Playoffs set as quest for Stanley Cup begins



Kaitlin Santanna

It took the entire 82 games of the regular season, but the picture is finally set for the NHL 2009 playoffs. If the closeness of these first round matchups is any indication, the race for Lord Stanley’s Cup looks to be a close and heated battle.

Eastern Conference

No. 8 Montreal Canadiens vs.

No. 1 Boston Bruins

The Canadiens, always the underdog, have a huge task ahead of them in their start to the playoffs. The Bruins are favored to win the entire Eastern Conference and have all the necessary components of a successful playoff team. Veteran goalie Tim Thomas and defenseman Zdeno Chara provide a solid defensive tandem. Boston can also put the puck in the net, boasting seven players with 20 or more regular season goals this season. The Habs lost their last four games of the regular season along with the momentum they created early in the year. The Bruins will look to make quick work of the Canadiens and set their sights on a tough second-round matchup against either Pittsburgh or Philadelphia.

No. 7 New York Rangers vs.

No. 2 Washington Capitals

This matchup features a strong defensive team against an offensive powerhouse. The Capitals are heavy with scorers, including the league’s top goal scorer in Alex Ovechkin. Ovechkin had five points against the Rangers this season. Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green also provide Washington with plenty of offense, especially on the conference-best power play.

The Rangers’ main strength is in goal. New York’s success in the playoffs rests on goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. Washington dominated play between the two teams this season, but they have yet to meet since the Rangers hired John Tortorella and acquired Sean Avery and Nik Antropov. Tortorella turned New York into a more offensive team and transferred the Rangers into a playoff-ready squad.

No. 6 Carolina Hurricanes vs.

No. 3 New Jersey Devils

If momentum created at the end of the regular season is any indication of playoff success, the Hurricanes have the ability to upset the Devils. Carolina went 8-2-0 in their last-10 games, vaulting them into sixth place in the conference. The ‘Canes won the season series 3-1, but three of the four games were decided by only one goal.

Both Carolina and New Jersey sport hot goaltenders. The Hurricanes’ Cam Ward was the backbone for the team coming down the stretch. New Jersey’s Martin Brodeur needs no introduction, becoming the all-time NHL leader in regular season wins this season. Watch for this series to be a close one and for the ‘Canes’ Rod Brind’Amour and Devils’ Brian Rolston and Patrik Elias to contribute in scoring.

No. 5 Philadelphia Flyers vs.

No. 4 Pittsburgh Penguins

A rematch of last season’s Eastern Conference finals, the Battle of Pennsylvania looks to be as physical and exciting as ever. After a sleepy start to the season, a new coach and a healthy Sergei Gonchar revitalized the Penguins. With snipers such as Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Gonchar, Pittsburgh’s offensive prowess cannot be doubted. The Pens’ only question mark lies in goal where Marc Andre Fleury has not been as consistent as he was last season.

The Flyers’ possible weakness also lays in goal. If the Martin Biron that emerges for the playoffs is the same player that backstopped the Flyers last playoffs, Philadelphia has the tenacity and skill to keep up with the Pens.

Western Conference

No. 8 Anaheim Ducks vs.

No. 1 San Jose Sharks

Unfortunately for the Ducks, they have come up against one of the best teams in the league for their first round matchup. Anaheim has offensive strengths in Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry and defensive veterans Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger. The Sharks, however, have dominated play in the West all season long. Head coach Todd McLellan came from a winning program in Detroit to regenerate San Jose. Sharks’ defensemen Rob Blake and Dan Boyle have each won a Stanley Cup before and bring necessary experience to the blue line. Although the Sharks look to come out of the series unscathed, the experienced Ducks will provide San Jose a formable opponent.

No. 7 Columbus Blue Jackets vs.

No. 2 Detroit Red Wings

While the Red Wings are making their 18th-straight appearance in the playoffs and 58th overall, the Columbus Blue Jackets will be making their Stanley Cup playoff debut. Along with the Sharks, the Wings are the second favorite to come out of the West. Stocked with a team of veteran performers such as Pavel Datsyuk, Nicklas Lidstrom and Marian Hossa, Detroit is poised to overwhelm the young Blue Jackets and make a long postseason run.

Columbus’ inexperience may turn against them, but it is their youthful stars that carried the team into the playoffs. Rick Nash scored six goals against Detroit this season, and rookie goalie sensation Steve Mason looks to carry his team past the first round. The Wings’ only weakness may come in net with Chris Osgood, whose play has been inconsistent all season but often excels during the postseason.

No. 6 St. Louis Blues vs.

No. 3 Vancouver Canucks

This matchup features two of the hottest teams and goaltenders entering the playoffs. The Blues made a historic run to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2002, clinching a playoff berth with one game remaining in the regular season to rise from 15th in the conference in mid-February to sixth entering the playoffs. St. Louis’ fairytale end to their season may come to an early end with their matchup against the Canucks. While the Wings and Sharks steal the spotlight, Canucks’ goalie Robert Luongo has the ability to lead his team late in the playoffs. The Blues have a strong netminder of their own in Chris Mason, and the old-school style of both teams proves to be fast and physical.

No. 5 Calgary Flames vs.

No. 4 Chicago Blackhawks

The new and approved Blackhawks have made a long awaited return to the Stanley Cup playoffs. The last time Chicago won a playoff series was in 1996, and ironically the team that they swept was the Calgary Flames. The series won’t be as easy this year, however. It will be the first playoff appearances for Hawks such as Duncan Keith, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. The experienced Chicago goalies, Nikolai Khabibulin and Cristobal Huet, must provide strong starts to push their team into the second round. Likewise, Calgary goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff and forward Jarome Iginla can carry the Flames past the talented Chicago team. The Flames had the ability to capture this series, but key injuries to defenders Cory Sarich and Robyn Regehr give the advantage to the Hawks who swept the season series between the two teams.