Well, it's that time. I've finished all of my reading and watched about 9,000 hours of hockey this season so I'm ready to make my picks for the playoffs. Here is a look at the first round match-ups.
(1) Buffalo Sabres vs. (8) New York Islanders
The Islanders had to rely on winning a shootout on the last day of the season to get in the playoffs while the Sabres won the Presidents' Trophy for best record in the entire league. That said, the Islanders had a very good season -- a 40-30-12 record is a lot better than I would have predicted after the off-season they had. New York has been here before, having landed the fast playoff spot in the East in 2003 and 2004, and was ceremoniously dumped in both occasions. Make it three times after this match-up. Buffalo is too strong and is a favorite to be playing in June.
Shamus' Pick: Buffalo in 5
Why They'll Win: The Sabres' depth is too good up front and Ryan Miller is brilliant in net.
(2) New Jersey Devils vs. (7) Tampa Bay Lightning
Martin Brodeur. A deeper team. A squad that finished 14 points better during the regular season. All of this adds up to a New Jersey sweep, right? It might, but I'm going with the Lightning to beat the Devils because of the superstars that Tampa can roll out: Vinny Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, Brad Richards and Dan Boyle. This game will be decided on the ability of Jersey to get the checkers out on the ice when Lacavalier's line is. Key to the series is also the play of young Johan Holmqvist in net for Tampa. For the record, he was 2-1 vs. the Devils this season.
Shamus' Pick: Tampa Bay in 7
Why They'll Win: Tampa's stars will shine and come through.
(3) Atlanta Thrashers vs. (6) New York Rangers
Henrik Lundqvist (Joel's twin brother) has been superb since the All-Star Break and that will continue into the playoffs. This should be a fun series to watch. The Rangers only scored four goals in the playoffs last year and I have a hunch they'll score a little more this year. Atlanta has the always-dangerous Ilya Kovalchuk, Marian Hossa and Keith Tkachuk but their key may be goalie Kari Lehtonen. His play may dictate Atlanta's fate. Oh, and here's hoping that Sean Avery has a big goose egg on his stat line for the series. Still don't like that guy.
Shamus' Pick: Rangers in 6
Why They'll Win: Lundqvist. He'll have every answer for Atlanta's offense.
(4) Ottawa Senators vs. (5) Pittsburgh Penguins
Pittsburgh's best players are young. Sidney Crosby, Jordan Staal, Evgeni Malkin and Mark-Andre Fleury have never played in an NHL playoff game. But Mark Recchi and Gary Roberts have won Stanley Cups. Will the youngsters be fazed or will they embrace the pressure? Speaking of pressure, it's always there for Ottawa as they are often viewed as underachievers. But this team has experience in the playoffs and it will show. Pittsburgh will show flashes of brilliance in this series but in the end, experience, and home ice, will come through. The home team will win every game.
Shamus' Pick: Senators in 7
Why They'll Win: Experience comes through in the end. Plus Jason Spezza will go off for the Sens.
(1) Detroit Red Wings vs. (8) Calgary Flames
Calgary's only chance in this series is Miika Kiprusoff, but that does give them a chance. Kipper will have to outplay Dominik Hasek. But the Wings aren't off the hook; They'll need to get pucks to the net and score on the power play. Traffic in front of Kipper will also be a key (hello, Tomas Holmstrom). Calgary will need Alex Tanguay, Craig Conroy, Daymond Langkow and Tony Amonte to get involved in the offense because Jarome Iginla will be the focus of the Detroit defense. If Todd Bertuzzi can contribute, there really is no reason why the Wings don't win this series.
Shamus' Pick: Wings in 6
Why They'll Win: Puck possession is a Detroit strength. Calgary will be playing 2/3 of the games in their own zone.
(2) Anaheim Ducks vs. (7) Minnesota Wild
Quick, how many points did the Wild finish behind Anaheim? Six. Now check the records of both teams down the stretch. Anaheim went 21-16-8 over the last half of the year while Minnesota blazed away with a 29-9-6 record over that same span, including 11-2-1 over their last 14 games. Anaheim has two horses on the back end in Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer and they can control a game when they are both healthy. But Minnesota has Marian Gaborik and the Wild is 33-9-6 when he is in the lineup, including 18-2-2 when he scores a goal (and guess what -- he's healthy). I like the Ducks a lot, but I also feel that the Wild may be the most unappreciated team in the entire playoffs.
Shamus' Pick: Minnesota in 7
Why They'll Win: Gaborik and Pavol Demitra. Hockey fans will also find out who goalie Niklas Backstrom is.
(3) Vancouver Canucks vs. (6) Dallas Stars
Special teams and goaltending -- we hear it all the time that these are the main keys to winning in the playoffs. It could not be more true than in this series. Vancouver boasts the number one penalty-killing unit in the league. If the Stars want to win, they will have to find an answer to it and goalie Roberto Luongo. Dallas will need to score timely goals late in some tight games, especially from the likes of Mike Modano, Brenden Morrow and Jere Lehtinen. Stopping the Sedin twins will be a priority for Dallas, but don't forget about Markus Naslund. Marty Turco is due for a big playoff series in his career, and now is as good a time as any.
Shamus' Pick: The series will go at least 6 games (I'm Irish and I don't pick a "winner" that my team is in)
Why They'll Win: Whoever wins this series will do so because of their power play success.
(4) Nashville Predators vs. (5) San Jose Sharks
Hey, didn't we just leave this party? This was the same 4-5 match-up last year with San Jose coming out on top. Expect history to repeat itself. Nashville may have added Peter Forsberg, but they'll "lose" Jason Arnott, who seems to disappear at this time every year (unless he's playing against Dallas, of course). The bottom line: Nashville does not have the defense nor the goaltending to stop the powerful San Jose power play, and they have no answer for Joe Thornton, who might have 10 assists or more in the series. Sharks goaltending will make up for any deficiencies that San Jose has on defense. Patrick Marleau and company clean up in this one.
Shamus' Pick: San Jose in 5
Why They'll Win: Nashville was already stumbling towards the finish. They drew the wrong match-up for the first round to stop the bleeding.
The bottom line is that I really feel that there is only one scenario that you would classify as an "upset" in this year's first round and that's the Islanders beating Buffalo (ain't gunna happen). All of these series (especially all four series in the West) could go either way. But that's what makes this the best tournament in pro sports.
And a look at the two teams left standing at the end (I leave out Dallas on purpose. Keeping my fingers crossed, though):
Eastern Conference Champion: Buffalo Sabres over NY Rangers
Western Conference Champion: San Jose Sharks over Detroit Red Wings
Stanley Cup Champion: Buffalo Sabres
Let's get this party started!
The thoughts, opinions and statements made in this column are by the writer and do not necessarily reflect the thoughts of the Dallas Stars or DallasStars.com.