2006 Stanley Cup playoffs
The playoff preview
The playoff preview
I've been picking playoff series, filling out brackets, since I was a kid with crayons, and if there's anything I've learned, it's tough. In the NHL — and especially since the last dynasty teams of the '80s died out — favourites fall left and right and even picking the so-called 'dark horses' is an exercise in guess work.
Maggie the Monkey does, indeed, have a chance to best the most expert of experts.
With that said, here are my picks for the first round and complete brackets for the rest of the playoffs.
(1) Ottawa v. (8) Tampa Bay
Series key: Goaltending
This may be a matchup of the first and worst seeds in the conference, but I think it'll actually be one of the closer, hard-fought series in the East. Despite the fact the Lightning have really struggled with their goals against this season, they've got so many weapons up front that they are one of the few teams that can keep pace with the Senators in a power-play contest (which many early-round games are sure to be). Tampa Bay (and Ottawa, for that matter) will only go as far as their struggling goaltending tandem can take them.
Ottawa in 6
(2) Carolina v. (7) Montreal
Series key: Strong defence from the backend
The Hurricanes incredible rise in the East could end here, as the Habs have played phenomenally well in front of Cristobal Huet over the second half of the season. Carolina has a wealth of experience upfront and holds the edge in scoring punch, but these club's defence pairings are both on the weaker sides and if Hurricanes coach Peter Laviolette can't continue to squeeze as much as he has from his blueline corps, it could be a long series. This Montreal team looks an awful lot like the one that upset Boston in 2004.
Carolina in 7
(3) New Jersey v. (6) N.Y. Rangers
Series key: Jaromir Jagr
The Devils' 11-game winning streak heading into the playoffs has to be a worry for Rangers coach Tom Renney, but that's not the only one. With Lou Lamoriello behind the bench, New Jersey is playing the most disciplined hockey in the league, allowing just 63 power-plays goals all season. Since Patrik Elias has returned, they're 30-9-4. Jagr's going to have to be a superstar and a leader, and I don't see that happening.
New Jersey in 5
(4) Buffalo v. (5) Philadelphia
Series key: Experience and Peter Forsberg
If I've learned anything watching the Vancouver Canucks intently all those years, it's that you should never, ever under-estimate Forsberg. When healthy, he's one of the greatest players of the past decade, and in the playoffs, even more so. The Flyers are a far better team than their record indicates this season, and if they can employ anywhere near a full blueline, their experience will be very difficult for a young Sabres club to contend with. It won't be a walk, by any means, and I do like Buffalo's chances, but I'm picking experience — and Forsberg — to win out.
Philadelphia in 6
(1) Detroit v. (8) Edmonton
Series key: Dwayne Roloson
It comes down to this: Can the Oilers stop the league's top power play in a series that is going to come down to special teams? Roloson is going to have a huge say in that, and he's going to have to be a star. Chris Pronger's a big factor here as well. The Red Wings have shown few weaknesses all season, but they have struggled somewhat when playing the Oilers. Still, with the playoffs comes a raised intensity level, and Edmonton's going to need a whole lot more from players like Mike Peca than they got during the season.It'll be a fascinating series.
Detroit in 6
(2) Dallas v. (7) Colorado
Series key: The Avalanche defence
I picked Colorado's defence, but this series may come down to goaltending as well. While Jose Theodore has had his own problems this season, a lot of eyeballs are going to be on Stars netminder Marty Turco to see if he can shake what some are terming a playoff 'jinx.' (Considering Dallas allowed the fewest shots against this season, I'm not so sure it'll matter.) While the Stars' defence is made up of experienced veterans and has plenty of grit, Colorado's backend is going to be leaning heavily on Patrice Brisebois and Brett Clark.
Dallas in 6
(3) Calgary v. (6) Anaheim
Series key: The Flames' offence
Granted, Calgary has had difficulty scoring all season and has continued to win, but in a series like this, one that will be the most tightly contested of any in the first round, those extra goals are going to be needed. I love the way the Ducks have played down the stretch this season, and they've got some of the top defensive forwards in the league in guys like Samuel Pahlsson and Rob Niedermayer. Calgary's defence is far more experienced and battle-tested, but Anaheim coach Randy Carlyle has worked wonders with this group so far.
Anaheim in 7
(4) Nashville v. (5) San Jose
Series key: Chris Mason
Granted, it's an easy out to pick Mason as the series' key, but he will truly need to play well beyond expectations for the Predators to win this series. The Nashville defence allowed the fifth-most shots against this season, the highest such number among playoff teams, and will definitely have to cutdown on the workload their untested 'tender faces. The Sharks have been one of the league's top teams the past few months, but this will be far from a cakewalk. Mason sounds as if he's up for the challenge and given that his club was 11-5-1 with him in goal, there'll definitely be some fight in this team. Joe Thornton, however, will best his playoff demons.
San Jose in 6
The bracket racket (click for full-size versions)
And, in the finals, the New Jersey Devils will win their fourth Stanley Cup.
UPDATE Just bumping this to the top, on the day the games begin.