whom his new team now faces in this first round match-up. Nolan has once again taken a rather meiocre team and had them over-achieve to get into the playoffs (the late season acquisition of Ryan Smyth didn’t hurt either). While coaching in Buffalo it was all about strong goaltending (Dominik Hasek) and great teamwork, Nolan has done the same thing this season with the exception being Rick Dipietro between the pipes. Nolan has showed his coaching skills did not erode during his nine year absence but this team is not yet ready to deal with the unrelenting attack of the Buffalo Sabres who this season led the league with 308 goals. Between the toughness of Ryan Smyth, the scrapiness of Jason Blake and the strong goaltending of Dipietro, the Isles may steal a game or two, but ultimately the Sabres will send them to the Golf course.
(2) New Jersey vs. (7) Tampa Bay – Devils’ goaltender Martin Brodeur set a record for wins in a season with 48 wins while also compiling 12 shutouts. The Devils always seem to peak at just the right ime, and this season is no different. Brodeur has been rock solid for the Devils since 1995, along the way picking up three rings (1995, 2000, 2003) and winning the Vezina trophy in 2003 & 2004. The veteran goaltender has been even tougher in the playoffs. The Lightning won the Cup in 2004, but that seems ages ago. No surprises here. Devils will prevail.
(3) Atlanta vs. (6) New york Rangers – The Atlanta Thrashers had the benefit of playing in the weakest division and still managed to score only one more goal than they allowed over the course of the season (246 scored; 245 allowed). The Thrashers won their division but their point total of 97 would be good for only third place in any other division. Call it an upset if you so desire, but the Rangers are gonna take this series. In fact, ya’ might want to get out the broom….
(4) Ottawa vs. (5) Pittsburgh – The Ottawa Senators and Pittsburgh Penguins wound up tied with 105 points on the year, Ottawa gets home ice advantage due to 48 wins to the Penguins 47. The Sens have a history of being way too soft in the Playoffs, not to mention bone-head plays in key moments by Star players – they were less than a minute away from the Stanley Cup Finals in 2003 when defenseman Wade Redden made an inconceivable move on a 2 on 2 break which led to the tying goal in game 7 of the conference finals. New Jersey then scored the game winner in OT, en route to the Stanley Cup. Fast forward to last season, down 3 games to 1 & on the Power Play in overtime, team captain Daniel Alfreddson stood like a deer in headlights as Jason Pommenville went around him to score the series winning goal, ’nuff said.
The Penguins have a strong, young team anchored by teenage phenom Sidney (Sid the kid) Crosby – the youngest ever to lead the league in scoring, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal. Veteran toughness comes in the form of Gary Roberts, Georges Larocque & Mark (the wreckin’ ball) Recchi. Rejuvenated Sergei Gonchar came out of nowhere to finish second in the league in scoring amongst defencemen. The key to this series will be the goaltending of young Penguins netminder Marc-Andre Fleury, not to mention this is the first ever playoff for Crosby, Staal, and Malkin. Both teams have exciting wide open offensive styles which should make this a very entertaining series. I hate to go with soft teams, but the Sens do have a huge edge in playoff experience and nomally don’t choke until the later rounds. Ottawa will advance.
Don’t you just love this time of year ? More to come in round 2. See ya’

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