The 2007 NHL playoffs kick off Wednesday night, and for the first time in league history, don't include last year's Stanley Cup Finals participants, as the Oilers and Hurricanes both came up short of post-season berths.
Yesterday we previewed the first 8 teams to be eliminated in the Stanley Cup first round. Today we go through the final 8 teams all the way to the eventual champion.
On to today's rankings:
8. Nashville Predators (eliminated by Ducks in 4): About now would be the standard time for the Paul Kariya or Peter Forsberg injury that derails the Predators title hopes. But the fact is, even with some solid goaltending, the Predators don't have the depth or speed to keep up at all with Anaheim, even if everyone on Nashville stays healthy.
7. New York Rangers (eliminated by Sabres in 6): After dispatching of one New York team (the Islanders in Round 1), the Sabres take care of another when they roll over the Rangers. Expect some close games early in the series, but the Rangers lack of depth will finally catch up to them late, and their defenders will have a hard time with the Sabres' wave-after-wave of attack. The Rangers were a great story this year, with veterans Jaromir Jagr, Brendan Shanahan and Michael Nylander providing leadership through tough injuries and lapses in defensive play. If the team can reload on defense next year and get a full season of consistent play from forward Sean Avery, they will be dangerous next season.
6. Ottawa Senators (eliminated by Devils in 6): Anything short of a Stanley Cup at this point is a failure for the Senators, and this year their post-season futility will end thanks to a tough 2nd round match-up with New Jersey. Expect the Senators explosive front line of Dany Heatley, Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza to get theirs against Martin Brodeur, but the issue is how long the inexperienced Ray Emery can hold in goal for Ottawa. Emery has played terrific down the stretch, but he's young and he's playing with former starter Martin Gerber breathing down his neck. Expect Emery to come out with some nerves in the 2nd round and the Devils will take advantage, and by the time the Senators switch to Gerber, it will be too late.
5. Detroit Red Wings (eliminated by Stars in 7): A tough 1st Round match-up won't help Detroit much as they head into a confrontation with the big, physical Stars. The Red Wings did toughen up this season, especially by adding badass Todd Bertuzzi. But as usual, this is an older team, especially with Dominik Hasek in goal, and the longer this series goes, the worse off Detroit will be. This series will come down to Bertuzzi's play, if he can disrupt the action in front of the net and hassle Marty Turco, the Wings might come away with the series. Otherwise, Detroit could find it tough to score, especially as their defensive scorers start to wear down.
4. Dallas Stars (eliminated by Ducks in 6): Marty Turco has a chance this year to really pull a Peyton Manning and throw off the shackles of a playoff "choker" label. The problem is, up front the Stars are a little too seasoned and a little too shallow. This could be a last hurrah for Mike Modano and Eric Lindros, who have been playing well down the stretch. The Stars play a tight puck-control game that can work wonders come playoff time, but will probably wither against a Ducks team with too much talent on every line for Dallas to keep up with.
3. New Jersey Devils (eliminated by Sabres in 7): In one of the most curious GM moves in recent sports history (and remember, this recent history includes Isaiah Thomas), Devils GM Lou Lamorellio fired head coach Claude Julien and named himself head coach with only three games left in the schedule for a #2 seed. The level to which the Devils respond will of course define the length of their playoff run. Defense and goaltending usually win championships, and New Jersey has both in spades, with first-ballot HOF'er Marty Brodeur in net and John Madden and Brian Rafalski manning the blue line. Buffalo can't match New Jersey's defense and goaltending in terms of experience, but they can match it in talent and their deep and dangerous offense will be able to get key goals when the Devils can't.
2. Buffalo Sabres (eliminated by Ducks in 7): Dare we predict the Buffalo Sabres, a team with no championship in their rich history, a team whose heart has been broken on a regular basis in the Stanley Cup playoffs, a team with an eager fan base yearning for a title from one of its two disappointing pro teams as some kind of reward for lasting another harsh Buffalo winter; dare we predict the Sabres lose the Stanley Cup Finals to a hockey team from L.A. started somewhat in jest by Disney to cross-promote a kids movie with Emilio Estevez, unleashed one of the ugliest jerseys in pro sports history and is full of high-priced veterans and a French goalie named Jean-Sebastien? Yes, yes we do dare.
1. Anaheim Ducks (Your Stanley Cup Champions): Sorry Buffalo, but you'll have to join the Cleveland Browns, Philadelphia Phillies and Chicago Cubs fans in one more year of wanting to hang yourselves. The Ducks are loaded at every position, well-coached and led by former playoff breakout goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere. Another title for an Anaheim (L.A. Jr.) pro team may seem dubious, but the sweet poetic justice here is that the title will happen only after CEO Mickey Mouse sold the team, and the now contentious Ducks have shed their wholesome image and led the NHL in fighting penalty minutes this year. Watch for veteran Teemu Selanne to hoist the first Stanley Cup of his 17-year career and promptly beat somebody over the head with it, just as God intended the cup to be used.
(And if you need further reason to cheer for Selanne, check out his Babe Ruthian hat trick earlier this year in honor of a friend with cancer).
Quack! Quack! Quack! Quack!