National Hockey League

Sizing up the playoff contenders

Dan Di Sciullo, NHL Editor

Dan Di Sciullo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - After a tumultuous regular season that featured a few ugly and attention-grabbing incidents, the NHL is primed to showcase the finest it has to offer in this year's postseason.

Many critics of hockey are fond of saying that the season is meaningless up until the playoffs, but try and tell that to the 14 teams that will not get a mention in this article.

Sure, the regular season is long and just over half the league makes the playoffs, but the grueling 82-game schedule is designed to be a trial of fire that will determine which clubs are most worthy of taking a run at Lord Stanley's Cup.

Picking a Stanley Cup champion is no easy task because often the team with the best record during the regular season is knocked out early. In fact, the NHL playoffs are a true equal-opportunity affair and the chase for the Cup does indeed feel like a separate season.

Even though Stanley Cup prognostication is a difficult task, I'm willing to take a shot at picking a champion with the knowledge that in a few weeks I'll be scratching my head and saying, "How did I pick them to win it all?".

Ryan Miller
Ryan Miller hopes to lead Buffalo deep into the playoffs.
FAVORITES

Buffalo Sabres (1st seed, East) - Lindy Ruff's team won the Presidents' Trophy for the first time in franchise history this year and it's not hard to guess why. The Sabres roster is full of players who can create and finish in the offensive end and Ryan Miller is a clear-cut No. 1 goaltender. Also, the team should benefit from the experience gained in last year's exciting playoff run, which ended with a Game 7 loss to Carolina in the Eastern Conference finals.

Detroit Red Wings (1st seed, West) - In the franchise's first year without legendary captain Steve Yzerman in over two decades, the Red Wings showed a great deal of determination in the race for the Central Division crown and the top seed in the West. After trailing Nashville for the division and conference lead for most of the season, the Red Wings finished strong and wound up with both titles. However, as Detroit found out last year, the top seed in the conference doesn't protect a team from a first-round exit in the postseason.

Anaheim Ducks (2nd seed, West) - The Anaheim Ducks were the best team in the West for the first half of the season, but the club was eventually slowed by injuries to key players like goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere and former Norris Trophy-winning defensemen Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger. With those players back in the mix, the Ducks went on to win the first division title in team history and would now like to add a second Western Conference championship to the club's accomplishments.

New Jersey Devils (2nd seed, East) - For the second straight season Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello will also finish the campaign as the team's head coach. New Jersey decided to fire Claude Julien after 79 games despite the fact that the team was in first place. Once again, Lamoriello stepped in behind the bench just as he did in 2005-06, when Larry Robinson resigned. That should be a bad omen, but the last time I checked the Devils still have the best goaltender of his generation in Martin Brodeur and an excellent defensive unit. If Jersey could only find a way to get consistent scoring from its top lines.

TRENDY PICKS

Pittsburgh Penguins (5th seed, East) - Sidney Crosby dazzled everybody on his way to becoming the youngest scoring champion in NHL history and it would be shocking if the 19-year-old phenom didn't raise the Cup at some point during his career. However, picking the youthful Pens to win it all this year sounds more like wishful thinking than common sense.

San Jose Sharks (5th seed, West) - Joe Thornton, last year's Hart Trophy winner, had another stellar season in 2006-07, as he confirmed the fact that he is the best playmaker in the NHL. The addition of Bill Guerin at the trade deadline was also key and San Jose has two strong goaltending options in Evgeni Nabokov and Vesa Toskala, giving the Sharks better odds at finding the hot hand.

WILD CARDS

Atlanta Thrashers (3rd seed, East) - The Thrashers have a head coach with a Stanley Cup title in Bob Hartley and a pair of dangerous offensive weapons in Marian Hossa and Ilya Kovalchuk, but this is the franchise's first trip to the postseason. Convincing his players that they have a shot at the Stanley Cup shouldn't be difficult for Hartley, but getting the fans in Atlanta to stand behind a playoff push is a different story.

Vancouver Canucks (3rd seed, West) - The Canucks have found themselves a franchise goaltender in Roberto Luongo and his magnificent play helped Vancouver win its second Northwest Division title in three seasons. However, outside of the team's top line, which features the Sedin twins, the Canucks have had a tough time scoring. That could make it difficult for even Luongo to save the day.

Ottawa Senators (4th seed, East) - Ottawa finished with 105 points this year, but was somewhat under the radar because it's in the same division as Buffalo, this year's Eastern Conference juggernaut. With offensive threats like Dany Heatley, Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson, the Senators shouldn't have a tough time scoring, but talented young goaltender Ray Emery is still a work in progress.

Nashville Predators (4th seed, West) - The Predators played so well for so long this year, but faltered down the stretch. The late-season swoon cost Nashville the Central Division title and a shot at the West's top seed, but the deadline trade for two-time Stanley Cup champ Peter Forsberg could still pay dividends in the postseason.

New York Rangers (6th seed, East) - Last year's Rangers finally made the playoffs after sitting out for seven straight seasons, but were then disposed of in a four-game sweep by New Jersey in the opening round. However, unlike the 2005-06 club, the Blueshirts of this year played well at the end of the regular season and Jaromir Jagr's determination down the stretch was a positive sign.

Dallas Stars (6th seed, West) - Dallas hung tough in the Pacific Division despite finishing third behind Anaheim and San Jose and could make a surprise run this spring. What makes the Stars an interesting pick is their depth on defense and the presence of Marty Turco in net, but, outside of Mike Modano, the team doesn't have many proven scorers.

Minnesota Wild (7th seed, West) - Minnesota made it back to the playoffs for the first time since 2003 this year and challenged Vancouver for the Northwest title for much of the season. The Jacques Lemaire-coached Wild always play excellent defense, but the key to this team's chances is the ability to keep oft-injured sniper Marian Gaborik on the ice.

LONGHSHOTS

Tampa Bay Lightning (7th seed, East) - The Bolts won the Stanley Cup three years ago and still have Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis, who were the only teammates to reach 100 points this season. However, outside of that duo and centerman Brad Richards, Tampa doesn't boast a great deal of depth at the forward positions. Also, Johan Holmqvist is an unproven commodity at net and a far cry from Nikolai Khabibulin, who backstopped the Lightning to a title in 2004.

New York Islanders (8th seed, East) - Give the Islanders credit for playing well enough down the stretch to land the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference on the final day of the regular season, but that will probably be the high point for the club this year. Although Wade Dubielewicz has been a godsend in goal since late March, the team still needs No. 1 netminder Rick DiPietro, who is sidelined with post-concussion symptoms. The problem is that DiPietro doesn't appear to be coming back any time soon.

Calgary Flames (8th seed, West) - The Flames are in the postseason as a result of their excellent play at home this year so it's a shame they couldn't manage to get a higher seed in this year's playoffs. Still, the club has an excellent scorer and all-around player in Jarome Iginla and goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff has shown before what kind of magic he can work in the playoffs.

AND THE CHAMPION WILL BE...

Buffalo Sabres - That's right, after all the talk about how the NHL playoffs are wide open and how every team has a shot at the Stanley Cup, I went ahead and picked the Presidents' Trophy winner to take it all. Still, the Sabres have the luxury of possessing a top-notch goaltender and loads of players who can finish the puck. It's about time Buffalo sports fans get the chance to celebrate a championship, and this edition of the Sabres could finally bring one home.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Dan Di Sciullo at ddisciullo@sportsnetwork.com.
Dan Di Sciullo

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