Mmm, it's April and that can only mean one thing: the NHL Playoffs are about to get under way.
A time when toothless and bearded men strapped with assorted plastics and kevlar aim to dislocate as many opponents' body parts as they can, all for the satisfaction of reaching the vulcanized rubber disk the fastest and slapping it like a new born baby into a 4'X6' net.
When wives don't yell at husbands to shave their beards due to the fact that it might be "bad luck". When the dreams of grown men culminate into childish fantasies of hoisting Lord Stanley's Cup. These are the times hockey fans around the world treasure.
"But wait!," says the non-hockey intensive sports fan. "Why should I care about the NHL anyway? Who are these foreign guys playing for North American teams that I could give two jiggles of a jack rabbit's booty to see play? Why are these playoffs important to me???"
Fair enough. Let me start by giving reason number one: Sidney Crosby.
This kid is beyond insane with a hockey stick. He has a fluid motion in his skating and his puck work is something to rival with Pele and a soccer ball, but much, much colder. He has an accurate sense of hockey presence, meaning that he knows exactly where the puck should be and what should be done with it at all times. Crosby won the Art Ross Trophy in his second year with 120 points (36 goals, 84 assists). That kind of accomplishment could only be described as—dare I say it—Gretzky-esque?
Crosby has a head on his shoulders that is similar to a quarterback's in football. His awareness of oncoming pressure and the feel of the puck on his stick allows him to feather passes to teammates that are so dynamic and seem to be geometrically impossible.
This passing touch is equal to his eye for the goalie's holes because his shots are strong and accurate. This point-accumulating talent, along with the stellar play of teammate Evgeni Malkin, who proved he is a superstar in his own right, provided the Pittsburgh Penguins the second spot in the Eastern Conference, and a long awaited match up with the seventh place Ottawa Senators in the first round.
The Senators defeated the Penguins in this same situation last year, owning the Penguins four games to one. This year is different for a few reasons, mainly the fact that Crosby and Malkin are on a tear, as well as the fact that the Senators have had terrible play their last 10 games of the regular season, going a unexpected 3-6-1. It can almost be assured that some bad blood will be shed in this battle of Eastern Conference powerhouses.
Second, please take note of this next name, for it will be a legendary one for years to come: Alexander Ovechkin. That's pronounced "Oh-vetch-kin", not "Ov-check-in". Get it right.
The winner of the Art Ross Trophy this year with 112 points, as well as the Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy for most goals in a season with 65, Ovechkin broke Luc Robatille's record for most goals by a left winger in a season. Ovechkin could possibly be better than Crosby, or at least I like to think so, because of his shot power and deadly aim and accuracy with the puck. Every time Ovechkin scores, it rivals a sniper on a rooftop knocking off a mafioso with security guards not realizing that he was even shot. Yes, he's that quick.
Speaking of quick, the guy's feet are blurs on the ice. He is lightning fast, and is rarely touched by defenders, unless he himself is doing the touching. This is what sets him apart from players like Crosby and Kovalchuk: he likes to hit. And boy does he hit well. I've seen many a YouTube video showcasing Ovechkin's scoring and hitting abilities, only to wonder to myself, "Sheesh, what can't this guy do?"
But the thing that I love most about Ovechkin is the fact that while he is out on the ice, his priority is to have fun. After every goal, he is ecstatic. After every assist, he is ecstatic. After every win, he is ecstatic. He jumps into the glass in elation because he loves playing for his team and his team loves him back the same way.
The third-place Washington Capitals will face the sixth-place Philadelphia Flyers in the first round, and let me tell you, this will be a surprisingly competitive matchup, as many hockey analysts have picked out this series as one for the ages.
They fail to realize that Ovechkin, a red hot Alexander Semin (a fireball youngster that will only get better with more experience), and goalie Olaf Kolzig searching for a Stanley Cup, will be going head-on with a Philadelphia Flyers team that has recently made a late-season push with the help of team-hero Daniel Briere, as well as veteran forward Vaclav Prospal, eager to regain his once-tasted glory that he felt with the Tampa Bay Lightning of a few years ago.
However, the Flyers have veteran, playoff tested personnel like Simon Gagne, Mike Richards, and Derian Hatcher, as well as hometown favorites Mike Knuble, R. J. Umberger, and Joffrey Lupul to help them on their quest for the Holy Grail of Hockey. Since both teams are resilient, I think this one will go to seven games and will truly be a testament of what playing for the love of hockey is all about.
The third reason for watching is all about uncertainty. In the West, the President's Trophy winning Detroit Red Wings face the eight seeded Nashville Predators, a team that has proved in the past that they can play postseason hockey, and do it well. The Red Wings are all too familiar with upsets, as they have been upset a few times the past few years by eighth seeds like Anaheim and Calgary.
Anything can happen, really, in all of the matchups. All of these teams have their own style of play and they can each win games their own way. It just comes down to which system will be more effective against the other's.
If I could focus on a series from each Conference to watch for some amazing highlights, it would have to be the San Jose Sharks against the Calgary Flames in the West, and the New York Rangers against the New Jersey Devils in the East.
The San Jose Sharks are riding a high horse in their second seed, as well as the fact that they are riding their red-hot goaltender Evgeni Nabokov, who is putting on a clinic in the Pacific Division. Also, the leadership of Jeremy Roenick, combined with the one of the top defensemen in the league in Brian Campbell, as well as the staying power of Jonathan Cheechoo, the MVP abilities of Joe Thornton, and the captaincy of Patrick Marleau. This group will aid the Sharks into a first-round five-game series win against the Flames.
The reason the Rangers-Devils series is so intriguing is that those two cities practically hate each other in the first place. Now, with both teams in the playoff hunt, there will be a certain clash of powers across the Hudson River. The Rangers have "King" Henrik Lundqvist to tend the net, as well as long-time legend Jaromir Jagr, rugged heroic offenseman Chris Drury, and former Devil Scott Gomez to lead the charge.
On the New Jersey side, Vezina candidate Martin Brodeur looks to continue his dominance in net against...well...everyone. Not only this, but the hard-hitting Devils will come at the Rangers with zero mercy, and it can be assumed that there will be some injuries that will hinder the teams' future in the playoffs. I see the Devils winning in six games. Be sure to set your TiVo's to record for this one.
The NHL is back on the rise, catering to fans' requests for a faster, higher scoring game. I suggest, as sports fans, we all live up to our end of the bargain and watch Versus and NBC in the USA, as well as TSN, CBC, and RDS in Canada for some healthy playoff action that we can all use. Because we all know the NBA won't give us anything close to it.
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