It’s my favourite time of the year – the NHL playoffs.
Many die-hard hockey fans will spend more time with the CBC’s Ron MacLean and TSN’s James Duthie over the next two months than they will with their own family! Sixteen teams will battle it out over the next eight gruelling weeks and in June; one team will be crowned Stanley Cup champions.
Unlike recent seasons, the East is just as strong as the West – with powerhouses such as the defending champion Boston Bruins, Crosby and Malkin’s Pittsburgh Penguins and the top-seeded New York Rangers.
There isn’t much to cheer for if you are a Canadian team. But, the Vancouver Canucks could be poised to get back to the final and avenge their Game 7 loss a year ago to the Bruins.
The Ottawa Senators are the only other Canadian club in the playoffs and they’ll be in tough against Henrik Lundqvist and the Rangers in Round 1. Still, the Sens are confident having won 3-of-4 regular season contests against New York.
Here are my predictions:
New York Rangers (1) vs. Ottawa Senators (8): Even with the addition of Brad Richards this year, the Rangers continue to struggle offensively. But, with Henrik Lundqvist having an MVP-type season in goal, the blue shirts won a league-best 51 games. Ottawa, which actually won the season series 3-1, wasn’t even supposed to be in the post-season but they’ll get a few bonus games for their fans. RANGERS IN SIX
Boston Bruins (2) vs. Washington Capitals (7): The defending champs have had their ups and downs this season, but finished strong, going 7-2-1 in their last 10 games. Meanwhile, the Caps survived a coaching change and horrible seasons by snipers Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin. Zdeno Chara will be able to shut down the Caps snipers and Boston has too much depth up front. BRUINS IN SIX
Florida Panthers (3) vs. New Jersey Devils (6): Florida and New Jersey finished 15th and 11th in the East last year, respectively. Both had surprising seasons. The Devils won their last six regular season games to finish with 102 points. Not bad for a No. 6 seed. The Panthers, meanwhile, had the worst goals for/goals against differential among the 16 playoff teams this season (-24). DEVILS IN SIX
Pittsburgh Penguins (4) vs. Philadelphia Flyers (5): The marquee matchup in the first round. It’s a shame that one of these two teams won’t be around for Round 2. Flyers goalie Ilya Bryzgalov will have to be out of this world to slow down the high-flying Pens offence. This series could get nasty. The Flyers are one of the leagues most penalized teams, while the Pens have some of the dirtiest players in the league, according to the Flyers coaching staff. PENGUINS IN SEVEN
Vancouver Canucks (1) vs. Los Angeles Kings (8): The Canucks had their scoring problems in their last playoff series vs. Boston in the final. Kings goalie Jonathan Quick won’t make Vancouver’s life any easier. Quick was among the best in goal this season with a 1.95 GAA. But, Los Angeles does struggle themselves at putting the puck in the net – even with the talent that they have up front. But, this post-season is all about redemption for Roberto Luongo and this could be best matchup possible for him. CANUCKS IN SIX
St. Louis Blues (2) vs. San Jose Sharks (7): This should be a great series. The Sharks got close last year but could have easily been on the outside looking in this season in the West. Anti Niemi has been inconsistent this season, but this is the time of year that he shines. Still, San Jose is up against Ken Hitchcock’s well-coached Blues; Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott combined for 15 shutouts this season. BLUES IN SEVEN
Phoenix Coyotes (3) vs. Chicago Blackhawks (6): Two red-hot teams collide here. The Coyotes and Blackhawks each lost only one regulation game in their final 10 contests. Phoenix got great goaltending from Mike Smith (2.21 GAA), while Corey Crawford (2.70 GAA) has struggled with his play in the Chicago crease. Still, the Blackhawks have so much fire power with Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp and Patrick Kane. Jonathan Toews is also expected to be healthy for Chicago. BLACKHAWKS IN SIX
Nashville Predators (4) vs. Detroit Red Wings (5): Like in the East, the 4 vs. 5 matchup could be the best series in the West. The Central Division rivals finished only two points apart and split the season series 3-3. Nashville was one of the more aggressive teams at the Trade Deadline acquiring Hal Gill, Paul Gaustad and Andrei Kostitsyn. They of course added Alexander Radulov from the KHL a couple of weeks ago. But, their best player continues to be big goaltender Pekka Rinne, who will have to be at his best to stop Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and the ageless Red Wings. PREDATORS IN SEVEN
STANLEY CUP FINAL: Vancouver will defeat Pittsburgh in the Cup final; Luongo will get the last laugh and win the Conn Smythe (MVP).
LUCK OF THE OIL: The poor Columbus Blue Jackets have had such a rough season, they can’t even win the NHL Lottery. Instead, the Edmonton Oilers won the right to select first at this summer’s entry draft, despite only 18.8% odds. The Oilers may go ahead and use the pick, but to me, they’re better off moving this pick for a solid young defencemen and/or a goaltender, which they need badly. They should make a pitch at a young goaltender like Jonathan Bernier, who is buried behind Jonathan Quick as the Los Angeles Kings backup. Bernier, 23, was the 11th overall pick in 2006 and he has one more year on his deal at only $1.5 million.
JUST CAN’T CLOSE: Newly acquired Blue Jays closer Sergio Santos is off to a rough start in Toronto. He has given up four runs in two innings of work, blowing two save opportunities already.
OZZIE’S BIG MOUTH: I’ve always found the outspoken Ozzie Guillen to be quite entertaining with his rants. But this week, the Miami Marlins manager took it too far, saying he admired Fidel Castro. Guillen was suspended for five games for the comments and he has since called it the biggest mistake of his life. Guillen can continue to be opinionated and controversial, but he should stick to what he knows best – baseball.
THOMAS BACK IN DC: Speaking of outspoken sports figures, Boston goaltender Tim Thomas will return to Washington as the Bruins and Capitals faceoff in the NHL playoffs. Thomas made headlines in January when he refused to visit the White House with his teammates. If Thomas can concentrate on his duties in the crease, Boston should have little trouble with the Caps. But you can bet Washington fans will be on Thomas’ case.
PIPERS’S POINTS: Thankfully, we’ve had a lot of rain here locally this past week. Unless the soggy weather continues, the 40th edition of the Raisin River Canoe Race, which is to be held Sunday, April 22, might become a 35 kilometer portage race.
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