Thursday night, the puck drops for the 2008 NHL Playoffs, a two-month long grind to award hockey's most coveted prize, the Stanley Cup.
Here's a brief look at each series, with predictions...
Starting out West, the top-seeded Red Wings enter the post-season with the NHL's best record. They also have the best 1-2 goaltending tandem in the league, featuring Dominik Hasek and Chris Osgood. Both have led Detroit to Cup titles in the past.
They face a familiar foe, in Central Division rival Nashville Predators. The familiarity between these two teams will benefit the Predators, and I think they will give Detroit a run for their money, but I'm going with Detroit in six games.
No team was hotter down the stretch than the San Jose Sharks, who are the 2-seed out West. The addition of Brian Campbell from Buffalo sparked this team at the end of the season, and they earned at least a point in the final 20 games of the regular season to capture the Pacific Division and the two-seed.
They will face the Calgary Flames in the opening round, who were wildly inconsistent in the second half of the season. That inconsistency and Sharks' goalie Evgeni Nabokov's strong play will carry the Sharks in five.
The Minnesota Wild won the Northwest Division title, earning them the third-seed in the West, where they will face a Colorado Avalanche, team that has brought back several former players to try to help them win their third Cup since moving from Quebec in 1995.
Joe Sakic will be fresh for Colorado after missing 38 games due to injury. He'll team up once again with former linemate Peter Forsberg to try to break through the stingy Wild defense. I think that stingy D will allow the Wild to win in six.
Perhaps the most intriguing first-round series is the 4-5 matchup in the West between the defending champion Anaheim Ducks and the Dallas Stars. Both teams possess stellar goaltending, and have plenty of firepower up front. They both were beneficiaries of mid-season additions, as the Stars traded for Brad Richards (a former Conn Smythe winner), and Teemu Selanne came out of retirement for Anaheim.
This has all the makings of a seven-game series, and I think that decisive game goes to Anaheim.
In the East, an Original Six matchup is among the highlights of the first round, as the top-seeded Montreal Canadiens take on the Boston Bruins. It has been a storybook revival in Montreal, and they boast the NHL's top-ranked power play. If Boston has any hope of advancing, they must stay out of the penalty box.
When all is said and done, Montreal wins in five.
The Pittsburgh Penguins lost out on the top spot in the East in the final days of the regular season, but they still won their division, and still have Sidney Crosby, who is back in the lineup after his ankle injury. While Crosby was injured, other players, such as Evgeni Malkin, stepped up and contributed, which gives this team confidence.
Standing in Pittsburgh's way in the first round are the Ottawa Senators, who dispatched the Pens in five games last year. Revenge will be on Pittsburgh's mind, and they field a deeper team, and the Penguins will win in five this year.
The Washington Capitals rode soon-to-be Hart Trophy winner Alexander Ovechkin to 11 wins in their final 12 games and a division crown, and their first playoff berth since 2003.
The additions of Cristobal Huet and Sergei Fedorov also helped, and will continue to help them in their first round series against the Philadelphia Flyers. The Flyers have always been known for their toughness, but they don't have Alexander Ovechkin. I'll take Ovechkin and his Capitals in six.
Rounding out the first round matchups is what could be a backyard brawl-type of series between the four-seed New Jersey Devils and fifth-seeded New York Rangers. Despite having home-ice in this series, the Devils struggled to score goals this season. Their leading scorer, Zach Parise, recorded only 65 points on the year.
The Rangers weren't much better, but they have the potential to score in bunches, with the likes of Jaromir Jagr, Scott Gomez, Chris Drury and Brendan Shanahan. I'll take the Rangers in six.
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