With that out of the way, here’s a look at CP’s picks in the first round of the NHL playoffs:
No. 1 Detroit vs. No. 8 Calgary: The Flames will be picked by many to win this, in part because they beat the Red Wings in the 2004 playoffs and in part because the Wings have fallen apart as a high seed in the past three post-seasons.
Not this year. Calgary will definitely make this a series, but the Wings have their best goaltending since last winning the Stanley Cup in 2002 – Dominik Hasek, then and now – and have also got grittier since last season’s first-round loss to Edmonton with the additions of Danny Markov, Todd Bertuzzi, Kyle Calder, etc…
Prediction – Wings in seven.
No. 2 Anaheim vs. No. 7 Minnesota: The Ducks dominated the pre-season hype as Cup contenders and delivered full value with a franchise-best regular season. They’re as legit as they get. And yet . . . the Wild have gone 22-5-4 since Jan. 27 and history shows hot second-half teams are tough to handle come playoff time.
One hates to bet against a blue-line with Norris Trophy candidates Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger but we smell an upset from Jacques Lemaire’s underrated team.
Prediction – Wild in six.
No. 3 Vancouver vs. No. 6 Dallas: Don’t look for many goals in this series. The Stars and Canucks ranked 21-22 in the NHL in goals, and the lowest among the eight Western playoff teams.
As one NHL GM told CP recently, the one club he didn’t want to face in the first round is the Canucks – because of Roberto Luongo. Goaltending will be a hot topic in this series given Marty Turco’s struggles in last season’s first-round loss for the Stars. Can he redeem himself this spring?
And what about Luongo, a Hart Trophy candidate. How will he fare in his first-ever playoff?
Prediction – Canucks in seven.
No. 4 Nashville vs. No. 5 San Jose: A rematch of last spring’s first-round series which saw Sharks centres Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau dominate the Predators. That’s why Nashville devoted the following 10 months finding a way to get better down the middle. Enter Jason Arnott and Peter Forsberg.
What’s of concern with the Preds is their health. Scott Hartnell and Scott Nichol returned over the past week while Martin Erat, who hasn’t played in over a month, is hoping to come back this week. It’s not easy getting your timing back come playoff time. Star forward Steve Sullivan, meanwhile, remains out with back spasms. That’s a major component missing.
The Sharks, meanwhile, sizzled down the stretch, going 13-1-3.
Prediction – Sharks in seven.
No. 1 Buffalo vs. No. 8 N.Y. Islanders: Credit the Isles for pulling the rug from under Montreal and Toronto by winning their final four games and stealing the No. 8 seed. Too bad their season will only last another week or so. They’re running on fumes now.
The Sabres are healthy and well-poised for a long run. They can handle the pressure that comes with being the heavy favourite. And this is a serious mismatch. Down goes Dubie.
Prediction – Sabres in four.
No. 2 New Jersey vs. No. 7 Tampa Bay: Here’s the only matchup that should matter. Future Hall of Famer and three-time Stanley Cup champion Martin Brodeur vs. first-time NHL playoff goalie Johan Holmqvist.
Who do you like?
Prediction – Devils in five.
No. 3 Atlanta vs. No. 6 N.Y. Rangers: The Rangers are the sexy pick by many. And for good reason. New York broke away from the bubble teams in the East with a super run led by their star goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who went 16-4-6 down the stretch with a 1.72 goals-against average and .936 save percentage.
Brendan Shanahan brings his three Stanley Cup rings to the table on a Rangers team that can score goals but even more impressively shut down the other team. Only the Devils gave up fewer goals in the Eastern Conference this season.
The Thrashers deserve a better fate after exciting their market with a first-even playoff appearance and division crown but the Rangers are on a roll.
Prediction – Rangers in seven.
No. 4 Ottawa vs. No. 5 Pittsburgh: The best first-round matchup in this year’s playoffs. Jason Spezza, Dany Heatley and Daniel Alfredsson vs. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal.
The Senators have disappointed spring after spring over the last decade despite a lineup as talented as any in the NHL. But the focus isn’t on them this year. The Sabres and Devils are the top seeds and the Sens go into the playoffs a bit under the radar despite being Canada’s best chance at a Stanley Cup.
We think it’s finally their year.
The Penguins are dangerous and can play with anyone but like the young Edmonton Oilers of the early 1980s, Crosby and company will need to learn a playoff lesson or two before finding glory.
Prediction: Senators in five.