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Wild Schedule Released

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For a complete version, click here.

The NHL has released the schedules for the upcoming season today.  Here are some of the highlights for the Wild. 

  • The Wild’s season opener will be on October 3, against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
  • Their home opener will be against one of Chuck Fletcher’s former teams, the Anaheim Ducks, on October 6.
  • The team starts the year with a very road-heavy schedule, playing nine of their first fourteen games on the road.
  • The Wild play fifteen sets of back-to-back games.  In other words, 37% of their games are back-to-back sets.
  • Marian Gaborik returns to Minnesota on October 30, while Jacques Lemaire returns on January 2.
  • The team will play home-and-home series against Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Carolina.
  • Three of the team’s last five games are on the road against Division Rivals.
  • Todd Richards will return to San Jose on October 10, Martin Havlat will return to Chicago on October 26 and Chuck Fletcher will return to Pittsburgh on October 31.
  • Training camp will open on September 13 and pre-season games will be announced at a later date.
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An Update of Sorts

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Since there hasn’t been much (read: any) Wild news to report recently, I just felt that I should inform you all that I am writing for Hockey Primetime once again.  All of my Wild news will still be contained here on Wild Nation; however, I will be posting all of my NHL articles on there for the time being.  For those interested, here are the links:

HPT Western Conference Predictions: #3 Vancouver vs. #4 Chicago
HPT Western Conference Predictions: #2 Detroit vs. #8 Anaheim
HPT Eastern Conference Predictions: #1 Boston vs. #6 Carolina
HPT Eastern Conference Predictions: #2 Washington vs. #4 Pittsburgh
Masterton Candicates Announced
Canucks Stave Off Comeback; Win Game 1

The Walking Wounded and other Wild Updates

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Per Russo,

Goalie Niklas Backstrom will indeed have left hip surgery Friday in Vail. Brian Stensaas was on a conference call with acting GM Tom Lynn. He reports he has two cysts on the bony part of his hip.

Lynn says they won’t know how long he’ll be out until they operate. Worst case scenario, Stensaas says, could be four to six months!

But Lynn said the doctor cautions they can’t give a timetable yet. More from Stensaas in Wednesday’s paper.

Also, I hear Brent Burns is having shoulder surgery probably on Thursday.

This is in addition to Andrew Brunette having reconstructive knee surgery this off season and Derek Boogaard having shoulder surgery.

So what does this mean for the Wild?  Well, if the prognosis for Backstrom truly is 4-6 months, that puts Backstrom back at the earliest, August 24th and at the latest October 24th.  Knowing Backstrom, he will work his hardest to rehab and be back sooner, but this essentially makes the top priority for the new GM hammering out a deal for back up goalie Josh Harding.

If this is indeed the case, you can take Harding off of the table as a bargaining chip.  That is, unless the new GM is suddenly stricken by Barry Brust-mania and believes that Brust can shoulder the load as an NHL starter.  What this could do, however, is drive Harding’s stock through the roof.  If Harding can perform like Backstrom did when he wrested the starting job away from Manny Fernandez a few years back, Harding could easily become a hot commodity among NHL teams.

The Search Begins
After being denied permission by Brian Burke and the Toronto Maple Leafs to speak with Dave Nonis, Wild owner Craig Leipold recieved permission from the Nashville Predators to speak with a couple of his old employees; Director of Hockey Operations Mike Santos and assistant GM Paul Fenton.

From Russo,

Leipold declined comment on them, ”just like I won’t comment on any of the other candidates.” 

There are lots of candidates that have surfaced. These are just two that so far I know he’ll be allowed to talk with. I’m sure there are others. I’m working the phones.

Santos is in his third year in Nashville and is responsible in negotiating player contracts and preparing for salary arbitrations. He served as assistant GM for the New York Islanders from 1997-2002 and director of hockey operations for the Florida Panthers from 2002-03.

He was Commissioner and President of the North American Hockey League from 2003-06. He’s worked for USA Hockey and the NHL.

Fenton is in his third year as Nashville’s assistant GM after eight as the director of player personnel. He oversees the Predators’ amateur player development and managers the team’s pro and amateur scouting staffs. He’s also GM of the AHL Milwaukee Admirals.

Fenton, who played eight years in the NHL for seven teams and was a former Boston University standout, also spent five seasons working for the Anaheim Ducks. 

It hasn’t happened yet, but another person I’d assume Leipold would request permission to speak with his Pittsburgh assistant GM Chuck Fletcher. He’s 41 with 16 years of experience. He’s immensely respected after years in Florida, Anaheim and Pittsburgh.

Remember, Leipold has a fabulous relationship with Penguins GM Ray Shero, who used to be assistant GM in Nashville.

In addition, the Wild have been denied permission to speak with Red Wings assistant GM Jim Nill.  Nill is under contract until 2010-11 and has a commitment in his contract to stay in Detroit.  In fact, this quote was run in the Windsor Star when Toronto was inquiring about Nill’s availability.

The way we do things here, I’ve already got most of the responsibilities and input that a general manager would have. Ken [Holland] and I work really well together.

I’m comfortable, I’m well-compensated and I like the organization. I know which side my bread is buttered on.

Risebrough Presser
You’ve got to love hockey guys.  Doug Risebrough held his “exit presser” yesterday and held it at Tom Reid’s Hockey City Pub.  Gotta love it.

Anyway, Russo had some snippets in his blog regarding the players and it just shows how well respected Risebrough was by his own players.  Derek Boogaard had his fiancee drive to the pub after he literally just woke up from having shoulder surgery, just so that he could thank Risebrough for the opportunity and have a chance to say goodbye.  Risebrough also spent some quality time with Marian Gaborik at the arena and went to Brent Burns’ home to meet with the youngster after the new broke regarding his concussion problems.

Again, on a personal level, I’m sad to see Risebrough go.  He was a great guy, probably the nicest associated with the NHL that I’ve had the pleasure to meet.  Part of me feels that he deserved a bit better treatment than he received from Leipold; however, that’s also Leipold’s perogative as the owner.  It’s his team and he can run it as he sees fit.

On a business level, however, it was time for a change.  Risebrough had become increasingly defensive about his decisions over the past few seasons and it seemed as if fans, management and players alike were all growing tired of his smug, “I know best” attitude.  As disappointed as I am that it had to end like this, it certainly had to end.

In the transcript of the presser, however, there was one quote from Risebrough that really rings true to me.

I think the club, I believe the club is in really good shape, and I’ll tell you why. I think it’s got a good core of players. It’s got good youth. I think it’s got great flexibility in terms of the salary cap. It’s got lots of room this year, it’s got lots of room next year. So whether that means what do you want to do immediate signings or future signings, it’s all there. It’s got a great fan base that’s still in love with this team. So it’s going to be energized. I believe players that had poor years will rebound. I’m pretty comfortable to say the injuries aren’t going to be the same magnitude. So I think it’s a great opportunity for a manager and I think it’s a great opportunity for a coach. And I feel good about that. I made decisions on a regular basis for the right  reasons, and the right reasons never included me. They never included me, they were always for the franchise. Now I can say, I didn’t always make the right decisions, but I did them for the right reasons. And I feel good about that.

That right there, to me, says it all.  Whoever it is has a good base, but also has his work cut out for him.  This is a solid team in need of a few key components to become a serious contender.  I don’t think this team needs to be blown up and start from scratch again, but at the same time I don’t think that this team is ready to contend next season after all of this going on this off season.  One thing’s for sure, though.  It’s still an exciting time to be a Wild fan!

Great End to a Disappointing Season

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14 goals in two games, leading to two comback victories in one exciting weekend of Wild hockey.

Unfortunately for the Wild, they were eliminated from playoff contention just a few short hours after dispatching the Nashville Predators 8-4.  The St. Louis Blues knocked off the Columbus Blue Jackets shortly after the Wild’s victory, leaving the team’s playoff fate squarely in the hands of one of the teams that the Wild have slowly become heated rivals with after their playoff series two seasons ago.

The Dallas Stars made a valiant effort to keep the Wild in the hunt, but to no avail as the Anaheim Ducks were victorious 4-3 in a shootout.

So Wild fans must now say goodbye to the boys wearing Iron Range Red; at least for another summer.  More importantly, however, is the fact that it is very likely that Wild fans must also say goodbye to the two people that have been the faces of the franchise since Day One.

Jacques Lemaire
Lemaire has likely coached his last game of his tenure with the Wild, and possibly his career.  It appears as if Lemaire has already made up his mind as to what his decision will be and all of his body language is pointing to retirement.  Too often this season, Lemaire seemed disheartened, frustrated and even down right angry at the way that his team was playing.  It’s no secret that General Manager Doug Risebrough had to fly down to Florida and all but beg Lemaire to come back for this season, and after the disappointing season that this team put forth, there’s no doubt in my mind that Risebrough could grovel at the feet of Lemaire this off season and he still wouldn’t return.

Mike Russo of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune had this to say on the matter:

Like I said last night, when Lemaire said he’s made up his mind on his future, I think that’s a clear indication his era in Minnesota is over. If not, I think he’d just announce he’s staying to end all speculation.

But this is a guy that needed a few weeks away last year to be convinced he should return. Do you really think after this season’s disappointing ending that the decision he’s already made is to return? I just don’t think so.

Lemaire is also the type of person that doesn’t want to go to Florida, then come back for a press conference. So if his mind is made up that he is indeed stepping down, I can see a press conference very, very soon after the Easter holiday.

Again, though, this is conjecture.

Conjecture or not, Russo is one that has a consistent pulse of the team and is a consistent source of very reliable information.  Whether or not he is correct on this matter, one thing is for sure.  It is going to take what would seem to be a monumental change of heart to sway Lemaire and convince him to stay on for next season.

Marian Gaborik
After Friday’s victory over the Predators, Gaborik took a slow lap around the ice, waving to all of the fans.  When asked if he was waving goodbye to the fans, Gaborik’s response was that he didn’t know and a lot depended on the Wild’s final contract offer after the season was over.

I’ve got news for you, folks.  There’s a good chance that the Wild’s final contract offer may not even be close to what Gaborik is expecting, or even looking for.

Why?

He was offered a franchise-record contract early in the season only to turn it down, claiming that he was looking for more guaranteed money.  This was before the injuries.  Gaborik played in a career low 17 games this season.  In 17 games, however, he had 23 points for a career high 1.35 points per game average.  With a full 82 game season at this pace, Gaborik would have notched approximately 111 points.  Incidentally, this would have put him at 2nd in the NHL in points, not to mention that he would have been first in the NHL in goals, by a long shot.

Anyone who knows me knows that I am no fan of Marian Gaborik’s.  I feel that he is too fragile and too inconsistent to be a top level superstar in this league.  That said, however, the effort he put forth for the 17 games that he played was certainly one that superstars are made of.

I am a big enough man to admit when I am wrong and, after analyzing what Gaborik has done this season, albiet brief, has been the accomplishments of a superstar.

With that in mind, I do believe that it is in the team’s best interests to work out a short term deal with their enigmatic superstar and see if the surgery that he had this season truly has made him healthy.  I would not put more than three years into this deal, as it is a very high-risk deal, but what Gaborik has shown me over the past few games is that he deserves the chance to prove to the team that he broke into the league with (and that he is claiming he wants to remain a member of) that he is this superstar that he has shown.

There is absolutely no one on the free agent market that can provide the explosiveness that Gaborik has shown in the last 11 games and there is absolutely no one on the free agent market that can replace his offensive talent should we let him go.  I strongly believe that the franchise needs flexibility in the coming seasons, but what Gaborik has brought to the table since his surgery is something that cannot be ignored or denied.  The team needs Marian Gaborik in the coming seasons.

Do I think that he deserves the money that he was asking for initially?  Absolutely not.  He needs to prove that he is capable of staying healthy for an entire season as well as prove that he is worthy of the money that he has asked for (one 40 goal season and one 5-goal game does not a career contract make).  That said, the team is leaps and bounds better when he is on the ice.

So where do we go from here?  That is a question that will loom in the back of Wild fan’s minds for the coming months.  In the coming days, I will have a season review posted, starting with the forwards, then defense and goaltending.

Also, make sure to tune in Monday for the season review Wild Nation podcast, which we will attempt to stream live.

One Weekend To Rule Them All

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So it’s come to this.

One weekend to give us a shot at deciding our season.  Two games, back-to-back, one here, one in Columbus.  In order to have a shot at the playoffs, we need to win out and hope for some luck.

Here are some stats to give you an idea of the uphill battle that we have in front of us:

  • Winning out would mean that we would have won three games in a row.  The last time the team did this?  November.  In fact, you have to go back to February to find the last time we won two in a row.
  • Our games are against Nashville and Columbus respectively.  The Wild are 1-2-0 against Nashville this season, while outscoring the Preds 6-5 and have been shut out in the teams’ last two meetings.  Against Columbus, the Wild are 2-1-0 with one shootout win and are knotted in goals at 7 a piece. 
  • Minnesota and Nashville are tied for 25th in the league with 205 goals for.  The Wild are 2nd in the league with 193 goals against, while the Predators are 10th with 222 goals against.  Columbus, meanwhile, is 21st in the league with 222 goals for and 9th in the league with 221 goals against.
  • The Wild’s powerplay remains in the top ten of the league, at 19.6% (good for 10th) and their penalty kill is 2nd at 87.7%.  Nashville and Columbus’s powerplays are 15.6% (26th) and 12.8% (30th) respectively, while their penalty kills are 83.6% (4th) and 82.3% (13th) respectively.
  • Rick Nash has scored 11 pts in his last 7 games for Columbus, while Steve Sullivan has 8 in his last 6 games for Nashville.  Our hottest players are Andrew Brunette, who has 8 points in his last 7 games and Marian Gaborik, who has 4 in his last 2 games.
  • Niklas Backstrom is 2-1-0, with a 1.34 GAA and a .960 Sv Pct in his last 3 GPI, while Pekka Rinne of Nashville is 1-1-0, with a 3.39 GA and a .860 Sv Pct in his last 2 GPI and Steve Mason of Columbus is 1-0-1, with a 1.87 GAA and a .923 Sv Pct in his last 2 GPI.
  • In their last 10 games, the Wild are 5-4-1, while the Blue Jackets are 5-1-4 and the Predators are 4-3-3.
  • The Wild are 7-9-0 in games with 0 days off (@Columbus) this season and 6-6-2 in games with 2 days off (v. Nashville).  Nashville, meanwhile, is 6-4-2 in games with 0 days off and Columbus is 7-8-4 in games with 0 days off.
  • In games on weekdays (Nashville), the Wild are 24-18-7, while the Preds are 21-25-8.  On games on weekends (Columbus), the Wild are 14-15-2 while the Blue Jackets are 11-13-5.

Basically, what all those stats add up to is that the Wild are playing two pretty good teams over the next two nights and have an uphill battle.  They do, however, have some hope.

The team has two scenarios in which they can sneak into the playoffs.  Both involve the team winning out, but the Wild can make the playoffs IF…

Anaheim loses in regulation, both at home to Dallas and at Phoenix.

OR…

St. Louis goes 0-1-1 in its final two games, one at home against Columbus and the other in Colorado.  Also, if the Blues lose out in regulation, the Wild would be in the playoffs as well.

The Wild can become the West’s seventh seed also if both the Ducks and Blues lose out in regulation.

Head spinning yet?

It gets worse if the Preds beat Detroit tonight and the Wild beats the Preds in OT…But we’ll save that for another day.

Bottom Line: The Wild need to win out.  Plain and simple.  If they can’t do that, then they had best warm up their golf swings for another long summer.

Written by bcbenzel

April 9, 2009 at 11:13 am

Playoff Picture

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Where’s Jim Mora when you need him?

Playoffs?!?  Playoffs!!?!

Okay, okay, so the reference has probably been beaten to death every single season for every sport since Mora’s famous outburst.  The fact remains, however, that the playoffs are bearing down upon us.  While the field has yet to be set, we do have a pretty good idea of who is going to be in the big show.  We’ll be rating the potential playoff match ups on our newly patented Mora-Meter.  One Mora would be the equivalent of watching the World Series of Gin Rummy played on ESPN (my guess as to what the next program to move into the Worldwide Leader instead of hockey) while five Mora’s would be a series that would lead to so much excitement that it would drive Jim Mora into a frenzy that would leave him frothing at the mouth.

So here you have it.  The playoff match ups, if the playoffs started today, complete with the new and improved Mora-Meter!

Western Conference
#1 San Jose Sharks v. #8 Nashville Predators
Analysis: The Nashville Predators are like that kid in high school that you never wanted to hang out with, but always somehow ended up getting invited wherever you went.  Over the last few seasons the Preds have been the whipping boy of the NHL, more specifically from Canadian fans, about how southern expansion just flat out doesn’t work.  The bottom line is, however, that the Preds continue to put a good package on the ice and continue to make the playoffs no matter what.  In this series, they’d be running up against a Sharks team that will be hellbent to prove that they can perform in the playoffs.  I don’t envy anyone in the position that the Preds are in, but if anyone can pull off a first round upset, it’s them.  This could be an intriguing series; however, it could just as easily be a case of the Sharks doing their thing and the Predators hanging on for dear life.
Mora-Meter: mora mora mora

#2 Detroit Red Wings v. #7 Anaheim Ducks
Analysis:
The last time these two teams met in the playoffs, the Ducks bounced the Wings en route to a Stanley Cup Championship.  Can anyone think of anything more intriguing than the last two Stanley Cup Champions facing off and in the first round no less?  The biggest swing in this match up is that the Ducks still play like they’re the class bully, while the Red Wings bully teams by skating circles around them.  What makes this series even more interesting is the fact that the Wings and the Ducks quite simply don’t like each other.  Lest we forget Chris Pronger attempting to remove Tomas Holmstrom’s head from his body, amongst other things transpiring between the two teams that cultivated the bad blood in their last post season meeting.  The Red Wings always seem to be a step ahead of the NHL; however, this season, their goaltending could be their Achillies Heel and with a potent Ducks powerplay, it would make for some great playoff hockey.
Mora-Meter: mora mora mora mora

#3 Vancouver Canucks v. #6 Columbus Blue Jackets
Analysis:
Is it bad that there’s a large part of me that really wants Vancouver to slide down so that Calgary takes this spot?  I mean, let’s be honest.  I’m a Wild fan.  I have no vested interest in the playoffs to mention at the moment (maybe by the last game of the season…A guy can dream, right?) so I don’t really care who wins the division, other than the fact that I just want to watch an entertaining playoff series.  To me, there would be no more interesting series than a Flames/Jackets and Canucks/’Hawks series, because the teams just don’t like each other.  But I digress.  In this one, honestly, there’s not really any appreciable storylines to speak of, nor do either of the teams play extremely exciting hockey.  On one side, the Blue Jackets are almost 100% playoff un-tested (save for a few players), while the ‘Nucks have some star players with a propensity to do a disappearing act in the playoffs.  All of this adds up to a series that could prove to be pretty uneventful; though worth watching to watch how the Jackets respond to playoff hockey.
Mora-Meter: mora mora mora

#4 Chicago Blackhawks v. #5 Calgary Flames
Analysis:
As much as I would love to watch the ‘Hawks fight play the ‘Nucks, I think this series would be extremely entertaining to watch.  First, you have a rematch in net of the ’03-’04 Cup Finals (Kipper v. Bulin), then you’ve got two teams with some very dynamic players (Kane, Toews and Havlat v. Iginla, Cammalleri and Jokinen) and finally you’ve got two teams with some fantastic defensemen (Seabrook and Keith v. Phaneuf and Regher).  This could become the best series in the first round if it stays this way.  Plus, if Phaneuf keeps playing the way he has been, you could find yourself looking at a very formidable “sloppy” second defensive pairing of Phaneuf and Leopold.  Sorry.  Couldn’t resist.
Mora-Meter: mora mora mora mora mora

Eastern Conference
#1 Boston Bruins v. #8 Montreal Canadiens
Analysis:
How’s this for a role reversal?  The exact match up of last season’s first round, just with home ice turned around.  If both teams are on their game, this could be an exciting series to watch.  The problem is that both teams have battled inconsistency since the All Star Break.  The biggest thing to look forward to, however, is that these two teams always get up to play one another.  Look at last season’s first round.  A seven-game slugfest that was probably the most entertaining series in all the playoffs.  Plus, there’s also always the chance that you could hear Jack Edwards’ maniacal laugh again.  That in and of itself is reason enough to watch.  All of this equals one amazingly entertaining first round series.
Mora-Meter: mora mora mora mora thm-jack-edwards

#2 Washington Capitals v. #7 New York Rangers
Analysis:
Honestly, this is another that I wish was a little different, but beggars can’t be choosers, right?  This one, well, this could be interesting.  On one end you’ve got the Caps’ unbelievable offens and on the other you’ve got the Rangers’ unbelievable goaltender.  Coach John Tortorella has helped the Rangers find their game again; however, can he put a stop to the attack of the Capitals?  On the other side of things, you’ve got the Rangers’ aneimic offense squaring off against the Caps’ inconsistent goalie.  This could either be a very high scoring series or a series where you get nothing at all.  Any series pitting a high powered offense against a solid goaltender, however, can prove to be a fun series to watch.
Mora-Meter: mora mora mora mora

#3 New Jersey Devils v. #6 Carolina Hurricanes
Analysis:
Ok.  So can someone please explain to me if the Devils are just coasting to the playoffs or if something is going on and when, exactly, Lou is going to place himself behind the bench yet again?  Alright.  I feel better now.  Now that I’ve said my piece, this could be a very one sided series if the Devils don’t right the ship and quick.  The ‘Canes have had success against Newark’s finest this season, and if the Devils back into the playoffs this could get ugly quick.  Looking at the potential match up, the ‘Canes match up quite nicely against the Devil and have the hot hand.  Both teams have a solid defense and an under rated offense.  There should be some very tightly contested games in this series and some good, physical play.
Mora-Meter: mora mora mora

#4 Philadelphia Flyers v. #5 Pittsburgh Penguins
Analysis: The Broadstreet Bullies against the NHL’s wunderkid.  I don’t see how it could get much better than this; a rematch of last season’s Eastern Conference Finals.  The Flyers were ran out of town by the Pens in the ECF last season, but this is also a Flyers team that has gained a lot more character since then, not in turnover of players but just in experience.  The big question mark for both teams is definitely in net and, in all honesty, that could lead to a very entertaining series.  These two teams are also division rivals and flat out don’t like each other.  That’s good enough in my book!
Mora-Meter: mora mora mora mora mora

So there you have it.  My thoughts on the current playoff picture.

Also, coming next week will be the first intrim show of Wild Nation.  Join myself and Nick in New York next week as we talk about all things Wild!  We will have a time and date set for our first show sometime this weekend.

If the Playoffs Started Today – 3/12/09

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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.

And here…we…go…

Eastern Conference
(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.

Western Conference
(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.