2009 NHL Playoffs: Familiar Faces; Same Places

Spencer CuellarContributor IApril 20, 2009

PITTSBURGH - APRIL 15:  Evgeni Malkin #71 of the Pittsburgh Penguins accepts the cheers of the home crowd after scoring a goal against the Philadelphia Flyers during the 2009 Eastern Conference Quarterfinal Game One at Mellon Arena on April 15, 2009 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

Before the season, so much was made about the Montreal Canadiens’ 100th season. But it wasn't just for the reason of the anniversary that there were high expectations for the team; they also had a good group of guys.

The Detroit Red Wings added some guys and extended others’ contracts so as to keep the momentum of their '08 postseason rolling.

To boot, the Penguins could no longer be considered "too young" after their Finals run, and Alex Ovechkin of the Caps was widely considered the best player.

One thing that always seems to prove true in hockey is that drastic changes in seeding can occur from one year to the next. Last year’s eight-seed in the East is now the one, and vice versa.

Playoff races are always very tight, normally coming down to a few points. Look at the standings one day, wait a week, check again, and try not to be stunned.

Craziness is to be expected.

Western Conference

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8 Ducks  v.  1 Sharks

The Sharks were the best team all regular season, but they have faltered in the Playoffs too many times to count. I won't recount all those occurrences now, as they are both known and it would take a long time. And it would be disheartening for Sharks fans, as if they have not been disappointed enough already.

Jonathan Cheechoo has had two great seasons followed by two rather mediocre ones.  He should be a 40-goal scorer every year. He is a playmaker and not just limited to shooting and scoring: He can pass and get goals for his teammates.

Patrick Marleau has come back from a few bad years and returned to form. I have always believed him to be one of the top 10 players in the league.

Meanwhile, Joe Thornton is Joe Thornton. He will always impress with numbers, and he is actually a very good player, not just an overwhelming statistic-poster.

What could be the Sharks' biggest flaw or most deceiving characteristic this season is their weak division. They went 4-2 against their first-round opponents, but the Ducks play them well. The teams have a heated rivalry, and it is stronger come Playoff time.

The Ducks will be ready. Will San Jose? History is not on their side.

The Ducks may be the best eight-seed of all time. They are the dark horse of the entire postseason to win the Cup. It is easier seeing them win than any of the other lower-seeded teams in either conference.

Now, it will be extremely difficult to do that from their position, but it is entirely possible to see them advance a round or two, maybe even three. Heck, they could win the Cup, though they probably won't.

Sharks (in seven)

7 Blue Jackets  v.  2 Red Wings

The Red Wings are the best team in the NHL. I know I just said San Jose was, but that is record-wise. Plus, there were just two playoff-caliber teams in the Pacific, the other being Anaheim, who barely snuck in.

This series will be quick and easy. I give the Jackets one game in their postseason debut, likely Game Three.

Red Wings (in five)

6 Blues  v.  3 Canucks

I like the Canucks; the Sedin twins are great. Pavol Demitra has been a fantastic addition, and Mats Sundin brings experience. He's set to have himself quite the "second season."

Additionally, Steve Bernier is not very well-known but a good little player. His contributions may surprise people.

And to top it all off, Roberto Luongo is the best goalie in the world and gives Vancouver the advantage in net every game. This team can go far and win it all, and I expect more from them than the one-seed Sharks.

It’s good to see St. Louis back in the Playoffs...too bad it'll be for such a short while.

Canucks (in five)

5 Flames  v.  4 Blackhawks

I expect the young pair of Blackhawks to help the team advance; Martin Havlat and Patrick Sharp look capable of carrying the squad through this series at least.

This is actually a pretty deep roster, though, and Nikolai Khabibulin is not the goalie he was in the years following his Stanley Cup-winning year. He has returned to good form and is stopping the shots in front of him. They haven't been particularly good shots, but they've certainly been numerous, and he's stopped them.

Jarome Iginla will again prove when it matters most that he is a top player in the league. He is often held out of discussions that are dominated by others nowadays. Feel bad for Kipper again.

Blackhawks (in six)

Eastern Conference

8 Canadiens  v.  1 Bruins

The Bruins were second in overall points this season, and their offense is pretty stacked. Zdeno Chara is a beast defensively and offensively, which is a huge plus, not to mention the intimidation factor is through the roof.

I had never heard of David Krejci before this campaign started, but that shows just how good of a season he had. Tim Thomas is unproven in the Playoffs, though, and I think this will show some of the time; it could be what does them in.

The Canadiens cannot get swept, however.

Bruins (in five)

7 Rangers  v.  2 Capitals

Alex Ovechkin will get his goals.

But beyond him, the Capitals have a full roster, with defenseman Mike Green being the most intriguing component. He's decent at defense and ridiculous at offense. Much will depend on Jose Theodore, who is good (used to be great) and probably lacking confidence in himself at the moment.

The Rangers are an interesting bunch. After losing Jaromir Jagr and Brendan Shanahan, one would figure they would get worse. They were disappointing with those stars, why would they do better without them?

Sometimes sports work in mysterious ways.

Before the campaign, the Rangers were one of my favorites in the East, yet they faltered in the regular season once again. But they added a suspended Sean Avery (could someone inform me what was so wrong about what Sean said or did this season that got him suspended in the first place?), which was a great move.

Avery is not a bad hockey player. He backs down from no one, causes frustration and tempts others into making mistakes, and gets in opponents' heads. He is so valuable and almost irreplaceable.

Henrik Lundqvist can play like the best goalie in the NHL at any time, and goaltending is so important in the postseason. Overall, the Rangers have a lot of really good players; adding Markus Naslund was crucial, and if they play like they can, they will make a deep run.

Rangers (in six) 

6 Hurricanes  v.  3 Devils

The Devils are old, though Patrick Elias keeps on keeping on (which greatly impresses me). Martin Brodeur is phenomenal but gets beat often in the Playoffs.

The key is Shanahan. If he plays well and contributes, N.J. can win the series.

Cam Ward will be the Cam Ward of 2005. He is still very young, but he has experience and is playing well at the moment.

It is Playoff time, and anyone can win. Why not the Hurricanes, who boast more than most other low seeds do?

The brilliance of Eric Staal will be displayed again. Rod Brind’Amour has been playing forever, and his leadership may be unmatched. He will continue to play well at an old age and help this team win.

Finally, Sergei Samsonov has been the most difficult player to watch and analyze since I have been watching hockey. He is so talented, and I expect so much of him, yet he only ever performs at a "high" level, and not the "excellent" level he's capable of.

It’s probably that I have too high of expectations for his play. I don’t know where I got those from.

But still, I am once again expecting big things of Sergei, and if he does perform big, the Hurricanes can go very far behind his major contributions and the greatness of Eric Staal and Cam Ward.

Hurricanes (in six)

5 Flyers  v.  4 Penguins

Simply put, the Penguins are the best team in the East. Preseason, many had the Flyers there, but I did not agree, and I expect my opinion to be the one that proves true come the semifinals.

Mike Richards had the season he was supposed to have, but a lack of great goaltending will be Philly's biggest flaw. Martin Biron is good, but that is not nearly enough.

The Penguins are the defending Eastern Conference Champions and the most talented team in the NHL, and they have their postseason experience this time. To boot, Marc-Andre Fleury now knows how good he is and wants the vindication. He also knows his value and importance to their success.

Penguins (in five)

I am not going to go through my potential quarterfinal and semifinal series. I will narrow it down to the last four, the conference championship winners, and then the hoisters of the Cup.

The Stanley Cup Playoffs are funny. The NHL's format makes for reseeding after each round, yet the initial pairings are based on standings which give preference to division winners and not overall points accumulation. This is not congruent and makes no sense.

I have no preference between reseeding and a straight bracket, but the format should be more fair and logically constrcuted than it is right now. This is a separate issue, but I thought I would point that out.

Western Final: Red Wings over Sharks

I see the winner of the Canucks-Red Wings Western semifinal coming out of the West.

Luongo would put the Canucks over the Sharks, and the Canucks play better overall as a team than the Sharks do. TAlso, let's face it, they're less likely to choke than San Jose.

A Shark collapse is inevitable.

The Ducks could also advance to the Stanley Cup Finals, and they are the third west contender, but their road is very difficult. Keep in mind they are only two years removed from a title and have the same team, but with more maturity and familiarity with playing with each other. One last hurrah for Selanne?

The Red Wings had been common first-round losers when occupying a high seed until last year. I expect a new trend in the opposite direction after what they did last year.

They have the most recent experience at winning, they have depth, they are very good at hockey, and needless to say, they are all-around the best of the West. If they play their game, they will advance. I expect them to avoid any mishaps for the second straight year.

Eastern Final: Penguins over Rangers

I like the Rangers’ chances against the Bruins. I am not sold on Boston.  I did not expect them to be the 1 or even a top-four seed, though they were arguably the best team in the entire NHL, missing out on the President’s Trophy by just two points.

The Rangers are solid, and if they get in a rhythm and hit their stride, they are a very serious threat to everyone and a legitimate contender.

If the Hurricanes had gotten the Bruins, I would have picked them, too. But because they will play the Penguins should they advance, I give them no chance to advance beyond the second round.

The Penguins are the best in the East. Sure, they may be the four-seed, but they were out of the Playoffs and the race to make them a month ago. They got on track after hiring Dan Bylsma, going 18–3–4 and recording 40 points (the second most for any coach through their first 25 games).

The Penguins have a lethal scorer in Jordan Staal to compliment arguably the two best players in the game should they need quick goals from others. And as previously stated, Marc-Andre Fleury thinks he is the best, and he may be right. Regardless, he is going to try and prove it.

Based on seeding, my East finalists are the only two real contenders, where unlike in the West, I think Anaheim can beat anyone, giving that conference a trio of hopefuls.

Stanley Cup Finals

In a rematch of the 2008 Finals, the two undisputed best teams will square off once again. This time, the Penguins won't be a surprise.

Or at least they shouldn’t be. The only thing that was shocking this season with them was their mid-season descent down the East standings.

Their rise from their low position may have come unexpected because of their shoddy start, but what they showed in their comeback is what they are truly capable of and what people would have expected before the season.

The Penguins have more individual talent, while the Red Wings are Hockeytown, U.S.A.

Youth is no longer an excuse for the Penguins, not that they blamed it last time. But the Red Wings still are older, have more tradition, and a stronger history of winning.

There is too much to go against. Detroit cruised through the regular season for the umpteenth time and enters the Playoffs with renewed ambition, just as they did last year. Earlier, their care seemed to be missing, but it's back.

Henrik Zetterberg is a top-five player and highly underrated. And the Red Wings have so many other weapons, all guys who play the game well. Their depth is unmatched.

People seem to emerge for this team on any given night or in any series, and still more step up in the postseason after putting up small numbers in the regular season.

The Penguins have Finals experience, but their opponents will have more, plus success at this level.

Marian Hossa couldn’t beat 'em, so he joined 'em. That's not one of the reasons I think Detroit will win, but Hossa is an intelligent person.

The Red Wings will be too much to handle. Goaltending is the most important piece of a Championship team, and while it seems that every Playoff goalie is at least good, Detroit has the edge in that Osgood can improve even more in the spring.

The difference between regular-season hockey and Playoff hockey is the greatest in any sport. The intensity is a million times more, and the pressure, pace, and overall play of the game is increased dramatically.

The superb goaltending makes the forwards play better, and as a result, both demand the best of the other.

Playoff hockey is so frantic and fun to watch, so enjoy it. It will go by quickly, and the slow summer will be here soon enough.

The Detroit Red Wings; making up for the Spartans, I guess.  Your 2009 Back-to-Back Stanley Cup Champions. 

Author's note: I know I am posting this late. I have been busy of late, but most of this was written prior to the first game. I changed none of my picks or beliefs; I assure you that all of this is genuine. I will most likely write a piece on the Finals series itself.
Until then, take care and thanks for reading.