The Ottawa Senators get Sid The Kid – again – while the Calgary Flames will face the hottest team in the Western Conference when the NHL playoffs open this week.
Both the Senators and Flames had to wait for Sunday’s final regular-season games to find out who they would draw. By the time the dust settled, both clubs were seventh seeds, Ottawa matching up with Sidney Crosby and his high-flying Pittsburgh crew for the second year in a row while Calgary drew powerhouse San Jose, which ended the year on a 14-2-2 run.
“They’re a good team (San Jose), their record indicates it, but there are many good teams in the playoffs,” Flames head coach Mike Keenan told The Canadian Press on Sunday. “Any team who is in the playoffs has to have a pretty good team because it’s a real difficult task – particularly this year more than ever before – just to get in.”
Colorado’s 4-3 shootout win over Minnesota on Sunday moved the Avs past Calgary for sixth in the West and lumped the Flames into a first-round series with a Sharks team many believe could win the Stanley Cup this season.
“Obviously with their end of season we’re the underdogs,” Flames winger Alex Tanguay said on the phone from Calgary. “But for us, to win the Stanley Cup you have to beat great teams along the way and San Jose is one of those teams we have to beat.”
The Senators beat the Penguins in five games last spring in the first round. But what a difference a year makes. The Sens backed into the playoffs as the No. 7 seed after a brutal second half while the high-flying Pens rose to new heights and placed second in the East.
“Hopefully with more experience you’re better suited to face adversity and you have more confidence,” Penguins GM Ray Shero said Sunday. “I think a year later we’re more prepared for that. But the Senators are also a team that went to the Cup final last year. We know it’s going to be a tough test for us.”
The Penguins lost 2-0 to Philadelphia on Sunday to hand the top seed in the Eastern Conference to Montreal. The Canadiens will play Boston in the No. 1 vs. No. 8 series, some would say a perfect draw for Montreal after the Habs won the season series 8-0-0.
“Eventually you have to slay the dragon,” Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli said Sunday. “They can be beaten, but certainly we’re underdogs when you look at how many games they’ve beaten us in a row.”
Being the heavy underdog is just fine for a Bruins team very few picked to be in the playoffs at all.
“I looked at all the publications and media reports at the beginning of the year – one had us 13th and the rest had us 14th or 15th in the conference,” said Chiarelli. “Guys have learned to play under those circumstances. There is a bit of a mental issue with Montreal that I feel we’ve overcome with the last two games we played them (4-2 loss March 20 and 3-2 shootout loss March 22).
“We’ll be up to the task,” added Chiarelli. “We’re going to play them hard. They’ve got a few injuries themselves now, so we’ll see how it goes.”
The 4-vs-5 series in each conference pit close matchups, the New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers renewing their rivalry in the East while the defending Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks taking on Pacific Division foes, the Dallas Stars, in the West.
“The 4-5 matchup every year generally produces wonderful series,” Ducks GM Brian Burke said from Anaheim. “It’s the way it’s designed. They should be teams that are very close and in this case teams that are divisional opponents where there’s a lot of familiarity. There’s no question for us it’s a tough draw – and it’s a tough draw for them, too.
“From our perspective, home ice was vital, especially where we would match lines. We respect their team, we respect their players, we respect their coach,” added Burke. “Their goaltender (Marty Turco) is one of the best in the National Hockey League. It’s going to be tough. But we have a good team, too.”
President’s Trophy winners Detroit takes on Nashville in the other 1-vs-8 series. Also in the West, No. 6 Colorado takes on No. 3 Minnesota in a Northwest Division battle.
The other 3-vs-6 matchup sees the red-hot Washington Capitals take on the Philadelphia Flyers in the East. The Southeast Division champion Caps clinched a playoff spot in their last game of the season Saturday night after a long battle that had them on the outside looking in for most of the time.
“We were in last place Dec. 30,” Caps owner Ted Leonsis told The Canadian Press on Sunday. “It’s like we’ve been in the playoffs all year. Last night was really a tremendous relief and then I’d say it was great joy.
“I think there’s a little bit of destiny around this team and they deserved it,” added Leonsis. “Who knows how far this team can go in the playoffs?”