Part of the cool thing about the Stanley Cup is the fact that it’s a big-ass, tangible, tactile kinda trophy. It’s fucking gigantic – just under 3 feet tall, and weighing in at 35 pounds – and it’s a real shiny silver/nickel alloy, so it’s exactly the kind of big, gleaming object that humans are designed to covet and wish to possess as our very own. It’s kinda like the trophy equivalent of the big black obelisk from 2001 that makes the monkeys howl. Just look at Lanny McDonald up there – see how happy he is to hoist it aloft? (Also: hell of a playoff beard.) The allure of the Cup is so strong that players refuse to touch it out of superstition, only allowing themselves to finally grasp it upon winning the championship.
As a result, part of the reward for winning the Stanley Cup – like a young Gretzky and Messier did several times together in Edmonton – is getting to hold on to it for a minute, push it up to the heavens, skate around the rink with it, take your picture with it, douse yourself in champagne and drink out of it, just chill out with it all safe and secure in your sole possession. In fact, in 1995, a longstanding informal tradition became officially sanctioned by the league, and now every member of the championship team gets his own personal 24 hours with the Cup – and the dude from the league office who travels with it, wearing white gloves.
But the league rep won’t stop you if you want to throw it in your pool, like Mario Lemieux.
Or sleep with it, or have your kids baptized in it, or take it to a strip club, or let your dog eat out of it – all kinds of shit. Or you can just let Hayden Panettiere lick it.
But whatever you want to do with the Cup, first you gotta win 16 of the most grueling, draining, fucking intense hockey games you’ll ever play. And therein lies the rub. So after the jump and without further ado, my bold predictions for the opening round of the greatest tournament in sports: the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
(1) Washington vs. (8) Montreal
So this is Washington’s year, right? They clinched first in the East weeks ago and ran away with the President’s Trophy, awarded to the team racking up the most points during the regular season. They’ve got Ovechkin, who not only scored his customary 50 goals, but continued to play nasty, taking out opponents like Chicago’s Brian Campbell. They’ve got Nicklas Backstrom, who punched in 33 goals of his own and racked up more than 65 assists. They’ve got Mike Green, a Norris Trophy candidate who rebounded from a lousy postseason last year to lead all defensemen in scoring, closing out the season at +39. So they’re stacked – nobody can run and gun like the Caps, and their obnoxious fans “rocking the red” love every minute of it. But Montreal has something Washington arguably doesn’t: a high quality goaltender in Jaroslav Halak. After finally beating out Carey Price a couple months back, Halak has been dominant, putting the Habs on his back after the Olympic break and carrying Montreal to the playoffs. The war of words has already started between the Habs and Caps, with Montreal’s Tomas Plekanec talking shit about DC goalie Jose Theodore, and Theo coming right back at him. Regardless of the mind games – and best believe the pressure is fully on Washington to deliver this year – I think the Caps handle their business, even if Halak stands on his head at times. They’ll be tested later on, but for now, DC has too many weapons for Montreal to hang. Caps overwhelm the Habs in 5.
(2) New Jersey vs. (7) Philadelphia
The New Jersey Devils didn’t secure the #2 slot in the East until just this past Sunday, the season’s last day, but they locked up the Atlantic Division championship a few days before and a playoff berth a month or so back. The Flyers, on the other hand, didn’t grab their berth in the postseason until Sunday, when they beat the Rangers in a dramatic shoot-out in Philly. (I’m still laughing about Tortorella not sending out sniper Marian Gaborik to challenge Philly’s latest goaltender, the all-too-average Brian Boucher.) But while the Devils are clearly the better team on paper, the Flyers owned them in the season series, winning five of six. I can almost hear New Jersey partisan My Pal The Crook groaning about that stat, because I’m sure he’s heard it about a billion times since Sunday. But until the Devils smack the Flyers in the mouth, the talk will persist. To my mind, it won’t take long. Even though the Flyers have been fighting for their playoff lives for the past three weeks under new coach (and 2006 Stanley Cup champ) Peter Laviolette, the Devils have too many weapons for Boucher to handle. I think Kovalchuk shows up for the playoffs, Parise goes on a tear, and the Devils find a way to shut down Philly’s vaunted power play attack. I’ve seen enough out of this Jersey team to be convinced that they’ve got a deep ride into the tournament ahead of them. Devils end Philadelphia’s ride in 6 games.
(3) Buffalo vs. (6) Boston
Nobody expected my Buffalo Sabres to take the Northeast Division championship – not even me, and I’m as big of a homer as you’ll find outside of the 716 area code. Nevertheless, we – ok, attempting to be objective – they battled for that #2 spot right until the last day of the season. Not as big of a surprise as Phoenix or the Avalanche, but nevertheless, this young squad is ahead of schedule. How come? Three reasons. First, Ryan Miller has staked a claim to the Vezina Trophy, awarded to the league’s best goaltender, by going 41-18-8 with a .929 save percentage and a 2.22 goals against average. He’s been all-world, all year. Second, 20-year-old defenseman Tyler Myers is looking for hardware of his own as the leading candidate for the Calder Trophy, handed out to the league’s rookie of the year. The dude looks like a pterodactyl – he’s 6’8″ and still growing – and plays more minutes than any other Sabre. Even though he’s always against the other team’s top line, he went +13 on the year. He can skate, too, and chipped in 11 goals and 37 assists from the blueline. Third reason is Tim Connolly, who stayed healthy for much of the year for the first time in a long time. He keyed Buffalo’s offense, which finished 4th in the East in scoring. So yeah, the Sabres have a shot. But first they’ll have to meet the Bruins, who are the chic pick for a first round upset. Why? Their rookie Finnish goalie, Tuukka Rask. (Double u’s followed by double k’s is metal as fuck.) Rask’s numbers are even better than Miller’s, though he played 1500 minutes less. The kid’s been a phenom like Myers, and unseated last year’s Vezina winner and Miller’s backup on Team USA, Tim Thomas, for starting duties in Boston. But Rask will be tested by Buffalo, because Boston’s blueline is banged up pretty good. They’re down a couple starting D-men, Dennis Seidenberg included, and even village idiot Zdeno Chara has a broken nose. Plus Boston scored the fewest goals in the league this year. So while Boston plays physical, won the season series, and matches up well against smaller Buffalo, I like the Sabres to take advantage of a beat-up Bruins squad. Buffalo in 6 over Boston.
(4) Pittsburgh vs. (5) Ottawa
Penguins are the reigning champs. Ottawa’s the streakiest team in the league. Put it together and you’ve got an excellent first round matchup. The teams are surprisingly evenly matched, splitting the season series at two apiece. Each sports elite offensive talent – Crosby and Malkin, obviously, for the Pens, and Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza for the Sens. While the Penguins can generate some chances from the back end, with Sergei Gonchar and Kris Letang adept at pushing the puck into the offensive zone, the Senators D is more about punishing forwards and blocking shots, with Andy Sutton and Chris Phillips patrolling deep for Ottawa. In net, the Penguins boast Marc Fleury, who knows exactly what it takes to win a Cup. The Senators, on the other hand, lose the edge here – they’ve got Brian Elliot in net, and while he’s been very solid and had a hot spring, he’s untested in the tournament. But these teams are tightly matched and I expect this will be an engaging series to watch. I’m a little worried about Pittsburgh overlooking a feisty Ottawa team that can play physical and bang along the boards when it wants to. Also, Pittsburgh’s gone to the Cup Finals the past two years, which means they haven’t had the offseason rest that everyone else (save Detroit) has enjoyed. Does that catch up to them here? If Ottawa can steal a game in the Igloo, this series could go long. Call in the upset: Senators in seven.
While we’re talking about Pittsburgh, I would be remiss if I didn’t post this video of Penguin goon Matt Cooke getting knocked the fuck out by Atlanta young gunner Evander “Holyfield” Kane last Saturday. Goddamn! Marc Savard, who had his season ended by Cooke, should send young Kane a fruit basket.
(1) San Jose vs. (8) Colorado
It’s impossible to write about San Jose in the playoffs without mentioning their incredible futility in the playoffs since the lockout: bounced in the second round three straight years in a row, before deciding to outdo themselves under new coach Todd McLellan and punching out in the first round last year. Not often that you see a President’s Trophy winner toppled by a lowly #8 seed, but it happened last year. (You can be damn sure the Canadiens are thinking about the Ducks’ triumph as motivation for their series against the Caps.) But all that’s past is prologue, and the Sharks have themselves a tabula rasa and a fresh sheet of ice once again. San Jose was lights-out as usual (uh, in the regular season) this year. Dany Heatley, Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton tortured opposing defenses; Dan Boyle did his thing on D; Evgeni Nabokov racked up 44 wins. But Nabokov had a lousy Olympics, and was uncharacteristically leaky post-Vancouver. So if there’s a glimmer of hope for the very, very surprising Avalanche, it’s that if they manage to solve Nabokov early and rattle him at home, all the playoff ghosts from past failures could get resurrected real quick, Poltergeist pool style. Colorado’s not without weapons: young Matt Duchene scored 24 as a teenager in his first year in the league, and second year vet Chris Stewart knocked in 28. Adding Peter Mueller at the deadline added still more firepower, but he suffered a concussion four games ago against the Sharks and still isn’t back. Taking his place is another youngster, Brandon Yip, who notched 18 points in a scant 26 games. So yeah, Colorado can conceivably put some pressure on the Sharks, but I think San Jose’s gonna be pretty goddamn focused on NOT fucking up again. Plus the Sharks have some of the best special teams in the league – 4th in PP, 5th in PK – so if the Avalanche don’t live right, the series’ll be over quick. Colorado’s overachieved all year – and I didn’t even mention goalie Craig Anderson – but San Jose will be looking to make a statement with a quick exorcism. Sharks in 4.
(2) Chicago vs. (7) Nashville
Chicago’s renaissance continued apace this year, as the Blackhawks snagged the second seed in the West, took the Central Division crown, and set a franchise record for victories. The Hawks have to be considered legitimate contenders to win it all – in fact, betting site Bodog.com has Chicago at 9/2 odds. Outside of the Death Adders Fantasy Hockey League, I’m not a betting man, but if I was, I might take those odds. (Shout to RiceRockets, the DAFHL 09-10 champs!) (My squad, the Fightin’ Malarchuks, came in second. Par for the course for a Buffalo native, sadly.) The Blackhawks have star power – Patrick “20 Cents” Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, Marian Hossa – and they can score seemingly at will. What the Hawks didn’t have this year is stability in net, as Antti Niemi stole the job from Cristobal Huet, whose name always reminds me of champagne. Niemi was exceptional for the Hawks in the last few weeks of the season and if he stays hot and defies the laws of physics the Hawks will contend for the title. The Predators? Making their fifth-ever postseason appearance – all with Barry Trotz, the only coach Nashville’s ever had – the Preds (yeah, they call them that) will try to advance to the conference semifinals for the first time ever. (Incidentally, Trotz’ name always reminds me of this. Loose phonic connection, but my brain is creaky.) Leading Nashville is Finnish goalie Pekka Rinne, who’s pretty damn solid. (DAFHL sidenote: I wanted to draft Rinne as my #2 goalie for the Malarchuks this year but ended up with Phoenix’s Ilya Bryzgalov. Worked out nice.) The Predators have a little pop on offense, with sophomore Patric Hornqvist knotting 30 goals and Jason Arnott and Martin Erat playing like the wily vets they are. But their real muscle is on defense, where Shea Weber and Ryan Suter lock shit down like the Boot Camp Clik. Those dudes are a veritable stone wall, as anyone who watched them play for Team Canada and Team USA, respectively, already knows. But that said, they’ll be tested by Chicago’s machine-gun offense. Once again, Trotz & Co. go home early, and Chicago keeps its eyes on the prize: Blackhawks in 5.
(3) Vancouver vs. (6) Los Angeles
This is gonna be a fun series to watch. You ever seen those hosers up in Vancouver host a playoff game? It’s a joy to witness – get a few Kokanees in ‘em and they know how to get appropriately rowdy. Although those “LUUUUUUUUUUUU” chants for Luongo are pretty obnoxious, and Vancouver doesn’t get the all-red shit going like they do in Calgary’s Saddledome, the Canucks will be Western Canada’s sole horse in this tournament. Coupled with residual fuzzy feelings from the Olympics, and I think Vancouver will have the hopes of a nation riding on their play. Luckily, I reckon they’ll be up for it. I like this Vancouver team a lot – watched a lot of their games late night in Brooklyn on Center Ice – and if you watch these dudes, it will become as obvious to you as it did to me that Henrik and Daniel Sedin are not just twins, they are aliens. Check out this Sedin-Sedin connection from the other night and tell me that shit isn’t extraterrestrial:
Jesus Christ. Now you see why Henrik won the Art Ross trophy as the league’s leading scorer. And besides the Sedins, Vancouver’s got gold medalist Roberto Luongo in net, US Olympian Ryan Kesler up front, and solid youngster Alexander Edler and a just-healthy Christian Ehrhoff on the blueline. Solid team, man. If Luongo gets in a groove and steadies his sometimes-shaky play, look out. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Kings had themselves a pretty damn good year, surprising some folks to wind up at #6 in the crowded West. They did it largely with the aid of another Canada/US defensive pair in young phenom Drew Doughty and grizzly American bro Jack Johnson. These two youngsters thicken things up real good on D and can chip in and contribute on offense. Doughty had 59 points, for example. The Kings also snatched up Rob Scuderi from Pittsburgh, so he brings Cup experience and grit, as well. On offense, my man Dustin Brown teams up with Anze Kopitar to generate the attack, and ol’ crooked nose Ryan Smyth pots a few, too. If the Kings have a clear weakness, it’s between the pipes. Jonathan Quick has really looked lost as of late, despite one of the best goalie names in the business, letting in a mess of goals down the stretch. I think this’ll be a highly entertaining series, but I’m not sure it’s the upset special some folks – I see you, Bob McKenzie – think it’ll be. Lemme see… ok, I’m sayin Vancouver in 6.
(4) Phoenix vs. (5) Detroit
Last but not least, my favorite series out west. If you had told me that Detroit and Phoenix were gonna meet in the playoffs, I’d have thrown a beer at you. At the very least, I’d think ok… Detroit’s the #1 seed and Phoenix squeaked in at #8, right? Wrong – Phoenix actually has home ice advantage for this one. No home ice for Hockeytown, no Game 1 octopii ending up on the ice. Instead, they’re preparing to “Throw The Snake” in Phoenix. Seriously – it’s a movement. There’s a t-shirt. Snakes will be thrown. How’d the lowly Coyotes get here, charging way past respectability all the way to conference force? Couple factors: One, Ilya Bryzgalov had a career season. You know I love Ryan Miller, but Bryzgalov might be an even more worthy Vezina candidate. Hell, he shoud be in the running for the Hart Trophy, too, awarded to the league’s MVP. Bryzgalov was a force, setting a franchise record in wins (42), racking up 8 shutouts, and finishing among the league leaders in GAA and SV%. He put the whole team on his back. But he’s not the only one who’ll be up for an end of year award – if Coach Dave Tippett doesn’t get the Jack Adams award for best coach, call the cops. The Coyotes also have some offensive zip with deadline acquisition Wojtek Wolski, who skates on the top line with long-suffering Phoenix vet Shane Doan. Add in a resurgent Radim Vrbata and Western New York native Lee Stempniak, who’s taken to Phoenix with the same zest of many Buffalo transplants and scored in bunches down the stretch, and the Coyotes can light the lamp a little.
But on the other hand, there’s a reason no team in the West wanted to end up on a collision course with Detroit in the postseason, and that’s because no team played better since the Olympic break. As the Red Wings got healthy, they returned to form and exited the cellar like a bottle rocket. The Red Wings’ full turnaround had them end up with 102 points, which is a hell of an achievement for a club that looked beat-up and listless well into the New Year. All the old mainstays are still there – Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, Nicklas Lidstrom, Niklas Kronwall. They’re still the Red Wings of yore, just a little older, a little more dinged-up, but they can still bring it. Plus they’ve got new blood, like rookie (“rookie”) goaltender Jimmy Howard, who racked up 37 wins after finally being sprung from four years of AHL purgatory. Above all, the one thing Detroit and Coach Mike Babcock know how to do is win in the playoffs. So who takes it – the neophytes or the vets? This is why I don’t bet on sports, but I’m happy to embarass myself for free. Let me go out on a limb and say that Detroit ends Phoenix’s dream season in heartbreaking fashion in a Game Six in the Motor City. Red Wings in 6.
Ok, I wrapped up this 3000 word plus epic just in time for you to log off the computer and go watch the games, which start in a matter of minutes. See you in Round 2!- Caps