As my friend Tony likes to sing when the NHL playoffs begin, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year . . . ” Indeed, invocations of religious holidays, cancelling of all evening activities and hyperbolic comparisons to war are inevitable as the playoffs begin. I have no problem with any but the last of those--I know that’s the one thing not to say at this time of year (at least not before your team is eliminated), but, well, it’s not a war, it’s just a game. That being said, if the Leafs win the Cup, I know my life will be better somehow, and I will be able to go on living (though it would hardly be necessary, as my life will be complete) with the carefree disposition of a millionaire, or maybe someone who has paid back all of his student loans.
Anyway, what else abounds at this time of year? Predictions! Can’t start the playoffs without ’em!
In a word, goaltending. The keepers of the caged cabanas (as Joe Bowen likes to say) will tell the tale in the East.
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. New York Islanders
Tampa’s Nikolai Khabibulin probably won’t need to be the difference here, as the Lightning’s firepower will be too much for the Isles. Rick DiPietro will be a great playoff goalie in about five years. Some people think this could be an upset. It won’t be an upset if New York wins; it will be a miracle. TB in 5.
Boston Bruins vs. Montreal Canadiens
This will be a true tussle of the tenders of the twine tents (sorry, Joe). Andrew Raycroft has shown that he is better than the average bear, and is up for rookie of the year, while Jose Theodore has shown that he is better than he has been the last couple of seasons. The Bruins forwards are bigger and stronger than the Habs forwards, but Montreal has that Newfie magic in Michael Ryder. In the end, though, it all comes down to the goalies: Theodore doesn’t have much playoff experience, but he has more than Raycroft. Raycroft still might outplay Theo, and if he does, the Bruins just might go all the way. He won’t and they won’t, but it’ll be close. Habs in 7.
New Jersey Devils vs. Philadelphia Flyers
Like the Leafs and Flyers series last year, this one could end up eliminating both teams. The Flyers are stacked and the Devils are, well, the Devils, and they have the best goalie in the world--perhaps the best goalie ever--in Martin Brodeur. The Flyers’ tending is suspect, and though Robert Esche will get the start ahead of the veteran Sean Burke (my fellow St. Mike’s alumnus), I don’t think that will last long. In any case, the Flyers are too good to go in less than seven games, but Brodeur is too good to go at all. Devils in 7.
Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Ottawa Senators
Leafs in 4. Okay, okay. . . Goaltending will be crucial here as well, as the Leafs boast one of the best goalies in the game, if also one of the oldest (but that’s par for the course in Toronto), and the Senators have a hot young European goalie who will be starting the series on the bench. I really feel that, despite being on the losing end of Toronto’s 6-0 beating (see, the violent imagery just creeps in . . . ) of the Sens last weekend, Martin Prusek is the best goalie Ottawa has. John Muckler and Jacques Martin do not agree, and so they will start Patrick Lalime in goal. Lalime had a superb spring in 2003, despite being out-puckstopped by Martin Brodeur in the Eastern final (nothing to be ashamed of), yet this year he has been horrible. I think the fragile psyche of the Ottawa team, shaking after a 6-0 loss to the team that has eliminated them from the playoffs in three of the last four years, will crumble quickly. The Leafs could win it in 4, but I’ll give the Sens two games. Age and treachery always overcome youth and skill. Toronto in 6.
Here, the goaltending will be less of a factor. Other than Marty Turco and Miikka Kiprusoff, there are no knights of the netting who are likely to steal a series. The Western Conference will be decided by hot sticks, not hot glove hands.
Detroit Red Wings vs. Nashville Predators
The Red Wings have paid their karmic dues, I think. After Cujo left Toronto for the money in Motown, the Wings were eliminated by a hot, underpaid goalie in Jean-Sebastien Giguere; after Dominik Hasek decided to come back to the Midwest, and the Wings greedily held on to their two multimillion-dollar masked marvels, both rich guys got hurt. Hasek, in a move that I only hope serves as an example and precedent for athletes everywhere, did his part to alleviate some of the karmic debt by refusing to be paid during his injury. So that leave the Wings with Manny Legace in goal, and he’s no slouch. Tomas Vokoun, the Preds puck-stopper, is no slouch either, except he doesn’t have Brendan Shanahan, Brett Hull, Pavel Datsyuk, Steve Yzerman, Henrik Zetterberg, Nicklas Lidstrom, Robert Lang, Derian Hatcher and Chris Chelios in front of him. Who are these guys, the Toronto Maple Leafs? Wings in 5.
San Jose Sharks vs. St. Louis Blues
This year the Blues made the playoffs for a record twenty-fifth consecutive year. They’ve never won a Stanley Cup, though, so that’s a little bit like getting to first base the most times without making it to second (and I’m not talking baseball). Still, the momentum from their late-season push is enough for me to suggest an upset here. The Sharks have a good goalie in Nabokov, and the Blues’ Osgood is solid as well. I really like San Jose’s Alyn McAuley and Vinnie Damphousse (two former Leafs from very different eras), but the size of St. Louis’ Chris Pronger will be the difference; he has the potential to win the Conn Smythe trophy, if the Blues ever get any Stanley Cup finals action. St. Louis in 6.
Vancouver Canucks vs. Calgary Flames
Here is where hot goaltending should make a difference in the West. Kiprusoff is untested in the post-season with Calgary, for sure, but he’s got to be better than Cloutier. The Canucks are reeling from “the Bertuzzi Incident” (isn’t that the new Guns N’ Roses album?) and the Flames are on fire (yes, I just wrote that). It is a shame that of the five Canadian teams in the playoffs, at least two will be eliminated in the first round, but it is nice to have them playing each other. Why? I’m not sure, but it’s nice in that patriotic, all-things-Canadian-are-good kind of way. Flames in 6.
Colorado Avalanche vs. Dallas Stars
Avs goalie David Aebisher probably had the toughest job of any keeper this year: replacing Patrick Roy. He managed just fine, thanks, and now he’s facing Marty Turco, the man who unseated Ed Belfour in Dallas. This could be a goaltending party if there ever was one, but I don’t see the Avalanche playing too many of those 2-1, 3-2 games. Sakic, Forsberg, Tanguay, Hejduk, Kariya, Selanne: these guys can score, and even if some of them have been injured or slumping, there are too many superstars here for all of them to go into the tank (it’s not New York, after all). The Stars have some skill, but not as much as Colorado. Mike Modano and Bill Guerin will not be enough. Avs in 7.
So that’s it. Yeah, it’s just a game, but it’s a fast game, a beautiful game (not the beautiful game, though) and a fun game. Not only that, but NHL hockey players, it seems to me, want to win their championship trophy, that Stanley Cup, more than players in any other pro sport. The baseball playoffs are too limited; football is about the coaches and playbooks; basketball players are too rich to care; golf is not a sport. Yeah, that’s right, golf is not a sport, but it is a game the Ottawa Senators will be playing very soon.