Hockey!

Yesssss NHL playoffs have arrived - my favorite sporting event of the year. I’m chomping at the bit here for some playoff hockey action after two years. This year is looking to be especially exciting… the teams are more balanced than they have ever been with the new salary cap in place. The Eastern Conference in particular is going to be a doozy. I can see just about any team coming out a winner at this point. In the West, we’ve got the Red Wings and Stars as the clear favorites, but there sure are some potent underdogs - San Jose, Anaheim, Nashville, Calgary.

Anyway, here’s what I predict for the first round:

Ottawa/TB - Ottawa in 5 - Let’s be honest. Tampa Bay is not the Stanley Cup winning powerhouse they were the last time we saw hockey. I think Ottawa is going to need Hasek back if they plan on winning a cup, but they should make quick work of the lightning.

Carolina/Montreal - Carolina in 6 - This could be an exciting matchup. Montreal definitely could give Carolina, who has been struggling lately, a run for their money. I think in the end though, Carolina will play harder than Montreal on a more consistent basis.

NJ/NY - NJ in 5 - I feel bad for the Rangers. Really, I do. They’ve been on Cloud 9 all season, riding the high of proving everyone wrong making it into the playoffs, only to find themselves in the most precarious of sitations. The Devils are the most dangerous team in the whole league at the moment and the Rangers are playing at their worst.

Buffalo/Philly - Buffalo in 7 - Flyers fan here. I’d love for my team to take down Buffalo in round 1, but I just don’t have much faith in them. The Flyers have played like dogshit in recent weeks, but they also come out every now and then to play a phenomenal game. I think the Flyers will play hard early in the series, but injuries and fatigue will catch up with them.

Detroit/Edmonton - Detroit in 4 - Detroit is a powerhouse. Edmonton hasn’t impressed me enough. Red Wings will sweep this series.

Dallas/Colorado - Dallas in 5 - Dallas is possibly the most underrated team in the NHL. Very good in just about all facets of the game. There are underdogs in the West who could prevail over the two big guys, but Colorado isn’t one of them.

Calgary/Anaheim - Anaheim in 7 - I think this series hinges on whether we see 2003 Giguere in net or 2004 Giguere. Calgary is the hardest team to score against, but they have a terrible time finding the back of the other team’s net. I think this lack of scoring power is going to hurt Calgary in the playoffs, and it could happen sooner rather than later as the Ducks have been playing very good hockey lately.

Nashville/San Jose - San Jose in 6 - Looking forward to this one possibly more than anything else. These teams match up well, both have their fair share of goal scorers and fast skating. Can Mason fill Vokoun’s shoes? He’s been doing just that lately. But, the Sharks are everyone’s favorite underdog these days. Thornton/Cheechoo ftw.

My picks:

Eastern Conference

Ottawa (1) vs. Tampa Bay (8)
The Sens have been playing like crap lately, but the defending Stanley Cup champs are even worse. Ottawa in 5.

Carolina (2) vs. Montreal (7)
There’s always some surprising underdog team that comes from nowhere and wins some huge upset series in the playoffs. This year, I think that team will be the Habs. Huet’s breakout season reminds me a lot of what Kipprusoff did for Calgary last year. Canadiens in 7.

New Jersey (3) vs. New York Rangers (6)
The Devils are currently the hottest team in the league and are riding a 10-game winning streak going into the playoffs. And it’s hard to bet against Marty Brodeur. The Rangers have tons of talent, but I don’t think they’re a team built for the punishing grind of the playoffs. Jersey in 6.

Buffalo (4) vs. Philadelphia (5)
I think this series will likely be the best battle in the East. I’ll give the nod to the Flyers in 7, so long as Forsberg can stay injury-free for the full series.

Western Conference

Detroit (1) vs. Edmonton (8)
No contest. Detroit isn’t the dynasty team they were a few years ago, and some of their stars like Yzerman, Shanahan, and Chelios are getting up there in age, but Edmonton has shoddy goaltending and terrible team defense. They simply won’t be able to contain guys like Datsyuk and Zetterberg. Wings in 5.

Dallas (2) vs. Colorado (7)
With the Habs, Theodore proved he was a playoff performer and was able to steal games against much better teams. Will he do the same for the Avs? I’m guessing no, but this should be a great series. Stars in 7.

Calgary (3) vs. Anaheim (6)
The Flames have the best goalie in hockey and Sutter has built this team for playoff success. Unless the Ducks break out the Flying-V, Calgary takes this one in 6.

Nashville (4) vs. San Jose (5)
This had the potential to be an amazing series, pitting two great young teams against each other…but then the Preds lost Vokoun to a season-ending medical condition. Can Nashville rely on a backup netminder to stop the leathel combination of Thornton and Cheechoo? Not a chance. Sharks in 5.

Calgary/Anaheim - Anaheim in 7 - I think this series hinges on whether we see 2003 Giguere in net or 2004 Giguere. Calgary is the hardest team to score against, but they have a terrible time finding the back of the other team’s net. I think this lack of scoring power is going to hurt Calgary in the playoffs, and it could happen sooner rather than later as the Ducks have been playing very good hockey lately.

The 2003-2004 Flames averaged only 2.44 goals per game and came within one double-overtime goal of winning the Stanley Cup. The 2005-2006 Flames did better, averaging 2.63 goals per game. Yeah, yeah, it’s the “new” NHL and all that, but the 05/06 Flames also allowed the fewest goals against in the league, despite the changes to the rules designed to increase scoring. Besides, when it comes to playoff hockey, strong defense and punishing physical play over the course of a 7-game series almost always prevails over strong offense.

As a Preds fan, I just have to take issue with you saying ‘not a chance’ that Mason can fill Vokoun’s shoes. Vokoun may be the best goalie in the league (it’s at least close), but Mason is on fire lately. He’s stopping everything. And Nashville’s offense is really coming together. It may be homerism, but I think the Preds win that series.

OTT over TB in 5 - Alfredsson
CAR over MON in 7 – Staal
NJ over NYR in 6 – Gionta
BUF over PHI in 6 – Briere

DET over EDM in 5 – Datsyuk
DAL over COL in 6 – Modano
ANA over CAL in 7 – Selanne
SJ over NSH in 6 – Thornton

I really like Nashville but I think San Jose is on fire. It will be interesting to see either way.

– Xaroc

This is why I think the series hinges on Giguere. If he plays well, I think the Ducks can do a sufficient job of keeping the Flames from scoring. I really do like Calgary. They are very good at shutting down offense. I saw them play live in Philadelphia this season and had no idea a game in which no goals were scored until a shootout could be so exciting. But, I don’t think their offense is as good as last season. The numbers you provide say otherwise, but a .19 increase in goals per game doesn’t mean so much when the average goals scored per game increased from 5.1 last season to 6.1.

You’re right about playoff series being decided by physical play though. We’ll have to see if Calgary can score enough goals to get the job done though.

EAST

Montreal-Carolina: Habs. I think Gerber will collapse, and I have a feeling Huet will be the story of the playoffs. A bad feeling, because I despise the Habs.

Ottawa-TB: Tossup. Ottawa’s been awful for weeks. They’re playing with zero confidence in their goaltender. TB’s been bad, too, but has showed some spark and is still playing a strong system. I’m leaning TB.

NJ-NYR – NJ. This should be over very quickly.

BUF-PHI – Sabres. Could also be over quickly, depending on Esche. I wonder about Miller, though. First playoffs.

WEST

DET-EDM – Wings, but in 6 or 7. I don’t think Detroit is nearly as good as their points indicate. They got something like 44 points out of playing Columbus, St. Louis, and Chicago. If Edmonton had better goaltending, I’d pick the Oilers here. Datsyuk is out at least for game one, incidentally.

DAL-COL – Dallas, probably in four, maybe five games. Possibility Theodore could get hot, but Dallas is too good.

SJ-NSH – SJ in a walk. Nashville isn’t that good and SJ may be the best team in the league right now. Only wild card is Thornton, who has always bombed in the playoffs. He’s healthy this year, though, and has a lot to prove.

ANA-CGY – Anaheim. Probably six or seven games. Calgary can’t score. This is gonna catch up to the Flames sooner rather than later.

Is anyone really excited for the playoffs this year, though? My team’s out, so that explains some of the reason I don’t really care, as does the awesome weather the past couple of weeks. But I’m actually more concerned about Bettman’s threat to the refs the other day, saying that anyone who puts the whistle away will end up sitting. That sounds like a sure-fire recipe for even more phantom hooks and holds, and some of the most boring, passionless playoff hockey of all time. You just know we’re going to see 15-20 minors in some games.

Bring on the 15 - 20 minors a game, then! What I consider boring, passionless hockey is the freakin’ weak side trap with defenders water skiing behind the forecheckers as the goalie goes out to clear out the dump in. F that. I’d gladly take lots and lots of special teams play with end-to-end rushes over the slogging we’ve seen over the last decade.

Last year, during the strike, a friend of mine missed hockey action so he dug up some his old VHS tapes he had from the late 80s/early 90s when the Blues were really good with Hull 'n Oates. He digitized them and sent them to me. Just watching how open the game was back then is astounding, and how small the goalie equipment was. Goalies have certainly gotten better as a breed, but their equipment really ballooned, culminating in Garth Snow’s shoulder pads.

So give me the obstruction calls and bring speed and flow back to hockey.

I totally agree about the new brand of hockey (my team is out too) and Garth Snow’s shoulder pads were embarrassing. They were almost level with the top of his head.

– Xaroc

But they’re not calling obstruction. They’re calling ridiculous phantom holds. Touch another player with a stick, it’s a penalty. Fall down within five feet of another player, it’s a penalty. Bring on the dives! The NHL wasn’t called like this is the 80s or the early 90s. This new NHL really is new. I’ve been watching the NHL since the mid-70s, have been watching old-time Leafs games all season with Leafs TV, too, and I’ve never seen games called like this before.

What good is it to crack down on “obstruction” when all you do is kill the flow with 40 minutes of minors a night? And wind up missing legit, serious fouls because they aren’t deemed “obstruction”? No thanks. Look at the Ottawa-TB game last night. It was awful and boring, because neither team could establish any sort of flow due to the parade of phantom penalties. And even though we got all sorts of phantom hooks and holds, the refs missed blatant fouls on at least three occasions, including a butt-end on Mike Fisher right in front of one ref that looked like it broke his nose.

This is far worse than the clutch-and-grab days, because at least then you would get some games with great flow and body contact. Now, body contact is being eased out of the league entirely and the NHL is becoming all about special teams. The early part of the season was the worst. Right till Xmas, there would be a penalty on damn near every single battle for the puck. It got so bad that players didn’t want to win fights for the puck, because they’d wind up getting two minutes for interference or something.

The biggest problem the NHL had with dull hockey over the past decade was due to changing the offside rule back in the mid-90s. Stupidest move that the league ever made. Going back to tag-up offsides this year was what really brought flow and speed back to the NHL, not the landslide of penalties. That one move cut out maybe 20 whistles per game, and made it a lot more difficult for trap teams to slow down faster, more creative opposition with loads of face-offs.

All the league needed to do this season was:

  1. Impose restrictions on goalie equipment.

  2. Kill the composite sticks and go back to wood, or mostly wood. These new sticks compromise passing and stickhandling for shot speed.

  3. Bring back tag-up offsides.

  4. Adopt a no-tolerance policy on interference to forechecking. D-men being allowed to throw huge picks on forecheckers was what drove me nuts about the trap era. Oddly, despite this so-called crackdown, d-men are still being allowed to throw forecheckers into the boards 20 feet away from the puck.That drives me nuts.

Anyhow, how 'bout those Habs? 6-1 tonight, I see. Wow.

I basically agree with you, but I think the game is still better this way than it was before the lockout. At least now they’re calling SOMETHING! As a Flyers fan for my entire life, the last few years before the lockout were positively awful because we consistently faced teams that trapped and the Flyers, being bigger and stronger, never got a call. It ripped you apart to watch because the moment a Flyer laid a hand on someone the arm went up due to sheer size of the players.

At least now they get a few calls here and there, though they had something against Forsberg tonight. He got hauled down twice with no call. In fact, the officiating was pretty awful in the Flyers/Sabres game because no one had any idea what would or wouldn’t be called.

The officials have to be consistent. That’s really the bottom line. My wife has been a field hockey official for a lot of years now. She’s officiating Division I college. The thing she wants most from her partner is consistency, because without it, they both look bad. The NHL officials need to have this drilled into their heads and they have to stop trying to even up the power plays. If one team is dirtier or commiting more fouls, that’s THEIR PROBLEM, not the problem of the other team.

Well, I thought the Stars/Avs game was good. And my own team, the Preds had a fantastic game against the Sharks, and not just because we won. It was just VERY exciting hockey.

I just miss the days were Mike Millbury could go up in the stands and beat a man with his own shoe.

Now that was hockey.

Ok, so I was expecting to see some exciting hockey. I didn’t expect it to be this good. I’m very happy to see teams who didn’t impress me much during the regular season turning it up and being competitive. Every first round matchup looks like it can go either way.

Edmonton has a real shot of taking down Detroit the way they have been playing…I thought they’d be out in 4. And how about Marty St. Louis on Tampa? After a very disappointing season he blew me away in today’s game vs the Sens. I definitely underrated Colorado…guess I should have known better with their core of playoff vets. The double overtime Flyers/Sabres game Saturday night nearly gave me a heart attack. I was literally shaking after the 1st OT.Shame we lost that one, Esche gave an unreal performance.

Aside from that Rangers/Devils penalty extravaganza, every game has been really fun to watch. The officiating has ranged from pretty good to awful, but generally balanced.

Agreed. Lots of great plays (Mike Peca’s brilliant steal leading to an instant goal), big hits (that poor guy with the Flyers), amazing saves (Esche’s last-second splits and kick-out with his right pad), and fun (Elias’ back-to-the-goalie-no-look-kick-assist goal). There were certainly some uneven referring (Devils game 1, Sens game 2), but as the playoffs progress only the better referees crews will be given work.

Yeah, I have to agree. Toddy, if you aren’t watching this hockey, you are missing some great games. It really has turned up a notch. It always does, but this time it seems especially noticeable.

I agree. I watched the Philly/Buffalo game on Saturday, two teams I could care less about, and it was one of the best games I’ve seen in years.

I predict that Jagr will go down like the pussy he is.

Too late.

I have seen a number of playoff games already and for the most part players know what they can and can’t do now after 82 regular season games. That has led to fewer penalties than earlier in the year when it was a penalty every minute. The refs are always going to miss calls they always have end of story. The speed and pace of the game and the huge power plays and penalty kills have made this a much better game to watch.

– Xaroc