by Mike Chen on 03/30/09 at 03:02 PM ET
I don’t know about you, but I look at the top of the standings and I vulnerabilities. Obviously, the Sharks, Red Wings, and Bruins are good teams—their records speak for themselves. But the great thing about an 82-game season is it gives teams time to understand and exploit the inherent flaws in each team. No team is perfect, and sometimes it just takes a little time to discover this.
That’s why I’m guessing that at least one of these three gets knocked out in the first round. Their inconsistent play in the second half of the season shows that they’re all vulnerable in their own ways. In fact, scanning down to the second tier of teams (Chicago, Calgary, Washington) and the New Jersey Devils, who are floating somewhere in between of the first and second tier, I wouldn’t put my money on anyone right now. Out of all of the “have” teams, I’d say that the most consistent going into the playoffs might just be the Devils—but the “have not” playoff teams really aren’t that far away.
Out west, if I was a top seed, the one team I’d try to avoid like the plague would be the Columbus Blue Jackets. In past seasons, I’ve had little reason to watch Columbus but since the All-Star break I’ve tuned into more and more of their games and I’m pretty sure that they’ll be loads of problems for whichever top seed they face.
The problem with Columbus has three parts:
-First, they’ve addressed the whole notion that only Rick Nash scores on the team. Antoine Vermette and RJ Umberger have found a nice chemistry and provide a good second scoring line. At the same time, injuries have kept depth veterans like Fredrik Modin out of the lineup for stretches of the season. As good as Columbus has been during the stretch run, they’re not even playing with a full lineup.
-Second, Ken Hitchcock’s got Columbus playing aggressive, abrasive hockey that’s defensively sound and pretty energetic. While their power play isn’t anything to write home about, the fact that they’re getting it done without that as a key weapon shows that this team has really bought into Hitch’s system. That Hitchcock guy knows a thing or two about coaching, and I’m guessing that the in-your-face style he’s got Columbus skating with will mesh perfectly with the playoffs.
-Third, they’ve got Steve Mason. Sure, he’s a rookie but he’s big, quick, and extremely talented. The only real downside to Mason is that he might be burnt out from a whirlwind season. His bout with mono took him out for a chunk of the season, and that might actually be a blessing in disguise as it prevented him from getting overloaded in his rookie campaign.
Of course, since this will be the first playoff series in Columbus history, the team might get the jitters and wind up being too hyped up, leading to brain-cramp turnovers and bad penalties. That’s the only way I can see Columbus going out of the first round easily; otherwise, they’ll provide an entertaining and brutal match up for whichever top seed has to face them.
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