Round One Begins
Wednesday, April 9, 2008 | 01:04 PM ET
For 16 teams the quest for Lord Stanley’s Cup finally begins. For the next two months teams will fight a battle of attrition in order to be the last ones standing to take home the Stanley Cup.
This season had closer races than most in recent memory, as it took Game 81 in the Western Conference for the last team to clinch a playoff berth, and in the East, the improbable comeback run of the Washington Capitals took them to their 82nd and final game of the season to not only make the playoffs, but win the Southeast Division.
The one great thing about playoff hockey is that for both teams and individuals it is the great equalizer of a season. It doesn’t matter how well or how poorly you performed during the regular season, for the teams and players who make it, the post-season is where you are judged, and where great seasons can come to a crashing end, or poor seasons are resurrected over the course of four grueling rounds of play.
I’m not a big fan of prognosticating winners or losers, and very seldom are you right when trying to pick who will be left once the Finals roll along. The first round is usually some of the best hockey you will see, as all 16 teams are hungry, at their healthiest and full of energy and hope.
There are usually a few surprises and disappointments, but one thing you can always count on is a huge jump in intensity. As the playoffs go deeper in rounds, it is almost impossible for the players to maintain the intensity that exists in Round One. The constant grind and wear and tear of having to win three rounds (12 wins) just for the right to represent your Conference and play for the Stanley Cup takes its toll on the participants, and pushes the players’ bodies and will to the edge.
The first round, with its eight series of action and multiple games on most nights, is some of the most exciting hockey for fans to watch. So as much as I am not a big fan of making predictions, for the sake of this article, here I go.
Montreal (1) vs. Boston (8): The Canadiens have been a great story this year, and have continued to improve and grow with confidence. Carey Price was handed the reigns to the Habs hopes, and looks like he is more than capable to handle the pressure. The Bruins don’t have the offence to match Montreal, and despite being a very good defensive team, I don’t think they will be able to contain Montreal’s offence and explosive power play.
Montreal in 5
Pittsburgh (2) vs. Ottawa (7): The Senators went from being the class of the East in October/November, to firing John Paddock, to struggling to find their game, to just barely hanging on for their playoff lives. All around it has been a bad year for the Sens, and I’m sure they couldn’t wait for the season to be over, and the playoffs to begin. The Penguins have developed quickly as a team and are really playing like contenders. With the development of Evgeni Malkin into a superstar, the organization took a real gamble this year mortgaging some of the future to bring in Marian Hossa to try to win now. The pressure on the Pens to win will be intense, and the Sens should be a loose bunch that still has the experience of getting to the Final last year to draw on. That could make things difficult on Crosby and company. Ottawa will score goals, but their inability to defend and their goaltending will ultimately cost them.
Pittsburgh in 6
Washington (3) vs. Philadelphia (6): There has been no better story in the NHL this season than Bruce Boudreau, Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals. For them to be in the post-season at all is remarkable given their start. With that being said, the improvement of their opponent this season is quite an achievement as well. Philadelphia might not have the explosiveness of Ovechkin, but they have great depth offensively. The Flyers ability to get offence from three lines will cancel out the Caps superstar.
Philadelphia in 6
New Jersey (4) vs. New York Rangers (5): Despite dropping home ice advantage after losing game 82 to the Devils in a shootout, the Rangers have owned their archrival this season. New York has struggled at times this year getting everyone going at once, but look to have figured things out during the stretch run. The Devils, of course, have Brodeur in goal, whom is always tough to bet against, but Henrik Lundqvist with his 10 shutouts this season will be equal to the task.
Rangers in 6
Detroit (1) vs. Nashville (8): Everyone seems to think that this series just might be ripe for an upset. Detroit won the Presidents’ Trophy for the sixth time in 13 years, but everyone still has the Wings’ similar 1 vs. 8 loss to the Oilers in 2006 on their minds. I still question how good the tandem of Hasek and Osgood will be in goal, but I think the Wings have learned their lessons and will be hungry and well prepared. Barry Trotz should be commended for the job he did getting the Predators into the playoffs, but that is as far as they will go.
Detroit in 5
San Jose (2) vs. Calgary (7): The Sharks are the hottest team in the NHL going 18-2-2 down the stretch. They have a soon to be crowned Vezina winner in goal in Evgeni Nabokov and plenty of offence up front with Thornton, Marleau, Michalek and Cheechoo. Brian Campell has fit in perfectly on the blue-line and on top of that they are hungry for a Cup. Calgary may have suffered through an inconsistent regular season, but after making the playoffs despite losing Game 81 of the season, they have a huge monkey off their back. The Flames are equal to the Sharks in goal with Kiprusoff, and with Iginla and Phaneuf they can go head to head with the Sharks at the key positions. This has the makings of a great, physical series and could be ripe for an upset. Whichever team gets more secondary scoring in their lineup will pull through.
San Jose in 7
Minnesota (3) vs. Colorado (6): The Wild won their first Northwest Division crown and have high expectations of playoff success. Jacques Lemaire has somehow been able to keep winning games with three tough guys (Fedoruk, Simon, Boogaard) in his line-up, but playing all three may be a challenge in the post-season. The Avs have plenty of experience and some depth offensively. To me the key to this series will be in goal, with Backstrom outplaying Theodore in goal.
Minnesota in 6
Anaheim (4) vs. Dallas (5): The Ducks look to become the first team to win back to back since the Red Wings did it in 1997 and 98. Anaheim boasts the deepest back end in the NHL, and with a rested Chris Pronger (suspension) and Scott Niedermayer (only playing half a season), they will be a tough team to beat. They may not be quite as good up front, but their defence makes up for it. Dallas finished the season trying to figure out what happened to their game. They made a big splash trading for Brad Richards, but have had a hard time fitting him into their system, and getting their team to win. Marty Turco shook off the label of playoff disappointment last year with a great effort against Vancouver last year, but much like the end result then, I don’t think it will be enough to save the Stars.
Anaheim in 6
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About the Author
Former NHL player, coach and broadcaster Craig Simpson brings over 18 years of expertise to his analyst role on CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada. Craig played 10 years in the NHL with Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Edmonton, capturing two Stanley Cups with the Oilers in 1988 and 1990. He continues to hold the distinction of being the last Oiler to score 50 goals in one season (56 goals in 1987-88).
Injuries cut his playing career short in 1995, but the native of London, Ont., didn’t stray far from the game. Simpson worked for eight seasons as a hockey commentator with TSN, FoxSportsNet and Rogers Sportsnet and was an assistant coach with the Oilers organization for the past four years (2003-07) before joining CBC.
Simpson lives in Edmonton with his wife and three children. Viewers can catch Craig on Saturday nights providing analysis and commentary during the second game on HNIC. His blog appears every Tuesday on CBCSports.ca.
- The NHL’s best two teams face off
- Wednesday, May 21, 2008
- It's down to the final four
- Tuesday, May 6, 2008
- On To Round Two
- Friday, April 25, 2008
- Round One Begins
- Wednesday, April 9, 2008
- Was Playfair really the problem?
- Tuesday, April 1, 2008
- Subscribe to Simpson on Hockey