The bracket racket
Predictions with conviction (sort of)
(1) Buffalo v. (8) N.Y. Islanders
Series key: The Isles' lunch-pail defence
Hiegh — what a task for the likes of Brendan Witt and Sean Hill. The vets have had, by all accounts, a great year under the circumstances, playing big minutes in a shutdown role on a middling team in a high-scoring conference, and now they'll be tasked with taking out the most potent offensive line-up in the league. I don't like their chances, especially with Wade 'Doobie' Dubielewicz behind them. Ted Nolan has something to prove here, but he's simply overmatched at every position. (Is it even worth mentioning Alexei Yashin's playoff record?)
Buffalo in 4
(2) New Jersey v. (7) Tampa Bay
Series key: Johan Holmqvist and the 25-per-cent rule
Let's be frank: The Lightning's crease situation has been a mess since they won the Cup three years ago. And I think it's starting to get to John Tortorella. Maybe. Tampa boasts three of the top offensive players in the league, not to mention one of the best offensive blueliners, but they're about to lock horns with a team that needs but two goals a night to win — regardless of their opponent. And given he's had a career filled with remarkable performances, you can't overlook the fact Martin Brodeur has had a career year this season.
New Jersey in 5
(3) Atlanta v. (6) N.Y. Rangers
Series key: Ilya Kovalchuk
The playoff drought finally ends for the Thrashers and Kovalchuk, but advancing to Round 2 is going to be nearly as arduous a chore as getting to the dance. Henrik Lundqvist has been unconscionable since Christmas, the league's best netminder, and will be looking to atone for a subpar first-round outing last season. The Rangers' defence still leaves much to be desired, however, and if Kovalchuk and friends get loose, this could be high-scoring fare. Sean Avery has become a big part of what's happening in New York, and the Thrashers are going to have a tough time matching what Brendan Shanahan's going to bring for this one. It should be a terrific series.
Rangers in 7
(4) Ottawa v. (5) Pittsburgh
Series key: Phillips/Volchenkov v. Crosby
What a match-up. I think I'm like a lot of people in that this series is the one I'm most looking forward to watching throughout the first round — and that's not just because of the Sid Crosby factor. The Penguins weren't expected to be here, and certainly not in fifth spot lining up against one of the league's best clubs, and that 'unknown' factor is part of what the draw is. Yet for all of Pittsburgh's youthful firepower, there are huge holes on this team that Heatley/Spezza/Alfredsson should be able to exploit — especially on the power play, where the likes of Josef Melichar and Rob Scuderi will be attempting to shutdown some of the NHL's premier scorers. On the flip side, the Senators have their newly inked duo of Chris Phillips and Anton Volchenkov, who have been two of the top defensive defencemen in the league this season, and while they won't be able to entirely halt The Crosby, it'll be enough to win the series. I also don't like Marc-Andre Fleury's chances under pressure.
Ottawa in 6
(1) Detroit v. (8) Calgary
Series key: Hasek's nether region, abductors, etc.
It doesn't take a genius to see the similarities: The top-ranked Red Wings face off against an underdog club from Alberta in a series where the experts are all picking a Motown romp. The Flames are a brutal match-up to get for a No. 1 seed, but this is the Western Conference in the screwy, division-play heavy NHL, and this should be a terrific series. Injuries to Henrik Zetterberg, Todd Bertuzzi, Niklas Kronwall and Robyn Regehr could really affect what happens here, as could Calgary coach Jim Playfair's ability to rein in his troops if things go awry early on. The Flames finally have some decent firepower to put out there, but it's on the backend where some funny business has gone on this season. And if Hasek's on his game, the Red Wings will be extremely difficult to score on with the way Nick Lidstrom has played this season. Home ice wins out in this one.
Red Wings in 7
(2) Anaheim v. (7) Minnesota
Series key: An underrated Wild defence
See here for a full preview of this series
Minnesota in 7
(3) Vancouver v. (6) Dallas
Series key: A Sedin shutdown
If not the league MVP, Roberto Luongo is certainly among the contenders. And despite the fact that he's yet to taste postseason action, I don't doubt for a second that his game won't slip in the pressure-packed atmosphere of Round 1. No, it's not in goal where there are questions for the Canucks, but rather at the other end of the rink, especially given Vancouver had just two players with more than 60 points. The funny thing is, the Stars didn't have a single player hit that figure this season, mainly due to the fact that captain Brenden Morrow and ex-captain Mike Modano both missed huge portions of the season. What Dallas does have, however, is forward depth in the form of Mike Ribeiro, Jussi Jokinen, Jere Lehtinen, Stu Barnes, Jeff Halpern, Eric Lindros — well you get the idea. Modano and Lehtinen are elite shutdown players, and the addition of grizzled vet Mattias Norstrom on the backend is really going to make Dallas difficult to score on. The main question I have is, if Dallas manages to keep the Sedins' twin power at bay, can the Canucks possibly win this series? Besides, given the way Mike Smith has played in relief this season, the Stars finally have an option should Marty Turco pull a Marty Turco.
Dallas in 6
(4) Nashville v. (5) San Jose
Series key: Forsberg > Thornton
See here for a full preview of this series
Nashville in 6
The bracket racket (click for full-size version)
And the Minnesota Wild win the Stanley Cup in Game 6 in St. Paul.