The season wraps up this weekend and, just as Herr Bettman wishes it, not all the playoff spots have been decided but many of the top seeds are squared away.
In the more boring of the two conferences, the West's top three looks like this:
2. San Jose
Minnesota locking down the Northwest Division title and the #3 seed is key for them as they'll likely face another team from their division in a battle of attrition. Given the number of ups and downs teams in the Northwest have faced this year, Minnesota rising to the top is a bit more surprising given that for a good part of the season, the scoring touch was gone. Now with Marian Gaborik and his wonky groin (knock on wood) both working at optimum potential, the Wild can be a scary team. If the standings hold in the West, and there's still potential for movement here below the top-3 fold, your first round matchups look like this:
1. Detroit vs. 8. Nashville
2. San Jose vs. 7. Calgary
3. Minnesota vs. 6. Colorado
4. Anaheim vs. 5. Dallas
Fans in Nashville, hey remember that team?, are happy to not have to get eliminated by San Jose again this year and for their reward they get a banged up and much-maligned Red Wings squad.
Out for Detroit: Tomas Kopecky - done for the playoffs. Kirk Maltby and Mikael Samuelsson out for Game 1. Kris Draper and Tomas Holmstrom will play the final game against Chicago to warm up and get their legs back for the playoffs. Brad Stuart may be ready to go in Game 1. Add to that that Dominik Hasek is old and bat-crap crazy and hasn't been right most of the second half of the year leads you to believe that Chris Osgood may get the nod for Detroit. Heck, Detroit just signed Michigan State product Justin Abdelkader to a pro deal and he's probably going to be starting in the playoffs.
Nothing like hitting the playoffs in full stride!
San Jose against either Calgary or Minnesota in no way scares me if I'm Ron Wilson. The scarier of the two matchups, to me, would be Calgary given that Mikka Kiprusoff still plays goal for the Flames and Jarome Iginla has very secretly been having an MVP season. Two guys cannot carry a team through the playoffs. They might steal you a round, but San Jose is too freakin' good to get beat by these guys.
I hope the Sharks are wise enough to unleash Douglas Murray and Jody Shelley once Iginla decides the Flames have had enough, things can get ugly fast when he gets frustrated...he might even get a backup goalie to follow him.
Minnesota seems destined to have the "Familiarity breeds contempt" Herr Bettman special series with getting either Colorado or Calgary to face off with in the opening round. Minnesota can knock around Colorado, but again, the wild card is Calgary. I fear that Kipper and Iginla might be the dynamic duo that could derail a team like Minnesota. If I'm Jacques Lemaire, I'd much rather not see Calgary come waltzing into Minnesota ready to play. To add to this, Minnesota's past with teams like to come out and hit you in the mouth doesn't look so stellar after they allowed every loser who laced up skates for Anaheim get under their skin last year.
Calgary is low on skating losers, but with Keenan cracking the whip on them, I'm sure their tired of hearing it from him and besides, I can only imagine that Mike Keenan becomes even more of a psycho in the locker room once it's playoff time.
Dallas and Anaheim. Yeah. I just can't picture Dallas having the cojones enough to get through a full series with this pack of felons. Steve Ott is going to be a very, very busy guy for Dallas and the unleashing of Krys Barch on the rest of the hockey world should be short-lived but quite exciting when he tries to put his fist into everyone on Anaheim's mouth.
Perhaps he could start with Randy Carlyle or jump Brian Burke in the parking lot before the game. You know, do things in real WWE style since that's what its going to best resemble. For things to go right for the Stars, they have to not get completely frustrated with Anaheim's abject ruination of hockey and for Jean-Sebastian Couchcushions to go ice cold while Marty Turco stonewalls everything.
Yeah...that's not looking good at all.
The East is just one spot away from being filled...and its the #3 seed. Yeah, I know, everyone's been busy taking a dump on the Southeast division this year and folks are treating whoever ends up the #6 seed as the favorite to beat the #3. There's one huge thing here, however. Most people were expecting that Carolina was going to be that team and the Washington Capitals are one point away from winning the division. That means the league's most dynamic and damaging scorer, Alexander Ovechkin, becomes a huge factor for whoever #6 turns out to be. Ovechkin has morphed into what folks expected we would get out of a guy during the Boring Years of hockey. Big, physical, scores in bunches. Problem was that hockey sucked then and scoring was viewed as the ever-present Satan.
Now that scoring isn't quite the demon it used to be, and now you've got a guy scoring like the old days, at last count 65 goals, people are seeing him as the new Messiah, usurping the throne out from under Sid the Kid. After all, Sid isn't getting MVP talk this year (thanks injuries!) and his teammate Evgeni Malkin more than aptly held down the fort in his absences.
Ovechkin, on the other hand, has dealt with having a team of nobodies around him, the second best player on the team being injured and ineffective for most of the season (Alexander Semin) and is single-handedly responsible for the awakening of Nick Backstrom emerging as Joe Thornton-lite in his assisting capabilities. Not to mention that if you tick off AO even a little bit, you won't catch him flopping on the ice or feigning injury to get the refs eye. He'll come right back and hit you in the mouth, good friend or not.
That said, the fact that Washington needs just one point to win the Southeast Division and the #3 spot in the playoffs speaks a lot to the shortcomings of Herr Bettman's points welfare system. For Washington to make the playoffs, all they have to do is either: win in regulation or make it to overtime. Not win in OT - just get there.
Does that sound even remotely sane?
Anyhow, here's how things sit in the erstwhile East as of this writing:
3. Carolina or Washington
4/5. New Jersey or New York
6-8. Boston, Ottawa or Philadelphia
Montreal is mercilessly banged up at this point, but with that said, they could still end up with the top seed. The Bruins went 0-8 against Montreal this season and looked like that even if Montreal played each game a man down, they'd still win. The B's would very much like to not see their playoff nemesis in the first round.
Ottawa, too, is much maligned as both Mike Fisher and Daniel Alfredsson are out for "weeks" of time and appear to be gimping into the playoffs. Bryan Murray's career in Ottawa is on the line here after firing John Paddock earlier this season and hopping back into the chair as head coach the team has been listless and uninteresting while being consistently mired in problems ranging from Ray Emery being a weirdo who can't stop pucks anymore to swinging a deal that helped out Carolina more than it did his own team. Whoops.
Philly is lurking in the weeds as a potential Anaheim-lite type of team that will require dirty tricks and shenanigans to advance further. If they end up against a team short on both nerves and people to fight, they could provide oodles of headaches. The Flyers relish wearing the black hat in the playoffs, however, and are used to being booed both on the road and at home. If the Flyers end up playing Pittsburgh in the first round, get my popcorn ready and the dent in my couch warmed up...it'll be a bumpy and entertaining ride.
New Jersey and New York seem destined to face off in the first round, which, works out well for the Rangers as they have flogged on the Devils all year long and Martin Brodeur seems to really hate that....that and Henrik Lundqvist.
Once the field is squared away - the real analysis, poking and prodding begins here. Giddy up!