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Picking the hockey playoffs

Nevada Appeal Staff Reports

Now is truly one of the best times of the year in the sporting world because the playoffs have begun in the National Hockey League. Intense, physical, skillful, fast action makes hockey the most exciting and underappreciated game in North American team sports. Adding the importance of the quest for the Stanley Cup only increases the levels of excitement and physicality.

On the ice fans will see excellent officiating and athletes risking life and limb. Sportsmanship and respect for the game is also a must since hockey exhibits one of the greatest traditions in all of sports when players line up and shake hands at the end of each series. Off the ice viewers can tune in to ESPN’s studio analyst Barry Melrose, arguably the most informational and fascinating talking head in the entire sports business.

Hockey fans just love the unpredictable nature of the NHL postseason. No favorite is immune to an upset and teams like last year’s No. 7 seed Anaheim can get hot and reach the Cup Finals. Home ice is meaningless as road teams always win about half of all playoff games, and heavy drama is certain as last year 22 games totaled 38 overtimes.

This year’s first round has given players and fans some incredible match-ups. Rivalries old and new such as Boston-Montreal, Toronto-Ottawa, Philadelphia-New Jersey and Dallas-Colorado are sure to get the juices flowing. Canada is well-represented with only Edmonton failing to reach the playoffs, so expectations are high for a Finals involving a city from north of the border for the first time since 1994. As far as the misnomer goes that too many teams are allowed to make the playoffs, no teams at or below .500 qualified and three teams that finished above .500 were left out.

Predictions Ð When picking winners for each series and predicting a champion for Lord Stanley’s Cup, team postseason experience, toughness and good scoring balance are important factors. But without a shadow of a doubt, goaltending is the most crucial. Look no further than last season’s performances by Martin Brodeur and Jean-Sebastien Giguere to understand why New Jersey and Anaheim met in the 2003 Finals.

Boston vs Montreal Ð Directly preceding the 30th playoff meeting between these storied Original Six rivals, Boston was hot and Montreal was not. Their last six series have gone to the Game 1 winner. Boston in 6.

New Jersey vs Philadelphia Ð Defending champion New Jersey’s goaltender Martin Brodeur has now won three Cups, while Philadelphia’s Robert Esche has never before experienced an NHL playoff game. New Jersey in 6.

Tampa Bay vs New York Islanders – This series might not be easy for No. 1 seed Tampa Bay. The Islanders took the regular season series 3-1 and Isle goalie Rick DiPietro finished 7-2. Still, I like Tampa Bay in 7.

Ottawa vs Toronto – Both clubs’ goalkeepers are playing hurt. Toronto is physically tougher while Ottawa led the league in scoring. This is the fourth time in five years these squads have met, and Toronto has won the first three, but I’m taking Ottawa in 6.

Detroit vs Nashville Ð The question isn’t who will win this series, but how many games it will take Detroit to advance. Detroit in 5.

San Jose vs St. Louis – In each of the last seven seasons and nine out of 10, at least one No. 2 seed like San Jose has lost in the first round. But I’m not picking against the Sharks or Boston. San Jose in 6.

Calgary vs Vancouver – Calgary netminder Miikka Kiprusoff set a modern-day record with a 1.69 goals against average. However, the Flames have lost six straight series, with their last win coming in 1989, and they haven’t even tasted the playoffs in seven years. Vancouver in 7.

Dallas vs Colorado – Dallas owns the upper hand when it comes to goaltending and better recent home record, although amazingly the Stars haven’t won a series without home-ice advantage since 1991. Dallas in 7.

Stanley Cup Finals – I picked Ottawa over Detroit before the season started, so I’ll stick with that even though Ottawa might not make it out of the first round.

– Major League Baseball predictions:

Division winners – Oakland, Minnesota, New York Yankees, San Francisco, Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia.

Wild Cards Ð Boston and Houston.

World Series Ð Chicago Cubs over Boston.

Joe Ellison is the Nevada Appeal Betting Columnist. Contact him at editor@nevadaappeal.com.