While our beloved Capitals begin their quest for Lord Stanley’s Cup tomorrow, tonight kicks off the always-underrated NHL playoffs. The NHL’s “second-season” bears witness to some of the games greatest spectacles, such as triple and quadruple overtime games that last into the wee hours of the morning, some of the finest standing-on-his-head goaltending you’ll ever see, and my personal favorite, the epic grizzly-man beards from players who don’t shave during the playoffs (one of the most underrated superstitions in all of professional sports).
While we await the inevitable Capitals-Penguins rematch in the playoff semifinals, here are my NHL post-season predictions, round by round:
2010 EASTERN CONFERENCE QUARTERFINALS
Washington Capitals (#1 seed) vs. Montreal Canadiens (#8 seed)
How messed up is it that the team from Washington, DC are best known for being mostly Russian and Red, and the team from Quebec is best known for being Bleu, Blanc, et Rouge? The Capitals will let the Habitants hang around a little longer than they should, thanks to the Canadiens solid power play unit (2nd in the league) matching up against the Caps poor penalty killing unit (6th worse), but they should finish off the Habs in 6 games.
Capitals in 6 games.
New Jersey Devils (#2 seed) vs. Philadelphia Flyers (#7 seed))
What you don’t know is that this is what the current Flyer’s goaltender looks like without the mask and pads on. This is going to be a long and ugly series between two physical teams – and if there’s going to be an upset in the first round of the East, this would be your bet – but I can’t bet against a team that has Martin Brodeur in net.
Devils in 7 games.
Buffalo Sabres (#3 seed) vs. Boston Bruins (#6 seed)
From the Olympics ’til now, Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller has displayed some of the most dominating goaltending I have seen since Dominik Hasek in the late 90’s. Yet ironically, he’s second in the NHL in goals-against average and save percentage to Tuukka Rask, who just happens to be the Bruins goaltender, even though he has a name that sounds far more fit for a really poisonous crustacean or a badass Samoan wrestler. I don’t see the offensively-challenged Bruins being able to get much past Miller, though our honorary headshrinker won’t exactly be giving up too much on his end either.
Sabres in 6 games.
Pittsburgh Penguins (#4 seed) vs. Ottawa Senators (#5 seed)
I think this one is a laugher. Defending Cup champs versus an erratically young team with an even younger goalie?
Penguins in 5 games (if not 4).
2010 WESTERN CONFERENCE QUARTERFINALS
San Jose Sharks (#1 seed) vs. Colorado Avalanche (#8 seed)
This ain’t the Avalanche of the late 90’s/early 00’s, and the Sharks are out to prove that they’re not the same choking dogs of years past. The Sharks just have too much firepower against an ice-cold (no pun intended… I think) Avalanche team (3 wins in the last 13 games). Sharks bring out the brooms early and sweep the series.
Sharks in 4 games.
Chicago Blackhawks (#2 seed) vs. Nashville Predators (#7 seed)
The Blackhawks remind me of a midwestern twin of the Capitals: a young team with great talent, has questions at the goal keeper spot, and is playing for a city that’s desperate to get behind a winner. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews can be just as potent as Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, and the ‘Hawks also happen to have Marian Hossa lending some playoff experience to this young squad. If Cristobal Huet can get his shit together, or Antti Niemi can pull a Semyon Varlamov (in ’09), the ‘Hawks will be a favorite in the West.
Blackhawks in 5.
Vancouver Canucks (#3 seed) vs. Los Angeles Kings (#6 seed)
My buddy the Jew believes there could be an upset brewing here, with the underrated-yet-solid Kings surprising Vancouver in Round 1. Los Angeles does seem like a team that’s precocious enough to not read the press clippings about a Canucks team that, even with six guys tallying 20 or more goals, may still be more bark than bite. In a nod to the Jew, a my go-to puck-head since our days in middle school, I’ll take the Kings in 7.
Kings in 7 games
Phoenix Coyotes (#4 seed) vs. Detroit Red Wings (#5 seed)
The Detroit Red Wings are the best team in the NHL since the Olympics, winning 16 out of their last 21 games. The plucky Coyotes may take a game early, maybe even two, but again: they’re playing the Detroit Red Wings in the playoffs. ‘Nuff said.
Detroit in 5.
EASTERN CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS:
Washington Capitals vs. Pittsburgh Penguins
Let’s not kid ourselves: this is the match-up that everyone – from casual NHL fans to NHL executives – is anxiously awaiting. If it arrives as predicted, it’s going to be some fucking fantastic hockey, because these two teams just plain can’t stand each other. Pittsburgh will play up the “no respect for the champs” card, as everyone is writing them off as the #4 seed (a fact that absolutely scares the hell out of me), but the Capitals still have the bitter taste of last year’s Game 7 embarrassment, on their home ice, left in their mouths.
Everything about this series is right up there with when the Patriots and Colts would square off in the AFC Title game year after year, the classic ALCS matchups between the Yankees and Red Sox in 2003 and 2004, or when the Lakers and Spurs would annually battle to represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals. It’s a series that will likely even dwarf the memory of the Stanley Cup championship itself when fans look back on this postseason five years from now.
The two biggest superstars in Hockey, bitter rivals who loathe each other, going head to head, with the entire Hockey world watching, and all that remains are two stupid questions:
1. You really think that NHL Executives, fresh off a huge ratings and interest boost in the game of Hockey, haven’t made a deal with the Hockey gods, or sacrificed whatever (or whomever?) they needed to the devil himself, in return for the promise that this series will go 7 games? I don’t think so. It’s going 7 games.
2. You really think I’m going to pick in favor of Sindy Crosby? (No, that wasn’t a typo).
Capitals in 7.
New Jersey vs. Buffalo
Basically the “Miss Congeniality Pageant” in the Eastern Conference, this may feature the best match-up of goaltenders in all of the playoffs: the emerging-superstar, Miller, entering his prime, versus the legendary playoff stalwart, Brodeur. This series will be the polar opposite of the shoot-out Capitals and Penguins, with each team trying to figure out how they’re going to get the puck past two goaltenders who will take turns making how-the-hell-did-he-do-that saves. In a mild shocker, I see a playoff passing-of-the-torch type scenario, with Miller’s Sabres outlasting Brodeur’s Devils.
Sabres in 7.
WESTERN CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS:
San Jose vs. Los Angeles
I see the Sharks making quick work of the happy-to-be-here Kings in the 2nd round. Los Angeles just can’t contend with the firepower of Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton, and Dany Heatley, and the veteran presence of Rob Blake.
Sharks in 5.
Chicago vs. Detroit
A series that could rival the dandy-ness of the Caps-Pens, except for the part that nobody outside of the Western part of the Rust Belt will be watching it. Both teams are loaded with talent up and down their front line and blue lines, and the difference is going to come down to coaching and goaltending. The Wings have gotten great goaltending from rookie Jimmy Howard, and have arguably the best coach in all of hockey, Mike Babcock. In a back-and-forth slugfest, I see Detroit pulling out a shocker.
Red Wings in 7.
EASTERN CONFERENCE FINALS:
Washington vs. New Jersey
The key to this series will be how much the Capitals are overjoyed to have simply beaten the Penguins and gotten to the next round of playoffs, or whether they become more focused than ever after knocking out their biggest roadblock to a Stanley Cup appearance. If the Capitals play as well as they should and get to Marty Brodeur, the Devils just don’t have the firepower to keep up with Washington. New Jersey won’t make life easy for the Capitals, as they’ll force them to earn every point they get, but if the Capitals can continue their momentum from the previous series, they’ll represent the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup.
Capitals in 6.
San Jose vs. Detroit
On paper, this shouldn’t be close, as San Jose has a much deeper team than Detroit does this season. But the Western Conference Finals aren’t played on paper. They’re the other half of the NHL’s final four, the series which determines who will get to represent their conference in the Stanley Cup finals. If there’s one thing that’s been proven, it’s that as good as Sharks goalie Evengeni Nabokov has been through the years, he’s been known to get the “yips” when the lights are at their brightest. Even against a far inferior Detroit team in comparison to years past, the Sharks choke yet again.
Detroit in 6.
STANLEY CUP CHAMPIONSHIP:
Washington Capitals vs. Detroit Red Wings
Two teams loaded with talent. One is a group of young Colts who can run with (or better than) anyone else in the league, and the other is a cagey group of horses that have been there before and know their way around the bright lights and intense pressure of the Championships. This time, I’m betting on the vindication of the oft-maligned Jose Theodore pulling out a miraculous performance on hockey’s biggest stage, and helping the Capitals to their first ever Stanley Cup Championship.
Capitals in 6.