Thursday, April 20, 2006

Finally! April becomes relevant! 

To me, anyway. For you see, folks... it's playoff time. Oh yeah... oh, oh, don't stop... yeah... And it's a rare playoff time, at that. Thanks to hockey's two-week break for the Olympics, both the NHL and NBA will be starting up this weekend. Actually, the NHL drops on Friday. Which is why I'll preview them first (you'll get the NBA sometime later).

Really quickly, the LA Kings (a.k.a. "my team") completed an obscene free-fall to wrap the season. In January, they stood second place in the Western Conference. They finished tenth. Utterly shameful. Coach Andy Murray was fired last month and, yesterday, after the season finale (a surprising, albeit meaningless 4-0 win over San Jose), general manager Dave Taylor also got the axe. The positive news is that things can only get better next season. Right? Right???

Eastern Conference

1 Ottawa vs 8 Tampa Bay - An excellent first round matchup, but even if Dominik Hasek isn't available in goal, Ottawa is just too good to relent to the defending Cup champs. For most of the season, the Senators were the best team in the league. Their firepower is out of this world and their defensemen are incredible. They've got all the pieces to win this crazy thing, but it all depends on Hasek's health. Tampa puts up a valient effort, but they earned this 8-seed with a mediocre regular season. Ottawa in five.

2 Carolina vs 7 Montreal - The Hurricanes lost out on the top spot in the Eastern Conference on the last day of the season and may actually have received a more favorable first round playoff matchup because of it. The Canadiens are riding the lighting of netminder Cristobal Huet who has all of zero playoff experience. As Huet goes, so do the Habs. Martin Gerber isn't exactly Captain Experience for Carolina either, but players like Doug Weight will see to it that the popular pundit pick to reach the Stanley Cup at least moves on to round two. Carolina in six.

3 New Jersey vs 6 New York Rangers - Oh my... this is it. The first round series to watch featuring the hottest team in the league taking on likely the league MVP. Jersey had absolutely no business winning the Atlantic division, but the fact is that they're the hottest team in hockey and everything is clicking for them. Conversely, the Rangers lost the last five games to end the season, letting home-ice advantage slip away. A classic rivalry, but one team definitely looks much better than the other, right now. New Jersey in five.

4 Buffalo vs 5 Philadelphia - What we have here is perhaps the toughest first round series to call. Buffalo surpassed everyone's expectations this season by leaps and bounds and then some. They were supposed to be a last place team. The return of Jochen Hecht only bolsters their fortunes. The Flyers, though, have enough talent to win the Eastern Conference. Maybe even the Stanley Cup if things break right for them. Sabres' goalie, Ryan Miller, enters his first playoff series against a very tough opponent. One that will be hard to beat if Peter Forsberg is playing. It's the playoffs. I'm betting he musters up the nerve to get on the ice. Philadelphia in seven.

2nd round
1 Ottawa vs 5 Philadelphia - This one depends largely on the health of two of the world's best: Hasek and Forsberg. So let's call it a wash and say that both are hampered. The Senators are still the best team and the Flyers still have Robert Esche in goal, waiting to self-destruct at any second. Ottawa in six.

2 Carolina vs 3 New Jersey - Does anyone want to be playing the Devils, right now? Hell no. Martin Brodeur is the best goalie in hockey and NJ's defense lays the clamps down as well as anyone. A magnificent season ends here for the game Hurricanes as the Devils' experience propels them forward. New Jersey in seven.

Conference Final
1 Ottawa vs 3 New Jersey - Wow. If this comes to pass, it'll be a treat to watch. A large part of me is saying that I should stick with my pre-season pick of Ottawa to win the Stanley Cup, but who can pick against the Devils, right now? Oy vey. Senators in seven.

Western Conference
1 Detroit vs 8 Edmonton - The Red Wings secured home ice advantage throughout the playoffs yet again with another sterling regular season. During that regular season, they had their way with the Oilers. I see no reason why that should change. Edmonton manages to steal one game. Detroit in five.

2 Dallas vs 7 Colorado - Wow! In the first round?! These two?! Awesome. My dad loves Dallas as the team to beat out West and in this matchup, it's hard to argue. The Stars are absolutely built for the playoffs with veteran leadership and grit to spare. Joe Sakic & Co. out in the first round? I can't believe it either. Dallas in six.

3 Calgary vs 6 Anaheim - Another fantastic first round matchup, this one between the last two Western Conference champions. Goalie Mikka Kipprusoff anchors the best defense in the league in Calgary. I'm a bit shocked that no one seems to be talking about the Flames when picking teams to win the title. They face a Ducks team that was on a tear over the last month of the season. Teemu Selanne was racking up goals like it was his rookie season (when he netted 76!). I think home ice advantage will be the critical decider as this one goes the distance. Calgary in seven.

4 Nashville vs 5 San Jose - Poor Nashville. Yes, they have home ice, but they lost their star goalie, Tomas Vokoun, just days ago. To make matters worse, the Sharks are currently the hottest team in the Western Conference. I don't think the individual games will be blowouts, but this series will end quickly thanks to the super-combo of Joe Thornton and Jonathan Cheechoo. Sweep! San Jose in four.

2nd round
1 Detroit vs 5 San Jose - You have to love this matchup. It's essentially the Ottawa/New Jersey of the West. But in this one, I like the upset. If the Sharks can stay focused, they're primed to steal one or two games at Joe Louis Arena and spoil what could be Steve Yzerman's swan song. Do you know the way? (sorry) San Jose in seven.

2 Dallas vs 3 Calgary - Excellent goaltender matchup in Turco vs Kipprusoff. Here's why I like the Flames in this defensive battle: 1) Jarome Iginla is the best player between the two teams and he will have a great series. 2) I've seen the Stars fall apart late in games (witness the dominance the Kings held over them this season). 3) I picked the Flames to win the West at the start of the year and see no reason to back off of that just yet. Going the distance. Calgary in seven.

Conference Final
3 Calgary vs 5 San Jose - Well looky here. A rematch of the 2004 Western Conference Finals. As I just said, I have the Flames coming out of the West, but my lord do they have a tough road ahead of them. I have them going the distance in the first two series, so why not this one, too? Afterall, the Sharks may still be riding the high of upsetting Detroit. Calgary in seven.

Ottawa vs Calgary - That's right. I managed to justify a way to get my finals prediction to match what I called in the preseason. In some respects, I'm a stubborn man. It's heartbreak for the Flames, once again. Though this time they'll be spared the game seven defeat they suffered against Tampa Bay in 2004. The Senators possess the most dangerous skating unit on the ice and the line of Spezza, Alfredsson, and Heatley will cement their greatness with spectacular Stanley Cup performance. The Hasek/Emery platoon in goal should be enough to hold the fort on defense thanks to a top defensive corps lead by Zdeno Chara and Wade Redden. Your Stanley Cup Champions: The Ottawa Senators. Six games. Conn Smyth Trophy winner (playoff MVP): Daniel Alfredsson.

So there you have it. I loves me some playoff hockey. Bring on the games!

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