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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We just spent the last few weeks listening to comparisons between the 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins and the 1984 Edmonton Oilers.  Those comparisons will be referenced even more now that the Penguins have pulled off the upset and defeated the Red Wings, probably the NHL’s most successful franchise in the last 15 years.  But beyond the surface comparisons of similar Stanley Cup Finals results and Gretzky/Messier to Crosby/Malkin, how valid is this comparison for the newly crowned Stanley Cup Champions?  And was it correct for the Red Wings to be casually cast in the role of the New York Islanders?

Changing of the Guard?

Clearly one major consideration is that we’re in a different era.  We’ve actually passed through several different eras since those Oilers hoisted their first cup.  We had the run and gun era that extended through the 80’s into the early ’90s.  As the ’90s progressed we moved into the expansion era which was also the trap era, a time that almost killed the whole league and helped lead to the lockout.  Now we’re in the post-lockout era, seeing the best hockey we’ve seen in 15 years.  We’re also in the cap era and that is a major consideration that people seem to overlook.

Back in the ’80s the Oilers only broke up because Edmonton owner Peter Pocklington made some bad business moves outside of hockey and essentially sold Wayne Gretzky to the L.A. Kings.  Here in 2009 the Penguins already find themselves hard up against the NHL’s salary cap structure, and that’s with several key young players and veterans needing contract extensions in the near future.  If the Penguins have to say goodbye to an elite player it won’t be due to ownership but rather due to the new structure of the league itself.  Nine members of the Pens Cup-winning roster will find themselves in free agency this summer and that will be where the true test of the Penguins as an organization happens.  If they truly want to be the Oilers of the new NHL they will have to find a way to surround Crosby, Malkin, Fleury and Gonchar with the supporting cast they’ll need in order to keep winning.  That’s easier said than done as Malkin’s salary alone jumps from under a million through the rookie salary structure to his extension figure which is 9 million dollars.

Then you’ve got the likes of Rob Scuderi, Bill Guerin, Ruslan Fedotenko, Hal Gill… guys who played a lot of big minutes for the Penguins in the playoffs.  Are they franchise players?  No, but given the contributions they all made to the Penguins Stanley Cup win you could definitely argue that they’re critical.  Imagine if those Oilers had to replace Charlie Huddy, Randy Gregg, Dave Hunter and Ken Linseman from that ’84 team.  Now imagine they have to do it with minimal salary cap space, because that’s the dilemma the Penguins are facing.   That’s without even factoring in the inevitable extensions that will be signed by Cup hero Maxime Talbot and Kris Letang, Gonchar’s heir apparent on the blueline.

Even if the Penguins manage to replenish their depth this offseason defending their Stanley Cup victory won’t be easy.  But before they can fight the next battle on the ice they must win a series of them off it.  They’ve got exactly five wingers under contract for next season, and that includes seldom-used Eric Godard and converted center Tyler Kennedy.  They need to see development from prospects like Alex Goligoski and Eric Tangredi, who would allow them to add fresh legs to their roster at a minimal price.  They will also have to hope that the lure of playing for the defending Stanley Cup Champions will convince some role players to settle in Pittsburgh for a smaller amount of green.

This Isn’t Your Father’s Veteran Team

These Red Wings are not the New York Islanders, for a number of reasons.  For one thing these Wings are significantly older than those Islanders were.  Yep, that’s right.  The Islanders are often-times painted as a veteran team that was on it’s last legs as a group, but that wasn’t really the case.  Mike Bossy was 26.  Trottier was 27.  Denis Potvin 29.  They had youngsters like John Tonelli (26), Greg Gilbert (21) and Brent Sutter (21) up front with Tomas Jonsson (23) on the blueline.  They also had some 18 year old kid named Pat Lafontaine who put on quite a display of skill once he joined the team during that ’84 year.  What really killed the Islanders was the decline of franchise goaltender Billy Smith, and their inability to replicate the depth and chemistry brought to those early 80’s teams by the likes of Butch Goring and Bob Nystrom.  Not to mention Mike Bossy’s injury problems that caused him to retire at just 30 years old.

So no, these Wings are not those Isles.  The Wings have never been built around one goalie, nor do they have a superstar with a debilitating injury.  What they do have is excellent organizational depth, and they’re going to need that going forward.  Why?  Only a handful of key personnel on the Wings are younger than 28.  Given the Wings proven ability to find and develop talent this is less of a concern than it would be for most teams but it’s still a concern in this salary cap era.  The Wings only have three free agents they’d really want to retain, with Marian Hossa and Mikael Samuelsson being UFA while Jiri Hudler holds RFA status.  Samuelsson and Hudler will likely return, unless someone throws an insane number at Hudler in hopes Detroit won’t match.  If that happens it’s unlikely the Wings would be in a position to keep him.  Hossa is also a question mark.  He signed a one-year deal to win a Cup in Detroit, something that clearly didn’t work out as he hoped.  Now he has to ask himself if he wants to roll those dice again, or seek a longer term.  There will still be teams out there willing to shell out money to Hossa, though probably not as many as a year ago given his playoff performance.

By and large the Wings will enter next year with the same roster as this season, and that has to be somewhat troubling for Detroit fans.  They’ve got an aging netminder in Osgood, who while he was excellent most of the playoffs was just not quite good enough in the finals.  No doubt they’d like to get something from youngster Jimmy Howard, but to do that they’d have to give him more than a couple of games a year with the parent club.  Maybe 2009-10 will be that year.  The real concern for the Wings is that they looked so tired against the Penguins.  Even in their early series victories you got the sense they lacked an extra gear to shift into.  Was that a fatigue issue that can be addressed, or is it just something they’ll have to overcome?  The Western Conference won’t get any easier next season, to be sure.

They also have to wonder what they’ll continue to get from their older veterans including Osgood, Kris Draper, Tomas Holmstrom, Brian Rafalski and Kirk Maltby.  Rafalski is one of the leagues smoothest skaters but even he looked pretty ragged at times against Pittsburgh.  How much longer can the greatest defenseman of this generation (Lidstrom) continue to perform at such a high level?  He’s 38 now with 1330 games plus another 235 playoff contests on his odometer.  If they want to get back to the finals in an effort for that 5th title in 13 seasons, they’re going to have to address a lot of questions about age and how that factors into their depth for 2009-10.

Into The Offseason…

With the Stanley Cup awarded we officially start the NHL offseason.  This is the quietest time of year for the league, with the NHL Draft and the start of free agency (July 1st) a couple of weeks away.  You’ll see some clubs quietly signing players to extensions or new contracts, while the trade hype and the draft hype build up over the next 10 days.  Then we’ll finally see what happens to super-prospect John Tavares and who the players in free agency will be.