After an infuriating last couple of weeks with tons of opinions and a laptop with no inclination to allow me to express them, I am back with a vengeance.
Finally, the Playoffs have arrived, and the brackets are set, wrought with potential excitement. Ladies and Gentlemen, this is what hockey is all about.
Also, the Caps are in the playoffs, so I feel safe in saying the Gr8 One will be taking home the Hart this year. It's going to happen, so let there be no more of this Daniel Alfredsson nonsense.
Senators squeak into the playoffs.
Firstly, this is easily one of the most pathetic displays I have seen from a 'winning team' in recent memory. For a team that, as is the case most years, was being handed the Cup before the first puck had dropped on the season, they sure seemed like they were hoping to win the Steven Stamkos sweepstakes this summer.
Scorers can't score, defenders can't defend, and goalies can't save is the easiest way to describe the dazzling freefall performed by the Senators in the back 9 of the season. Was it Emery showing up late? Was it John Paddock's message being lost? Noone outside of the locker room knows for sure, but one thing is certain, the expiration date on the current Senators lineup clearly shows 'All Star Break 2008'.
Perhaps it's time that Ottawa relinquish their title as the NHL team with the most dudes named 'Chris' (4 by my last count) and give up on their delusions of a 'balanced team' and replace that moniker with 'collection of plugs'. Certain 'gum in the dam' players have panned out well (Fisher and Kelly, that's about it), but there are too many mediocre players choking up the middle of the road on this team, leaving absolutely no room for young players. This is only really half a problem because the Sens only really have one good prospect anyhow.
To go from ordering silver polish for your President's Trophy to playing a wait-and-see in a game between division rivals to see if they make the playoffs is definitely reinforcing the belief that the Senators may be about as superfluous as their Canadian political namesakes.
And yes, I am a Leafs fan, but in defence of my team, they sucked the WHOLE season, none of this half-hearted commitment to mediocrity exhibited by Ottawa.
The Draft Lottery
Congratulations to the Tampa Bay Lightning for winning the first overall pick in this summers entry draft, meaning burgeoning phenom Steven Stamkos is theirs for the taking, and more importantly, has added one very big gun to their off-season acquisition arsenal. Stamkos is NHL ready and will mesh well on the Lightning, or on the team they deal their first pick to.
Make no mistake, there is a solid possibility that the Lightning will deal their pick in exchange for a quality goaltender. No offense to Smith or Rammo, but neither are equipped to help the Tampa phoenix rise from the ashes of one hell of a Cup hangover anytime soon. Goalie deep, offense starved teams are scant in the league at present, but Tampa wants experience, meaning that teams with a veteran/sophomore tandem will be hottest in the running. Based on the relatively thin talent base in potentially available goaltenders, Tampa could easily command a prospect or roster player as well, depending on the quality of the goaltender.
Ottawa with Gerber and Emery are among notable teams, however neither tender is worth being mentioned in a deal for a pick of Stamkos' ability on their own, but do they have enough attractive trade bait to make this happen? Minnesota has 2 young goalies of higher ilk then Smith or Rammo, and are rich in youthful players, plus Minnesota's recent playoff appearances could prompt their notoriously chincy management to open the purse strings on a big ticket UFA or to take on a big salary...because Tampa ownership most certainly does NOT wish to be rid of one of their big contracts and Minnesota would definitely have no interest in filling the potential 30 goal void left by pending UFA Brian Rolston...Also a bonus, they aren't in the same conference...
...And now, the Predictions.
Flying high on my March Madness bracket wizardry (I won't lie, I dominated, having an 80% accuracy on the opening round, picking the Final Four, the ultimate Champ Kansas, and only being off by ONE point on the final score), I, in my mind, have what it takes to put in a solid first round prediction on the NHL playoffs, so here we go.
Montreal Vs. Boston
This series is Montreal's to lose. Gainey took a big gamble timing-wise on when he decided that Price was his go to man, opting to wait until the trade deadline leaving only a handful of games before the inevitable Montreal post-season appearance, but by all indications, won't come up snake eyes. They have the youth, the experience, and most importantly, AK27 is finally starting to play the way he's been paid to.
Boston is a solid sleeper pick, but in my opinion, they're one consistent scorer short of being a concern for the Habs. Habs in 5.
Pittsburgh Vs. Ottawa
Flat out, Ottawa won't beat the Penguins in Round 1, they have no secondary scoring and no secondary defence, meaning they have no solution to the 1-2 punch of the Pittsburgh offence, and with the surprisingly effective shutdown work of Gonchar on big lines, coupled with the long awaited renaissance of a young Marc-Andre Fleury. As I write this, I'm chuckling at the prolonged scrums as Pittsburgh is up 4-0, unfortunately, even the ever classy Wade Redden has been reduced to Chris Neil-esque post-whistle antics.
Ottawa loves taking stupid penalties, and the Pens love when they take stupid penalties, with one of the most punishing power plays in the league matched up against a slumping PK, fireworks will ensue.
Also, bashful belles Malkin and Fleury appear to have shed their 'wallflower' labels and showed up to this ball ready to dance, both are certanly more than capable of stealing the show singlehandedly.
Pens in 5, 6 if the Sens can learn that slashing is not a fundamental defensive zone strategy.
Washington Vs. Philadelphia.
Philly came into this season with high expectations, and like the Senators, s**t the bed at various pivotal points. Washington came into this season with zero expectations, and I can assure you, their bed is clean and tidy.
This is a series where many of the key figures, including Philly's Marty Biron and about 90% of the Caps lineup, have little to no playoff experience, meaning that it's almost a non-factor.
If the Gr8 One can forego any stage fright and continue scoring goals like its second nature, and youngsters Backstrom, Semin, Green and Eminger can offer solid performances, and veterans Fedorov and Kolzig can offer a calming influence to the youngsters, this series will belong to Boudreau's Boys. I'll call Washington in 5.
New Jersey Vs. New York
This series has the makings of being the goaltending equivalent of dueling banjoes. For every nice, bold grouping of saves thrown together by Brodeur, comes the slightly less bold but save for save response by Lundqvist. Marty has his Cup rings and is in the twilight of his career, whereas King Henrik's star is on the rise.
My guess will be this will be one of the more boring series of the opening round, as both teams are very defensively responsible and backed by solid goaltending, however the Rangers are the hungrier of the two teams it seems, with a star-studded lineup including occasional superstar Jaromir Jagr and the ageless Brendan Shanahan.
The Rangers have the raw talent, but the Devils have chemistry and experience, so the swing vote will be whether perennial Hart-less candidate Jagr decides to show up to the rink or mail it in as he has the last 2 seasons, and whether Lundqvist can make the transition from tinny banjo to big meaty lead guitar. Also, watch nu-pest Sean Avery to try and knock the ever cool Martin Brodeur off of his game while relying on his convincing playing ability to cash the numerous cheques his mouth writes.
Rangers in 7.
Detroit Vs. Nashville
This will be one of the best or one of the worst series of round 1, but it will not be mediocre. Nashville has played David to the Red Wings Goliath in the past, but since then have lost some very key personnel.
Detroit has the firepower, it's no secret, however with a shaky blue line and even shakier 'Dominator' in net, I would not write this off as an easy win for Bowman's Best. Zetterberg and Datsyuk have both shown difficulties in dealing with tight checking. As they are opportunistic scorers, they do not create their own opportunities. Super pest Jordin Tootoo is undoubtedly licking his chops whenever they touch the puck,
Detroit has firepower, Nashville has defense, both have borderline goaltending, meaning this series will be much closer than a 1-8 pairing probably should be, I will pick Detroit in 7.
San Jose Vs. Calgary
The Sharks are the hottest team coming into the playoffs, boasting offensive depth, competent young defence and stalwart goaltending, Calgary is sporting more or less the same team that made the Cup finals against Tampa, with key players Iginla,Conroy, Regehr, Langkow and Kiprusoff. They also now have alex Tanguay and Dion Phaneuf, who could become invaluable if he ever stops sucking in the post season.
I love the Flames but I think they are one reliable scorer short of making this tough, however they did look sharp stealing their opener from the Sharks. If Nabokov doesn't collapse from exhaustion, this will be Sharks in 5.
Minnesota Vs. Colorado
Hands down, Minnesota will win this series. Colorado took the OT opener, but Minnesota has a chemistry driven team that is far superior to the hodge podge Avs lineup. Sakic and Forsberg have both lost a step, and Theodore is playing above his level, something has to give, be it an injury to Burnaby Joe or Peter the Great, or the clock striking midnight on Theo, but they don't have enough in the tank for a long playoff haul.
Rolston and Gaborik look to build upon their scoring rampages from the regular season while youngsters Mikko Koivu and PMB will be a nice second wave along with Demitra.
Are Backstrom and Harding ready for a long post-season? If so, this will be Minny's in 6 games.
Anaheim Vs. Dallas
This series breaks my heart because one way or the other 1 of my 2 favourite west teams will be gone first round. Anaheim is the incumbent Cup champ, Dallas is the perennial early exiteer, so this should be a no-brainer....right?
While Anaheim has essentially the same lineup, Selanne and Niedermayer both have 3/4 of a season's worth of rust on them, and Todd Bertuzzi is largely ineffective, Dallas has new toy Brad Richards and strong as ever Mike Modano, not to mention the boys from Espoo, Lehtinen and Hagman, Dallas is solid.
Also, thankfully, with no shootout in the playoffs, the loss of Jussi Jokinen will certainly sting less.
The stars lineup nicely in this series, but I have a feeling it will be the supporting cast that will steal this series. Dallas in 7.
On The Bleacher Report, I'm Andrew Castaneda.
With files from CBC.ca, TSN.ca, The Toronto Star and NHL.com.