NHL playoffs: Let’s get this party started!

There’s nothing that sounds quite like an NHL playoff game, except for maybe standing on the tarmac during a plane’s takeoff. The noise is constant from the pre-game skate to the final seconds on the clock. For the players and coaches, springtime means the start of the annual gauntlet run to the Stanley Cup.

This year, the Western Conference could provide more surprises in the early rounds than its Eastern counterpart. I have highlighted three series to keep an eye on for the first round.

Boston Bruins vs. Montreal Canadiens
An original six matchup — old Adams Division rivals will meet for the fourth time in the last seven postseasons. The Habs have won 24 of 31 all-time playoff series between the two teams, including the last three encounters (’02, ’04, ‘08). The key for the Canadiens is having a healthy D Andrei Markov back in the lineup. He led the team in scoring and was a key component at the point position on the power play. But they have sputtered since Markov went down with a lower-body injury on April 4th. The Big Bad Bruins have bullied the Canadiens in all six regular season contests, but they must refrain from taking stupid penalties. F Milan Lucic must control his emotions and play with his head on straight, as the referees will be watching him closely. What a banner season for the Bruins, as they had their best win total (53) since 1971-72 regular season en route to becoming the number one-seed in the Eastern Conference.

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Philadelphia Flyers
The Flyers are loaded offensively, as F Jeff Carter was second in the league with 46 goals. They have plenty of grit to control the tempo inside the offensive zone, but what still plagues them is a lack of a killer instinct to put opponents away. This was evident last Sunday after losing home-ice advantage for the playoffs with a third period collapse against the New York Rangers in a 4-3 loss. The Penguins went 12-2 in 14 Eastern Conference playoff games last spring en route to an appearance in the Stanley Cup finals. This year’s squad is missing Ryan Malone and Marian Hossa; both players left via free agency last summer, and coach Michel Therrien was fired during the season. Chris Kunitz and Bill Guerin were much-needed trade-deadline additions to revamp the forward unit, and the backline has been fortified by the return of Sergei Gonchar to the lineup. And oh yeah, they have a couple players named Crosby and Malkin to lead their offense. Under rookie interim head coach Dan Bylsma, the Pens went 18-3-4 to finish the regular season. It is fair to ask how rookie coaches will react to the pressures of the postseason. Remember, Bylsma began the season in the AHL and now rides the hottest team in the league into the playoffs.

Chicago Blackhawks vs. Calgary Flames
Six weeks ago, the Flames had the look of a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. They had veteran leadership, a quality goaltender, and acquired a skill player (Olli Jokinen) at the trade-deadline to put the puck in the net. They proceeded to choke away their large lead in the Northwest Division and fell to fifth place in the final conference standings. Chicago’s local media is focusing too much on the revival of hockey in the Windy City and overlooking how talented the Blackhawks are. They have all the ingredients needed for a successful playoff run: goaltending, defense, and coaching. The Hawks put it all together down the stretch of the regular season, as they went 6-0-1 in April and 9-3-1 since March 22nd.

It seems to happen every year, an unlikely team emerges to shine the brightest and breeds hope for all in the NHL. The playoffs are here…thank god!

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