April 11th is finally upon us, it is the first day of the NHL post-season. Tonight eight teams will take the ice as the road to the Stanley Cup begins. The post-season is setting up to be very exciting as many of the teams playing each other, even in the first round, are pretty evenly matched. As for the "power-house" clubs, do not forget about an eight seed Edmonton Oilers team upsetting the Cup favorite Detroit Red Wings and going all the way to a seventh game in the Stanley Cup finals loosing to the Carolina Hurricanes last year. If the end of the regular season is any indication, this post-season is going to be very thrilling.
To start with, tonight features what looks to be one of the two biggest series in the Eastern Conference, the Ottawa Senators (48-25-9) hosting the Pittsburgh Penguins (47-24-11). Both teams earned 105 points in the regular season and each had to play in shadows of season-long division leaders. Pittsburgh is notably a young team with the 19-year-old, season point leader, Sidney Crosby (36 goals, 84 assists, 120 points) leading the team that one year ago was struggling to convince fans the club was heading in the right direction with these young players. The Penguins answered this year surging with the 22-year-old goalie Marc-Andre Fleury (2.83 goals against average) and the youthful lines who prove to excel in this new NHL where skill and speed are rewarded. On the other side of the rink is the Senators, led by Dan Heatly (50 goals, 55 assists, 105 points) who leads the team with 17 power-play goals, and goalie Ray Emery (2.47 goals against average). But the Senators are much more experienced in both age and the playoffs. In the end, I think Pittsburgh will surprise the older players and the youthful speed with come into play as the Penguins win it in seven games.
In the Western Conference, three games will take place starting with the San Jose Sharks (51-26-5) at the Nashville Predators (51-23-8). The Sharks emerge from the toughest division in the NHL this year, the Pacific, with the other playoff teams Anaheim and Dallas all who finished within 3 points of each other. Both teams are tied at 51 wins for the second most in the league behind Buffalo (53 wins) but each team finished second place in their divisions. San Jose has the 2005-2006 most valuable player, Joe Thorton (22 goals, 92 assists, 114 points) and Evgeni Nabokov (2.29 goals against average). Nashville is lead by Paul Kariya (24 goals, 54 assists, 78 points) and Chris Mason (2.38 goals against average). But Nashville made a huge move at the trade deadline acquiring Peter Forsberg who is injury prone at the end of the regular season, but with him healthy, he gives leadership and experience to Nashville who at one time were the top team in the NHL. Both teams are pretty evenly matched, and although San Jose played more "tough" games in the regular season, it will be Nashville in six games.
Next comes the Dallas Stars (50-25-7) in Canada playing the Vancouver Canucks (49-26-7). Vancouver has gone from the fourth place team in the Northwest division last season, barely missing the playoffs, to the top of the division and not only making the playoffs, but hosting in the first round. Lead by Daniel Sedin (36 goals, 48 assists, 84 points) and most valuable player candidate Roberto Luongo (2.28 goals against average) Vancouver as revitalized this so-so franchise. They will match up against a very deep Dallas line lead by Mike Ribero (59 points), Jere Lehtinen (26 goals) and Marty Turco (2.23 goals against average). Dallas had to battle through the tough division of the Pacific while Vancouver felt less pressure as the season continued after taking the lead midway through the season. Vancouver does lack the experience and depth that Dallas posses and Turco has been through the playoffs much more than Luongo. The point is that Dallas would have won the Northwest division had they been in it and thus will beat Vancouver in five games.
The last game of the night is the Minnesota Wild (48-26-8) hosted by the Anaheim Ducks (48-20-14). Minnesota has surprised people this year surging from last place in the Pacific division last year to second place this year and a playoff ticket. Lead by Brian Rolston (31 goals, 33 assists, 64 points) and rookie goalie Niklas Backstrom (1.97 goals against average), the Wild are a growing team with a very bright future. The Ducks are led by Teemu Salanne (48 goals, 46 assists, 94 points) and Jean-Sebastien Giguere (2.26 goals against average) and are very experienced when it comes to the playoffs. Last year the Duck lost in the Western Conference finals to the Oilers, but now the Ducks have Chris Pronger, one of the league's premiere defensemen. Minnesota deserves a lot of credit for making the playoffs, but they the Ducks have too much talent and depth with a huge drive to get to the Stanley Cup championship after a taste last year. Ducks win in five games.
For the rest of the predictions I will post them tomorrow before those games.