Favorites for the 2015 Stanley Cup

Cup
Cup
Here are your favorites for the 2014/2015 NHL Stanley Cup.

As I am always apt to do once a season in one of America’s major sports comes to an end I like to give you the opportunity to see the favorites for next year. Why do I do this so far out? There are a few reasons but one of my favorite is that when you throw some money at a long-shot, especially in a sport like hockey, the excited feeling of knowing you ‘called this’ so much earlier is hard to beat.

We have a really interesting scenario in the National Hockey League right now because the Los Angeles Kings have won two of the last three Stanley Cup titles while the Chicago Blackhawks have won two of the last five Cups. Only Boston has thrown a cog into that pattern.

Will one of those three teams hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup in 2015? Let’s look at the favorites.

Chicago 7/1 – The Blackhawks remain one of the most talented teams in the league with Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Corey Crawford and are rightfully the top favorite to win the Cup. Because the Western Conference is the more competitive of the two conferences right now, the mission for Chicago is more difficult than it is in Boston. Still, I really like the Blackhawks’ chances and you should too.

Rask
Can Tuukka Rask lead the Bruins back to the Stanley Cup Finals?

Boston 17/2 – The Bruins have to be the most disappointed team of the group of favorites simply because of the way their season ended. The Bruins were dumped in the second of the Eastern Conference Playoffs by their rivals in Montreal. Only one team ends its’ season successfully but for Boston, much more was expected of this team.

The core remains in Boston led by goalie Tuukka Rask and they will again challenge in the Eastern Conference but what they do this offseason could keep me from pulling a trigger on them right now.

LA Kings 9/1 – Some teams are built for the regular season and some are built for the playoffs. The Kings are clearly built for the postseason. As long as this team remains healthy and Jonathan Quick is between the pipes they will be right there in end. This is a rare team in that they truly love to compete as illustrated by their comebacks in the earlier playoff series. That fact alone makes me really like this team to repeat as champions.

Pittsburgh 10/1 – At the time of this writing the Penguins are still without a head coach. GM Ray Shero and coach Dan Bylsma were both relieved of their duties following another poor playoff showing. New GM Jim Rutherford has shown great patience in the hiring process but he needs to make a move soon with the NHL Draft and free agency on the horizon.

As long as the Pens have Sidney Crosby and Geno Malkin, they’ll be a threat but both need to perform better in the playoffs. Right now, I’d stay away from the Penguins.

Anaheim 12/1 – The Ducks have to be smarting from their season as hard as anyone. They led 3-2 over their crosstown rivals the Kings in the second round of the Western Conference Playoffs and eventually lost the final two games and the series. Legend Teemu Selanne has moved on but Ryan Getzlaf remains to lead the NHL’s best scoring offense. Jonas Hiller is expected back in the net which gives the Ducks a great shot to improve on last year’s season. Ultimately, do you trust their defense?

Long-shots I Like…

Detroit 22/1 , Montreal 20/1, Minnesota 18/1

Playoff Starts in NHL, NBA Not Going According to Plan for Some Teams

Bylsma-Crosby
Bylsma-Crosby
Coach Dan Bylsma and superstar Sidney Crosby are facing a tougher challenge than thought in Columbus.

There are always questions heading into any playoff series whether they be in the National Basketball Association or the National Hockey League. These questions usually revolve around four-five or three-six match-ups where the teams are more similar in terms of records.

What we’ve discovered already however is that series in both leagues have already taken unexpected turns despite the fact the series are still in the early stages.

In the NHL, the second-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins needed a comeback to defeat Columbus in game one and then blew a two-goal lead in game two before eventually losing in overtime. The Pens, who were the best power play team in the NHL this season, struggled in that department going one for eight.

They also gave up a shorthanded goal for the second straight game. Star Sidney Crosby had two assists Saturday night but has yet to score a goal as the series shifts to Columbus. Head Coach Dan Bylsma needs a very deep playoff run in order to keep his job and right now that isn’t looking real good.

In St. Louis, the Blues took a 2-0 lead over defending champion Chicago by winning yet another overtime thriller. Game one saw the two rivals go three overtime periods before the Blues won. While the Blues entered as the higher seed, they didn’t exactly come in playing well.

St. Louis stumbled and bumbled their way to the end of the season and left many wondering if they’d be able to do much in the playoffs. So far so good for them but now the Blackhawks are facing the proposition of having to win four of the next five games if they hope to defend their Stanley Cup Title.

Hibbert
Roy Hibbert and the Pacers better get things going or they'll be out before they know it.

In the NBA, the top seed in the Eastern Conference has already given up the home court advantage it worked all season to get. The Indiana Pacers looked pretty bad at both ends of the court Saturday dropping game one to the eighth seeded Atlanta Hawks 101-93.

Sometimes teams need to get to the playoffs because boredom starts to set in late in the regular season but the problems for the Pacers go beyond being bored. This team has been incredibly out of sync for some time now and we can only wonder just how bad it must be behind the closed doors of the locker room.

I believe the Pacers have enough firepower to get through this series but the defensive end is where they’ve made their living and right now I don’t know if they can pull it together.

Also in the NBA, both Toronto and the Los Angeles Clippers squandered home court advantage by losing their series’ opening games. In Canada, the Raptors lost to Brooklyn in a bizarre game that featured a ‘human’ shot clock. After the shot clocks at each end malfunctioned, the PA announcer was forced to shout the shot clock at intervals before saying ‘horn’ when it expired.

The Raptors will need to get themselves fixed if they plan to head into Brooklyn tied at one. Their playoff inexperience showed down the stretch and they must do a better job at both ends of the court and in time management.

In LA, most expected the Clippers’ series with Golden State to be chippy and hard fought but most expect the Clips to prevail. If they are to do so, they need to get it turned around quickly following an opening game loss to the Warriors.

For starters, the Clippers need Blake Griffin to foul less. Granted, there were some questionable calls, but Griffin can’t afford to be on the bench having fouled out late in the game. It’s just one game but they need a quick turnaround to even this series.

Stanley Cup Playoffs Offer Great Excitement

bruins-red-wings
bruins-red-wings
I expect a seven game series between these two original eight teams.

The greatest playoff run in sports begins this week as the National Hockey League playoffs drop the puck. Yes, you heard me; the greatest playoff run in all of sports is in fact professional hockey.

While I can accept that other sports offer dramatic finishes just as hockey does, those sports fail to deliver as often as the men on ice do. What I will not accept is an argument that says “our playoffs are better” because it is simply not true.

The National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball give us dramatic five and seven game series’ but how often do their seventh games live up to the excitement of a game seven in the NHL?

Not very often and that’s a fact. Here are my predictions for the first round of the 2014 National Hockey League Playoffs.

Eastern Conference

1 Boston vs 4 Detroit – The Wings took three of four from the Bruins this season and I don’t believe that’s just a fluke. Sometimes teams just match-up better with others. Look for Detroit to take the Bruins the distance but Boston wins in seven.

2 Tampa Bay vs 3 Montreal – The Lightning are 3-1 against the Habs this season but all four games were close.  TB faces the 4th best penalty kill in the league and that’s the hurdle they need to get over. Take the Lightning in six.

MAF
The Pens will go only as far as Marc Andre-Fleury can take them.

1 Pittsburgh vs 4 Columbus – The Penguins won all five meetings with Columbus this season and may have as many fans in Ohio as they will at home. The league’s top power play should wrap this up in five games.

2 NY Rangers vs 3 Philadelphia Flyers – These two split their season series at two games apiece. The Rangers feature top five squads in both the power play and penalty kill. The Flyers aren’t too bad in either of those departments either though ranking seventh in both. I like the Rangers in seven.

Western Conference

1 Anaheim vs 4 Dallas – Despite having a low-ranking power play (22nd) the Ducks still led the NHL in scoring. Their penalty kill is middle of the road which shouldn’t hurt them against a Stars’ team that ranks 23rd on the power play. Take the Ducks in five.

2 San Jose vs 3 LA Kings – The Sharks lost three of five this year against the Kings in games that were each a little different in terms of scoring affairs vs defensive battles. LA ranks number one in the NHL in goals against with just 2 goals per game. Defense wins in the NHL Playoffs and that’s why I like them in six games.

1 Colorado vs 4 Minnesota – The Avs were 4-1 against the Wild this season and averaged four goals per game in those contests. This series will be decided by the special teams’ units because Colorado is fifth in the NHL on the power play while the Wild are 27th in penalty killing. Take the Avs in five.

2 St. Louis vs 3 Chicago – The Blues rank in the top eight in goals against (3rd), goals per game (6th), PP (8th) and PK (2nd). The Blackhawks have beaten the Blues in their last two meetings after losing three straight against them earlier in the season. Chicago has no problem scoring and I think that’s why they take the slumping Blues to seven games and pull the upset.

Christmas is Often a Time of Reflection

BUchholz
BUchholz
Clay Buchholz helped the Red Sox to the World Series title in 2013.

One of the many reasons people of all ages love Christmas so much is that no other holiday reminds of the past the way it does. While there are many sad stories from millions of us out there, I also know there are great memories of holidays long ago. In some cases those warm thoughts revolve around a present or a family member coming home from the service. Regardless, Christmas also is a time to reflect on sports from the past year and I want to take a moment to do that on this Christmas morning.

Boston – It really doesn’t matter what your feelings are about the city of Boston and/or its’ passionate fans because this city once again saw the greatest highs of the sports world and sadly it’s’ greatest lows.

On April 15th, the Boston Marathon was moving along at its’ usual pace when two explosions rocked the venue leaving scores with horrifying injuries. The blasts, a result of two young brothers on a quest to attack America, once again made us question our safety at athletic events. Thankfully, one of the suspects was killed in the hours afterward while his brother remains in federal custody.

Riding the theme of ‘Boston Strong,’ the bearded Red Sox battled the Yankees, Orioles and Rays all season long before finally taking the American League East. They dispatched the Rays and then the Detroit Tigers to win the AL Pennant. Behind an amazing David Ortiz, the Sox won the 2013 World Series four games to two over St. Louis.

concussions
The NFL settled out of court with former players in a lawsuit brought mainly over concussions.

Concussions – The National Football League somewhat surprisingly settled a lawsuit with former players over the issue of head trauma. The three quarters of a billion dollars actually seemed like small potatoes and for many experts it was. The NFL and their owners were getting off pretty easy. Despite the culmination of the lawsuit, the league continued to go after violence in the game and will no doubt take more revolutionary steps this offseason as well.

The Super Bowl – The Baltimore Ravens went on to defeat the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII as they tuned the Niners away inside the five yard line late in the game. The game really wasn’t the story though. With the Ravens leading 28-6 in the third quarter, a significant portion of the lights in New Orleans’ Superdome went out.

Following the lengthy delay, the Niners went on a furious rally before finally losing 34-31. Prior to this season beginning, the Ravens’ Terrell Suggs said in an interview that he thinks Roger Goodell had something to do with the loss of power. Let’s just say Suggs is far from the only one that believes that.

Golf – The Major tournaments of professional golf saw foreign players win the first two. Australian Adam Scott captured the Masters in a fabulous playoff over Angel Cabrera and then Justin Rose of Wales won the US Open.

The Americans got on the board when Phil Mickelson won his first British Open and then fan-favorite Jason Dufner won the PGA Championship at the end of the summer. None of those four men however won the player of the year award though because Tiger Woods captured six tournaments and won the award. Woods is still stuck on 14 Major championships as his quest for Jack Nicklaus’ record 18 continues.

Other Sports – In the National Basketball Association, the Miami Heat captured their second straight title by defeating the San Antonio Spurs in seven games… The Chicago Blackhawks won their second Stanley Cup in the last five years by defeating Boston. NHL realignment also sent Winnipeg to the west and Detroit to the east… Louisville defeated Michigan for the NCAA Basketball title while Alabama won a third college football title in four years under Nick Saban.

Chicago is on the Verge of Another Stanley Cup

Kane
Kane
Kane collected two goals last night to put the Bruins on the brink of elimination.

The Chicago Blackhawks beat Boston 3-1 last night in Chicago to take a 3-2 lead in the series which at this point might not even be the biggest story going forward in this year’s Stanley Cup Final. Despite the fact the ‘Hawks are just a win away both they and the Bruins are facing the prospects of playing game six without one of their stars.

Boston’s Patrice Bergeron skated briefly in the opening seconds of the 2nd period before leaving the game and eventually was in an ambulance on his to the hospital. It was clear from watching Bergeron that something wasn’t quite right as he lacked confidence as he gingerly made his way to the bench. In the mysterious ways of NHL injury talk being what it is, the Bruins will only say it’s something “keeping him from playing.”

Common sense would tell us it has to be a “lower body” injury but who knows? Trying to figure out NHL injuries is like trying to figure out what really happened to Jimmy Hoffa.

Chicago is also dealing with an injury as well though as Jonathan Toews left the game in the 3rd period. Head Coach Joel Quenneville said the Toews’ had an “upper body” injury without elaborating any further. Toews sat on the bench throughout the third period but did not enter the game. Quenneville is hopeful that Toews will be available for game six but would only say they have to see how he is feeling today.

Both head coaches must now plan for the possibility of missing one of their top players for potentially one or two games. With both guys meaning so much to their respective teams, how the coaches adjust the lines will be crucial in what will be for the moment, the biggest game of the year so far.

Chara
The ‘Hawks have done well in tying up Zdeno Chara the last two games.

In the United Center last night, the Blackhawks were able to once again use their speed to create opportunities in front of the net. Patrick Kane had two goals and then Dave Bolland added an empty-netter late to preserve the win after Zdano Chara scored early in the third to draw the Bruins within one goal.

Chara has found himself in an interesting position over the last two games. In the high-scoring game four, Chara was on the ice for five of the Blackhawks’ six goals and then last night he again was victimized by being on the ice for two of the ‘Hawks goals. Every top defenseman goes through rough periods but its’ clear Chicago is targeting Chara with some physical play.

Brian Bickell has been the key instigator in getting a body on the 6’8″ Chara and the Bruins have been unable to do much about it. Bickell nailed Chara hard at one point during the game in front of the Bruins’ bench getting a vicious reaction from the Bruins, Milan Lucic who wanted to fight Bickell.

The Bruins have to channel that frustration towards to the net in front of Corey Crawford who was very good in goal last night stopping 24 of 25 shots. Many, including myself, thought Tuukka Rask would outplay Crawford and to this point, Crawford has been just a little bit better. Crawford’s one weakness seems to be his glove-side of late and I look for the Bruins to attack that heavily in game six.

Let’s assume that both Bergeron and Toews can’t go on Monday night in Boston. I’ll call it a push because both guys do a lot for each team and frankly are irreplaceable. Boston is a tough, veteran club that will need to get out early in order to rely on their defense but I think Chicago has found some weaknesses and I see them hoisting the Cup in Boston Monday night.

NHL Conference Finals Should Offer Some Great Hockey

Zdeno Chara

 

Zdeno Chara
Chara will be tasked with handling Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin throughout the Eastern Conference Finals.

It should come as no surprise really that the National Hockey League’s last four Stanley Cup Champions are the four teams remaining in this year’s playoffs. Both the Eastern and Western Conference Finals open up today and there is no shortage of storylines.

Eastern Conference Finals

Boston at Pittsburgh – As ESPN’s Barry Melrose said, “The only thing these two teams have in common is that they wear black.” This assertion is pretty accurate. The Bruins will look to play deliberate, low-scoring games while the Penguins will throw lots of pucks at the net and will look to score goals in every opportunity.

This is also a match-up of the NHL’s best penalty-kill in Boston against the league’s best power play in Pittsburgh. Something will have to give here but I just can’t say what. Boston will look to keep Sidney Crosby in check by getting Zdeno Chara on him as much as possible. This may open things up for the rest of the guys on Crosby’s line who can score effectively.

The one issue I see for Pens’ Head Coach Dan Bylsma is goaltending. Tomas Vokoun has been outstanding since replacing Marc-Andre Fleury in round one but what does Bylsma do should Vokoun get shredded early in the series? Does he stay with Vokoun or go back to Fleury?

Prediction: Should the Bruins pull this off it won’t surprise me, but they were 0-3 against Pittsburgh this season and there has to be something to that. Take the Pens in six games.

Western Conference Finals

 

Jonathan Quick
I look for Quick to be the difference in the Western Conference Finals.

Los Angeles at Chicago – Both teams are coming off seven game series so there shouldn’t be any excuses as far as who’s more tired. The Blackhawks have to feel lucky in surviving Detroit who most thought would go down in four or five games but Chicago made it nevertheless. Unlike the series in the East where there are numerous differences in style of play, this one will be a little more similar.

If you’re looking for a clear difference it has to be in goal. Jonathan Quick, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy during last year’s Cup run, looks to be on his game once again. His goals against average is 1.50 while his save percentage is .948. Chicago’s Corey Crawford has been nearly as good statistically with a 1.70 GAA and a save percentage of .938. The difference is that Crawford let in some goals in the Detroit series that left many scratching their heads. Also consider that LA’s opponent San Jose, was one of the top offensive teams in the NHL while the Red Wings struggled to score all season with any consistency.

The Kings are also much better along the blue line than Detroit was and I think that will ultimately be the difference but the Blackhawks will not go easily because they do have offensive playmakers in Marion Hossa and Patrick Sharp but will they produce enough?

Prediction: The Kings have already lost more games in this post season (five) than they did in their Cup run last year (four). That does not deter me however from taking them to win in six game behind the play of Quick in the net.

Around the Rink: The New York Rangers  parted ways with head coach John Tortorella this week and I think the NY media has to be happy about that. While it’s hard to question Torts’ ability to coach, the guy is a jackass for lack of better term. His conduct during pressers was obnoxious and disrespectful and far worse than anything we’ve seen from Rex Ryan or Bill Parcells in football. So long Torts.

A Trio of Hockey Games on the Slate for Tonight

Jimmy Howard

 

Jimmy Howard
Howard will need to be at the top of his game to keep thwarting the Blackhawks.

Right now, the Pittsburgh Penguins are trailing the Ottawa Senators 1-0 in game four of their Eastern Conference Semi-final game. The Pens were just 28 seconds from having a three games to zero lead before squandering it and then losing in double overtime. Should the Sens hang on tonight (and there is much time left to be played), this series would suddenly a best of three.

That’s the nature of the National Hockey League Playoffs where a single play can turn the fate of an entire series completely around.

Coming up tonight, there are three monstrous games in the NHL. In New York, the Rangers are playing for their lives down three games to zero and have no room for error. In Detroit, the top-seeded Blackhawks are down 2-1 to the seventh seeded Red Wings but I don’t sense any panic here and I’ll explain why later. Finally, out in Los Angeles, the defending Stanley Cup Champion Kings are knotted at two games apiece after San Jose took both games at home.

While every game in any playoff series is huge, these games have the potential to be true turning points in all three series.

John Tortorella
Can Torts get the Rangers back in this series against Boston?

Boston at New York (Bruins lead 3-0) – In another example of just how fine the line between winning and losing are in the playoffs, the Rangers led 1-0 into the third in game three but gave up two goals. The last of which happened with under four minutes to go. It’s clear that Henrik Lundqvist is not 100% but he’s giving a valiant performance. The issue is the guy at the other end Tuukka Rask who has been excellent.

If anyone can fire up his troops it’s John Tortorella, but it may be too late for his offensively challenged club. The Rangers have been outscored 10-5 through the first three games and if they have any chance they have to get more than two goals past Rask. Interestingly enough, the Rangers are 1.5 goal favorites tonight. I like Boston to get the broom out and win a tough game by a goal.

Chicago at Detroit (Red Wings lead 2-1) – The Wings entered this series having lost seven straight time to Chicago but have turne the tables with aggressive fore-checking and huge goaltending from Jimmy Howard. Because Detroit is not a prolific scoring team, Howard has to be good especially with the loss of defenseman Danny DeKusyer.

I look for the Blackhawks to keep pouring pucks on Howard tonight and that only matter if Corey Crawford holds up on his end. Chicago entered the place number one in the league in goals against with just two per game, but it’s there inability to score goals that has haunted them.  Chicago will be hopping on the ice at Joe Louis Arena not wanting to return down 3-1. Take the ‘Hawks.

San Jose at Los Angeles (Series tied 2-2) – I really like the aggressiveness that LA goalie Jonathan Quick plays with. He isn’t afraid to smack opposing players in a scrum or give guys a whack with his stick but sometimes I wonder if it doesn’t backfire on him. Quick got himself involved in a couple of scrums early and it seemed to fire up the Sharks who went on to win 2-1 tying the series.

The Kings will need to address the speed the Sharks displayed in game four because it was clear the Sharks wanted an up tempo game and although the score was low, it was played at the high pace they wanted. If LA can slow up San Jose then it allows them to dictate even more on the offensive end. The Kings enter as 1.5 goal favorites and I’ll take it. No reason to break the home team streak anytime soon.

How Can You Not Like a Night in Sports Like This One?

Patrick Kane
Patrick Kane
Kane and Chicago have seven-straight against Detroit.

Tonight is a sports fan’s dream. Whether you are a basketball fan or a hockey fan doesn’t matter. In fact, I would encourage you to be both as the each offer exceptional athletes doing amazing things on their respective playing surfaces. In the National Hockey League this evening, you have the opening of the second round for one series while in the National Basketball Association you have two second round series nearing their end.

On the ice you have one of the great rivalries in not just hockey, but in sports in general. In the Western Conference, the top-seeded Chicago Blackhawks host their long-time rivals the Detroit Red Wings in the best of seven series. Ironically, this is the final time the two foes will face each other in the conference playoffs as Detroit heads to the Eastern Conference next season. Therefore, the only way these two will see each other in the future is in the Stanley Cup Finals.

The ‘Hawks are heavily favored and well they should be.  They beat the Wings in all four meetings this season and beat them the last three games of last season as well. A seven-game winning streak against Detroit will not be taken for granted by either team. Chicago is just a few years removed from their Stanley Cup title and much of that team remains while Detroit continues to be in transition from the loss of guys like Niklas Lidstrom and Tomas Holmstrom.

Nate Robinson
Robinson must do better than 0 for 12 from the field as he was in game four.

In the land of hoops, the Miami Heat have an opportunity to put the ‘tough as nails’ Chicago Bulls out of their misery at home in South Beach. On a track to the Northwest, the Oklahoma City Thunder will be trying to stave off elimination at home against the Memphis Grizzlies. Both the Heat and the Griz have 3-1 series leads, but each have different types of challenges.

In Miami, the Heat return home after taking both games in the Windy City. The last of those wins was a dominant performance at both ends of the court as the Bulls look like they have finally reached their end. Both Kirk Hinrich and Luol Deng are expected to miss game five which isn’t anything new, but worth noting nevertheless.

Over in the Sooner State, Oklahoma City is fighting for it’s life. After losing a heart-breaking overtime game in game four, they have no choice but to rebound. Kevin Durant has been incredibly valiant in trying to take some of the load left by the injury to Russell Westbrook. The Thunder were actually pretty impressive in game four but they lost their way in the OT period and for perhaps the first time in the playoffs, they looked tired.

Detroit at Chicago (Series 0-0) – The Red Wings enter Chicago having lost those seven-straight games to the Blackhawks and are an easy goal and half underdog in this one. Detroit will need to create offense and screens in front of Chicago goaltender Corey Crawford while getting a huge game from their own net-minder Jimmy Howard at the other end. I expect a one-goal game but take the ‘Hawks to win game one.

Chicago at Miami (Heat lead series 3-1) – Are you surprised that the team that actually won game one on this very court is now a 14-point underdog? Ya? I’m not either. I expect a valiant effort by the Bulls but I expect the Heat to cover and win going away.

Memphis at Oklahoma City (Grizzlies lead 3-1) – Memphis is a four-point underdog on the road tonight in Oklahoma City and frankly I like the Thunder to win by more than four. The Grizzlies are still a relatively young team and I expect to see a little lethargy from them while the Thunder will play with urgency.

Who I Like in the NHL First Round

Sidney Crosby
Sidney Crosby
I like the Pens to roll in the opening series whether Crosby plays or not.

The abbreviated National Hockey League season is a thing of the past and now is the time for the greatest playoff in professional sports. Mainstream thinking is that these playoffs are just going through the motions because Pittsburgh and Chicago are heading to the Stanley Cup Finals and there is no way around it.

While I see no way the Penguins get knocked off in the Eastern Conference whether Sidney Crosby returns anytime soon or not, I don’t think the path is as clear in the Western Conference. Let’s dig in!

8 New York Islanders at 1 Pittsburgh – The Pens are overwhelming favorites to win the Stanley Cup at odds of 7/2. The Isles are a much improved team that can point to a productive future because this Pittsburgh team has been just too good all year long even without Crosby over the last month. Take the Penguins in five games.

7 Ottawa at 2 Montreal – The Senators are pleased to be in the playoffs because when superstar Erik Karlsson went down with that severed Achilles’ the playoffs seemed out of reach. The Canadiens are fourth in the NHL in scoring and the loss of Karlsson will be felt on the blue line. Take the Habs in five games.

6 NY Rangers at 3 Washington – I would have to say the Rangers just never seemed to click this season and I don’t think the playoffs are the time to start. With that said, they could take advantage of a poor penalty kill by the Caps. The kicker is that the Capitals have the best power play in hockey. Special teams are the difference and I’ll take the Caps in seven.

5 Toronto at 4 Boston – The Northeast Division rivals hook up in what should be a classic series. Both have similar home and away records so there is no edge there. Both teams are in the top five in penalty kills but the Leafs are significantly better on the power play. I like Toronto in another seven game series.

Western Conference Playoffs

Jimmy Howard
The Wings' Howard is capable of carrying the team past Anaheim.

8 Minnesota at 1 Chicago – This really is a lop-sided series on paper and should be as well on the ice. The Blackhawks are superior on both ends of the ice ranking in the top three in both goals scored and goals against. The Wild have enough firepower to steal a game but that’s it. I like Chicago in five games.

7 Detroit at 2 Anaheim – The Red Wings won the season series 2-1 and both of those wins were in California. The biggest issue facing them thought is a lack of scoring. I look for the Ducks to try and get early leads to force Detroit out of its’ gameplan but the Wings have essentially been in the playoffs for the last three weeks trying to qualify. My upset pick here is the Wings in six games.

6 San Jose at 3 Vancouver – The Sharks actually started the season pretty hot but were soon over-shadowed by the Ducks out west. Their biggest issue is a lack of scoring as they rank 24th in the league. Vancouver plays pretty solid defense and scores much easier as well. I like the Canucks in six games.

5 Los Angeles at 4 St. Louis – The defending Stanley Cup Champs open defense of their title in St. Louis where the Blues are steady if anything. Steady actually describes the Kings quite well too as they are tenth in goals per game, penalty kills and power plays. This is exactly why I see a very balanced series that I see going seven tough games. Take the Kings to win the series.

Playoff Hockey Offers the Best There is in Sports

Pat LaFontaine
Pat LaFontaine
LaFontaine scored one of the great playoff goals when the Isles won the 'Easter Epic.'

There are certain times and certain events we can’t help but recall from our vivid world of sports. Often, these are games or moments that aren’t really supposed to be anything epic at all but then they somehow twist and turn into truly classic moments. The National Hockey League ends its’ abbreviated regular season today with a couple of teams still vying for playoff positioning. What follows over the next two months is arguably (not in my mind) the greatest playoffs in professional sports.

I recall one spring break when I was in high school and the NHL Playoffs were in full swing. I wasn’t the biggest hockey fan in the world but I enjoyed the game and had played a lot of it on the pond behind my house every winter. I turned on ESPN to find game seven of the New York Islanders-Washington Capitals series.

Before I knew it, I was watching one of the greatest games in playoff history. In what would become known as the ‘Easter Epic,’the Isles and Capitals stretched into the wee hours of Easter Sunday before New York’s Pat LaFontaine whirled around and got the puck past Washington goalie Bob Mason for the 3-2 win.

This was after more than 68 minutes of overtime.

I recall as I sat on the end of a hotel bed watching thinking this was one of the most intense things I’d ever seen. I had no dog in the fight as I rooted for a team in the other conference so to me, this was just enjoyable. With every puck drop into the zone there was the anticipation of a series’ clinching goal but minute after minute and shot by shot, the intensity grew.

Sidney Crosby
Crosby's return only ups the odds of the Pens winning the Cup.

I would experience this feeling many times afterward as I really fell in love with playoff hockey and to this day I still love it regardless of who is playing. After tonight, the NHL Playoffs will begin and the beards will be long and the series’ even longer in some cases. If you aren’t a hockey fan, you don’t have to be to get the rush of what playoff hockey is all about. It’s the ultimate feeling in sports where you are like a car doing 90 miles per hour down an open freeway and then bam! You hit the sudden and complete stop as a player scores a winning goal in overtime.

It really does end that fast so don’t miss it or at the very least, give it a chance. It’ll be worth it.

My Favorites to Win Lord Stanely’s Cup

Pittsburgh Penguins – The Pens have pretty much been a team to beat all year with two very sound goaltenders and the best player on ice in Sidney Crosby. Even with Sid down for the last month with the broken jaw, Pittsburgh really hasn’t missed a step and now he’ll return for the playoffs making them the clear favorite.

Chicago Blackhawks – Most folks only recall the ‘Hawks for their amazing start to the season and with good reason but this is also the top team in the Western Conference and and they will have every opportunity to hook up with the Pens in what could be an epic Finals.

Anaheim Ducks – Despite being just 5-4-1 over their last ten, the Ducks are a formidable opponent to challenge Chicago in the West. They have one of the top road records in the NHL which will be huge in their opening series against Detroit who always plays well at home.

Montreal Canadiens – Although just 4-6 in their last ten, they did finish the season by winning two-straight. Their biggest issue is the Penguins who they struggled with this season. If the Habs want to get to the Cup Finals they will have got through Pittsburgh.

Lower Seeds to Keep an Eye on… Detroit, Minnesota, New York Islanders