Yes, yes, we're talking about playoffs, because they start tomorrow. Both the NHL and AHL will begin their post-seasons tomorrow. Every year at this time, I feel a mix of anticipation and dread. Anticipation because, let's face it, hockey's playoffs are freaking awesome. Dread because, jeez, it takes a lot out of you by the end of it. I mean, this is two months of high-stakes hockey. There is so much freaking drama from puck drop to Cup raise. If you really follow the whole thing from A to Z, you're pretty worn out. Especially if your team has a long run. Two years ago, when the Aeros had that awesome run to Game Six of the Semifinal and the Pens won the Cup, I was so ready for the off-season. (It helps the summer go by easier when your team is the Cup champ, by the way)
Anyway, it all starts again tomorrow. And already there are some great stories, some great rivalries, some heroes and villains. And there are still (apparently) 378,000 seconds of hockey to play. That's a lot of nerve-wrenching clock-watching.
In the past, I've often tried to do an in-depth preview of each series. But really, that's too much work, and there are much better ones out there already. I'll just give you a very basic run-down of what's going on and what to look for in the first round.
In the east:
#1 Washington Capitals vs #8 New York Rangers
The Caps (remember, I hate them) have never been past the second round. They historically struggle against low-seeded teams. They typically have trouble with strong shot-blocking teams riding a hot goalie. Now, there's a lot of attitude on this team, a lot of spunk, but not a lot of stepping up to the plate in the playoffs. So who do they draw? A good shot-blocking low-seeded team with a goalie who's got a penchant for hot streaks. Also, the team that had no business taking the Caps to seven games two years ago but did it anyway. Now, the Rangers just lost their heart-and-soul guy, possibly their best all-around player, with a broken ankle. Or foot. Something down there. So that'll hurt. The last time these two teams played in the playoffs, New York's coach got suspended for squirting water at some fans. This has the potential to get nastsy, especially if the Caps start to find themselves in panic mode.
Prediction: Washington in six
#2 Philadelphia Flyers vs #7 Buffalo Sabres
In recent history, the team that loses the Stanley Cup Final rarely does well the next year in the playoffs if they even make the playoffs. The Flyers made it and won their division, but they were terrible down the stretch (which shows you how good they must have been the rest of the year, if they were still tops in the Atlantic). Their D-corps is pretty scary when everybody's healthy and they have a lot of guys are legitimate playoff-type players. The question mark, as always, is in goal, where they've got a rookie who came out of nowhere to win the starting job and has done pretty well. But nobody's ever seen him play a playoff game, so we'll see. Meanwhile, Buffalo's got Ryan Miller in goal, and Miller is good enough to steal a series. This will all depend on which Flyers team shows up: the team from the first 3/4 of the season or the team we've seen lately. Still, I'll go with the Cup Final Loser trend, because one aberration in twenty years means it's probably still a safe bet.
Buffalo in seven
#3 Boston Bruins vs #6 Montreal Canadiens
What you need to know: Last year, Boston held a 3-0 series lead against the Flyers (you have to win four games to win the series) and then lost the next four. Montreal upset top-seeded Washington and defending Cup champ Pittsburgh behind a hot goalie before petering out, again against the Flyers. Also: Boston and Montreal always give us the most hard-fought series in the entire post-season whenever they play. And the underdog often seems to win. Also: there has been a LOT of hate between these two teams this year. I hope this series goes long, because every game should be an adrenaline rush, even to watch.
Bruins in seven.
#4 Pittsburgh Penguins vs #5 Tampa Bay Lightning
These are my two horses in this race, and I'm sad that they play each other so soon. Pittsburgh has been pretty lights-out lately, which is impressive because they have been playing without Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin (their top two players, also two of the top five players in the world) since about New Year's. There's a chance Crosby could return if they go far enough in the playoffs. Malkin is pretty much done. But this is a team that fights for one another every shift, and that's what you gotta do to win in the SCP. If Sid the Kid does return, it's hard to see anyone stopping this team. Tampa's got a lot of star power, a vastly underrated blueline, and a young coach who is smart as a whip. Plus, they've got a 41-year-old goalie who's been waiting for a legitimate shot at the Cup his entire career. He came close in 2006 with Edmonton (wow that seems forever ago) but got injured in game one and missed the entire rest of the series (which his team lost in seven games). He's gonna be pretty geared up for this.
Pittsburgh in five
In the west:
#1 Vancouver Canucks vs #8 Chicago Blackhawks
The Hawks have knocked the Canucks out the last two seasons. After watching these two teams play last playoffs, I said, "Vancouver will win the Cup in 2011." No one was around me, so I have no proof, but I said it. Vancouver won best record, but that may be a tad misleading because the Northwest Division was just awful this year. Nevertheless, they did lead the league in goals for, goals against, and powerplay. They were second in the league on penalty kill. The only other teams in league history to lead in those three categories in the same year all went on to win it all. Nevertheless, these Hawks are plucky. They are a beast of a #8 seed. Despite having to blow up their Cup Championship roster to fit under the salary cap, they're still dangerous, and they could have what it takes to bounce the Presidents Trophy winners. After all, Vancouver's all-world goaltender doesn't exactly have an impressive playoff resume...
Canucks in six
#2 San Jose Sharks vs # 7 Los Angeles Kings
An all-California ticket! I'd have rather the Ducks played the Kings, because that would just have gotten nasty, but this will be fun, too. Nevertheless, LA is without their leading scorer, and San Jose is just a beast offensively. I like LA, I think they're tenacious, but I don't think they're going to pull it off.
Sharks in five (close ones)
#3 Detroit Red Wings vs #6 Phoenix Coyotes
The Yotes almost upset the Wings last year, but they just couldn't do it without their captain and star player. Honestly, I'm still not sure how Phoenix is so dang competitive with the roster they have, but they are. Also, Detroit is ailing. They've had some key guys hurt and I'm not sure how healthy they are when they're coming back. Plus, I don't think Jimmy Howard is a playoff goalie. Still, it's always tough to pick against Detroit this early in the playoffs.
Wings in seven
#4 Anaheim Ducks vs #5 Nashville Predators
Anaheim's RPG line (Ryan-Perry-Getzlaf) is a three-headed monster. The top half of Nashville's defensive unit is a war machine. So that should be an awesome matchup. The Ducks caught fire at the end of the year to charge from tenth to fourth in the last week or so behind the inspired play of Masterton Trophy Candidate Ray Emery in goal. Offense, you have to give Anaheim the edge. Defense, it's clearly Nashville. Grit is a toss-up. This will be a tough, punishing series, but in the playoffs it's generally defense that wins out.
Nashville in six.
The long, long season is over. The losers have been left behind. There are no more easy games from this point on. Guys are going to play with bruised ribs, cracked ribs, cracked feet, facial lacerations, Charley horses, pulled muscles, and just about anything else they can stand upright through with the help of some pain meds. Hearts will be broken. Careers will be crushed. Heroes will be born. Lots of grown men will cry. And there's always the off-chance that we'll get one of those six-hour-long games.
The gauntlet begins.