There's just something a little more exciting about writing Calgarypuck.com's annual NHL playoff preview with one series of eight actually involving the city of Calgary.
Makes it more difficult to jump into office hockey pools as the objective side of me takes a back seat with certain decisions, but exciting nonetheless.
The NHL's hazy, crazy days of parity has taken another step forward this spring with some of the closest first round matchups in memory. The widest chasm between any two first round opponents can be seen in the Detroit/Nashville lineup where 19 points is the difference.
In the East, the top six teams are separated by only six points, and the west has many a series literally up for grabs.
Sit back, get your TV remote, and happily ... Flames tickets for the home games ... and have fun, should be a wild ride.
Tampa Bay (1) vs. NY Islanders (8) Lightning (46-22-8-6, 106 pts); Islanders (38-29-11-4; 91 pts) Season Series: 3-1-0 New York
It just seems strange to see "number one seed" and "Tampa Bay Lightning" in the same setup, doesn't it? But it is what it is. The Bolts have an edge in offence, though their offence is somewhat small and can be pushed around in the playoffs. How much mileage can a playoff team get out of smaller gentlemen like Martin St. Louis and Cory Stillman? Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards, while taller, are hardly are menacing figueres on the ice. Their goaltending is a strength in that they have two guys to go with, but a weakness in that they can't make up their mind which one they like. The Islanders have some jam in Mike Peca and some glitz in Alexei Yashin, but seem to lack consistency from night to night. They boast one of the strongest bluelines in the game, but have some serious concerns in net with a wonky Garth Snow and enigmatic Rick Dipietro. In the end the Islanders consistency will do them in. Bolts in 5.
Boston (2) vs. Montreal (7) Bruins (41-19-5-7; 104 pts); Canadiens (41-30-7-4; 93 pts) Season Series: 3-2-1 Boston
One of the first round's classic matches with the storied Bruin/Hab history about to add another chapter. The big Bruins have a question mark in net with Raycroft likely to see his first series as the go to guy, and may have to start the series without star forward Joe Thornton, but should get by the smaller Montreal squad. The Bruins boast one of the biggest lines in hockey with Thornton lining up with Glen Murray and Mike Knuble. Montreal didn't make the playoffs on the back of stater Jose Theodore this season, and that's a good sign for the Canadiens. If they can get at Boston early in this series, especially if Thornton sits out the first two games they could cause some panic in the Mike Sullivan led bench. But they won't. Boston in 6.
Toronto (4) vs. Ottawa (5) Maple Leafs (45-24-10-3; 103 pts); Senators (43-23-10-6; 102 pts) Season Series: 4-1-1 Toronto
The Ottawa Senators must be thinking "anybody but Toronto ... " as the two Ontario clubs are set to clash yet again in the playoffs, a matchup that has always fallen to Toronto. The Sens came up empty in their first round series with their neighbours in both the 2000 and 2001 playoffs. The Sens are a dynamite hockey team throughout their roster, although there is still doubt around goaltender Patrick Lalime. The Leafs have more experience, but with it more potential for injuries and a quick exit. In fact if Eddy Belfour's back acts up the Leafs will be a memory before the HNIC crew has a chance to find a new "home" team. With that said, there's something missing in the capital. The team has lacked that regular season edge and don't have the stopper to get them to the promised land. History continues; Leafs in 6.
Philadelphia (3) vs. New Jersey (6) Flyers (40-21-15-6; 101 pts); Devils (43-25-12-2; 100 pts) Season Series: 3-2-1 Philadelphia
This series wouldn't be close if the Devils had Scott Stevens on the blueline, but his mysterious injury continues to frustrate Devil faithful heading into the playoffs. Without Stevens to lead the way the key will be Martin Brodeur in a series that is sure to go at least six games. The Flyers have changed up their goaltending tandem again with Robert Esche expected to get the start, leaving Sean Burke to backup the inexperienced stopper. It should be a very low scoring series with Hitchcock and Burns running the show, but the Devils should prevail in 7.
Detroit (1) vs. Nashville (8) Red Wings (48-21-11-2, 109 pts); Predators (38-29-11-4; 91 pts) Season Series: 3-3-0
Always nice to see a new kid on the block, and that's exactly the case with the Nashville Predators making the jump for the first time in their franchise history. Not an easy way to start! The host Wings are out to prove that last year was a fluke, that their shocking demise to the Anaheim Mighty Ducks was just an aberration, and not the beginning of the end for the veteran squad. Nashville is a plucky team, bolstered with trade deadline acquisitions and the goaltending of Tomas Vokoun. Vokoun will be the key in this series; will he be the game-stealing dynamo that dragged the Preds into the post season? Or the fiery nut case that almost dragged them out? Wings in 5.
San Jose (2) vs. St. Louis (7) Sharks (43-21-12-6; 104 pts); Blues (39-30-11-2; 91 pts) Season Series: 2-2-0
The Sharks and Blues are no strangers in the playoffs having face each other twice in the past several years, including the infamous Turek flop - a goal from center ice that sent the Blues to their knees. The Sharks are the NHL's best hockey club from November 1st on, a run that encompasses a strong majority of the season. They have solid coaching, great goaltending, and a nice mix of youth to chip in on both sides of the puck. The Blues? Well they have payroll and talent, but none of that filler stuff needed to make it stick together. Add in a question mark in goal with Chris Osgood and we'll take the Sharks in 6.
Vancouver (3) vs. Calgary (6) Canucks (43-24-10-5; 101 pts); Flames (42-30-7-3; 94 pts) Season Series: 3-2-1 Vancouver
How do you handicap the team you routinely cover in a playoff series of all things? We've never had to do it. Each writer would dispassionately look at eight playoff matchups and make the call without a wrinkle on the forehead or a dampness in the armpits. Not this year. The Flames and Canucks matchup very well in a seven game series. The Canucks have a strong edge in goal scoring and offence from the blueline, while the Flames have the edge in net, and on the blueline in defensive terms with a big crew that can punish. The Flames from all reports also have an edge in team speed. Having said all that ... it won't matter. The winner of this series will be the team that can stick to its game plan and not panic when things don't go the way said club expects. The Flames could come out jittery, their collective feet hurting in their almost decade old, but seldom worn dance shoes. On the other hand the Canucks will be feeling the pressure too. They missed out on a great chance to get things done last year when they fell to Minnesota and will now have to win without physical leader Todd Bertuzzi. We were bashed and battered for picking Calgary in the playoffs in October, may as well continue the trend ... go with the "nothing to lose" group - Calgary in 6.
Colorado (4) vs. Dallas (5) Avalanche (40-22-13-7; 100 pts); Stars (41-26-13-2; 97 pts) Season Series: 3-1-0 Colorado
Neither of these Western Conference jugger-naughts can be happy in drawing each other in the first round of the playoffs. Not only does it limit only one of these teams to move on, it could also render the survivor too beat up to continue on as a path through Dallas or Colorado plus maybe San Jose and then Detroit is just too much to ask. Both clubs have highly talented rosters but have struggled at times this season and haven't lived up to expectations. The Stars however, got their blip out of the way early, so we'll take the Stars in 6.
THE ULTIMATE PREDICTION - The Boston Bruins will emerge from the East, disposing of Montreal, Toronto and Jersey in the process. In the West, the Dallas Stars will survive a tough second round series with the San Jose Sharks and then toss aside the Red Wings to meet the Bruins in the final. The Stars prevail with the Stanley Cup in a lopsided series. ... There will be no sweeps in the first round of the playoffs this year. ... Any bets on the first time Canuck coach Marc Crawford loses it in one of his spit soaked tirades? I'll pick the second period, game two. ... The Flames won't go too far in the playoffs - past Vancouver but then get upended in five by the Wings in the second round. Great building block for the future however, now if they can just do something about that lock out!