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My crystal ball needs fixing

With the NHL stretch run hurtling towards the playoffs, postseason predictions are nearly upon us. Last year, I missed on the Lightning's suprisingly strong postseason and made good on almost everything else. Granted, a bounce here, a Game 7 meltdown there, and picking the Bruins to win it all would have looked ridiculous. Such are the vagaries of prognostication.

Unlike preseason picks, the playoffs offer a better chance at predictive analysis due to there being a current season's body of work to evaluate. Plus, the playoffs are more about matchups. Weighing the relative strengths and vulnerabilities of one opponent versus another is at the root of it all. Not to say a hot goaltender or an injured star can't derail your playoff selections, but there is more relevant data with which to work.

Before we look ahead (and with so much left to be decided during the final eight-to-10 games, how could we?), let's take a look back on the season from the perspective of my early October musings.

In review, I was woefully off base on many items, beginning with my prediction of the Capitals and Sharks playing for the Stanley Cup. Neither team is even secure in qualifying for the postseason.

I could end up correctly picking as many as 14 of the 16 playoff teams, or as few as 10.

Tyler Seguin of the Bruins improved as surmised and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins of the Oilers still has a chance to win the Calder Trophy.

Alex Ovechkin as the winner of the Hart (MVP) and Ross (scoring) trophies will be painfully wrong. I likely got the awards and nationality of the winner right, but instead it will probably be Evgeni Malkin walking off with the hardware.

Sharks blueliner Brent Burns winning the Norris Trophy and ex-Ducks/current Maple Leafs bench boss Randy Carlyle as coach of the year don't look any better in hindsight.

You get the point: On many levels, things didn't play out the way I thought they might. So let's scan the NHL and see what happened and why:

I didn't think the Blues would break through bubble-team status. I felt they were missing something and I couldn't quite put my finger on what it was. What I thought was an Alfred Hitchcock mystery turned out to be a Ken Hitchcock solution. What a job he has done. The Blues go hard and are very difficult to play against. Theirs is playoff-style hockey all the time, which can wear on a team like the Blues as much as it does on its opponents. Speculation about what that will mean for April and possibly May and June is still a couple of weeks off. For now, the Blues under Hitchcock are the surprise story of the season.

I saw the Senators as a team that might finish thirtieth. When I watched them early in the season, I still felt that way. Their recent play supports that lowbrow view as well. In between, coach Paul MacLean got the Sens to excel and rack up points. I had a dismissive point of view on one of the feel-good stories of the season.

The Panthers proved me wrong. I liked what GM Dale Tallon did in reconfiguring his club, but I didn't believe in the goaltending. Shame on me. Both Jose Theodore and Scott Clemmensen have performed well, and as a result, the Panthers are poised to end the franchise's 11-season playoff absence.

I thought the Rangers would challenge for the top spot in the Atlantic Division due to the goaltending of Henrik Lundqvist and the team concept now in place under coach John Tortorella, which was furthered by the addition of Brad Richards. Many of you -- mostly of the Flyers persuasion -- derided my viewpoint, but now we can say that the Rangers performed as anticipated. I was less inclined to jump aboard the Ilya Bryzgalov train for the reason of his inconsistency. The Flyers are a top team and he can be a top goalie. We'll see if that proves true when it matters most. (Oops, more forward-glancing commentary.)

So, the prediction game is hardly fail-safe. For every few insightful September observations (the Maple Leafs have more questions than answers at every position, and are thus not a playoff team; the Devils will find a way back into the top eight in the east; the Wild and Islanders are strong lottery contenders), there are many more misses as we look back from here in March.

Hey, I really thought the Oilers were going to be better this season. Early on, I was hopeful. Now I'm just looking forward to the playoffs...and a clean slate of picks for the second season.

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