When the National Hockey League set up its new collective bargaining agreement, it marked the first time that a salary cap was implemented into the league. The goal was to achieve a high level of parity in the NHL. The league took their shot and scored. The 2007-2008 season is the most balanced ever. Not counting overtime losses, 24 of the 30 NHL franchises were over .500 on the season. Only five teams missed the 80 point plateau.
Without further adieu, here are the playoff pairings and my personal predictions.
(All logos courtesy of Chris Creamer's http://www.sportslogos.net/)
Players to watch: Montreal - The spotlight will be on goaltender Carey Price. The 21-year-old netminder will get his first playoff experience after being handed the reins on Trade Deadline Day with the trade of Cristobal Huet to Washington. Price won 15 of his last 22 games played. Alexei Kovalev (35-49-84) leads a group of crafty two-way forwards. On defense, Montreal is led by 2004 9th round draft pick Mark Streit (13-49-62) and veteran Andrei Markov (16-42-58).
Boston - The Bruins might get an enormous lift by getting back offensive leader Patrice Bergeron (3-4-7) who was injured by a vicious check from behind just ten games into the season. He was cleared for full contact practice this week. Marc Savard (15-63-78) led an inconsistent offense in points. On the blue line, big 6'9" 255 lb. Zdeno Chara (17-34-51) anchors a defense that has seen ten different defensemen suit up.
Season series (MTL wins 8-0): Oct. 22: MTL 6 BOS 1; Nov. 8: MTL 2 BOS 1; Nov. 17: MTL 7 BOS 4; Dec. 6: MTL 4 BOS 2; Jan. 10: MTL 5 BOS 2; Jan. 22: MTL 8 BOS 2; Mar. 20: MTL 4 BOS 2; Mar. 22: MTL 3 BOS 2 (SO)
Prediction: Canadiens in 4. The Habs will make it 12-for-12 against the Bruins this year. They're just too strong on offense and defense and have edge in goaltending, as it has been a revolving door in Boston all season long. Boston can win if Tim Thomas or Alex Auld plays out of this world.
Players to watch: Pittsburgh - This discussion begins with the NHL's mega-superstar Sidney Crosby (24-48-72). While Crosby missed time with a severely sprained ankle, Evgeni Malkin (47-59-106) made a name for himself as more than just Sid the Kid's right hand man. Sergei Gonchar (12-53-65) and Ryan Whitney (12-28-40) supply the offense from the back end. Goaltending is a bit of a question, but Marc-Andre Fleury has applied some well-needed stability. Since returning Feb. 28 from an ankle injury, Fleury has gone 10-2-1.
Ottawa - Ottawa is going to face an uphill battle without Daniel Alfredsson (40-49-89) and grinder Mike Fisher (23-24-47). Alfredsson was injured by Toronto's Mark Bell with a pretty vicious elbow during the last week of the season. The bulk of the offense will have to come from the incredibly creative Jason Spezza (34-58-92) and defenseman Dany Heatley (41-41-82). Ottawa has a bruising back line including 6'1" 226 lb. Anton Volchenkov and 6'2" 208 lb. Wade Redden.
Season series (OTT wins 3-1): Nov. 22: PIT 6 OTT 5 (OT); Dec. 13: OTT 4 PIT 1; Feb. 23: OTT 4 PIT 3 (OT); Mar. 1: OTT 5 PIT 4
Prediction: Penguins in 6. It's going to be extremely hard for Ottawa to make up for the loss of Alfredsson, and Fisher's line probably would have matched up against Crosby's line for the Pens. Ottawa has many question marks between the pipes and Fleury is coming into his own for Pittsburgh. Ottawa can win if they shut down Crosby and stay out of the penalty box and keep Pittsburgh's powerplay (4th best in the league) off the ice.
Players to watch: Washington - The league's other mega-superstar Alexander Ovechkin (65-47-112) will be on display for the first time in the second season. He'll need help from his linemate Nicklas Backstrom (14-55-69) to create chances against the bruising Flyers defense and shutdown line. Mike Green (18-38-56) in just his second full year is the catalyst on defense. Trade deadline day acquisition Cristobal Huet has played out of his mind since being Washington's starter. He has gone 11-2 and has been an integral part of the Caps 37-17-7 charge to the playoffs.
Philadelphia - The Flyers high-priced free agent addition Daniel Briere (31-41-72) is banged up with a knee injury, but is expected to play. Mike Richards (28-47-75) led the team in points and leads a very balanced offense. The defensive unit is also very balanced, led offensively by Kimmo Timonen (8-36-44), and defensively by Braydon Coburn. Goaltending is a bit of a question as Martin Biron has a reputation of being a great second half goalie and a mediocre playoff tender.
Season series (WSH wins 3-1): Nov. 2: PHI 3 WSH 2; Nov. 23: WSH 4 PHI 3 (OT); Jan. 13: WSH 6 PHI 4; Feb. 6: WSH 4 PHI 3;
Prediction: Capitals in 5. Alexander Ovechkin will be the LeBron James of the NHL playoffs. He has the ability to completely take over a game with physicality and point production and his team is steamrolling. The Flyers can win if Martin Biron is able to shut down Ovechkin and the secondary scorers and if Philadelphia can use their physical game to fluster the superstar Russian.
Players to watch: New Jersey - Who else but Martin Brodeur? Arguably the best goaltender of all time, Brodeur has amassed an amazing 94 playoff wins. He's won three Stanley Cups, most recently in 2003, and has a lifetime playoff GAA of 1.89. He also has 21 postseason shutouts. Providing the offensive punch for the Devils are Zach Parise (32-33-65) and Patrik Elias (20-35-55). The Devils rely heavily on a neutral zone trap style of defense and, thus, do not create much offense. On the blueline, a very steady, not mobile, group led by Colin White and Paul Martin play in front of Brodeur.
New York - The Rangers are another team that, like many in the playoffs, led by their goaltender, Swedish Gold Medalist Henrik Lundqvist. Lundqvist led the NHL in shutouts this season with 10. Little League World Series hero Chris Drury (25-33-58) is a born leader in the postseason. He, along with Jaromir Jagr (25-46-71) and Alaska native Scott Gomez (16-54-70) will have to get pucks past Brodeur to win the series. Michal Rozsival and patchwork of solid defensive defensemen will be key to the series.
Season series (NYR wins 7-1): Oct. 25: NYR 2 NJ 0; Nov. 3: NYR 2 NJ 1 (SO); Nov. 14: NYR 4 NJ 2; Dec. 9: NYR 1 NJ 0 (OT); Feb. 1: NYR 3 NJ 1; Mar. 19: NYR 2 NJ 1 (SO); Mar. 27: NYR 3 NJ 2; Apr. 6: NJ 3 NYR 2
Prediction: Rangers in 7. Take the under on every game of this series. I have a very hard time betting against Martin Brodeur, but his playoff numbers have tailed off every year since his Stanley Cup win. Nevertheless, he's still Martin Brodeur, the same guy who won 44 games this season. New York has more offense than New Jersey and, as evidenced by the season series, the Devils had trouble scoring on the Rangers. The Devils can win if Martin Brodeur carries them to the series victory.
Players to watch: Detroit - Pavel Datsyuk (31-66-97) The Russian centerman may be one of the league's craftiest and most exciting forwards. His linemate, Henrik Zetterberg (43-49-92), helped to combine for 76 powerplay points this season. On the blue line, 6-time Norris Trophy winner Nicklas Lidstrom (8-60-68, +40) leads the charge. Both Dominik Hasek and Chris Osgood are very capable playoff veterans with Stanley Cup rings.
Nashville - Jason Arnott (28-44-72) and J.P. Dumont (29-43-72) both have playoff experience and can help lead the Predators. On the young, but talented, blue line, Dan Hamhuis (4-23-27) and Marek Zidlicky (5-38-43) play a good two-way game. Dan Ellis will get the starting nod and he has no postseason experience at the NHL level.
Season series (DET wins 5-3): Nov. 7: DET 3 NSH 2 (SO); Nov. 22: NSH 3 DET 2; Dec. 10: DET 2 NSH 1; Feb. 12: NSH 4 DET 2; Mar. 9: DET 4 NSH 3; Mar. 15: NSH 4 DET 2; Mar. 20: DET 6 NSH 3; Mar. 30: DET 1 NSH 0 (OT)
Prediction: Red Wings in 5. I only say Red Wings in five games because Nashville will find a way to steal one at home. The Red Wings are just entirely too powerful and too balanced for Nashville to contend with. If Ellis plays out of this world and the Red Wings suffer a big injury, the Preds have a chance. With that unlikely, you can put your life savings on the Wings.
Players to watch: San Jose - Goaltender Evgeni Nabokov was magnificent this season. In 76 games, he posted a 46-21-8 record with a 2.15 GAA. If it weren't for Alexander Ovechkin's incredible season, Nabokov would be the league's most valuable player. At forward, playmaker Joe Thornton (29-67-96) leads a balanced offense. A very solid defensive unit with newcomer Brian Campbell (3-15-18) and veteran Craig Rivet (5-30-35) helped them to the second-best record in the NHL.
Calgary - Another team that begins with their goaltender, Miikka Kiprusoff. Kipper struggled early, but still managed to post a 39-26-10 record with a 2.69 GAA. Jarome Iginla (50-48-98) carries another balanced offense, capable of rolling all four lines without fear. Thumper Dion Phaneuf (17-43-60), perhaps a future Norris Trophy winner himself, is the leader by example on defense.
Season series (CGY won 3-1): Oct. 22: SJ 4 CGY 1; Jan. 3: CGY 3 SJ 2 (OT); Jan. 30: CGY 5 SJ 4; Feb. 12: CGY 4 SJ 3 (OT)
Prediction: After much deliberation, Flames in 7. It will be difficult to win game seven in San Jose, but Calgary matches up extremely well with the Sharks. Their defense is punishing, and Kiprusoff is at his best in the postseason. The Sharks have a track record of struggling in April. I expect this series to be tight-checking, low-scoring, and maybe a multiple overtime game or two. San Jose can win if Nabokov plays up to his ability and Patrick Marleau reappears from the depths of mediocrity.
Players to watch: Minnesota - Minnesota will go as far as goaltender Niklas Backstrom will take them. Backstrom lost just 13 games in regulation this season. He is the prime beneficiary of Minnesota's trapping style. Marian Gaborik (42-41-83) leads a defensively responsible offense. On defense, Brent Burns (15-28-43) provides some offensive punch while the Wild will need to offset the loss of Kurtis Foster who broke his femur in March.
Colorado - Colorado was the most active team on Trade Deadline day, acquiring veterans Adam Foote and Ruslan Salei and signing Peter Forsberg from free agency. Forsberg had 13 assists in his nine games back. Paul Stastny (24-47-71) led the team in points, despite playing in just 66 games. Colorado has offensive depth down all of its top nine forwards. The defense has been banged up all year and will need to stay healthy to beat Minnesota. Jose Theodore has played extremely well down the stretch and will have to continue.
Season series (MIN wins 5-3): Oct. 21: MIN 3 COL 2; Oct. 28: COL 3 MIN 1; Nov. 11: COL 4 MIN 2; Nov. 18: MIN 4 COL 1; Jan. 24: MIN 3 COL 2; Mar. 17: MIN 3 COL 1; Mar. 30: MIN 3 COL 2 (OT); Apr. 6: COL 4 MIN 3 (SO)
Prediction: Avalanche in 6. Minnesota is going to have a hard time shooting down Colorado's scorers. Minnesota is going to try and create transitional offense in the neutral zone, so Colorado's forwards will be dumping and chasing all series. With all the speed and talent up front, that is sure to lead to some offense. Minnesota can win the series if Backstrom wins it for them and they find a way to score enough.
Players to watch: Anaheim - Anaheim's strength lies on the back end. They have, perhaps, the best top six of any team in the playoffs. Armed with veterans Chris Pronger (12-31-43), Scott Niedermayer (8-17-25) and Mathieu Schneider (12-27-39), Anaheim's defense is punishing, experienced, and extraordinarily sound. Ryan Getzlaf (24-58-82) led all Anaheim scorers and the addition of Teemu Selanne (12-11-23, 26 games) helped to make the Ducks forwards even better. 2003 Conn Smythe Trophy winner Jean-Sebastien Giguere finished 2nd in GAA this season.
Dallas - Every year, the Dallas Stars have a good regular season and falter in the playoffs. It's up to Marty Turco to make the necessary saves to get them over the hump. Trade Deadline acquisition Brad Richards has played great since being added with almost a point-per-game. Brendan Morrow (32-42-74, 108 PIM) is one of the most complete players in the NHL. Sergei Zubov (4-31-35) is the anchor of an eager and talented group of rookies and fellow veteran Phillippe Boucher (2-12-14, 38 games).
Season series (DAL wins 5-3): Oct. 20: DAL 3 ANA 1; Nov. 5: DAL 5 ANA 0; Nov. 21: DAL 2 ANA 1; Jan. 15: ANA 4 DAL 2; Jan. 20: DAL 5 ANA 2; Feb. 15: DAL 4 ANA 2; Mar. 19: ANA 2 DAL 1; Mar. 30: ANA 3 DAL 2 (OT)
Prediction: Ducks in 5. Every year I want to buy into the Stars, but the Ducks are a bad matchup for them. Once the Ducks added all their pieces, the season series was 2-2, and the Ducks went in synch. Now, Anaheim is arguably the most powerful team in the entire postseason. The Ducks might steamroll this series and wind up rolling right on into the Stanley Cup finals.
The playoffs begin Wednesday April 9. Weekend coverage will be on NBC while weekday coverage can be seen on Vs.