The quest for the Silver Chalice starts on Wednesday, so I'm going to give you the earliest playoff preview in history. TSN will be carrying their playoff preview and fantasy hockey show on Tuesday, so you know that I am jumping the gun here by a few days. Hockey's Holy Grail has seen 30 teams battle through 6 months of games with 16 teams making the playoffs. 16 teams will play for the right to hoist Lord Stanley's Cup, and the right to take it home with them for a few days. There will be triumph, tears, blood, lots of sweat, and celebrations. Let's take a look a Round One of the 2007 Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Hairpieces and the Islanders met four times this season: October 26 - Buffalo wins 3-0 in New York (Miller vs. Dipietro); January 1 - Buffalo wins 3-1 in Buffalo (Miller vs. Dipietro); January 27 - New York wins 5-3 in New York (Miller vs. Dipietro); and March 30 - Buffalo wins 6-4 in Buffalo (Miller vs. Dunham).
Honestly, I can't see this series going past four games without Dipietro. Dunham and Dubielewicz simply aren't good enough to win four games in this series. Buffalo had the best road record in the NHL season, posting a 25-11-4 mark this season, and playing well on the road goes a long way in the playoffs. Sure, New York won at home against the Hairpieces, but with Dipietro gone, that opportunity will disappear. Look for another David Copperfield act to show up in the Islander dressing room as Yashin will undoubtedly disappear for the playoffs as he has done much of the regular season.
Prediction: Buffalo Sabres advance in four games.
The Devils and Lightning met four times this season: January 18 - Tampa Bay wins 3-2 in a shootout in New Jersey (Brodeur vs. Holmqvist); January 26 - New Jersey wins 2-0 in Tampa Bay (Brodeur vs. Holmqvist); February 11 - Tampa Bay wins 4-1 in New Jersey (Brodeur vs. Holmqvist); and March 22 - Tampa Bay wins 3-1 in Tampa Bay (Brodeur vs. Denis).
This series is all about Martin vs. Martin and Vinny. Tampa Bay's dynamic duo of Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier have caused problems all season for Martin Brodeur. Tampa Bay also has Vaclav Prospel and Brad Richards contributing, and this gives them two potent lines, not unlike their 2004 championship run. The Devils seem to be stuck in an offensive holding pattern, scoring less and less while relying on Martin Brodeur to hold down the fort. Dismissing Claude Julien will come back to hurt the Devils in this series since Lamoriello is running Julien's system. If the Devils get behind, can they find the offence fast enough without exposing themselves to the Lightning's impressive goal-scoring? Elias, Gionta, Madden, Langenbrunner, and Gomez have to start scoring at a regular pace if they want to go deep. Tampa Bay must protect its goalies from being peppered with shots.
Prediction: Tampa Bay Lightning advance in six games.
The Thrashers and Rangers met four times this season: November 10 - New York wins 5-2 in Atlanta (Lehtonen vs. Lundqvist); November 28 - Atlanta wins 5-4 in overtime in New York (Lehtonen vs. Lundqvist); January 20 - Atlanta wins 3-1 in New York (Lehtonen vs. Lundqvist); and March 16 - Atlanta wins 2-1 in overtime in Atlanta (Hedberg vs. Lundqvist).
The New York Rangers have not played up to potential all season, and this series will be no different. If it weren't for Henrik Lundqvist, the Rangers could have missed the playoffs. Lundqvist will factor into a game, but not four games. The Thrashers have been solid all season with Kari Lehtonen providing the foundation for their first playoff appearance. The additions of Keith Tkachuk and Alexei Zhitnik will pay dividends in the first round as both will be used a lot by Bob Hartley. Marian Hossa, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Slava Kozlov will continue their strong regular season play. The only place of weakness on the Thrashers is their defensive unit who will have fits with Jagr and his Euro-circus of forwards. However, after learning their methods, the Thrashers will adapt and win. Sean Avery will NOT be the second-coming of any playoff hero. He'll end up with a goal and two assists in one playoff round.
Prediction: Atlanta Thrashers win in five games.
The Senators and Penguins met four times this season: November 10 - Ottawa wins 6-3 in Pittsburgh (Gerber vs. Fleury); March 6 - Pittsburgh wins 5-4 in a shootout in Pittsburgh (Emery vs. Thibault); March 18 - Pittsburgh wins 4-3 in a shootout in Ottawa (Emery vs. Fleury); and April 5 - Pittsburgh wins 3-2 in Ottawa (Emery vs. Fleury).
This series could be the best of the first-round series. These teams showed in their April 5th game that they do not like each other. While it appears that the Penguins have Ray Emery's number, the story could be the play of the back-ups. Is Gerber as good as his $3 million salary says? Can Thibault continue his strong play? The Senators boast Dany Heatley's 50 goals this season, and Daniel Alfredsson's +42 rating says that the Ottawa first-line is as good in their own zone as they are in the offensive zone. Ottawa also tied for the league-lead in shorthanded goals with 17. Pittsburgh boasts the Art Ross Trophy winner in Sidney Crosby, rookie scoring leader Evgeni Malkin, and shorthanded goal leader Jordan Staal. For those of you looking for the Gary Roberts diatribe about his history against Ottawa, save it. I am not a member of the Toronto media, and don't believe for a second that he will be the final nail in the Senators' coffin. He will play a factor, as will guys like Mark Recchi, Maxime Talbot, Colby Armstrong, and Erik Christensen. I don't see Ottawa's supporting cast being as dynamic as Pittsburgh, and having a guy like Mike Comrie disappear will hurt Ottawa badly.
Prediction: Pittsburgh Penguins advance in six games.
The Red Wings and Flames met four times this season: November 1 - Detroit wins 3-2 in Detroit (Hasek vs. Kiprusoff); November 17 - Calgary wins 4-1 in Calgary (Hasek vs. Kiprusoff); February 11 - Detroit wins 7-4 in Detroit (McLennan vs. MacDonald); and March 20 - Calgary wins 2-1 in Calgary (Hasek vs. Kiprusoff).
Since neither of these teams wanted to win on the road, let's just throw out the regular-season record. The Red Wings have been playing well recently, while the Flames backed into the playoffs with losses in their last three games. While I honestly believe that Kiprusoff is a better goalie this season than Domink Hasek, Detroit's team play is far better than Calgary's has been. Conroy, Langkow, Iginla, and Huselius cannot carry the offence for the entire series against guys like Datsyuk, Lidstrom, Holmstrom, and Lang. Defensively, Detroit's six are superior, and that is where this series will be won. Detroit also had the best home record in the NHL this season, posting a 29-4-8 record. That fact cannot be overlooked. The Wings dominate at Joe Louis Arena.
Prediction: Detroit Red Wings advance in six games.
The Ducks and Wild met four times this season: October 20 - Anaheim wins 2-1 in Anaheim (Giguere vs. Fernandez); October 27 - Minnesota wins 3-2 in a shootout in Minnesota (Giguere vs. Fernandez); November 12 - Anaheim wins 3-2 in Anaheim (Giguere vs. Backstrom); December 31 - Minnesota wins 4-3 in Minnesota (Wall vs. Fernandez).
Again, another set of regular season games where the home team wins. The big story here is that these team haven't played one another since the last day of 2006. Since the return of Gaborik from injury, the Wild have been on an incredible tear. Manny Fernandez has been playing MVP-style hockey the last few weeks, and Pavol Demitra has been solid. Brian Rolston and Wes Walz provide the leadership that the young Wild need in a playoff run. Anaheim is loaded with great talent and good, young players. Dustin Penner, last season's playoff surprise, should be a factor for the Ducks in this year's playoffs as well. Teemu Selanne led the league in powerplay goals with 25, a factor not overlooked by this writer as the playoffs can be won and lost on special teams. With Niedermayer and Pronger platooning on the blueline, the Ducks look formidable. Their only question mark is their goaltending. Will the real Giguere show up?
Prediction: Anaheim Ducks advance in six games.
The Canucks and Stars met four times this season: October 23 - Dallas wins 2-1 in Dallas (Luongo vs. Turco); November 6 - Vancouver wins 2-1 in Vancouver (Luongo vs. Smith); January 3 - Vancouver wins 2-1 in a shootout in Vancouver (Luongo vs. Turco); February 25 - Dallas wins 2-1 in a shootout in Dallas (Luongo vs. Turco).
Yet another series of regular season games where the home team won. In any case, this series might be all about the goalies. Roberto Luongo has played well enough to be considered for both the Hart and Vezina Trophies, and has allowed his team to win games they have no business winning. Marty Turco has allowed soft goals at times, and has been replaced in several games after playing poorly. The problem is that both these teams have a problem scoring goals. Dallas has only scored 223 goals, while Vancouver has only scored 221 goals, but their defences and goaltending have been the difference throughout the season. Neither team allowed more than 200 goals this season. Defensive hockey? You better believe it. Overtime in every game? Not unlikely. Vancouver has the league's best penalty-killing at 87.2%, and that's where this series will be decided: on the powerplay.
Prediction: Vancouver Canucks advance in seven games.
The Predators and Sharks met four times this season: October 26 - Nashville wins 4-3 in Nashville (Vokoun vs. Toskala); December 9 - San Jose wins 3-1 in San Jose (Mason vs. Nabokov); February 14 - Nashville wins 5-0 in Nashville (Vokoun vs. Toskala); and February 28 - Nashville wins 4-3 in a shootout in San Jose (Vokoun vs. Toskala).
With all due respect to San Jose's offence, if Vokoun gets the start in this series, I'm calling it to be short. Joe Thornton is a great set-up man, but Jonathan Cheechoo hasn't been the same player as last season. Patrick Marleau is having a fine season, but he needs some help. The Bill Guerin experiment hasn't gone as well as had hoped. If the Sharks are going to beat the Predators, they need to put someone in Vokoun's face for the entire series: powerplay, even-strength, shorthanded, while Vokoun eats, while Vokoun sleeps, while Vokoun brushes his teeth. Mike Grier's and Bill Guerin's butts are all that Vokoun should see day and night. Otherwise, the deep and talented Predators, with their agile yet tough defensive unit, will run roughshod over the Sharks. Nashville only gave up two shorthanded goals all season, so that should tell you that you need to dump the puck if you're playing with a man down. If not, Nabokov and Toskala will be fishing it out of the net behind them.
Prediction: Nashville Predators advance in five games.
Ok, so those are my first-round predictions. Am I right? Probably not. Maggie the monkey on TSN will probably guess more correctly, but, like James Duthie, it won't stop me from guessing some more. Comments are appreciated below, and I will read and respond. Until next time, keep your stick on the ice!