Wednesday night signals the beginning of the NHL's second season. Sixteen teams have officially qualified to go to war for the oldest trophy in professional sports—the Stanley Cup.
These deserving teams have just completed a rigorous 82-game schedule, and are about to embark on a two-month roller coaster ride in the quest for Lord Stanley's holy grail. Many sports enthusiasts describe the chase for the cup as the most difficult and physically demanding 16-game tournament in all of pro sports.
Yes, it is that time of year when these grown men sweat, bleed, and sometimes cry for the love of the game. Several of these athletes will not shave until their team is eliminated from the tournament, all in the name of superstition and fear of losing!
Without further ado, I will now predict my winners for round one of the Eastern Conference.
Montreal Canadiens (1st Seed) vs. Boston Bruins (8th Seed)
This opening round pits the NHL's fastest skating team—the Montreal Canadiens—against a Boston team that struggled for consistency all year. The Canadiens also feature one of the most potent power plays in the league.
The Canadiens won all eight games that these two teams played this year.
With Habs captain and leader Saku Koivu injured, the leadership role has been passed onto veteran Alexi Kovalev. He had a revitalized season in Montreal, scoring 37 goals and adding 47 assists—good for an 84-point season.
Goaltending will be another battle zone. The Habs are betting on Rookie of the Year candidate Carey Price to bear the playoff load. Boston will count on an older, yet unproven, veteran in Tim Thomas to steer them in the right direction.
The Stanley Cup, in all its storied history, has been won only four times with a rookie goalie carrying the load. However, two out of the four keepers that have won the Cup are former Habs. Do the names Ken Dryden and Patrick Roy ring a bell?
The other modern age rookie to win the Cup was Cam Ward with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2005.
The good news for the Bruins is that All-Star Patrice Bergeron has been given medical clearance to appear in these playoffs.
After sustaining a concussion in the preseason, a healthy Bergeron would be an asset to help alongside Marc Savard, who had a career year with Boston, amassing an impressive 78 points.
Mark Predicts: Montreal in six
Pittsburgh Penguins (2nd) vs. Ottawa Senators (7th)
Well! What a turnaround we've witnessed for these two teams this season.
Last year, in the first round of the playoffs, the Senators eliminated the young Penguins easily. This year, in a re-match, we may well witness a different scenario. The upstart Penguins squad flew into the playoffs, while the struggling Senators limped into one of the last two available postseason spots.
Regardless, this series will be exciting. You have the best young talent in the game today competing against one another. Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, and Marc Andre-Fleury versus the likes of Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley.
Throw in veterans like Ottawa's Daniel Alfredsson and Wade Redden, as well as Penguin-turned-Senator Marian Hossa along with Gary Roberts, and excitement is guaranteed.
The goaltending match-up will feature the young Marc Andre-Fleury for the Penguins and veteran Martin Gerber for the Sens.
Fleury is coming off a severe ankle injury earlier this season, but has played some fantastic hockey of late.
Gerber was recently handed the starting job over the aloof Ray Emery, with six games to go in the season. If Gerber regains his confidence early in this series, it may well heal Ottawa's fragile psyche, and the Sens might be able to compete with and beat the still young Penguins.
If he struggles, the Senators will end early what has been a turmoil-filled season.
Mark Predicts: Penguins in six (Sorry, Senator fans!)
Washington Capitals (3rd) vs. Philadelphia Flyers (6th)
What can you say about the Washington Capitals? Up until Christmas, they were the worst team in the Eastern Conference.
They decided to fire besieged head coach and all-around nice guy Glenn Hanlon, replacing him with career minor league coach Bruce Boudreau. All of a sudden, the team chemistry kicked in and, voila, the rival Carolina Hurricanes were looking in their rearview mirror.
What the Hurricanes saw in that mirror was the oncoming freight train named Alexander Ovechkin. "Alexander the Great," as they call him in D.C., will easily win the league MVP honors after recording league-bests of 65 goals and 112 points.
The Capitals sealed their fateful playoff berth at the trade deadline by acquiring goaltender Cristobal Huet from the Canadiens. The Habs were going to be riding Carey Price for the rest of the season, and Huet was expendable.
Since he arrived in the nation's capital, Huet has proven his worth by winning 11 games and losing only two. Plus, he has an outstanding goals against average of 1.63 to go with an impressive .936 save percentage.
To the Flyers' credit, they have had an outstanding season and have brought passion back to the city of Brotherly Love.
Last year, the Flyers were the doormats of the Eastern Conference. This year they've been re-energized by their young guns, led by Mike Richards (75 pts.) and Jeff Carter (53 pts.).
Goaltender Martin Biron ended the season with back-to-back shutouts, and will be called on to battle Ovechkin and the frenzied sea of red jerseys so characteristic of Caps home games.
Mark Predicts: Washington in five
New Jersey Devils (4th) vs. New York Rangers (5th)
This will be an exciting series to pay attention to.
We have two "all-world" goalies competing against each other. Veteran multi-Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe award winner Martin Brodeur will battle the New York Rangers' Swedish sensation, Henrik Lundqvist.
This season was an anomaly for the cross-state rivals. It took the last game of the season, and overtime, for the Devils to finally beat the Rangers.
Yes, the Jaromir Jagr-led Rangers won seven games and only lost one all year—to the Devils.
Devils head coach Brian Sutter will tell you that this is a new season. But that record will surely be on the minds of the New Jersey players, especially if they lose the first game on home ice.
Brodeur will be looking to add to his Hall of Fame-caliber numbers. He already holds the record for most shutouts in a playoff year, recording seven shutouts in leading the Devils to an incredible playoff run in 2003.
For the Rangers' Scott Gomez, this playoff series will be a homecoming of sorts. The Alaskan native signed on as a free agent with the Rangers last summer, and he will be playing against his old mates and a team on which he had his most professional success.
The New Jersey Devils will be relying on their own sharpshooter, Patrick Elias, to provide some of the scoring punch. Elias has an impeccable playoff resume, with 35 goals and 104 assists in 121 games, all played in a Devil uniform.
Mark Predicts: Brodeur in seven
There it is Bleacher Reporters, my picks for the first round of the Eastern Conference 2008 Stanley Cup playoffs.
So go ahead, jump in and let me know what you think. I know that some of you will totally disagree with me, but hey, that is what makes it fun. For the love of the game, baby!
I still plan on shaving my beard though—I am not that much of a fan.
Tomorrow, the Western Conference predictions.