Basketball gets the headlines, but for pure excitement it’s hard to top hockey’s Stanley Cup. This year’s odds-on favorite to win it all is the San Jose Sharks and for once I agree with the Vegas line. The Sharks have it all: a hot goaltender (Evgeni Nabokov), size (Jumbo Joe Thornton, Rob Blake), grizzled vets (Jeremy Roenick), agitators (Claude Lemieux), and so much depth that Jonathan Cheechoo and Mike Grier often skate on the fourth line.

That said, surprises generally occur in pursuit of the Cup. Hot goaltending can carry teams deep into the playoffs, which is why even the worst team to make the playoffs, the New York Rangers, have a shot—Henrick Lundqvist is one of the best in the league and is the only reason the Rangers are in the hunt. And goaltending is the reason that the league’s most-skilled team, the Detroit Red Wings, will go home disappointed—Chris Osgood and Ty Conklin are mediocre at best.

Let’s all be grateful that Atlanta, Dallas, Florida, Los Angeles, Nashville, Phoenix, and Tampa will not be playing into May. Unless Carolina gets lucky we’ll be spared seeing the Cup go someplace that hockey has no damn business being played. Half of those teams should fold and the other half should move where someone cares (Hamilton, Quebec City, Winnipeg, Seattle). In like spirit we should bemoan the absence of Buffalo, Edmonton, and Ottawa in the playoffs. The Sabres are arguably the most-talented team not there. (It’s hard to feel sorry for Toronto’s absence; Leafs stink.)

Here are my predictions for Round One. In the Eastern Conference:

1. Boston Bruins over Montreal Canadiens: The Bruins aren’t spectacular, but Coach Claude Julien has assembled the most-cohesive and hard-working team in the NHL. Defenseman Zdeno Chara will manhandle the undersized Habs and open space for Phil Kessel and Marc Savard. This should be over fast, unless goalie Tim Thomas falls apart or the Habs’ Casey Price becomes Superman.

2. Washington Capitals over New York Rangers: This one should also end quickly, Lundqvist notwithstanding, because you actually have to score goals to win. The Rangers went deep last year because Jaromir Jagr woke up from a season-long sleep, but this year’s crop has no one of his ability. The Caps do: Alex Ovechkin. Goaltender Jose Theodore is prone to mistakes, but the Rangers couldn’t score in a bar full of drugged sophomores.

3. Carolina Hurricanes over New Jersey Devils: Here’s your first-round upset special in the East. The Devils have Marty Brodeur in goal, but they don’t have much scoring power and they had an awful last month of the season. The Canes, by contrast, have played with passion and energy. Look for Eric Staal to score some big goals. But if the Devils do hold on, I’ll be happy—Raleigh is another place that doesn’t deserve a team. Bring back The Whalers!

4. Philadelphia Flyers over Pittsburgh Penguins in a minor upset. The Flyers stumbled at the end, their fans are mad, and the team is primed to take out their frustrations on someone. And what better target than the Pens’ whiny, chippy Sid Crosby? The Pens have a lot more firepower than the Flyers, but Evgeni Malkin goes soft in big games; the Flyers’s Simon Gagne thrives in them. I like Philly because Martin Biron is a better goalie than Marc-Andre Fleury.

Western Conference:

1. San Jose Sharks over Anaheim Ducks: This one may actually be one the toughest matchups the Sharks will face. The Ducks are big and gritty and they’ve got a few guys on their roster (Teemu Selanne and Jean-Sebastian Giguere) who rise to big occasions. But Giguere’s not the goalie he once was—courtesy of downsizing the equipment—and the Sharks are just too deep.

2. Detroit Red Wings over Columbus Blue Jackets. Everywhere you turn there’s talent on the Wings: Zetterburg, Hossa, Franzen, Maltby, Rafalski …. And nobody is more exciting in open ice than Pavel Datsyuk. Everywhere, except goal! Because of the leaky net I not be surprised if the pesky Jackets make this series closer than it should be.

3. Vancouver Canucks over St. Louis Blues: This has the potential to be a very exciting first-round matchups. The Blues have flown in under the radar and their offense beyond Brad Boyes is fairly anemic, but they play tough (especially enforcer David Backes) and Chris Mason has been solid in net. But the Canucks should prevail with its big defensemen, the Sedin brothers leading the scoring, and a superior goalie: Roberto Luongo. Look also for ex-Blues center Pavol Demitra to have a big series.

4. Calgary Flames over Chicago Blackhawks in the Western upset special. Why? The Flames have the dynamic Jarome Iginla, made the best late season pickup (center Olli Jokinen), and have some guys who had off years and can redeem themselves in the post season: Craig Conroy, Todd Bertuzzi, and goalie Mikka Kiprusoff. Chicago has nice young wingers in Martin Havlat and Patrick Kane, but the goaltending is in the hands of the washed-up Nikolai Khabibulin and the never-lived-up-to-hype Cristobal Huet. Look for Iginla to give both of them fits.

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