My 2009 playoff bracket
Montreal (8) vs. Boston (1): These teams are stuck to each other like glue on skates, but unlike previous years, the Bruins are the clear favorites. They've won five straight against the Habs, who are reeling from Guy Carbonneau's firing, Alex Kovalev's benching and off-ice associations that make the team long for the simplicity of a goalie controversy. No controversy in Boston, where fans now expect Tim Thomas to stand on his head, because that's how he seems to stop the puck. Bruins in six.
New York (7) vs. Washington (2): Speaking of glue on skates, Sean Avery just put some all over Alex Ovechkin's as he was tying the laces together. Even a slight rejuvenation under new coach John Tortorella hasn't gotten New York out of its offensive funk. Glue and gamesmanship aside, even if Henrik Lundqvist, New York's superb goalie, has sufficient help in shutting down Ovechkin, it may still not be enough. Lundqvist must outplay Jose Theodore by a lot for the Rangers to advance. As a compelling sidebar, watch New York's top-ranked penalty kill (87.8%) battle Washington's No. 2 power play (25.2%), the game within the game that may decide the series. Caps in five
Carolina (6) vs. New Jersey (3): What happened to the Devils after Marty Brodeur broke Patrick Roy's record for career wins is an absolute mystery. They went from Cup challengers to likely also-rans in the drop of a puck. Brodeur may be the game's greatest goaltender, but Cam Ward is the hottest, having won Player of the Month honors in March. The Devils will be trouble if they get past Round One, but here's a surprise bet that they won't. Hurricanes in seven.
Philadelphia (5) vs. Pittsburgh (4): The Penguins were on the brink of early golf just a few weeks ago, but have righted the ship, and with two of the league's top three scorers (Malkin and Crosby), are one of the few teams that can beat you in six minutes. Given the way they've blown late leads, they are also one of the teams you can come back against. The Flyers will need to bump and grind Pittsburgh better than they did in last year's Eastern ouster. This is almost a toss-up. Penguins in seven.
Anaheim (8) vs. San Jose (1): Paging Joe Thornton. Calling Patrick Marleau. Please report to the Stanley Cup playoffs. Your breakthrough is waiting. If you don't think the fragile Sharks weren't privately hoping to dodge the battle-tested Ducks in favor of the long-wayward Blues or the newbie Jackets, you've been dreaming. So have Shark fans. This is the year! This should be San Jose's series on talent alone, but that noose around their necks will get awfully tight if they fall behind, especially since Anaheim was the league's best team at protecting a lead (.963 when ahead after two). The Sharks have more pop and better goaltending, but their track record of disintegration hangs over them. Sharks in six.
Columbus (7) vs. Detroit (2): On the one hand, consider the list of ways the Wings can beat you; on the other consider . . . Rick Nash. If there is any question as to the teams' relative arsenals, Detroit had the league's best power play (25.2%) and Columbus had the league's worst (12.7%). With any sort of reliable goaltending, the Wings will waltz. Jacket fans can point to the Sharks' first franchise win several years ago against the top-seeded Wings and a goalie named Chris Osgood. Red Wings in five.
St. Louis (6) vs. Vancouver (3): Congratulate the Blues on their overachievement, but beware that wall that awaits. Roberto Luongo will win some quintuple-overtime thriller before he drops from exhaustion. Chris Mason has been the NHL's biggest surprise during the regular season and especially that run to the playoffs. John Davidson's late-season refusal to deal gritty veteran Keith Tkachuk on the slim chance his team would be around in mid-April was the year's smartest non-trade. Canucks in six.
Calgary (5) vs. Chicago (4): The Hawks are a Cup champion in waiting, so enjoy their inexperience while you can. Their late-season shutout of the Wings should open some eyes among the doubters. Yes, the game didn't mean much, but Nikolai Khabibulin, who stopped 37 shots, is a necessary veteran presence on a team that has no idea how to behave and prosper in the postseason. Still, the Hawks have many a gunner who can light it up against the league's only playoff team with goals-against average of 3.00 for the season. Blackhawks in seven
Carolina (6) vs. Boston (1): For those who ponder the coming out party of ex-Bruin Thornton, what about Marc Savard the playmaking center who, word has it, goes to the workout room only to pick up a newspaper and find his name on the stat sheet? Ah, but Savard saved his new colors for last year's playoffs when he played through an injured back. He gets the fact that he needs a showcase series to resurrect his reputation. Here's a guess that this will be it. Bruins in seven.
Pittsburgh (4) vs. Washington (2): The playoffs' marquee match-up of superstars is enough to make any hockey fan salivate. But watch for somebody who isn't named Ovechkin, Crosby or Malkin to step up with a key play that turns the series. Early in the season, that could have been forward Alex Semin. Defenseman Mike Green (31 goals) would be the easy pick now. But here's a vote for a stunning solo dash overtime goal by playmaker Nicklas Backstrom. Capitals in five.
Chicago (4) vs. San Jose (1): After last year's ouster in the Western finals, Sharks defenseman Brian Campbell was telling fans that San Jose was on the verge of getting it right. Too bad Campbell will be on the losing end this time. With the league's third-best goals-against (2.43), the Sharks will be better prepared than the Flames to shut down young guns like Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane who will come out firing for Chicago. Sharks in six.
Vancouver (3) vs. Detroit (2): So this is where the Red Wings, with their two-headed average goalie monster will fall to the esteemed Luongo, who is surely one of the best of his generation. Not so fast. Yes, the Canucks' captain closed the season with two shutouts, but he also played five games in the final week. A fresher goalie (who, by the way, won the Stanley Cup last year) is less likely to peter out and give up weird exhaustion-induced brain cramps (see last year's playoffs). Detroit's snipers can clean up the rest. Red Wings in six.
Washington (2) vs. Boston (1): For all his speed, people overlook the way Ovechkin can lean on a defenseman and use his strength against him. That makes the challenge of beating Boston's backline stud Zdeno Chara so intriguing. Veterans who have excelled in spring hockey become all the more dangerous in a series like this, too. But before you think Mark Recchi, don't overlook Sergei Fedorov. Capitals in seven.
Detroit (2) vs. San Jose (1): Same script, different year. Go back to Dec. 18 when the Sharks had earned points in 15 straight games before getting smothered 6-0 by the Wings. Or think about Feb. 25 when they had earned points in nine of 10 before dropping a 4-1 decision to Detroit. After beating them in the playoffs before, the Wings are not worried about any bite these Sharks may have left in them. Smart hockey will be at a premium, as two of the league's top three power plays are ready to strike. Red Wings in seven.
Stanley Cup Final
Washington vs. Detroit: Here's a strategic conundrum for Detroit coach Mike Babcock: When Ovechkin does struggle, and that hasn't happened since the Tsars were around, it's usually a European style (even if you don't call it a trap) that gives him trouble. With the team Babcock has now, especially with the addition of Marian Hossa, the temptation is to pull off the restraints and let them race. Yet, the Wings also have enough forwards who know how to play a patient, stifling style that could thwart Washington's one primary weapon. One goalie, Osgood or Theodore, is going to prove doubters wrong; the other will have them over for a long offseason supper. Red Wings in six.
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