First, hearty congratulations are in order to the Chicago Blackhawks who, on Sunday, choked less than the Dallas Stars.
You know by now that, faced with a win-and-they're-in scenario, the Stars coughed up a hair ball, losing to Minny 5-3 on Sunday. That was after Chicago had all but handed them a playoff berth by losing at home to Detroit. Dallas not only lost but flamed out spectacularly. The Stars were up 2-1 after one period, tied 3-3 after two. The playoffs were 20 minutes away -- and the tame Wild won an utterly meaningless game, for them.
Minnesota was so giddy it immediately fired its coach. Good luck in the offseason, Stars. You need a) at least one top four defenseman; b) an owner and; c) some heart.
Only one of those is available through free agency. Now, on to the greatest tournament in sports. Over the next three months, brave-hearted warriors will play for the ultimate prize. (Hopefully, one of them is Sidney Crosby.) They will do it without getting paid a cent. That's right. Since assumptions can't be made about the playoffs before the playoffs, the checks come during the regular season.
While we're in the congratulatory mode, Canada gets a pat on the back -- or maybe an elbow to the cheekbone. America's Hat has fewer teams in the playoffs (two) than the state of California (three). Meanwhile, the last subject anyone is talking about in these playoffs is those Hawks defending their Stanley Cup title. There is Ringless Roberto, the Strangers, the Caps who spent the season putting a cap on their offense, all set against the backdrop of the league waiting for the next debilitating concussion. Speaking of EMTs, that reminds me of another subject no one is talking about: Montreal-Boston in the first round!
Let the gamesmanship begin. These are my first-round predictions only. I've ranked the entertainment value of each series with an (EV).
No. 1 seed Washington vs. No. 8 New York Rangers (No. 2 in EV)
So far, it has worked -- Caps' coach Bruce Boudreau's philosophical overhaul. Washington could always score goals. As the last couple of seasons have shown, it didn't have the defensive grit in the playoffs. Boudreau's job and Alex Ovechkin's legacy could be on the line. Rangers in six.
No. 2 Philadelphia vs. No. 7 Buffalo (5 EV)
The best thing about the Sabres are the goals calls of play-by-play guy Rick Jeanneret ("Top shelf, where mama hides the cookies!"). When Buffalo scores it sounds like a cross between an Irish wolfhound being neutered and poachers killing an infant elephant in front of its mother. Flyers in five.
No. 3 Boston vs. No. 6 Montreal (1 EV)
Expect lots of scrums, neck braces and inquiries by local authorities. And that's just getting Zdeno Chara from the team bus to the lockerroom. Seriously, this series could be better than the final. With apologies to Bon Jovi, Canadiens-Bruins give blood a bad name. Bruins in six.
No. 4 Pittsburgh vs. No. 5 Tampa Bay (3 EV)
In this year of the Bays -- the Green version won the Super Bowl. Tranformers director Michael is working on another sequel -- Tampa needs to show it is about more than Martin St. Louis and Steve Stamkos. The gutty, little Penguins should rule this series minus Crosby (maybe), Evgeny Malkin (definitely) and Matt Cookie (temporarily, suspended for the first round). Biggest difference in most series: Special teams. Pittsburgh in No. 1 in penalty kill. Flightless birds in five.
No. 1 Vancouver vs. No. 8 Chicago (4 EV)
These are not the Hawks who are defending champions. They are not the Hawks who have bothered the Canucks in the postseason the past few years. These also aren't the Canucks who are expected to win the Stanley Cup, until they do it. Vancouver has all the elements for a Cup run. It just has to prove it. Vancouver in six.
No. 2 San Jose vs. No. 7 Los Angeles (7 EV)
Wait, what? Stanley Cup? For the Los Tiburones? Dude, whatever you’re smoking, it's good. In NorCal they know spring as the time when the Sharks annually beach themselves in the playoffs. There is no reason to think this team is any different. L.A. is missing leading scorer Anze Kopitar. The Penguins have proven they can thrive without Crosby. The Kings aren't as deep. San Jose in six.
No. 3 Detroit vs. No. 6 Phoenix (6 EV)
The sooner the Coyotes lose, the better for Winnipeg which is jonesing for its old team so bad there is a methadone clinic set up in city hall. The Red Wings have slogged through the final few games. They hope to get Henrik Zetterberg back from a knee injury. Not that they need him to beat the 'Yotes. Hold on, Winnipeg. Your boys are coming, soon. Red Wings in five.
No. 4 Anaheim vs. No. 5 Nashville (8 EV)
The league's No. 1 goal scorer (Corey Perry) vs. what might be the league's best goalie (Nashville's Pekka Rinne). This series is the equivalent of your average suburban housing track. They all look the same. In this case, it's hard to find a difference in these two teams. Go with the Ducks in six because Nashville has never won a playoff series. That and Barry Trotz scares the hell out of me.