If the Playoffs Started Today – 3/12/09
It’s that time of the year. The time when every point matters. The time where the difference between losing in regulation and losing in overtime could mean a playoff spot. Both conferences are jam-packed, especially towards the bottom, so we’re going to keep an eye on potential first round match ups and even do a little prognostication as to how the teams match up. We’ll also keep an eye on who’s on the outside looking in.
(1) Boston Bruins vs. (8) Florida Panthers – This is a pretty intriguing match up for the first round. You’ve got the Bruins, who have been struggling recently against the Panthers who have been one of the biggest surprises of the season. The Bruins struggles have been in large part to the disappearing acts of Michael Ryder and Blake Wheeler, as well as some inconsistency with the rest of their offense and the Panthers are a scrappy team that may thrive on the close quarters and pressure of the playoffs. All told, though, it’s hard to think that the Bruins couldn’t pull out a seven game series in this one. Advantage Boston.
(2) New Jersey Devils vs. (7) Carolina Hurricanes – If I’m the Devils, Carolina is the absolute last team I would want to face in the first round. The ‘Canes are buzzing right now and the acquisition of Erik Cole has re-energized Eric Staal. On the other hand, the Devils have a fresh Martin Brodeur and one of the most dynamic group of forwards in the league. This series could be an instant classic, with both teams having unlimited amounts of energy as well as fresh and re-energized superstars. Brodeur ultimately gives the Devils the edge in just about any series, but this one would be fun to watch. Advantage New Jersey.
(3) Washington Capitals vs. (6) Pittsburgh Penguins – Is it just me or would this be the NHL marketing department’s dream come true? I can’t think of a more compelling match up for the first round and the only thing that I can think of that would be better is if the two teams met in the Conference Finals. The Pens are the hottest team in the league, while the Caps are, well, the Caps. The animosity between these two teams has continued to grow throughout the season and a playoff series between the two would send it over the top. This is also a series that could go either way. It’s hard to pick a clear cut winner in this one. Draw.
(4) Philadelphia Flyers vs. (5) Montreal Canadiens – To round out the first round, a Philly/Montreal series? This could ultimately be some pretty exciting hockey in the first round. The Flyers were the team that knocked the Habs out of the first round last season and don’t think that the Habs or their fans have forgotten it. This is another series that could make for an instant classic; mostly because of how well these two teams match up against one another. Looking at this, it’s very hard to pick a team that would have a distinct advantage, but Philly’s physical game could easily put them over the top. Advantage Philadelphia.
On The Outside Looking In: With just 15 games remaining in the season, a big part of the Eastern Conference is already eliminated (not necessarily mathmatically, but realistically). The two that remain in contention are the Buffalo Sabres and the New York Rangers. Of those two teams, the Rangers have the most realistic chance of supplanting the Panthers in the 8th seed, seeing as how they are one point behind. Both teams have struggled recently, with the Sabres losing Ryan Miller to injury and the Rangers having to be broken into a new coach, so it’s likely that the way the playoffs sit now could easily be how they sit come the end of the regular season.
(1) San Jose Sharks vs. (8) Nashville Predators – Once again, the Preds are making a hard charge at the playoffs late in the season. Meanwhile, the Sharks are, well, the Sharks. They have struggled lately, but are still a strong team and, though he has had a sub-par season by his standars, Evgeni Nabokov is one of the top goalies in the league. It is pretty hard to think that the Preds could give the Sharks a run for their money as they did with the Wings last season, but if the stars align, anything is possible in the playoffs. Advantage San Jose.
(2) Detroit Red Wings vs. (7) Edmonton Oilers – The last time the Wings and Oilers met in the first round, the Wings were bounced unceremoniously en route to the Oilers magical run to the Cup finals. Don’t expect that to happen this time. The Red Wings are one of the most talented teams in the league and, despite not having a designated “enforcer,” have a great deal of sand paper on their roster. Meanwhile, this Oilers team is nowhere near as gritty as the team that contended for the Cup. The Wings should have no problem in this series. Advantage Detroit.
(3) Calgary Flames vs. (6) Columbus Blue Jackets – This series is a crap shoot in that there’s really no telling how the majority of Columbus’s roster is going to react to playoff hockey. They could take to it like a fish to water and fly, or they could flounder. Looking at the Flames roster, however, it’s very difficult to bet against this team as they have a roster that is even better than the last time they reached the finals. As hard as it is to discount a team coached by Ken Hitchcock, you can’t look past the talent and depth of the Flames roster. Advantage Calgary.
(4) Chicago Blackhawks vs. (5) Vancouver Canucks – This is an interesting series. The Blackhawks are certainly more talented, but have limited playoff experience, while the Canucks have multiple players on their roster that have been involved in deep Cup runs. The wildcard for the Canucks, however, is Roberto Luongo. Time and again he has proven that he’s one of the best in the game, but he’s also only played in the playoffs once (though he was dazzling). Ultimately, you’ve got to believe that the ‘Hawks talent would win out of the ‘Nucks experience in a seven game series. Advantage Chicago.
On the Outside Looking In: There are four teams within three points of the playoffs and and one more within four. The Wild, Stars and Ducks all are within one point of 7th, the Blues are just two points back from them and the Kings are just one back from the Blues. In a tight playoff race, the extra points can make or break a season. The team that could have the best shot of squeaking in is the Wild. They hold a game in hand over both Dallas and Anaheim as well as Nashville and they hold the tiebreaker over Edmonton. The Wild are a good team mired by inconsistency and they will be getting their most dangerous offensive weapon back soon. It’s no stretch to think that they could make a solid run at the playoffs in the last weeks of the season. Both the Ducks and the Stars have been inconsistent at best of late, while the Blues and Kings have been streaky as well. If one of these five teams finds any modicum of consistency, they could easily streak into the playoffs.