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Craig Button handicaps Round 1

by Craig Button
The Stanley Cup Playoffs are beginning and with the postseason comes the hope of bringing home arguably the most difficult trophy in sport to win, Lord Stanley's Cup. That is not the only hope. There is the longing to win the Cup after a long hiatus; hello Boston. The hope to win a franchise's first cup; do you know the way to San Jose? There is hope to add another Cup to a tradition second-to-none in professional sports; bonjour Montreal. There is the hope of every current champion to repeat and "Hockeytown" loves a Stanley Cup celebration.

To win the Cup requires more than hope and the playoffs force you to take a path which requires a commitment through a two-month journey of sacrifice, not to mention an itchy beard, if you want to emerge victorious.

There are many aspects of a team's game that must be order to win in the playoffs. You must defeat a team four times in a very short period. You begin by looking at your opponent and trying to determine where you can take advantage, whether in an area of the team game or versus individual players. At the outset of a series, you are looking for the "soft underbelly" of your opponent and you are attempting to exploit it and take advantage and build upon it. Your opponent is attempting to do the same and teams are trying to limit the exposure of their weaknesses. If a team is a weaker penalty killing team, the mantra becomes; "don't take unnecessary penalties." The familiarity each team gains with each passing game is put to use in understanding what is showing signs of succeeding and where you can continue to have success and because of the familiarity, the competitive level continues to increase and the intensity of the games make it special.

Another important aspect of successful teams is that they don't beat themselves. They understand the different points in a game and what needs to be done and what is necessary at any given time to win that game and move closer to eliminating your opponent. How many times as a fan have you asked "why would he make that play or decision?"

The biggest aspect of any successful team is goaltending. Making timely saves during periods of intense pressure is the essence of a goaltender's being, at least a winning goaltender's being. While keeping the puck out of your net is important, it is just as important to "solve" your opponent's goaltender. If a team reaches the conclusion of a series as the vanquished and is left saying, "their goaltender was the difference," it is akin to saying 'we didn't find a way to solve him."

Other elements such as attention to detail, making smart plays and "paying a price" are all found in Stanley Cup Champions but finding a way to be successful while your opponent is trying to do the same to you but better is what creates the aura around the Stanley Cup playoffs. It is what makes the taste of victory so sweet, because you know at the conclusion not only have you won but you have done so by meeting the challenges in the face of very determined competition.

First Round Selections

Eastern Conference

Boston-Montreal -- In every category, Boston has performed better than Montréal over the course of the regular season. In the 100th season of Les Canadiens, this 'new season' won't last very long.

Boston in five games.

Washington-NY Rangers -- Henrik Lundqvist can win games for the Rangers. The question is, can the Rangers win games for Lundqvist? The Capitals are a dynamic offensive team and they dictate the pace and tempo of the game. Lundqvist can win a couple, but not four versus a team which forces you to score which the Rangers don't.

Washington in six games.

New Jersey-Carolina -- Carolina has been excellent over the course of the past two months and Cam Ward is on top of his game. A well rested Martin Brodeur is not an easy assignment for the Hurricanes. The Devils do not beat themselves and are well balanced throughout.

New Jersey in six games.

Pittsburgh-Philadelphia -- What a series. What a rivalry. The memory from last year's playoffs is fresh for both. Malkin and Crosby, two of the top players in the league and a healthy Sergei Gonchar is a formidable challenge for the Flyers. Four 30-plus goal scorers for the Flyers and six with 25 or more. An excellent power play and penalty killing and their key players are in every important situation. A healthy Daniel Briere and a strong rookie in Claude Giroux and the Flyers emerge victorious in a great cross state rivalry.

Philadelphia in seven games.

Western Conference

San Jose -Anaheim -- San Jose wins the Presidents' Trophy and for that they get to play the Ducks. Something doesn't seem right. San Jose is strong, but Anaheim has played strong since the trade deadline and they have many players who know the requirements along the path to the Stanley Cup. Adding Ryan Whitney and James Wisniewski and the return of Francois Beauchemin eases the burden on Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger which only makes it more difficult for the Sharks. Anaheim must stay away from needless penalties and they will have a chance to orchestrate an upset.

Anaheim in seven games.

Detroit-Columbus -- The Blue Jackets are headed into the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. Unfortunately they are playing against the team with more playoff and Stanley Cup experience than anybody in the League. Steve Mason will keep the games close, but Detroit is too good, too deep in talent and too experienced.

Detroit in six games.

Vancouver-St. Louis -- There may be no better story than the Blues' run to the playoffs. With injuries forcing younger players into the lineup, they didn't just get the chance to play, they were major contributors. The Canucks were just as hot as the Blues the past two months and earned the division championship and with home ice and Roberto Luongo, the clock will strike twelve in St. Louis for the Blues.

Vancouver in six games.

Chicago-Calgary -- Find a way to tune in to the U.S. National Anthem on Thursday night prior to the Hawks-Flames game. There is not a greater spectacle than hearing the return of the roar in Chicago made by 22,000 rabid fans. If that doesn't get you tingling, nothing will. The Flames had a downward spiral since the deadline and of the 16 playoff teams; the Flames at 8 wins and 11 losses had the worse record. Added to this were injuries to stalwarts on the blue line in Regehr and Sarich and the Flames are limping into the playoffs literally and figuratively. Khabibulin knows how to win and will help the Hawks end the Flames season.

Chicago in six games.

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