Ah, spring! The birds are back in the air, the flowers are back in bloom, AND HOCKEY IS BACK IN THE PLAYOFFS YEAHHHHRRRRRGGGHHH, ahem. Once again the NHL offers us the chance to watch our home teams compete in the most dramatic, exciting, and intense sports competition in the world*. Many storylines have already unfolded, with several teams valiantly trying to claw their way into a playoff spot, and others being lucky to have the fortune of the Hockey Gods and/or the Gary Bettman Shadow Council Conspiracy Machine on their sides.
Without further ado, the 2010-2011 NHL Playoffs!
* - offer not valid in Alberta or Ontario
EASTERN CONFERENCE QUARTERFINALS
Washington Capitals vs. New York Rangers
Both of this year's 1v8 matchups pack a surprising amount of intrigue. Washington is built much better for a deep playoff run than last year, sacrificing their high-flying offense for a much-improved defense. But the question must be asked: will they now have to struggle with a shortage of goal-scoring, and/or napkins for coach Bruce Boudreau's traditional post-practice BBQ meal?
The Rangers barely managed to hang on to the 8th seed themselves, needing a closing-weekend loss by the Hurricanes to clinch. They did well in the season series against Washington though, taking 3 of 4 games including blowout wins of 6-0 and 7-0, the latter being featured in the Caps' 24/7 filming. They will, however, be without two of their top goal scorers, as Ryan Callahan suffered a late-season injury that will keep him out of this year's playoffs, and Marion Gaborik has missed the last 15 games with a-wait, what...he's been playing? You sure? I mean I've watched at least two games of theirs and I did not see him at all, I swear...
Players to watch:
Brooks Laich(LW, WAS): The Capitals will be sorely missing Laich's expected contributions after he is pulled into a van and kidnapped by several Rangers players pretending to be pulled over with a flat tire.
Sean Avery(RW, NYR): Fans can look to the press box to find Avery, where he will likely be performing card tricks and pulling rabbits out of hats, as he must be a fucking magician to have found a way to get two NHL clubs to both pay him for not playing.
Philadelphia Flyers vs Buffalo Sabres
This is one of the harder series to predict for me. The Flyers spent much of the season as one of the most dominant teams in the league, but took a pretty hard skid during the last quarter. Chris Pronger will miss the start of the playoffs, but aside from that they are pretty healthy, and pretty stacked.
Buffalo, on the other hand, spent much of the season on the outside of the playoff bubble looking in. They had a great run during the home stretch, pulled off a huge win against the Flyers in the last week of the season, and have one of the single most important things to have in the playoffs: an elite goaltender. Whether or not Miller gets hot at the right time will likely decide their playoff fate.
Players to watch:
Scott Hartnell(LW, PHI): The Saskatchewan-born(MORE LIKE SASQUATCH-WAN, AMIRITE) Hartnell is known for his gritty playoff-style game, as well as for the terrifying amount of hair he brings to the arena each and every night.
Nathan Gerbe(C, BUF): I'm not even saying anything funny here, even if the guy is literally 5'5". Watch this fucking kid play, he's amazing.
Boston Bruins vs. Montreal Canadiens
One of the biggest potential grudge matches of the playoffs, and it happens in the first round. Anyone who follows the NHL is aware of what these teams have been like when pitted against each other this year. Two teams that despise each other, an Original Six matchup, and there's even a black guy to boot. This series has everything!
Despite losing their final game to the Devils, the Bruins looked very solid down the stretch. Tim Thomas is a no-brainer for the Vezina. The Habs faltered a fair amount at the end of the season, but they still made it in, and everyone knows how far they took a lowly 8th seed last year. Everyone in Montreal is hoping the team made the right decision by dealing Halak and holding on to Price, and if not, they'll light your fucking car on fire.
Players to watch:
P. K. Subban(D, MON): Subban absolutely shined in last year's playoffs. He has the talent, he has the attitude, noone should be surprised if he has another big postseason.
Zdeno Chara(D, BOS): The Bruins captain is also their best player, and he'll be bringing a physical, shutdown defensive presence to the ice...that is, if he can sneak past the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who will be waiting outside the Bell Centre to serve him with his arrest warrant.
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Tampa Bay Lightning
At the beginning of the year, this would have probably been Gary Bettman's dream playoff matchup, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Jordan Staal against Steven Stamkos, Marty St. Louis and Vincent Lecavelier. The season didn't go quite as planned though, as Crosby lost nearly half his season to a concussion, and Stamkos scored only 44 goals.
This will be an interesting series to see the outcome of, the Penguins are still running on fumes and Wilkes-Barre implants, but surefire Jack Adams finalist and my mega-bro-crush Dan Bylsma knows how to make the best use out of what he has available, and the Pens hardly missed a beat despite all of the injuries that plagued them.
The Lightning are relatively healthy, but, well, just plain not very talented on defense, and questionable at goaltender. Roloson has played well since joining the team, and Mike Smith has been rock-solid his last few starts, but they don't appear to stack up well against a Marc-Andre Fleury/Brent Johnson tandem, with Fleury stopping most of the pucks he sees, and Johnson punching injury-prone goaltenders to shards.
Players to watch:
Alex Kovalev(RW, PIT): Kovalev is getting a pretty big chance by being allowed to play for a playoff contender. He's been accused of being disinterested and lackadaisical before in his career, but then again, he was on the Senators, cut him some slack.
Victor Hedman(D, TBL): Hedman is generally considered the best of the Lightning's defensive corps, which may not be saying a lot, but still makes him a pretty important part of this series nonetheless.
He was also the last person to knock the tar out of Sidney Crosby, and there may still be some bad blood directed at him from the Penguins, or at least the two remaining active Penguins who actually have played with Crosby before and weren't just AHL callups after he went down.
WESTERN CONFERENCE QUARTERFINALS
Vancouver Canucks vs. Dallas StarsChicago Blackhawks
Like Boston/Montreal, this is a series that everyone wanted to see, but maybe not so early in the playoffs. No lack of drama here, as most people know the Blackhawks have sent the Canucks packing from the second round in the last two postseasons, and Canucks fans are praying that the third time is the charm.
Vancouver was far and away the best team in the regular season. They dominated most of the games they played, led the league(or came damn close) in ever major statistical category, and even continued to make Alex Burrows look like an actual hockey player.
The Hawks are, plain to say, not the same team they were last year. They had well-documented lineup changes forced upon them by the salary cap, but retained their talented young core. They moonwalked into the playoffs, with the 8th seed being gifted to them by the Stars after they failed to win their own clinching game against Detroit. However, they still have shown many flashes of being able to turn on the magic they had last year, and are not a team most anyone would want to be facing in the first round.
Players to watch:
Roberto Luongo(G, VAN): Luongo has been a bit of a goat for the Canucks the last several years, with his typically stellar play many times taking a turn for the worse come the playoffs. He appears to be more relaxed and rested this year, so this series may be the one that fully adds or removes the 'playoff choker' label.
He, like most goalies, is also well-known for his highly-superstitious pregame routines, such as always having the same pasta lunch, always arriving to the arena two hours before the game so he can carry out his precise warmup ritual, and always triple-checking NHL.com to make sure that Dustin Byfuglien still is not on the Chicago roster.
Patrick Sharp(LW, CHI): This year's playoffs have great potential for Sharp to bring home the hardware. If he keeps up his sniping style from the regular season, he could potentially be carrying home The Cup, and maybe even the Conn Smythe.
He is, however, a shoe-in to win the newly-minted Patrick Sharp award, which is to be awarded each year to the player deemed to be the most ridiculously handsome player in the league.
San Jose Sharks vs. Los Angeles Kings
A matchup that would have likely been a much bigger marquee two months ago. San Jose has been playing well as of late, while LA, marred by injuries to their top-two goal scorers, came a blown game or two from a long summer, slipping from 4th to 7th in the final day of the season.
Not much has changed for the Sharks since last year. They lost Malhotra to the Canucks, though I suppose he won't be available to haunt them should the two teams meet in later rounds. They gained the tandem of Niemi and Nittymaki, who both had very shaky starts to the season, but have since solidified into a strong pairing. Niemi will be out to prove that it wasn't just a prolific defense in front of him that earned his Cup ring last year.
The Kings, despite the injuries, are by no means a bad team. Solid veterans like Ryan Smyth and Rob Scuderi line up beside promising youngsters like Drew Doughty, Dustin Penner, and the man with the blackest name in hockey: Wayne Simmonds. Jonathan Quick has the ability to single-handedly steal a game, and if he can't, Jonathan Bernier can just as well.
Players to watch:
Dustin Brown(RW, LAK): With Kopitar and Williams out of the lineup, the offensive burden will fall largely on Brown's shoulders. He, along with several role-playing grinders, like whoever the hell makes up their second and third lines, will decide their playoff fate.
Patrick Marleau(LW, SJS): Marleau has largely escaped the heat for the Sharks previous several playoff collapses, with it all landing squarely on Joe Thornton's back. He led the team in scoring during the regular season, if he disappears during the playoffs again it likely won't go unnoticed.
Detroit Red Wings vs. Phoenix Coyotes
Anyone who saw these two team's meet in last year's first round are likely pretty excited, as it was one of the most entertaining series of the entire playoffs. Bettman's Boys play a fast, physical brand of hockey, but the Wings remain one of the best-coached, most well-run teams in the league.
Like the city they hail from, the Wings are old and pretty decrepit at this point in the year. Unlike the Motor City, however, they are still standing strong with their solid core of veterans like 38 year-old Tomas Holmstrom, 39 year-old Kris Draper, and 67 year-old Niklas Lidstrom.
The Coyotes, in turn, may be playing their last postseason, or any type of season for that matter, in Phoenix. With a potential to spend their summer looking at Winnipeg apartment guides, will the 'Yotes be able to focus on the games at hand?
Players to watch:
Pavel Datsyuk(LW, DET): Like most star Russian forwards, Datsyuk is known for his oftentimes selfish offensive zone play and lazy back-checking. If the Wings are going to make another deep playoff run, they're going to need him to be more of a team player.
Shane Doan(RW, PHX): The team's captain, and last remaining Jet on the roster, Doan is the heart and soul of this club. Last year he was an absolute beast before he got hurt. He scored beastly goals. He delivered beastly checks. And most importantly of all, he made beastly faces. They're going to need him for this entire series if they hope to get past the Wings.
Anaheim Ducks vs. Nashville Predators
A very interesting matchup, for their being pretty much absolutely no history between the two teams. Very difficult to make an on-paper prediction, Ducks have the star power, but the Preds have the blue-collar work ethic, and were by far the team who came the closest to derailing Chicago's Stanley Cup run last year.
The Ducks are surprisingly well-built for playoff hockey. They have a dominant top line in Ryan/Perry/Getzlaf, a balanced defensive crew with scorers like Visnovsky, and shutdown guys like Lydman, the ageless wonder of a second line containing Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu, and many, many physical checkers.
If there's any team who is not likely to be intimidated by star power and physical play though, it's Nashville. Perennially good despite having a roster made largely of no-namers, they sport what is likely the single best defensive pairing in the league with Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, a goaltender who is quickly making his name amongst the elite in the league with Pekka Rinne, and some guys who I have no idea who the hell they are playing offense.
Players to watch:
Sergei Kostitsyn(LW, NSH): Also known as 'The Crappy Kostitsyn', Sergei did manage to lead the Predators in scoring this year...with a whopping 23 goals. Despite having a stalwart defense and an all-world goalie, the Preds are going to have to score at least a coupletchree goals this series if they want to advance, and they'll be looking at SK74 to produce.
Corey Perry(RW, ANA): Fuck Corey Perry.