The most wonderful time of the year

The NHL starts its post-season tonight and, continuing the great tradition of sports writers everywhere, I should throw myself into the great world of playoff predictions with the risk of great embarrassment at the final buzzer.
But I can’t do it. I’ve never had a knack for calling the winner before the showdown begins; I prefer, instead, to watch with all the possibilities alive.
I will, however, outline the series in one of the best playoff years in my memory.
< *c>Eastern Conference
•Lightning (1) vs. Islanders (8)
Tampa Bay topped the league this season with Martin St. Louis not quite reaching the 40-goal mark (getting 38). The Lightning have a long list of dependable players that no one has really ever heard of.
For New York, who waited until the final weekend to clinch their playoff berth, the top scorer is rookie Trent Hunter, with fewer total points than St. Louis had assists (51).
Tampa Bay goes into the playoffs injury-free while the Islanders are missing goalie Garth Snow, who has a groin injury.
•Bruins (2) vs. Canadiens (7)
A classic Original Six series. Whether it will be played that way or not is anybody’s guess, but the fans should get into it.
Bruin Andrew Raycroft is growing into one of the best goalies in the NHL while Jose Theodore seems ever-strong in the Canadiens’ net.
The Canadiens had their best season since 1993-94, earning 41 wins and 93 points. The Bruins also had 41 wins, but their 15 ties and seven overtime losses gave them the 104 points needed to finish second in the conference.
•Flyers (3) vs. Devils (6)
Looking at the other series, it seems goaltenders will play a big part, as always. Is there anybody better than Martin Brodeur in the playoffs? (I mean, now that Patrick Roy is gone).
Philadelphia never seems to have a strong answer to the goaltending question, but they are hoping Robert Esche is it. Meanwhile, Devils’ defenceman Scott Stevens remains out with post-concussion syndrome and, therefore, has no timeline for returning.
The third-place Flyers finished the regular season just one point ahead of the Devils, with New Jersey actually boasting three more wins, making this an interesting series.
•Maple Leafs (4) vs. Senators (5)
One of the ugliest series of the bunch. Hopefully, the Senators actually will pull it off this year because, though I am not a huge fan myself, I am related to a few and I’m getting kind of sick of hearing about what the Senators are blowing.
Ray Emery was sent back to Binghamton last week so we can assume Patrick Lalime will be returning for the playoffs. Ottawa should have won it last year but didn’t, so now they have to try it as the underdog again.
Toronto outweighs the Senators in both overall popularity and in past performance. But last year’s big acquisition, Owen Nolan, is out with a knee sprain until at least late-April, suffered during the Leafs’ 6-0 blowout of Ottawa in the regular-season finale.
< *c>Western Conference
•Red Wings (1) vs. Predators (8)
The Red Wings need to pick a goalie and pray he doesn’t get hurt again. Right now, it’s looking like Manny Legace, who has played one NHL playoff game in the past.
Nashville, meanwhile, has no questions in the goaltending department with Tomas Vokoun setting a career-high in games played. We’ll have to wait and see if Detroit has just learned to play like they can’t trust their goalie.
Detroit is always good, but they have been known to lose in the playoffs.
•San Jose (2) vs. St. Louis (7)
Two teams I know almost nothing about, I’ll admit. The Sharks were a surprise to come in second while St. Louis was a last-minute seventh.
The Sharks finished up with 104 points to the 91 by the Blues, but racked up just four more wins. And in their season series, both teams won two games and lost two, though San Jose got the extra point by losing one in overtime.
Everyone is talking about Alyn McCauley, who has improved this season after his stint in Toronto. I can vouch for McCauley, who captained the Ottawa 67’s in the 1995-96 and 1996-97 seasons.
He still has not reached his potential in the NHL.
•Vancouver (3) vs. Calgary (6)
The shock of actually making the playoffs could be the downfall for the Flames or it could be what carries them through. Vancouver, meanwhile, will be under the microscope.
This series is the most soap-opera styled of the bunch. How far the Canucks get in the playoffs may be considered in determining any addition to Todd Bertuzzi’s suspension when it goes under review next season.
•Colorado (4) vs. Dallas (5)
Patrick Roy retired and Colorado is facing a whole new playoff picture this season. The new goalie for the Avalanche, David Aebischer, will get the start, with Tommy Salo backing him up.
Aebischer has two NHL playoff games under his belt, but was successful this season. Equalling playing time for almost his past three seasons combined, he ended up with a 2.09 goals against average.
Stars goalie Marty Turco has played a season of career highs as well, with 73 games and a GAA of 1.98.

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