Boston accent is detected
The Blue Jackets are brand new to the party. The Blackhawks have been absent for so long, and they've been so horribly lost, they return to the Stanley Cup playoffs almost as retrofitted Original Sixers. The Blues are here as survivalists, buried at the bottom of the Western Conference all season, but alive thanks to their abundant perseverance and pluck down the stretch.
The NHL, which tonight begins its Stanley Cup playoffs, is thriving in America's heartland. Ohio, Illinois, and Missouri, three states with their rinks gone dark this time a year ago, now join the pursuit of the game's revered chalice.
Four series get underway tonight, with Washington, and the magical Alexander Ovechkin, hosting the Rangers. The Devils, backed by Martin Brodeur, the winningest goalie in the game's history, face the Hurricanes. The Penguins, revived under new coach Dan Bylsma and led by superstars Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, take on the rough-and-tumble Flyers. And the Blues, with ex-Bruin Brad Boyes their leading scorer, will start off in Vancouver, where the proud Mats Sundin hopes to cop his first Cup.
The Bruins, masters of the Eastern Conference in the regular season, host the Canadiens tomorrow night at the Garden. Confident and consistent after their best regular season since 1971-72, the Black-and-Gold appear capable of handling the Habs with ease. Who said that?
The Ducks, back on track late in the season, also start tomorrow, taking on Joe Thornton and the Sharks, who piled up the league's best record. The Blue Jackets, 0-for-forever in the playoffs, finally get a shot, taking on the mighty Red Wings, who are attempting a Cup repeat. And the Blackhawks will host the speedy and strong Flames, who could be Canada's best chance of bringing home the Cup for the first time since Montreal won it in 1993.
The puck drops tonight, and keeps dropping into June. The last possible game, what would be Game 7 of the Cup finals, is slated for June 16. Could be a tough choice that night for Bostonians, with the Marlins in town at Fenway.
1. Bruins (53-19-10) vs. 8. Montreal (41-30-11)
Season series: Boston, 5-0-1
Bostonians totally love it when these two get together, even if it has brought them far more pain than pleasure through the decades (amid the Habs winning the Stanley Cup 25 times). Rarely, though, has the matchup seemed so weighted in Boston's favor. The Bruins, backed by Tim Thomas's netminding and a widespread, potent offense (seven forwards with 20-plus goals), ran off with the Eastern Conference title. The Habs, meanwhile, over stretches of the season looked like the lost sons of the Kansas City Scouts, playing without passion or purpose, and in desperation cobbled together a dynamic line of Saku Koivu-Alex Tanguay-Alexei Kovalev late in the season to salvage a playoff berth. Thomas, the favorite to win the Vezina Trophy as the league's top goalie, finished with the league's best goals-against average (2.10) and save percentage (.933). He was as central to Boston's success as Patrick Roy was to what Boston fans remember as the bad old days in Montreal. As the regular season wrapped up, "Tank" signed a new deal worth $20 million over the next four years, and he is penciled in now to start every postseason game - for this season and four more. For all the talk of Washington's dazzling offense, the Bruins actually led the conference in scoring and finished second only to the Red Wings in the league. The Habs fashioned this year as their centennial celebration, a point of extreme Quebecois pride. But along the way, they appeared to buckle under the weight of their history, rarely if ever resembling their bleu-blanc-et-rouge forefathers. Ultimately, general manager Bob Gainey, one of those proud forefathers, felt it necessary to can coach Guy Carbonneau and take over the bench himself. Recent injuries to top point men Mathieu Schneider and Andrei Markov will make it harder for Les Glorieux in the first round. Absent the sizzling power play that Schneider and Markov control, there really isn't much to the distant sons of Rocket Richard and Guy Lafleur. Don't look for the heated histrionics of last week, when these two sides met in their regular-season wrapup, to boil over - unless one side bolts to a 2-0 or 3-0 series lead.
PREDICTION: Bruins in 5.
2. Washington (50-24-8) vs. 7. NY Rangers (43-30-9)
Season series: Washington, 3-0-1
The Rangers didn't think they would miss Jaromir Jagr, he of 290 points over the previous three seasons. Like a lot of things in New York, it made no sense. And without the slick Czech winger in their lineup, the Rangers had nearly no offense - finishing next to last in goal scoring. Their big-splash free agent hire of Wade Redden (five years/$32.8 million) turned into a near-instant Broadway bust. Once a key component to Ottawa's firepower, Redden led only to the Blueshirts scurrying around at the trade deadline to come up with Derek Morris as a means to fill Redden's inexplicable void on the power play. With a quarter of the season to go, the Blueshirts also turfed coach Tom Renney and replaced him with ex-Lightning bench boss John Tortorella. "Torts" barely inched them over .500 (12-9) the rest of the way, but he at least got them playing with some emotion and direction, elements that were clearly lost in Renney's final 3-4 weeks in, uh, command. With clothespins attached to their noses, they also claimed Bad Boy Sean Avery as a prodigal-son-in-training project from Dallas, where he wore out the welcome mat almost before he slipped off street shoes and pulled on skates. The Caps, meanwhile, ran off with the Southeast Conference title for a second straight season, led by superstar Alexander Ovechkin's league-high 56 goals. They are mostly about Ovechkin - easily the game's most exciting player - and the Rangers actually would have a chance if they could shut him down. But that's nearly impossible because of A.O.'s mesmerizing blend of speed, strength, and talent. The one obvious advantage the Rangers have is in net, where Henrik Lundqvist is far and away the better tender than the oft-erratic, oft-mediocre Jose Theodore, his career still in recovery after he was named the surprise 2002 MVP winner with the Habs. Beyond Ovechkin, the Caps have a growing offensive dynamo in Mike Green, who led all defensemen with 31 goals. Green likely will be named the Norris Trophy winner as the league's No. 1 backliner, although Boston captain Zdeno Chara much better fits the description and spirit of the award.
PREDICTION: Capitals in 5.
3. New Jersey (51-27-4) vs. 6. Carolina (45-30-7)
Season series: Carolina, 3-0-1
Perhaps the toughest series to tout, simply because these teams played like two different clubs, alternately awful and admirable, throughout the season. No telling which versions they bring to the ice now. The Devils, a slightly less boring version of their accomplished (but boring) forefathers, played astonishingly well through the thick of the season while their iconic goaltender, Martin Brodeur, recovered from biceps surgery. Ex-BC goalie Scott Clemmensen played sensationally in Brodeur's absence, positioned the Devils to contend for the conference title, and graciously yielded the job upon Brodeur's return. Then once Brodeur passed Patrick Roy for most career wins, the Devils went into a tailspin, going 1-7 into April before finally winning four of their last five. For all their lack of flash, they do have effective and balanced scoring, with their top five scorers (Zach Parise tops among them) putting up a collective 363 points. To compare: the Bruins, with the top offense in the conference, totaled 335 points from their top five scorers, including the 61 from late arrival Mark Recchi. The Hurricanes were off to a decent start when they cashiered Peter Laviolette as coach and played not much better or worse for the next three months under Paul Maurice's tutelage. They were on the verge of being postseason DNQs, but then came a sensational late kick, 9-0, that tucked them comfortably into sixth place before they dropped their last two. The Devils have a bigger, stronger, and more accomplished group and they typically play with discipline. Brodeur needs only five victories to reach 100 in the postseason (48 of his 95 distributed over three Cup championships). The Hurricanes are small, especially up front, and their spiritual leader, the ageless Rod Brind'Amour, stood an uncharacteristic minus-23 at season's end (after going plus-12 over the last 12 seasons). If they have any chance, goalie Cam Ward has to at least break even with Brodeur and the 38-year-old Brind'Amour has to get back to his workhorse ways and carry 11 forwards in his cart.
PREDICTION: Devils in 6.
4. Pittsburgh (45-28-9) vs. 5. Philadelphia (44-27-11)
Season series: Pittsburgh, 4-2
Had the Penguins gotten around to canning Michel Therrien, say, moments after their loss to Detroit in the '08 Cup finals, they might have challenged for the conference title. But it wasn't just Therrien's lackluster stewardship that held the Penguins back. They also were without power-play quarterback Sergei Gonchar (shoulder surgery) for nearly two-thirds of the season, and they were a bit top-heavy in blue liners, until they dealt Ryan Whitney to Anaheim for forward Chris Kunitz (18 points in 20 games with his new club). They also spiced the offensive brew by mixing in Bill Guerin at the trade deadline. Dollar Bill added 12 points in 17 games. Meandering among the lower Eastern seeds all season, and out of the hunt when Dan Bylsma supplanted Therrien Feb. 15, the Penguins took flight over the final six weeks, racing up the standings with a mark of 14-5 beginning March 1. They have two of the top young scoring stars in the game in Evgeni Malkin (the league's top scorer with 113 points) and Sidney Crosby (103 points) and a potential superstar in net with Marc-Andre Fleury. The Flyers, who were among the favorites to win the conference, stumbled out of the gate, losing nine of their first 13 games. All these years later, they still play a roughhouse style reminiscent of their Broad Street Bully forefathers. Any win is good, of course, but all the better if the opponent is left battered, bruised, and bloody. They're street brats, but effective. Jeff Carter (84 points) and Mike Richards (80) lead the way on offense, with Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn adding kick on the back end, especially on the power play. Given their robust style and talent among the skaters, the Flyers can compete with anyone. However, they head into the postseason with a substandard netminding tandem of Martin Biron and Antero Niittymaki. With the likes of Crosby and Malkin on the other side, this isn't the time for Flyers coach John Stevens to be guessing about his goalie.
PREDICTION: Penguins in 6.
1. San Jose (53-18-11) vs. 8. Anaheim (42-33-7)
Season series: San Jose, 4-2
Perhaps the most delicious matchup of the first round, pairing intrastate rivals and clubs that grew into vastly different expectations this season. The Sharks, led by big pivots Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, quickly moved to the top of the standings and stayed there, clinching their first Presidents' Trophy (top overall record) over the weekend. The Ducks, meanwhile, saw general manager Brian Burke leave office and then leave for Toronto (makeover in progress) and looked as if they would miss the postseason only two years after winning the Cup. But Anaheim added back-end mobility and kick with the addition of Ryan Whitney, picked up in the Chris Kunitz deal with the Penguins. Rookie Bobby Ryan, this season's top-scoring freshman, also got hot late and helped put the bellows to what had been an offense without much of a flame. Anaheim enters the postseason with momentum, and still with Chris Pronger on the back end, where he no doubt will be as much as possible when the likes of Marleau and Thornton are on the ice. Rumored to be on the move at the trade deadline, Pronger was kept in place, and he still has the kind of talent and impact to turn a series the Ducks' way. Ditto for the slick and skilled Scott Niedermayer, who remains one of the game's premier puck-luggers. The Sharks need desperately to shake their tag, though well-deserved, of postseason underachievers. They have been bounced in Round 2 in three straight seasons, by Edmonton, Detroit, and Dallas, not one of whom went on to win the Cup. And their one trip to the conference finals (2004) came in the pre-Thornton era. The subplot here will be whether rookie coach Todd McLellan cajoles Thornton into a different style, one that would have the ex-Bruin playing with force and purpose around the net (where Pronger will be sharpening the cutlery). Jumbo Joe finished 11th in league scoring with 86 points and drifted off considerably at the end (1-4 -5 in his last 10 games). He also landed only 139 shots all season. They need Thornton to play with force, determination, and fire. Heard that before?
PREDICTION: Ducks in 7.
2. Detroit (51-21-10) vs. 7. Columbus (41-31-10)
Season series: Detroit, 3-2-1
Nice story, the Blue Jackets finally shedding their history of seven seasons of playoff DNQs, and doing it on the strength of rookie goalie Steve Mason's heroics. The 20-year-old Mason, the prohibitive favorite to be named rookie of the year, piled up a league-high 10 shutouts, working behind a team that was quickly retooled by GM Scott Howson, who quietly assumed the corner office in June 2007, only some seven months after Ken Hitchcock was brought in as the resident bench boss. Hitch got it done this season with the calm, composed Mason playing like a 10-year veteran, and with sensational winger Rick Nash (79 points) scoring 40 of the club's 226 goals (better only than the Rangers' 210 among postseason qualifiers). Nash, 6 feet 4 inches and 220 pounds, isn't quite Cam Neely, but the former No. 1 pick (2002) looks to be entering his prime now at age 24. Too bad, though, that the Blue Jackets had to draw the mighty Winged Wheels in Round 1. Just doesn't seem fair, does it? No one has a better handle on how to win in the playoffs than the defending Cup champs, who this playoff season have beefed up their offense with elite scoring winger Marian Hossa (as if they didn't have enough already). The Wings led the league with 295 goals. When in possession of the puck, they have a way of making the ice sheet look wider and longer, especially when crossing over their offensive blue line. Of course, part of that might be because, for all their offensive prowess, they remain a huge question mark in net with Chris Osgood, who struggled all season to make his game respectable. They captured their fourth Cup in 11 seasons last year, with Osgood able to fashion a league-best 1.55 goals-against average. How much was it his hot hand, and how much was it the fact that the Wings have a diabolical way of keeping the puck at the other end of the ice? If they can keep it down there for another four series, they'll be the first back-to-back champs since 1997-98, which is when they began their current run of success.
PREDICTION: Red Wings in 5.
3. Vancouver (45-27-10) vs. 6. St. Louis (41-31-10)
Season series: Tied, 2-2 Directed by rookie GM Mike Gillis, the Canucks are in back the postseason after being missing in action two of the last three seasons. They have arguably the world's best goalie in Roberto Luongo, back at full health after missing weeks with a groin injury, and they have a slightly improved attack (246 goals) after being challenged around the net for the better part of the last four seasons. That said, top acquisition Mats Sundin did not deliver the goods quite as promised. Big Mats gathered only 9 goals and 28 points in his 41 games, considerably less than the point-per-game pace he was accustomed to in his great years with the Leafs. Don't be surprised, though, if the proud Swede finds another gear in April after not being in the playoffs since 2004. For all his years and success in the league, dating to his 1990-91 entry with Quebec, he has played in the postseason in only nine years and has never made it to a Cup finals. Interesting stat: Not a single Canuck owns a Cup ring. The Blues, like the Blue Jackets, are here on somewhat of a Cinderella ticket. Their season began to go all wrong on a golf course, on the eve of training camp, when stud prospect defenseman Erik Johnson tore up a knee and lost the entire season to surgery. They also lost key contributors Paul Kariya and Andy McDonald to injury along the way. Cellar dwellers in the West well into the second half, they pondered a roster purge at the March 4 trade deadline. Instead, they opted to keep Keith Tkachuk (destined for Boston?) and make a run for it, winning nine of 13 the rest of March and four of six in April to avoid a fourth straight DNQ. Ex-Bruin Brad Boyes did not score 40 goals again, but he scored 33 and led the Blues in points (72, his career best). Chris Mason isn't in Luongo's class, but the former Devils draft pick and ex-Predator took over for a stumbling Manny Legace and did an admirable job as the No. 1 tender.
PREDICTION: Blues in 7.
4. Chicago (46-24-12) vs. 5. Calgary (46-30-6)
Season series: Chicago, 4-0-1
Yes sir, here come the Hawks. Finally. A franchise gone all but dormant (one playoff appearance since 1997), Chicago finally got back on the NHL map this season with its most victories in 16 seasons. The United Center was routinely sold out. The Winter Classic, the league's now annual outdoor game on Jan. 1, breathed even more excitement into the city and its orphan of a hockey team. The crux of the revitalization rests in young, exciting forwards Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, who were aided greatly this season by ex-Boston prospect Kris Versteeg (34 goals and 69 points), an early rookie of the year favorite until Steve Mason caught fire in the Columbus net. The Hawks also souped up their back end with the addition of prime puck mover/distributor Brian Campell, who came to the Windy City in July after not quite settling into things in a short post-Buffalo stay in San Jose. He added a career-high 52 points. And the all but forgotten Nikolai Khabibulin ended up splitting the net with key free agent signee Cristobal Huet, and the aging ex-Russian ended up slightly outplaying Huet. The Flames, always just a little short on something, tried to fill in that something with their trade deadline acquisition of big pivot Olli Jokinen, the former Kings pick (No. 3, '97) who finally will make his playoff debut after a record-setting 799 regular-season games. Jokinen was blistering hot his first three weeks in Flames red, but was a chilly 0-5 -5 over the last three weeks. His play now will be one of the most interesting subplots to the '09 playoffs. The Flames are led by rugged and skilled winger Jarome Iginla (35 goals/89 points) and workhorse goalie Miikka Kiprusoff, who played in all but six of Calgary's 82 games this season and won 45. One thing about Flames coach Mike Keenan, he picks his goalie and he rides. The question being, did he ride Kiprusoff too long and too hard this season? The Flames are speedy and very aggressive, traits that could mitigate the obvious advantage the Hawks held over them.
PREDICTION: Flames in 7.