Darren Eliot
Monday April 7th, 2008

The NHL Playoffs: The time of year when we all sit around and predictably espouse our feelings on the unpredictable. Surely, this year's NHL spring fling is the epitome of the unknown, especially when coming off an unprecedented regular season of extended up and down streaks.

Every playoff team except the Montreal Canadiens had a winning or losing streak of at least five games, and 12 of the 16 squads had at least one of each. The extremes were the Flyers' 10-game winless schneid in February and the Sharks' run of 11 wins in a row from late Feb. to mid-March..

So, unless you saw the Nashville Predators as a playoff team after the contract shedding and dispersal of core players that took place last summer in Hockeytonk, you're still not sure how they did it or how they might fare against the Presidents' Trophy-winning Detroit Red Wings. Certainly it is reasonable to assume that the Red Wings have just a little too much skill and savvy to fall victim to a first round upset, but not before the Preds put forth a valiant, hard- fought effort.

And if you foretold in September that the Canadiens would garner the most points in the Eastern Conference come April, then you must feel that they're a cinch to beat the Boston Bruins in the first round. Habs rookie goaltender Carey Price went 5-0 versus the Bruins, so a youngster needing confidence -- if that's an issue at all -- has to feel good about facing the B's in his first ever NHL playoff competition.

Now, if you tell me that you sat at your family's Thanksgiving Day feast voicing to all who would listen that the left-for-dead Washington Capitals would storm back and sit atop the Southeast Division -- the lone playoff representative from that bracket -- by winning 11 of their final 12 games, then you must have them as a legitimate contender to win it all in the Eastern Conference. And why not? They have the game's most dynamic player -- this season's leading goal-scorer, point-producer and certain Hart Trophy-winner -- in Alex Ovechkin and more positive mojo than any team in the franchise's history.

Oh, and by the way, the Capitals are really good overall. They're big, strong and aggressive. The Eastern Conference is wide open, with no prototypical prohibitive favorite. All have strengths, yes, but all have vulnerabilities. Take the Ottawa Senators. Did anyone see them plummeting to a seventh seed once they raced out to a mind-boggling 15-2 start? Yet, here they are, one fired coach later and with a GM at the helm, goaltending and injury issues at the fore as they take on the young stars from Pittsburgh.

Certainly no one sees the Sens' dysfunctional season continuing beyond the Penguins' dynamic duo of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, do they? It would certainly be a surprise. And that's the point. Even with the many eyebrow-raising events that took place during the regular season, the series format of the playoffs provides even more opportunity for the unexpected.

I mean, would anyone outside Manhattan really be stunned if the New Jersey Devils beat the New York Rangers in the first round despite not winning even once against them in regulation during eight regular season tries? What if the Calgary Flames initiated contact and upended the San Jose Sharks -- a team many think could go all the way? Would shockwaves really ripple through the hockey world? Would the sky fall if in the battle of Northwest Division and singular team names, the sixth-seeded Colorado Avalanche advanced past the division-winning Minnesota Wild?


And if the Stars align properly in Dallas and they manage to beat the defending Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks... OK, that's where I have to draw the line. That would be a monumental upset. The Stars limped into the playoffs while the Ducks' entire season was an exercise in readying for hockey in the spring.

This much we know: The NHL is as tough as ever from top to bottom -- thus the perils in prognostication -- but this four-five match-up is close in seeding only.

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