Tonight is the night.  The 2010 NHL Playoffs start in just a few hours as four series get underway tonight, three tomorrow and the eighth and final first-round set starts on Friday.  For the next two months it’ll be pretty much impossible to avoid hockey on TV, at least if you live up here in Canada like I do.  Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins embark on the defense of their Stanley Cup Championship from a year ago.

The Penguins open up their playoffs tonight, hosting the Ottawa Senators in a series where they are clear favorites.  But the Penguins aren’t close to the top seed in the East (they finished 20 points behind Washington) nor are they the hottest team entering the playoffs (that would be Detroit who have won 8 of 10).  Once again Pittsburgh will be forced to prove that they’re more than the Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin showcase.  Marc-Andre Fleury has struggled at times this year and he has yet to really cement himself as the dominant presence in goal he was expected to be.

This playoff has a lot of great stories tied into it.  The resurrection of the Los Angeles Kings as a legitimate contender.  Phoenix coming from the dregs of the league to become a 50-win team that nobody predicted.  Buffalo riding the greatness of Ryan Miller to a third seed in the Eastern Conference.  The old veterans in Detroit clawing their way back into the Stanley Cup chase after being discarded earlier this season.

Given time constraints, I can’t dive in and provide pages of analysis as I normally would love to, but here’s a quick and dirty batch of first-round playoff predictions.

Eastern Conference

(1) Washington Capitals vs. (8) Montreal Canadiens – Capitals win in five games.

Washington just has too much star power.  Even their questions in goal can’t prevent the powers of Ovechkin, Backstrom et al from controlling this match-up.  Sad because there are few things more fun than Montreal on a Stanley Cup run.

(2) New Jersey Devils vs. (7) Philadelphia Flyers – Devils win in five games.

The Flyers had to go to a shootout just to get in.  Marty Brodeur is the keystone, but this Devils team has some great talent all over the ice.  They’re not going to get rattled by the Flyers physical play, and Philly has too many questions in goal.

(3) Buffalo Sabres vs. (6) Boston Bruins – Buffalo wins in six games.

They might only need to score 6 goals to do it, the way these two teams put the puck in the net (note:  poorly).  The Bruins will need Tuuka Rask to match Ryan Miller save for save to stay in this one.  Rask has been superb, but it’s tough to say a rookie can pick up and drag a team into the second round.

(4) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (5) Ottawa Senators – Pittsburgh wins in six games.

Crosby and Malkin are going to make Ottawa miserable.  The Sens will miss Kovalev because they just don’t have a lot of scoring depth.  Even having an off year I’d take Marc-Andre Fleury over Brian Elliot.

Western Conference

(1) San Jose Sharks vs.  (8) Colorado Avalanche – Sharks win in five games.

The Sharks can’t choke this fast… right?  They got rolling late in the year after some struggles, but the questions are the same as always.  Can Thornton and Nabokov elevate their game and lead this team like they should?  The Avalanche are just outclassed talent-wise.

(2) Chicago Black Hawks vs. (7) Nashville Predators – Chicago wins in seven games.

The ‘Hawks just have a boatload of balance and depth.  Nine guys scored at least 17 goals for Chicago.  It’s always nice when you can score even if Kane or Toews has an off night.  Pekka Rinne could turn this series for Nashville, but I’m not sure they can score enough goals to win four of seven.

(3) Vancouver Canucks vs. (6) Los Angeles Kings – Vancouver wins in six games.

The Kings are young and hungry… but not quite ready yet.  Luongo will outplay Jonny Quick in goal and the Canucks have finally found the offensive depth they’ve been missing for the past several seasons.  The Kings could swing this series with their young guns but unless Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson just crush the Canucks forwards, they’re in tough.

(4) Phoenix Coyotes vs. (5) Detroit Red Wings – Detroit wins in six games.

Poor Phoenix.  A great, great season and they drew a real bear of a match-up here.  These aren’t the dominating winged-wheel teams of the past, but they’re a veteran club with a ton of playoff moxie and a hot young goalie to boot.  Phoenix needs Ilya Bryzgalov to be great to win, just like the regular season.  This could be a real dog fight, but the Wings have been rolling as of late and are primed for a post-season run.

Some startlingly vanilla picks pretty much ensure that I missed the call on at least a couple of these series.  But it’s playoff hockey and everybody knows what that means:  a hot goalie can swing any playoff series.  Even the entire playoffs, if the goalie is good enough (see:  Roy ’93, Hasek ’99).  So it’ll be interesting to see if a new face emerges to add to the group of goalies who stand out come spring… or if it’s an old favorite like Marty Brodeur who does it again.

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Well the magic day for the NHL offseason is July 1st.  It’s the start of free agency and usually the day where teams reshape their images, or attempt to shore up weaknesses to retain their position on top.  While not all the rumored and discussed moves came to fruition, many players did change teams and many teams defined their 2009-2010 (and beyond) plans with their first day moves.

Biggest Winners

Vancouver and the Sedins

The announcement that the Sedins had reached an agreement on new contracts with the Canucks shortly before the start of free agency yesterday was a win for both sides.  The Sedins get to continue to play with each other in a city and on a team where they have grown and thrived, for an organization that knows their strengths and weaknesses.  The Canucks get a pretty solid bargain on a pair of 80-point scorers, with each of them earning just over 6 million per season.  That’s much less than the rumored 7-7.5 million they were rumored to be after, and probably could have gotten close to on the open market.

Brian Burke and the Maple Leafs

Burke promised he would make a splash in free agency and he’s already done that.  He traded solid but overpaid blueliner Pavel Kubina to Atlanta for Garnet Exelby, saving the Leafs a couple of million dollars to use elsewhere.  They spent that money saved on the first day, signing Mike Komisarek to a five year deal worth 22.5 million and tough guy Colton Orr to a four-year deal at one million per.  The Leafs can now boast seven NHL caliber defensemen, something they’ve not had for quite some time.   At least until the much anticipated trade of Tomas Kaberle goes through.  If it happens, the Leafs will then have to answer questions about their powerplay.  Like who quarterbacks it.  The Leafs are hardly done though.  They still have around 12 million dollars to spend, and are in desperate need of a top six forward or two.  Not to mention a goalie to pair with young Justin Pogge.

Well They’re Doing Something

The Sutter-led Calgary Flames

The Flames have made their focus pretty clear early on.  They let Mike Cammalleri and his undeniable talent walk away to sign with Montreal, while spending their money instead on defenseman Jay Bouwmeester.  While I absolutely love the Bouwmeester addition, I question the Flames spending around 22 million on their defense.  That’s just on the top six.  The problem the Flames seem poised to encounter is the same one they encountered before adding Cammelleri and Olli Jokinen last season.  An inability to score goals.  They have exactly three guys who are legitimate top-six NHL forwards.  Beyong Iginla, Jokinen and Langkow it looks like a mess to me.  Maybe guys like David Moss, Rene Borque and Curtis Glencross can continue to be 40-point guys.  But when you’re counting on those guys to produce points and score key goals rather than treating it as a bonus I think you’re asking for trouble.  The Flames have a bit of money to spend and would be advised to spend in on someone who can light the lamp or it’s going to be a long season in Calgary.

Bob Gainey and Les Habitants

The Montreal Canadiens have me intrigued, I’ll give them that.  They went into the offseason with 10 free agents and thusfar the only one showing any signs of staying is Alexei Kovalev.  The Habs got started early dealing Chris Higgins and several prospects to New York in exchanges for Scott Gomez.  They then went out and signed two-time 30-goal man Mike Cammalleri, along with former Gomez linemate Brian Gionta.  They also added Hal Gill and Jaroslav Spacek to fill out a pretty solid blueline.  While neither of those guys is going to set the world ablaze, both are solid NHL defenseman who can give you minutes.  The Habs have Markov and Hamrlik to do the heavy lifting anyway.   These Habs are definitely different than the team we saw crash and burn a season ago.  They’ve still got around 12 million to spend, so they’re by no means done.  I would expect them to continue to pursue Kovalev and probably another top-six forward.

The New Look Rangers

Same as the old Rangers?  We’ll see.  The Rags are one team with a ton of cap room remaining, even after their monster deal with Marian Gaborik and the inevitable re-signing of RFA Chris Higgins.  Will Zherdev come back?  They could certainly use his skill.  They also lack a true playmaker to play with Gaborik, but he’s always gotten by without an elite center anyways.  I actually like both their big moves (Gomez/Higgins, Gaborik signing) as they did a nice job cleaning up a past mistake and picked up maybe the most talented player in free agency.  All the questions about Gaborik are about his health.  He’s one of the best pure goal scorers in the NHL and if healthy will make a run at 45 goals in New York.  For the trivia hounds he’s also the last NHL’er to score 5 goals in a single game.  Now New York must surround him and Chris Drury with more talent.  Their pipe dream about someone taking Wade Redden’s contract needs to stop.  Unless Chris Wallace takes over an NHL team, it ain’t happening.  They could probably move Rozsival but I’m not sure why they would want to.  He is at least a capable player in his own zone and their blueline is mighty thin.  I’d expect to see the Rangers go after another top-six forward.  Maybe even two.  Former Habs Saku Koivu and/or Alex Tanguay would give them a good playmaker for their goal-scorers.  They could also use a solid veteran blueliner.  Perhaps the return of Sergei Zubov?

Other Scattered Musings…

I really like the upgrade that the Edmonton Oilers made in net.  Nothing against Dwayne Roloson.  He’s been a capable NHL goaltender and has been outstanding at times.  But I feel that Khabibulin is a clear upgrade.  He’s capable of a heavy workload, and has proven himself in the playoffs on more than one occasion.  Getting him for less than 4 million seems like a bargain.

Chicago replacing Havlat with Hossa is an upgrade, but not a huge one in my opinion.  They paid a heavy premium and while Hossa might score more goals their overall production is similar on a per-game basis.  Hossa doesn’t have the same injury history as Havlat obviously, but in terms of ability I feel they are very close.  I’d be less worried about the deal for Chicago if they weren’t going to have to worry about keeping guys like Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews in the next couple of seasons.    Havlat was apparently pretty upset about the way things went with Chicago.  He had stated he was going to stay in Chi-town before they gave his money to Hossa.

I like Minnesota’s signing of Havlat to replace Gaborik.  Havlat should be a popular player in Minnesota.  He’s got plenty of skill and more than enough heart.  If he can stay on the ice he should succeed there with the new-look Wild.