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Crystal Balling 2008-09

by Seamus O'Callahan / Dallas Stars

Smile everyone, it's hockey season!

Seriously, isn't today great? Hockey returns to American Airlines Center tonight as the Stars host Columbus and all seems right with the world again.
Seamus O'Callahan
There are a lot of high expectations out there, with some "experts"even picking the Stars to hoist the silver chalice come next June. Well, since it is that time of the year (prognostication season), I'm game to play as well. Here are some of my thoughts on the 2008-09 NHL Season:
I believe there are four teams in each conference that are contenders to win the Stanley Cup. In the East I like Montreal, the NY Rangers, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. In the West, Anaheim, Dallas, Detroit and San Jose stand out as early favorites. OK, so before you start proclaiming me "Capt. Obvious," when you look at the team out there and the changes that were made in the off-season, these same teams keep popping up.
But what other teams out there might make a run? My darkhorses to enter the list of possible contenders are -- East: Boston. West: Calgary. A healthy Patrice Bergeron will go a long way for the Bruins, as will a possible comeback season for Manny Fernandez. We'll see. And then there's Calgary, who I like to win the Northwest Division and grab one of the top three seeds in the West. Mike Cammalleri is a big addition and good goaltending will always give you a chance.
Comeback players of the year: I like Brendan Morrison with Anaheim and the before-mentioned Bergeron.
Rookie of the Year: Steven Stamkos of Tampa Bay. I think the kid is pretty special and we'll see that right away this coming season. He'll be fun to watch.
Who's going to win the NFC East of the NHL (the Pacific Division)? Who knows? But you can bet it will be either Anaheim, Dallas or San Jose (again). I think Dallas has a good chance to win the division but San Jose is the mystery for me. I like the moves they made in strengthening their blue line and their forwards are still top-notch. Anaheim has Teemu Selanne and Scott Niedermayer for full seasons again, and that will help them. But a lot of their success will depend on Corey Perry continuing to become an offensive force. The main reason these three teams are so tough -- top-notch goaltending.
Here's what I really believe though -- if the Stars want to return to the Western Conference Finals and have a shot at the Cup, they really need to win the division and get one of the top seeds. The two runners-up in the Pacific will probably once again play in the first round as the 4-5 match-up and Dallas would be much better off if that were the Sharks and Ducks. Winning the division isn't everything, but it would give them a nice advantage.
Chicago will be back in the playoffs. The NHL really needs the Blackhawks to be good again. Guess who will also make the playoffs? The Blue Jackets. Yes, really.
Who's out in the West then? Well, I think that the Avalanche and the Wild take a step back and finish out of the top eight. Nashville will be right there on the bubble too.
My eight playoff teams in the west (in order of predicted finish):
1. Detroit
2. Dallas
3. Calgary
4. San Jose
5. Anaheim
6. Edmonton
7. Chicago
8. Columbus

Out East, I think Carolina gets back in the post-season. Ottawa will be the big disappointment. Goaltending will be their downfall.
The predicted finish in the East:
1. Montreal
2. Pittsburgh
3. Washington
4. NY Rangers
5. Philadelphia
6. New Jersey
7. Boston
8. Carolina

Of course all of this could all come crashing down with a big injury or two.
It's always a part of the game.
Some more fun predictions for you:
Art Ross Trophy: Sidney Crosby
Hart Trophy (MVP): Crosby
Rocket Richard Trophy (most goals): Alex Ovechkin
Norris Trophy (Best Defenseman): Nicklas Lidstrom
Vezina (Best Goalie): Carey Price
Who will lead the Stars in scoring: Brad Richards
Who will lead the Stars in goals: Mike Ribeiro
First Stars goal of the season: Sean Avery

If I could pick one Stars game to keep my eye on: Nov. 29 vs. San Jose. It will be the teams' second meeting of the year. They already don't like each other. This second meeting might be a "heated one." Just a feeling.
Hey, it's all in good fun. Speaking of fun, I hope that you'll be able to join us at American Airlines Center for many Stars games this season. I can tell you one thing - there is no place I would rather be.
Bring it on!
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