Tonight is night number two of the NHL playoff season as four more series begin including the start of the series featuring the number one seeds from both conferences.
Starting with the series in the Western Conference, the number one seed Detroit Red Wings (50-19-13) hosting the number eight seed Calgary Flames (43-29-10). Detroit fans are ready to dismiss last years opening series which saw the top team in the NHL fall to the Edmonton Oilers, who went on to the Stanley Cup. This year the Red Wings did not win the Presidents Cup (most points by a team in a regular season) but this might actually take the pressure off of Detroit. Being in a very competitive Western Conference, they are not expected by the league to be in the Stanley Cup and I assume they learned a lesson last year about looking beyond the first series. The Wings are led by Pavel Datsyuck (27 goals, 60 assists, 87 goals) and Henrik Zetterberg (33 goals, 35 assists, 68 points) who is back from an injury, and goalie Dominik Hasek (2.05 goals against average). Calgary is led again by one-time league most valuable player Jarome Iginla (39 goals, 55 assists, 94 points) and Miikka Kiprusoff (2.46 goals against average). But the Flames have been in a downward slide during the last 4 games, loosing all of them, two to Colorado who nearly eliminated the Flames from the playoffs. The question to consider is whether Calgary can rebound from their recent skid playing against the top team in West. Detroit is not going to forget last year and should take care of Calgary in six games.
Switching over the Eastern Conference, the Buffalo Sabres (53-22-7) are the number one team in the NHL, which has been true since the beginning of the year. They are hosting the eight-seed New York Islanders (40-30-12) who won a thrilling final game of the regular season to make the playoffs in a shoot-out. Buffalo is led by Daniel Briere (32 goals, 63 assists, 95 points), Thomas Vanek (43 goals, 41 assists, 84 points) and Ryan Miller (2.73 goals against average) in goal. However it is Buffalos depth which makes them such a powerful team and also elevates them to the only true dominate team in the Eastern Conference. The Islanders feature Jason Blake (40 goals, 29 assists, 69 points) and goalie Rick DiPietro (2.58 goals against average) leading a team which a few weeks ago seemed to only have a prayer when it came to making the playoffs. But the Islanders are hurting with four players on their injured reserve list and Buffalo only listing one name. Buffalo is going to win this series and advance far into the post season because the playoffs are like the beginning of a new season, and with a healthy Sabres team playing as one they should go on a tear through the playoffs as they did at the beginning of this past season. The Sabres take the series in four games.
The number two seed in the East, the New Jersey Devils (49-24-9) are hosting the Tampa Bay Lightning (44-33-5) in another opening playoff night. The Devils have been heavily publicized for their goalie, Martin Brodeur (2.18 goals against average) who broke a regular season record recording 48 regular season wins. Offensively, Patrik Elias (21 goals, 48 assists, 69 points) leads a now healthy New Jersey team who will have a challenging defensive assignment. Tampa Bay features two premiere NHL players, Vincent Lecavalier (52 goals, 56 assists, 108 points) and Martin St. Loius (43 goals, 59 assists, 102 points) and Johan Holmqvist (2.85 goals against average) in goal. New Jersey spent a lot of the season atop the Atlantic division, which sent the most teams to the playoffs this year, four. Tampa Bays story is much different; the Lightning led the Southeast division for most of the season until a late crumble and surge by Atlanta knocked Tampa Bay off their pedestal and into second, where they finished. In the end, Brodeur will continue his NHL dominance in during the post-season and will led the Devils to win in six games.
The final series to start tonight is the New York Rangers (42-30-10) visiting the Atlanta Thrashers (43-28-11). This is one of the other most evenly matched series, and arguable the most evenly matched series in the Eastern Conference. The Rangers are led by Jaromir Jagr (30 goals, 66 assists, 96 points), Brendan Shanahan (29 goals, 33 assists, 62 points) and Henrik Lundqvist (2.34 goals against average) in goal. The age of New York gives them a tremendous advantage in experience in the playoffs, but it is also the old NHL style of play. Atlanta has been on a roar during the closing of the regular season overtaking Tampa Bay and retaining their lead in the Southeast division as the season ended. Led by Marian Hossa (43 goals, 57 assists, 100 points) and Kari Lehtonen (2.79 goals against average) in goal, this Atlanta team is young and hungry for playoff experience and success. Both teams seemed to be fighting for their playoff lives coming down the stretch of the regular season and the real question is which team can continue that push into the playoffs? I think Atlantas team is a future playoff success, but the experience and drive of the Rangers to win a Cup for the older players will give New York the edge to win in six games.
As for who I think will be in the Stanley Cup? Right now my picks are Buffalo and the Anaheim Ducks for the reason I think the Sabres will sweep the Islanders, it is basically a new season, and these teams, when healthy at the beginning of the 2006-2007 season were head to head competing for the leader in points. These teams are capable of doing that again and I believe each team has the drive to get it done as a team. As for my pick to win the Cup, I go with Anaheim because they have tasted it in the past and are a bit hungrier.