Montreal - Apr. 13, 2011 - Before I get going on these breathless (worthless) predictions...a word of thanks. Thanks for reading this.
Washington - NYR : The Caps have learned. It won't be easy but Washington will win.
Philadelphia - Buffalo : Everybody seems to think the Flyers are going down because Pronger is hurt and their goaltending can't come close to Miller. But Ryan Miller has had much better seasons. And if the Flyers do go down it won't be to the Sabres.
Pittsburgh - Tampa Bay : Can't wait for this one. Mini-Quebec vs Mini-Quebec. THIS is where Nordiques fan should gather. I've already said my piece on Guy Boucher. Habs should not have let him go. He was a better prospect than Lars Eller. If Steve Yzerman wanted him as bad as it appeared, then he would have coughed up a player and/or a draft choice. It's been done before. Vinny is back and Stamkos is due. Roloson won't show his age for a bit. Penguins have played over their heads without Crosby/Malkin. They can't keep going without them.
Vancouver - Chicago : I root for the long suffering fan. Vancouver and Buffalo haven't won in a combined 80 years. The Kings haven't won since 1967. Boston since 1972. The Capitals since 1974. The Flyers since '75. As a long spoiled Montreal Canadiens fan I know the feeling of one of those special seasons. It was supposed to happen here again during the 100th anniversary of the franchise. It is happening in Vancouver right now. And once they beat the Hawks, rather easily, their collective confidence will grow as beautifully and as sweetly as BC bud.
San Jose - LA : The Sharks finally have a goaltender who's won the stanley cup. DougWilson did a great job this season, resisting the temptation to fire his coach and/or move Marleau or Thornton, getting Niemi, re-signing Ryan Clowe and acquiring Ben Eager. The Kings aren't ready. Nor are they healthy enough.
Detroit - Phoenix : The Red Wings have been a bit of a mess all season, mostly due to injuries but Mike Babcock has done a masterful coaching job. They're still too banged up and, perhaps finally, too old to win it all but they will get by Phoenix.
Anaheim - Nashville : Very intriguing series. Nashville has only a pair of 20 goal scorers (Sergei Kostisyn (who outscored Andrei) and Patric Hornqvist) but with the legit Vezina trophy type season that Pekka Rinne has had they haven't had to score. Until now. The Ducks have been forced to go with Ray Emery who, to me, looks solid but slow and awkward at times. But their firepower, even against an elite goalie like Renne, will be too much for Nashville. And maybe Sergei will still have time to cheer on his brother...
I would have picked the Habs if they owned home ice advantage. They can still grab it by winning one of the first two games in Boston but I don't see it. There's only so much Carey Price can do and what he was able to do over the final two games in Boston wasn't much except to hold off the inevitable for as long as he could. The Habs, not Price, were really that bad in Boston (combined score 15-6). Want to see what an intimidated NHL team looks like? Watch those two games again (unless Jacques Martin is partly diabolical and instructed his players to play possum in that 7-0 loss).
For those who say Jacques Martin approached near genius status because he "managed" to get his banged up team as high as 6th place I say they don't pay enough attention to what Montreal players, especially at the back end, do well. Or they don't realize that 16 teams in the NHL had more man games missed due to injuries. Or maybe they, themselves, are too high.
The Canadiens have good players. Some of those players also happen to be winners (Hal Gill, Roman Hamrlik & Jaro Spacek ('98 Olympic gold), Travis Moen, Brian Gionta, Brent Sopel and yes Scott Gomez-twice). I think it matters at this time of year. Others, like Carey Price and PK Subban are among the best at their positions. Mike Cammalleri appears poised. On the other hand, while the Bruins offense has been amazingly consistent all season, through four lines, the Habs feature components who are way too iffy. Thomas Plekanic, supposedly nursing a sore groin, has more to prove in this series than any forward on either team. If he's not hurt then Jacques Martin has again worn him out with too much ice time. He's a constant flop on the road. And with Gomez being as horrendous as he was, Plekanic needed to take his offensive game to another level. He couldn't. Andrei Kostitsyn is somebody who could emerge as a legit star in this series if only he had the good hockey sense to go with everything else he's got. The power play against Boston this season was highly effective but two guys who played a large role in that PP efficiancy rate of 34% likely aren't playing (Max Pacioretty & Yannick Weber). The Pacioretty injury was...well... let's put it this way: If the Bruins had to pick one Montreal skater to KO on March 8 they picked the right one. (At this point I'm hearing some whining about not having Markov. Please. The Bruins never really had Marc Savard. And Pierre Gauthier acted swiftly and wisely in getting James Wisniewski and his offense to replace Markov. No, the man the Canadiens miss the most, the man they never really replaced -though they tried with Sopel - is Josh Gorges. Not having Gorges might be the difference in the series)
The Boston Bruins and their fan base were humiliated last year when they became only the third team in NHL history to blow a 3-0 series lead. Claude Julien HAS to get past the Habs to keep his job. And even that might not be good enough. The Bruins at home cannot possibly be more dominant than they were last month (really-you mean they might win 8-1 or 10-0?). The questions mount early. How do they react if the Habs take the lead - and hold it for a good chunk of the game? How do they react to a restless, rather than rabid home crowd? How do they react should they lose the opener? On the flip side, how the heck do the Habs erase the recent memory of those two terrible losses plus the knowledge that the biggest, baddest defenseman in the league nearly killed one of their best players? If Montreal had a Chris Nilan or Lyle Odelein we know exactly what they would do. They have to stay with Boston literally every inch of the way, at least to start, if they have any hope of extending the series. That doesn't just mean playing a smart, disciplined (Benoit Pouliot is really going to dress?) positionally sound road game. It also means they have to lean back. And especially push back. Travis Moen, Kostitsyn, Ryan White (who has to get more ice time than Tom Pyatt), Lars Eller (Yes, I know. This is a physical mis-match so far. That's not the point), Gill, Subban, Paul Mara and Wisniewski all have to stand firm. And maybe fight. But not when the game is already decided. Then perhaps an environment of doubt is created in Boston that snowballs and swings into the Bell Centre. Or maybe, if Benoit Pouliot is actually going to play, you instruct him (and sacrifice him) to chop down the biggest tree in the forrest. Then thank him for his time in Montreal.
Hope I'm wrong. Boston in 7.