There is absolutely no better time in sports than mid-April: the Stanley Cup Playoffs begin and the Frozen Four will decide a NCAA Champion in Men's Hockey. In spirit of the occasion, I have a full NHL Playoff Preview ready for all you readers. Before I reveal that though, I shall give you a short description of how I expect the Frozen Four to play out.
The first semi-final is North Dakota vs. Boston College, on ESPN2 at 6:00 on Thursday. I expect this game to be extremely close, as these teams have met in the Frozen Four each of the past three years. Boston College won this match-up last year, so naturally I will pick North Dakota. The Fighting Sioux have the better goalie and will win this game in overtime. Also, I despise BC.
The second and more interesting semi-final is Michigan vs. Notre Dame, on ESPN2 at 9:00 on Thursday. This game shouldn't be close, as Notre Dame's talent is incredible inferior to most of the teams that started the tourney, especially #1 overall seed Michigan, but try telling that to New Hampshire or Michigan State. I think Michigan will win this game by two goals with some solid goaltending from Billy Sauer and end the Fighting Irish's improbable run.
Now onto the main event...the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The games get underway tomorrow night and continue on through the weekend. I won't give any predictions past the first round but rather assess each match-up as they come and decide who I think will be the winner. Here are the Eastern Conference Match-Ups:
(1) Montreal Canadiens vs. (8) Boston Bruins
Although the Bruins could have avoided this date with the Canadiens by beating the Sabres in their season finale, this match-up was meant to be. Boston is finally in the position to pull the upset that the Canadiens have done so many times to the Bruins in past years and with these two original six teams facing off, you can't ask for a much more traditional series. I would love to see the upset, but the Canadiens are too good and much healthier than the busted-up Bruins. Even though Montreal won the regular season series 8-0, I think Tim Thomas will steal a couple games for the B's. Montreal in six.
(2) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (7) Ottawa Senators
The Penguins are arguably the most exciting team to watch, with offensive phenoms Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Marian Hossa. The Senators have a similarly great trio with Daniel Alfredsson, Dany Heatley, and Jason Spezza. The difference here though, is that Alfredsson, the Sens captain and leader, was injured late in the regular season and is said to be out for "weeks." Ottawa is the reigning Eastern Conference Champion, but I don't see them winning this series. Alhough the Senators have unbelievable offensive firepower, even without Alfredsson, their goaltending is questionable at best. Pittsburgh in six.
(3) Washington Capitals vs. (6) Philadelphia Flyers
If not for Carolina's collapse, Washington would have finished 9th in the conference and out of the playoffs entirely. I am glad that they made it though, as the Capitals have easily the most explosive player in the NHL today, Alexander Ovechkin, and he will be a joy to watch in this series. The Caps added two key players at the trade deadline: Cristobal Huet from Montreal to solidify their goaltending and Sergei Federov from Columbus to add scoring. The Flyers however, have young guns Jeff Carter and Mike Richards, but they also have Martin Biron, who is as inconsistent as goalies come. They are a better overall team than Washington though, so I think Alexander the Great will have to bow out in the first round. Philadelphia in seven.
(4) New Jersey Devils vs. (5) New York Rangers
These two teams hate each other. They played eight times in the regular season, and only once did New Jersey come away with a victory. The Rangers have a slew of offensive stars and the best young goalie in the league, Henrik Lundqvist. The Devils though, have a plethora of playoff tested players and the best goalie I've ever personally watched, Martin Brodeur. Everything from the season series and the way that the Rangers have solved the Devils offense tells me to pick the Blue Bronxers, but I'm going to pick by goaltending here, and there's nobody better than Marty. New Jersey in seven.
And now, onto the Western Conference Match-Ups:
(1) Detroit Red Wings vs. (8) Nashville Predators
Detroit is coming off another President's Trophy victory, though that hasn't guaranteed any results in the playoffs in recent years. I certainly won't be picking the Predators in this series, mostly because everything on paper says the Red Wings will win this series with relative ease. There is one way that Nashville can win this series however, and that is if Dan Ellis, the Predators goalie, can steal a game or two in Detroit. A hot goalie in the playoffs can spell doom for any team, and even Detroit is no exception. I don't think Ellis has it in him though, and Detroit simply has too many weapons to be stopped. Detroit in five.
(2) San Jose Sharks vs. (7) Calgary Flames
The Sharks seem to be all the experts' trendy pick for the Cup and right now, they look to be right. The Sharks had an incredible finish to the regular season and possess all the elements a championship team should have. Evgeni Nabokov is a fantastic goalie and offensive superhuman Joe Thorton will be a beast in the playoffs. The Flames though, are a long plane trip away and play very physical hockey. I think the Sharks will vastly outplay the Flames in the series, but Miikka Kiprusoff, the Flames goalie, will steal two games in this series. San Jose in six.
(3) Minnesota Wild vs. (6) Colorado Avalanche
There's no such thing as a boring hockey game and there's definitely no such thing as a boring hockey playoff series, but this one is pushing it for me. Obviously this will be a tough series for both teams, as they are division rivals and pretty evenly-matched, but neither of these teams are good enough to beat the best in the West and because of that, I'm not as interested in this series as I am in the others. Minnesota has a great goalie in Niklas Backstrom but the Wild have always seemed to struggle in the playoffs. Avs Captain, Joe Sakic, can provide great leadership in the playoffs and I think that will be the difference here. Colorado in six.
(4) Anaheim Ducks vs. (5) Dallas Stars
This series will be another great one to watch, as these division rivals will do their best to beat the crap out of each other. The Ducks are the defending champs and nothing on paper will tell you they won't win another Stanley Cup this year. Jean-Sebastien Giguere is one of the best goalies in the league and the physical play of the Ducks will certainly be tough to overcome for any team. The Stars have had trouble in recent playoff years and they got a tough draw after a very good season. I think they are good enough to take this series the distance though, and Marty Turco will be the difference if the Stars end up winning, but I think the Ducks are too strong to lose in the opening round. Ducks in seven.
I know many of you won't read all of that garble, but I enjoy writing it because I love watching hockey above all other sports. Anyway, in other sports news, the Masters begins this Thursday and I can't wait to see if Tiger can win his fifth green jacket. That's all for now, have a good week everybody!