Kukla's Korner

First Round Storylines

Maybe Gary Bettman finally decided to take Sean Avery’s advice and go for the whole “heroes and villains” marketing concept. Maybe Vince McMahon fixed the final weeks of the schedule to get these playoff matchups. Or maybe we’re just lucky.

On Wednesday, we start one of the most intriguing first rounds in NHL history. Just about every series has a unique storyline that’s a great reason to watch (that is, in addition to the general awesomeness of the Stanley Cup playoffs).

Not sure where to spend your time over the next two weeks? My advice is borrow a second TV from a neighbor, put your sets side-by-side, and enjoy. Here’s what you’ll be getting:

Eastern Conference

Boston vs. Montreal: The storied rivalry goes once more, except this time Boston is a rollicking #1 seed and Montreal is a battered team facing 100 years of expectations. Bruins fans would love nothing more than to ruin the Habs’ party, and Montreal fans would love to see this up-and-down season become one of destiny. As Sam Jackson said in Jurassic Park, hold on to your butts.

Washington vs. New York: This one’s ready for prime time. Not only do you have the high-flying Caps and Alex “Stick On Fire” Ovechkin, you’ll also have the ever unpredictable antics of Sean Avery in a playoff setting. And let’s not forget Ranger coach John Tortorella, he of “Shut yer yap” fame when it comes to playoff quotes. Think the Ranger faithful has any measure of politeness for Ovechkin and his goal-celebration exuberance? Think again. The bigger question is if Avery can effectively get under Ovechkin’s skin.

New Jersey vs. Carolina: For a while, the Devils looked like they might overtake the Bruins as the top seed. Then Marty Brodeur and Patrik Elias celebrated breaking records on the same night, and the Devils forgot that the season continued. Carolina, on the other hand, went from also-ran to playoff contender with a blistering pace that saw Cam Ward show the consistency fans had been clamoring for.

Pittsburgh vs. Philadelphia: Will Flyers fans bring their own pacifiers to “honor” Sidney Crosby? Philadelphia fans apparently haven’t realized yet that when Crosby is pumped about something, he usually plays even better. And now that he’s got some fellows named Guerin and Kunitz on his wing, they might want to reconsider those pacifiers. With a star-studded cast featuring Crosby, Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Evgeni Malkin, and more, this one’s going to be equal parts skill and toughness. The biggest question in this series is whether or not Dan Bylsma’s up-tempo style will work better in the playoffs than Michel Therrien’s.

Western Conference

San Jose vs. Anaheim: Another intra-state battle, and this one comes as a surprise. Left for dead about a month ago, the Ducks found their stride and pushed their way into the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Sharks took one of their Stanley Cup heroes (Travis Moen) are second only to Montreal when it comes expectations this season. Will the Sharks crack under pressure? Will Jonas Hiller keep the starter’s job? Will the dormant Jonathan Cheechoo come alive with his usual Duck-killer stats? The only thing that’s certain is that Chris Pronger will get booed in HP Pavilion.

Detroit vs. Columbus: If you haven’t paid attention to the season, then you might think this is a cakewalk for Detroit. Not so fast; these two teams split the season, including an 8-2 drubbing by Columbus. Detroit’s still got the firepower and experience but the goaltending has gone soft; on the other hand, Columbus is rip-roaring to go in their first-ever playoff series behind shutout leader Steve Mason. Division rivals? Should be fun.

Vancouver vs. St. Louis: We’ve got two very different playoff returns here. First, Vancouver features the Mats Sundin show—and quite possibly the last appearance of the Sedin twins as Canucks. As for the Blues? Despite being written off way back in December, the Blues scratched, clawed, and fought to get back to the post-season. Not only did they get back, they vaulted some heady competition to get to #6. Your longshot wildcard is Paul Kariya and whether he miraculously returns to the Blues lineup.

Chicago vs. Calgary: Sing it with me, folks—Here come the Hawks, the mighty Blackhawks. Yes, the resurgent Blackhawks are back in the playoffs and they’ve got home ice. Can this young crew, captained by a guy who can’t even buy a beer (something tells me that a lot of Chicagoans would be willing to buy a brew for Jonathan Toews, who turns 21 on April 29), withstand the pressure of the playoffs? And then there’s the Calgary Flames, a team that blew the division lead after looking so strong. From the inconsistent Dion Phaneuf to Miikka Kiprusoff’s up-and-down stats to newcomer Olli Jokinen, who just seems to curse whatever team he’s on, this one’s going to be unpredictable.

Edit 9:00 AM PST: Astute fans noted that the 8-2 Columbus win over Detroit was their second-to-last meeting of the season. I corrected that.

Filed in: NHL, | Mike Chen's Hockey Blog | Permalink
  Tags: playoffs

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