It only took 1,230 regular season games, but the National Hockey League is finally ready for games that really matter. After an interesting six month season, the last weekend was surprisingly anti-climatic. But that will all change when the eight first round series get underway on Wednesday.
Here are our predictions for round No. 1, as the best teams in the NHL start the quest for Lord Stanley's famous cup.
Series "A"—Boston Bruins (1) vs. Montreal Canadiens (8)
Starts Thursday in Boston; TV—CBC
Despite the extensive history between the two clubs that heavily favours Les Canadiens (24-8 in 32 previous playoff series), the Bruins had their way in the regular season, posting a 5-0-1 record against their arch-rivals.
The key to the Bruins is balance up front—they had seven players with 20 or more goals— the defensive leadership of Zdeno Chara, and the goaltending of Tim Thomas, a favorite for the Vezina Trophy as most outstanding goaltender.
The Habs will need outstanding performances from star-forward Alexei Kovalev and goaltender Carey Price to have any chance. The defensive corps will also have to find a way to do without it's star, Alexi Markov, who may be out for the series.
Prediction: Despite the history, the Bruins are just a better team at this point. Take the Bruins in five.
Series "B"—Washington Capitals (2) vs. New York Rangers (7)
Starts Thursday in Washington; TV—TSN
Washington dominated the season series, winning three times and losing once in extra time in four meetings. The teams averaged over six goals per game, and a high scoring series definitely favours the Southeast Division champion Capitals.
The Caps are led by Maurice Richard Trophy winner Alexander Ovechkin (56 goals), who finished second in the league scoring race with 110 points. Nicklas Backstrom (88 points), Aleaxnder Semin (73 points), and defenseman Mike Green (31 goals) lead the supporting cast.
The Rangers are, by their own admission, offensively challenged, and will rely heavily on goalkeeper Henrik Lundqvist to give them a chance. The addition of Sean Avery late in the season has given the New York offense a boost, but they still lack that go-to-guy you need in the playoffs.
Prediction: Lundqvist may steal a game or two, but the Capitals just have too much fire-power in the final analysis. Washington will win in six games.
Series "C"—New Jersey Devils (3) vs. Carolina Hurricanes (6)
Starts Wednesday in New Jersey; TV—TSN
The Hurricanes have been one of the hottest teams in the National Hockey League down the stretch, and the Devils seemingly heading in the other direction. Overall, Carolina took the regular season series 3-1, with the lone New Jersey win coming on the last weekend of the season.
The Devils are led by rising star Zach Parise, who had a career year in 2008-09 with 94 points, and veteran goalkeeper Martin Brodeur, a three-time Stanley Cup champion. Brodeur missed the first five months of the season, and came back to pass Patrick Roy for No. 1 on the all-time wins list, but has struggled since.
Carolina's offensive leaders are Ray Whitney (77 points) and Eric Staal (40 goals). Hurricanes goalkeeper Cam Ward has been finally looking like the same guy who won the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2006.
Prediction: Look for Ward to outplay Brodeur, giving Carolina a mild upset in six games.
Series "D"—Pittsurgh Penguins (4) vs. Philadelphia Flyers (5)
Starts Wednesday in Pittsburgh; TV—CBC
The Penguins won four of six games during the regular season, as the two teams combined for 42 goals.
Offense is not usually a problem for the Pens, who boast two of the top three scorers in the league in Art Ross Trophy winner Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby. Sergei Gonchar and sophomore Kris Letang lead a mobile defense, and Marc-Andre Fleury is the undisputed No. 1 man between the pipes.
The Flyers are led by centres Mike Richards (80 points) and Jeff Carter (46 goals, 84 points) and defenseman Kimmo Timonen (43 points). A big question mark for the Flyers is the inconsistency of goaltender Martin Biron which may ultimately be the key to the series.
Prediction: The Pens have been a different team since Dan Bylsma took over as head coach. Penguins will win in six.
Series "E"—San Jose Sharks (1) vs. Anaheim Ducks (8)
Starts Thursday in San Jose; TV—CBC
The Sharks won the President's Trophy as the league's top team in the regular season, and they had the edge on their intra-state rivals, winning the season series 4-2.
San Jose was led by centres Joe Thornton (86 points), Patrick Marleau (38 goals), and defensemen Dan Boyle and Rob Blake, whose additions last offseason stabilized an already talented defense. Goalkeeper Evgeni Nabokov wasn't his usual self sometimes during 2008-09, but is still an elite goalie.
Anaheim avoided the temptation to dump players at the trade deadline, and it paid off for the 2007 champs. The Ducks still have two of the best defenseman in hockey in Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer, and a great first-line led by centre Ryan Getzlaf (91 points). But it gets pretty thin up front after that, and the goaltending has been inconsistent all season long.
Prediction: The Ducks experience should get them one game, but it should be San Jose all the way. Sharks will win in five games.
Series "F"—Detroit Red Wings (2) vs. Columbus Blue Jackets (7)
Starts Thursday in Detroit; TV—TSN
The Jackets and the defending champion Red Wings split the season series, each winning three times, with one of the Columbus wins coming in overtime.
The Red Wings have the same nucleus of players that ran over the opposition on the way to the Cup in 2008, and added Marian Hossa in the offseason. Hossa (40 goals) and centre Pavel Datsyuk (97 points) lead the Wings offensively, while captain Nick Lidstrom was among the leaders in defenseman scoring with 59 points. The only question mark is goaltending, which ranged from inconsistent to awful.
The Blue Jackets got to the playoffs on the back of rookie sensation Steve Mason, who led the league with 10 shutouts. Winger Rick Nash (40 goals, 79 points) leads the offense, but it's Ken Hitchcock's system that is the star in Columbus.
Prediction: The playoff excitement won't last long in Columbus. Red Wings will win this one in five games.
Series "G"—Vancouver Canucks vs. St. Louis Blues
Starts Wednesday in Vancouver; TV—CBC
The Blues shocked the league and themselves with a furious second half rally that saw them jump from also-rans to the sixth seed in the Western Conference. The Canucks, too, caught fire after the All-Star break to snatch the division title from Calgary. The teams split the season series 2-2.
Vancouver is led by the brothers Sedin, Daniel and Henrik, who tied for first in team scoring with 82 points apiece. The club's undisputed star, however, is captain and goalkeeper Roberto Luongo, who posted 33 wins and nine shutouts in 54 appearances.
The Blues also got tremendous goaltending down the stretch from Chris Mason, who responded well to being anointed the No. 1 man after the demotion of Manny Legace. Offensively, centre Andy McDonald had 44 points in 46 games, and winger Brad Boyes led the team with 33 goals.
Prediction: The Blues are riding high right now, and will give the Canucks lots of trouble, but we still see Vancouver prevailing in six games.
Series "J"—Chicago Blackhawks (4) vs. Calgary Flames (5)
Starts Thursday in Chicago; TV—TSN
Both teams struggled a bit in the second half, setting up an interesting first round matchup. The Hawks dominated the season series, winning all four games by a combined score of 19-7.
Chicago is led offensively by youngsters Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, and the rejuvenated Martin Havlat. They also have a strong blue-line featuring Brian Campbell, Brent Seabrook, and Duncan Keith. Nikolai Khabibulin has emerged from a season-long battle to become the undisputed No. 1 in the Chicago goal.
The Flames, as always, are led by captain Jarome Igina, who, with linemates Mike Cammalleri and Olli Jokinen, form an imposing first line. Star defenseman Dion Phaneuf struggled at times during the season, as did No. 1 goalkeeper Miikka Kiprusoff, but the talent is still there.
Prediction: This might be the most intriguing of all the first round series, matching the Hawks' youth and talent against the Flames' grit and experience. We're taking the young Blackhawks in a tough seven game series.