It’s that time of year once again – the time hockey fans become even more touchy and territorial than ever; the time normally rational folks decide base-level facial grooming is for the birds; and the time THN columnists willingly write up playoff predictions knowing full well that many readers of those predictions will drop any pretense of composure like it’s hot and bombard the comments section with a litany of libels and character assassination.
With apologies to maddeningly ubiquitous McDonald’s ads, I’m loving it. To be more specific – and with additional apologies to Loverboy aficionados – I’m loving every minute of it.
Amped-up passions, chewed-down cuticles and ever-expanding ulcers are what make the NHL’s post-season so special. So try to enjoy my – repeat, my – first round picks in the spirit of the season.
By which I mean, take your blood pressure pills, read a book on Buddhism and the inherent joys of compassion toward your fellow man and relax.
San Jose (1) vs. Anaheim (8)
Proteau’s Pick: San Jose in six
Proteau’s Paragraphs On Why He Picked Who He Picked: I’ve talked to many a hockey insider in the past month who swore up and down the last team they’d choose to face in the first round was the momentum-filled Ducks. They may have a point, but I’d counter by pointing out that, judging by the regular season standings, the last team anybody should want to pick is the team that compiled more points than any other in the league.
Any exterior pressure the Sharks will get throughout these playoffs pales in comparison to management’s expectations; the Ducks, by contrast, are a franchise in transition. At this early stage of the playoffs, that may cause Anaheim to play faster and looser and extend the series to a seventh game. Still, it’s doubtful they’ve got the flock to outlast San Jose’s unrivaled depth.
Detroit (2) vs. Columbus (7)
Proteau’s Pick: Detroit in six
Proteau’s Paragraphs On Why He Picked Who He Picked: By now, you’re probably aware I’m the half-wit who wrote a column in late 2008 predicting the Blue Jackets weren’t going to make the playoffs. So I’m sure you’ll understand why I’m a tad reticent to underestimate them for the second time in the same season.
That said, since Columbus’ roster is full of playoff virgins – and since, using the same analogy, the Red Wings would be considered adult film stars – you’re also not going to see me select the Blue Jackets to dismiss the Red Wings in this series. Maybe next year, when Detroit goes with a goaltending trio of Sean Burke, dental floss and the illegal portions of Garth Snow’s old equipment, but not this year.
Vancouver (3) vs. St. Louis (6)
Proteau’s Pick: St. Louis in seven
Proteau’s Paragraphs On Why He Picked Who He Picked: Speaking of teams I foolishly dismissed before the season even started, here are two more. The Canucks got stronger as the season went on – and so did the Blues, whose climb through the standings was the league’s biggest miracle since Glen Sather’s continued employment as GM of the Rangers.
Some might say Vancouver has more depth and veteran know-how than the young-ish Blues – and I’m definitely among the some. On the other hand, the pressure is squarely on the Canucks, a fact that might allow the Blues to play fast and loose.
The deciding factor for me is, who do you go with in this series – the NHL’s most gifted goalie, or its hottest? The answer: Chris Mason, you had me at a 9-2 record (with two shutouts) in your last 11 regular season games.
Chicago (4) vs. Calgary (5)
Proteau’s Pick: Calgary in six
Proteau’s Paragraphs On Why He Picked Who He Picked: Don’t get me wrong – I think the Hawks’ resurgence is far-and-away the best story in the entire league this season. However, as we saw with The Wire, Battlestar Galactica and movie theaters that don’t have cellphones going off every other minute, all good things come to an end.
Given the NHL’s long history of burgeoning young teams losing in the post-season before they win anything of consequence, I’m betting Chicago’s fantastic season gets shut down by an ornery, beaten-black-and-blue Flames squad that desperately needs to make it out of the opening round for the first time in five years.
And if Calgary can make it to the second round without the services of injured key D-man Robyn Regehr, that’s a very good sign for the remainder of their post-season.
Boston (1) vs. Montreal (8)
Proteau’s Pick: Boston in five
Proteau’s Paragraphs On Why He Picked Who He Picked: When these franchises met in the first round of the 2008 playoffs, the Canadiens were the top seed in the East and the Bruins were the No. 8 seed. Even then, Boston gave Montreal all it could handle over the course of a seven-game series.
The Habs were superior to the Bruins in virtually every regard last year, but like the standings flip-flop between the two teams, it now seems the opposite is true. Since the Canadiens have a number of heart-challenged types on their roster, it’s hard to imagine them forcing a sixth game, let alone a seventh. If they do, it will be thanks to Carey Price’s performance – which, again, hasn’t been at the level it once was.
Washington (2) vs. New York Rangers (7)
Proteau’s Pick: Washington in seven
Proteau’s Paragraphs On Why He Picked Who He Picked: This showdown features a ton of polar opposites. It’s the affable Bruce Boudreau vs. the prick…ly John Tortorella; the go-go-go Capitals offense vs. the slow-slow-slow Rangers attack; the stymie-master Henrik Lundqvist vs. the unpredictable-and-not-in-a-good-way Jose Theodore.
It’s also Alex Ovechkin’s cheerfulness against Sean Avery’s sneerfulness, although I don’t believe the series will be decided by who wins that particular battle.
In the end, I expect it’s going to be about which defense corps is less awful – and the Rangers’ patchwork collection of inexperienced youngsters and past-their-prime veterans does less for me in that regard than Washington’s similarly uninspiring group.
New Jersey (3) vs. Carolina (6)
Proteau’s Pick: New Jersey in six
Proteau’s Paragraphs On Why He Picked Who He Picked: Along with the mighty-again Penguins of Pittsburgh, the Canes were the Eastern Conference’s best team in the second half of this season. So when they drew the Devils – who slumped like the dickens after Martin Brodeur set a new record for career wins by a goalie – many figured Carolina had a prime opportunity to move on to the second round.
But after watching New Jersey play possum heading into the post-season in previous seasons, I didn’t buy it for a second. Other than Brodeur and Jamie Langenbrunner, the Devils don’t have many carryovers from their Cup-winning years – yet they always bring in a few veterans (this year, they’re Brendan Shanahan and Niclas Havelid) who understand and accept what it will take to win a playoff series.
Carolina has much to be happy about this year, most notably Cam Ward’s massive rebound of a season. But lots of teams over the years have had positives to point to before they ran, collective-schnozz-first, into a red-and-green brick wall. I’m afraid the same will happen to the Canes.
Pittsburgh (4) vs. Philadelphia (5)
Proteau’s Pick: Philadelphia in seven
Proteau’s Paragraphs On Why He Picked Who He Picked: After the confidence they’ve shown under interim coach Dan Bylsma, I understand why people are going ga-ga for the Pens. They’re talented at the top end of each position like almost no other team outside of Detroit and San Jose.
What I can’t understand is how the Flyers have become such afterthoughts. Yeah, I know their goaltending leaves much to be desired. But Philly’s depth, especially at forward, is nothing to sneeze at.
And the last time these teams met during the post-season (last spring’s Eastern Conference final), the Flyers were without team leader Kimmo Timonen. The veteran Finn isn’t sidelined this time around – although he did look to hurt himself in Game 1 – leading me to believe the Penguins aren’t going to have nearly as easy a time knocking off their intra -state rivals.
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Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays, his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.
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