I'm still short two running race reports and haven't blogged in weeks, but T.U.P.S, The Unpublished Sports Writer, drops in for the Fourth Annual NHL Playoff Preview. This season, we start after the Final Four (Congrats, KU) but before the Masters so here we are - The Quest for The Cup. It is good to get past the 82 game slog (what happened to the owner's vote to shorten that?) and into "real" hockey action. Fans and NHL execs drool over this Top 16: Crosby and Ochevin in the East; Ducks returning, Sharks churning in the West; Big Markets (New York, Philly, California), Small Markets (Ottawa, Nashville, Minnesota) and Classic Markets (Boston, Montreal, Detroit). Pucks drop tomorrow! So, in the words of Burgess Meredith (as Mickey Goldmill), "What are we waitn' for!?"
1 MTL vs. 8 BOS Surprise of the season, the Canadiens cut the mold for a "new NHL" type team. Quick, agile, able to score, deep bench and a solid net minder kept them at the front once they got there. They enter the post season on a roll, winning 8 of their last 10 and may have re-captured the olde Montreal mystique. The Bruins, however, are in through the back door when the 'Canes couldn't finish. Boston struggled in the rather tough Atlantic Division, but gave up more goals than they scored (212 to 222). If the Southeast didn't suck so much, the Bruins would be off sulking in the sun with their UCLA counterparts. Montreal in 5
2 PIT vs. 7 OTT Any and every hockey fan likes watching the Penguins do well this year. (OK, except Flyer fans. They hate everyone). They retooled their roster, Sidney Crosby is arguably the new NHL superstar and returned to a "storied franchise" level of professionalism. They won often by playing consistent, solid, no-frills hockey. Sure, Sir Sydney has flair and plays his way, but overall the team suited up and showed up night after night, and won. Looking across the line, it's hard to find much fault here. The Sens, last year's Cup Finalists, eeked into the playoffs with a similar slide of Boston above. If they can re-group and get some legs under them, they may give the Pens a couple good games, but it's tough to see them escaping the first round especially if Alfredsson and Kelly sit out at all. Pittsburgh in 6
3 WAS vs. 6 PHIThe Washington Capitals (where is my '90's-era red jersey?) are the hottest team in the NHL right now. A furious and flurry of wins and points pulled them to a Southeast division "title" and the third spot overall in the East. Alexander Ovechkin has set all kinds of scoring records (for LW's) and deserves the MVP award. His style, focus and level of play elevated the entire team in the second half of the season and got them into April with a ton of momentum. That can work both ways, but a host of veteran guys, many Russian like Alex, should keep them from dropping into a slump anytime soon. How the Flyers got here, I'm not sure. They're slowing, worn and really banged up their injury report is six deep and includes Hatcher, Briere and Smith (and Gagne may never come back). They finally got a solid netminder in Biron, but the rest of the Flyer's fear-inducing poise is missing. Washington in 5
4 NJD vs. 5 NYR Rangers-Devils. Devils-Rangers. The made for TV version of the playoffs and a great way to capture some old school hockey in the midst of a transformed league. (Does anyone fight anymore?) The Ranges are stacked with veteran talent and posses three, if not four, all-time-great, post-season leaders: Shanahan, Drury and Gomez (Jagr could be #4). All season long the Blueshirts struggled to score goals and played 17 shoot-outs (they won 9). No such conclusion in the playoffs and their age and inability to close out games is a worry. The Devils, back in the playoffs for the 1,307th consecutive season are . . . The Devils. Talk about show-up and play, no big names, well coached, well conditioned team; this is it. The entire organization is that way and has been since what seems like forever. They have a new arena but the same outlook - refined slightly with a younger and faster group up front. Their style may be a bit out of place in some match-ups, but the Devils should fare well against the slowing Rangers. Should be the best opening series in the East if not overall despite the fact NYR took the season series 7-1. The difference in these games? Martin Brodeur. New Jersey in 7
1 DET vs. 8 NAS Once again, the Red Wings dominate the West, slump for bit (lots of injuries) and pull away at the end to win the President's Trophy. Bad news is they've won four of the last six but only have one title to show for it ('01-'02 season). They have all the traits of a number one seed and a number one team: depth, experience, strength, hot shots, stoic defensemen, good goalies. Nashville, on the other hand, have the fewest points of all playoff contenders and less than a team that missed the show (Carolina in the East). They made a big impression last year, but this go 'round feels a lot like Pros vs. Joes. Detroit in 4
2 SJ vs. 7 CGY San Jose was atop many pre-season lists to make this round and many beyond. Their core of acquisitions past seasons gelled and they're as good as ever. Thorton, Marleau, Michalek and Ceechro put them second overall in team stats while Nabokov is the top goalie in the NHL. Calgary could have something to say about an advance, pending what team arrives each night. They're played extremely well at times, very poorly others. A late season slump hinders them as they try to recapture their pre-lockout run, a tough charge in what may be The Year of The Shark. San Jose in 5
3 MIN vs. 6 COL Two of the least flashy teams in the league, both Northerners had solid runs at different times of the year. Statistically, they're a dead-heat to one another and mirror the Rangers-Devils in their compatibility. This series may be long, tough and more "old school" with the strict balance between how to get the puck in the net and how to keep it out. I'm going to the coin on this one . . . Minnesota in 7
4 ANA vs. 5 DAL Solid, deep defenses. Able, sluggish offenses. Clutch players and plays from unheralded guys. This 4-5 match-up mixes it well, with one notable exception: Defending Champions vs. Playoff Disappoints. The Mighty Ducks (I'm not dropping the 'mighty', dammit!) proved they're a top tier team and have had little evidence of a Stanley Cup Winner hangover. Second in goals against (overall and per game), they're built from the net out and anyone, everyone has a tough time against 'em. They'll bring their rough and tumble attitude back into the playoffs with everyone wondering how much damage they'll do in their title defense. Dallas is another squad hobbling into the playoffs. Ribeiro, once a prolific scorer and offense weapon has shut down; Modano continues to play hard, but is past his prime (sorry, Mike). Zubov, Lehtinen, and Richards are all questionable. The one certainty if (or when?) we see another early exit for the Stars is it should have nothing to do with Marty Turco. Anaheim in 6
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