NHL 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs: First Round Preview

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NHL 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs: First Round Preview

I was 12 years old. The date was some Friday in late June. I was staring at the clock inside a classroom, watching the seconds tick off. Finally- 3:00. I grabbed my backpack and ran outside to smell the sweet air of freedom.

These are the feelings I can best liken to my recent anticipation of the 2009 NHL Playoffs on their first day.

Tonight the first round match-ups commence, and I couldn't be more excited. My subscription to NHL Center Ice will pay off dividends, not that it hasn't already.

I'm going to try a new take on briefly breaking down the first round matchups:

 

Eastern Conference

No. 1 Boston Bruins vs. No. 8 Montreal Canadiens

  • Why this series is interesting:

Anyone who follows East Coast hockey knows about the historic Montreal-Boston rivalry. Up until this year, it has been a landslide to the Canadian residing team. This year has been quite the opposite.

Not only is this year's season series opposite from last year, the situation for either team heading into the postseason is as well.

Last year, the Canadiens were enjoying a No. 1 seed and facing their familiar foes in the first round at No. 8. This year, it's the Bruins with home ice advantage and the Canadiens just sneaking into postseason action.

The Bruins haven't beat the Canadiens in the last three playoff series that they've faced them, with the last series win dating back to 1994. This furthers the myth of the 'ghosts' from the old Montreal Forum living on as a curse to their rival Boston Bruins.

Though the cards seem stacked against the Canadiens this year, the common conception is that somehow, some way, they will again be a factor.

    X-Factors:

  • Boston: Milan Lucic

In their last heated match-up of the regular season, Lucic was in everyone faces and mixing it up with the grittiest of the Habs. Though he is best known for his physical presence, his scoring touch can't be denied either, providing 17 goals in 72 games.

Despite the talented skill players donning the 'B' this season, Lucic is the hometown favorite, and will feed off of the crowd's energy in the Garden, as well as the boo's when they are on the road.

  • Montreal: Carey Price

I have taken flak on this site for essentially not praising Price as the second coming of Patrick Roy. Yes, he was great at the end of last season and has had success at the World Juniors. Aside from that, he hasn't proven anything.

Last year as the rookie netminder for the heavily favored Habs, he in fact proved that he was not the re-incarnation of Roy, at least not yet. He has a lot to prove in this series, and has to be phenomenal for the Canadiens to have any chance at the upset.

    My gut feeling:

The Bruins will come out firing on all cylinders, but may see some adversity during the middle games, as the 'ghosts' rear their heads. But they will regain their composure and Tim Thomas will lead them into the second round.

 

No. 2 Washington Capitals vs. No. 7 New York Rangers

    Why this series is interesting:

The main thing for this series is Alexander Ovechkin's second chance at playoff glory.

The Caps have refueled and reloaded since last year, and now boast the deepest roster of explosive scoring threats the league has to offer.

Nicklas Backstrom has blossomed into one of the leagues premier set-up guys, and Mike Green is the unchallenged blue-line red-light threat. Couple that with the best Alex-es from the former Soviet Union and this team can light the lamp with a fury.

The Rangers have been a roller coaster of a team this year, and have been so desperate for success they even resigned Sean Avery.

They also acquired Nik Antropov and Derrek Morris before the trade deadline, and these additions have been of the more successful from this years trades.

    X-Factors:

  • Washington: Alexander Semin

Everyone knows that Ovechkin is the most prolific goal scorer in the game. The Rangers will take every measure to keep him off the score sheet. Semin will have to prove that the phrase "the 2 Alex-es" is justified by providing a heavy dose of the scoring.

  • New York: Nikolai Zherdev

Zherdev has the best goal scoring ability of any Ranger in his prime. Naslund was great in his day, and Dubinsky may one day be an elite player. But at 25, Zherdev should be primed to break out. He needs to prove why they took a chance on him this season.

    My gut feeling:

The Rangers cannot match the Capitals' firepower. Lundqvist will probably steal a game, maybe even two, but his forwards are simply out-classed. This year we'll get to see at least two rounds of Ovechkin in the playoffs.

 

No. 3 New Jersey Devils vs. No. 6 Carolina Hurricanes

    Why this series is interesting:

We have seen a drastic changing of the guard every year since the lockout; after winning the Cup in 2006, the Hurricanes failed to make the playoffs in '07. The parity in the NHL is unrivaled in any other major sport.

The Hurricanes haven't looked strong since their run to the cup in '06. Heading into the playoffs in 2009, some would say they've never looked stronger. They are one of the hottest teams in the NHL prior to postseason action, and for that reason, many have picked them as one of the few first round upsets.

Enter career win record holding Martin Brodeur. Brodeur missed half of the season with a torn bicep tendon. Upon his return, questions surrounded his ability to bounce back; they were immediately squashed. He posted a shutout in his first game back.

This is important because the Devils didn't miss a beat during the regular season without the Hall of Fame bound netminder, and finished in third in the Eastern Conference. They also finally have consistent goal scoring in Zach Parise, Patrick Elias, and Jaime Langenbrunner.

    X-Factors:

  • New Jersey: Brendan Shanahan

The Devils got Shanahan on the cheap mid-season, hoping he would boost their scoring. Turns out that they wouldn't really even need him, but that doesn't mean he can't help.

If he can help bring some tertiary scoring, as well as that veteran presence in front of Brodeur, we could have wished we were talking more about the Shanahan Sweepstakes more than the Sundin Sweepstakes.

  • Carolina: Sergei Samsonov

Samsonov has been up and down throughout his career, with the highest of peaks and lowest of valleys. He has world class skill, yet has fallen completely off of the map twice now. This might be Sergei's last chance to prove his NHL worth.

    My gut feeling:

With the way their offense has been firing all year, including the resurgence of both Elias and Langenbrunner, and the way Brodeur has been proven he is in top form, combined with the fact that he won't have played 80 games this year, the Devils are the most legitimate non No. 1 or No. 2 seed in either conference.

Even though many people are talking up Carolina's latest hot streak, New Jersey should win this series no problem.


No. 4 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. No. 5 Philadelphia Flyers

    Why this series is interesting:

In regard to this series, the above question is somewhat insulting to the avid hockey fan. I'll try my best not to be condescending in my response.

The Penguins boast two of the top three scorers in the NHL this season in Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby. They are also, not coincidentally, two of the most exciting players in the game.

The Penguins came up just short last year, losing to the Detroit Red Wings. The Stanley Cup hangover affected them more adversely than the victors, and at one point this season, it looked doubtful that the Pens may even seen any postseason action.

This led to the firing of Michel Therrien, and since instituting Dan Bylsma at the helm, the Pens haven't looked back, charging all the way to the No. 4 spot in the East.

The Flyers also have some of the most exciting young talent in the league.

Mike Richards is highly regarded as the second coming of Philly favorite Bobby Clarke. His talent and grit are only surpassed by his heart, and he first made a name for himself in last year's playoffs, taking his team further than anyone would have expected. More on this destination later.

Jeff Carter finished second in the NHL in goals with 46. He and Richards both played with Sidney Crosby on the Gold Medal winning Team Canada at the 2005 World Juniors.

Oh, and these two teams met each other in last year's Easter Conference Finals and it was a doozy.

    X-Factors:

  • Pittsburgh: Midseason winger acquisitions: Bill Guerin & Chris Kunitz

The Penguins have been looking everywhere for wingers that can score along side the two most dominant centers in the game. They did not find them in Satan, Fedotenko, Sykora, or Pascal Dupuis; so when they again tried with Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz I was again skeptical.

But they have proved me wrong and been at least as successful as they are worth, so far. Their post-season influence will ultimately determine the success of their respective trades for Pittsburgh, and perhaps even the team's fate this season.

  • Philadelphia: Martin Biron

Truly, the goaltender could be considered the X-Factor for every team. Just look at Hasek in last year's playoffs, pulled after his second game in favor of Chris Osgood, who would lead Detroit to their fourth Stanley Cup since 1997.

That been said, Biron has struggled mightily this year, so much so that Nittymaki even took over as the starter for significant portions of the season. Biron ultimately won the job back, and would end up getting a chance to rematch the team that took he and the Flyers out of the playoffs last year.

Biron can be great, and can also be very soft. Which Marty Biron we see this postseason will drastically affect how deep Philadelphia can go in this year's playoffs.

    My gut feeling:

I've really liked Philadelphia all year, and I think they can pull this one out, but it's probably going to be a seven-games series, and I think whoever ends up victorious is going to be too beat up to do much damage in the East. The top three are to strong.

 

Western Conference

No. 1 San Jose Sharks vs. No. 8 Anaheim Ducks

  • Why this series is interesting:

This is perhaps the best West Coast rivalry. Both of these teams have been among the best in the NHL in the post lockout years. They play exciting hockey and have A+ talent at all positions.

The Ducks are two years removed from the first ever California Stanley Cup. Scott Neidermayer and Teemu Selanne, as opposed to last year, have been playing all season and hope to have the team ready for more playoff glory this year.

The Sharks have been many experts' favorites for two or three years now, and boast the President's Trophy for best record in the NHL this season. The Sharks have one of the strongest sets of top six forwards with all-world playmaker Joe Thornton, followed by Patrick Marleau, Devin Setoguchi, Joe Pavelski, Ryan Clowe, and Milan Michalek.

With Dan Boyle on the point and Evgeni Nabokov in net, it's no wonder they finished with the best record in the NHL.

Add to these facts the battle royal that erupted at the end of the last game these teams played one another and you've got perhaps the most exciting Western Conference series on paper.

    X-Factors:

  • San Jose: Ryan Clowe

Ryan Clowe is truly one of the best young power forwards in the NHL. His physical presence will be a great asset against the rough and tumble Ducks, and his ability to find the back of the net is an added bonus.

There's not too much that could be considered a variable on this team- they are pretty consistent through and through and will be a tough opponent for any team.

  • Anaheim: Bobby Ryan

He's the only Duck besides Jonas Hiller whose playoff ability is unknown. He exploded onto the scene this year as a genuine Calder candidate and has a nose for the net likened to only a few. He may even have an Art Ross Trophy in his future.

    My gut feeling:

Many are saying that this should be a very tight series, and it very well could. But I've been following one of the Sharks' statistic all season that is downright scary: Shots for and against ratio. San Jose has the lowest shots against per game and the third highest shots for.

Their ratio is only surpassed by the Red Wings, and I'm fairly certain this only happened in the last month of the season.

I think the Sharks will walk away from this series victorious, beaten up, but prepared for anything in the road ahead.


No. 2 Detroit Red Wings vs. No. 7 Columbus Blue Jackets

    Why this series is interesting:

The Red Wings are the reigning champs. In today's NHL, it would be quite a feat for them to repeat, even though they gained way more than they lost in the offseason, landing the free-agent golden ticket in Marian Hossa.

At the complete other end of the spectrum, this is Columbus's first trip to the postseason in franchise history. Breakout rookie netminder and likely Calder recipient Steve Mason has been nothing less than solid and sporadically spectacular. Add that to active acquisitions that complete the puzzle, this team could actually make some waves in the playoffs.

    X-Factors:

  • Detroit: Chris Osgood

Osgood's performance in last year's playoffs was legendary, mainly because his role was the backup when the postseason began. When his name was called he stepped in with no questions asked, and took the team straight to the Cup, virtually uncontested.

He is perhaps the only Wing to have a Stanley Cup hangover and has been back and forth with Ty Conklin as the go to guy between the pipes in Motor City.

If Hasek's leash last year was any indicator, Osgood better come out flawless against the Blue Jackets. Otherwise, we could see a similar story with a different goalie in Detroit again.

  • Columbus: R.J. Umberger

Umberger was one of the most surprising playoff performers last year in Philadelphia, posting 10 goals in 17 playoff games after scoring only 13 in the regular season. If he can turn it on again this year, he might be able to spark the team to follow his lead.

    My gut feeling:

Before the matchups were determined, I considered the Blue Jackets to be one of the teams capable of pulling off an upset. Seeing that they are slated against the Red Wings certainly deters this sentiment, but I still don't count them out.

The Blue Jackets are finally not the only professional sports franchise to never make the postseason. The monkey is off the back. Anything that happens now is a bonus, and their pressure is literally nothing compared to the that on the shoulders of the Red Wings.

If they can come out guns blazing, not caring what happens tomorrow, they can surprise the defending champs with intensity, speed, and maybe even stellar goaltending.

If they give the Wings too much respect early on and play on their heels, they're done in four.

 

No. 3 Vancouver Canucks vs. No. 6 St. Louis Blues

    Why this series is interesting:

What a story this is for the Blues. The first news from the offseason was the worst possible news they could hear. Blue chip defenseman Erik Johnson tore his ACL in a tragic golf-cart incident at a team function. The injury would sideline him for the season.

They would then lose the services of Paul Kariya for most of the season, and starting netminder Manny Legace injured himself tripping on the carpet rolled out for Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

I'm not making any of this up.

What's even harder to believe is that this team steam-rolled their way into the sixth spot in the West, blowing by playoff familiars Nashville, Minnesota, Colorado, and Dallas.

They, just as the Blue Jackets, are in bonus time, and can only make their fans happy at this point.

Unfortunately for them, they are now up against arguably the best goaltender in the world, certainly in the Western Conference, in Roberto Luongo. Where Lundqvist can steal a game or two, Luongo can steal a series or two.

    X-Factors:

  • Vancouver: Alex Burrows

Burrows has been the added scoring this season that Vancouver has desperately needed for some time now.

His role has mainly been that of an agitator, so this is somewhat of a surprise. He is definitely known as one of the hot-heads in the NHL, so his new role has been an incredible turn around.

Which Alex Burrows shows up in the postseason could have a drastic impact on the success of the Canucks.

  • St. Louis: T.J. Oshie

Oshie is my favorite NHL performer in the month of March. He has been nothing short of sensational in the Blues' push to the playoffs. He is also my new young sleeper to make the U.S. Olympic squad in 2010.

He is the do-it-all Lucic-type player that fans fall in love with, and for good reason.

If Oshie becomes both a physical and a scoring presence against the Canucks, the Blues could see second round action.

    My gut feeling:

The Blues don't have enough to beat Luongo. Simple as that.

 

No. 4 Chicago Blackhawks vs. No. 5 Calgary Flames

    Why this series is interesting:

The resurgence in Chi-town is a metaphor for the resurgence of the NHL. Patrick Kane and Jonathon Toews embody the youth movement that hockey fans everywhere are attracted to. Kane is a puck-handling and play-making genius; Toews is a born leader and can be relied on to do anything.

The Flames landed the biggest name at the trade deadline this year in Olli Jokinen, and he seemed to immediately gel and create one of the best top lines in the NHL along side Jarome Iginla and Mike Cammalleri.

But Calgary sat in the third seed for much of this season, and should be disappointed with their finish. The attitude they carry into the postseason will determine how far they can go.

    X-Factors: 

  • Chicago: Nikolai Khabibulin

Even with a Cup under his belt, has been doubted since before the start of the season, which is evident with the acquisition of Cristobal Huet. Khabibulin eventually won his job back, but like Osgood will probably be on a short leash.

If he can rekindle the performance that led the charge for the shocking Cup Champion Lightning in 2004, the Hawks have serious Cup potential.

  • Calgary: Olli Jokinen

The aforementioned Jokinen has been traded twice in the last year, as he has been desperately searching for playoff action.

He's gotten his wish, and now has to prove that the he was worth the trouble. He has the ability to spark the explosive offensive potential in Calgary, and take them deep into the postseason.

    My gut feeling:

This is the series I have had the toughest time predicting anything but the length: it's gonna go seven games. The winner is going to be pretty beat up, and will almost assuredly have to face either the Sharks of the Wings. It's going to be a brutal road, but victory is sweetest to he who overcomes the most adversity.

 

That ended up being far longer than I thought it would be. My kudos and thanks to anyone who got through it all.

As always, please weigh in with your opinions.

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