Our previews of the 2009 Stanley Cup playoffs' opening round, featuring pretty pictures and a special guest video by the great Steve Dangle at the end.
The best argument for expanding the NHL postseason that can be made is that playoff hockey can have a transformative effect on a fan base.
The Columbus Blue Jackets are enjoying strong support locally in their first run to the postseason. But a win over the defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings would amplify that excitement beyond anyone's imagination; a victory looked back on as a touchstone moment for the franchise 10, 20 years from now.
Will the playoff rookies stun the champs? The tale of the tape follows.
Season Series (Series tied, 3-3)
Forwards (Advantage: Detroit)
Whether or not Pavel Datsyuk is a superstar can be debated; he isn't automatically mentioned with the three players who finished in front of him in the points race, for example. But his second consecutive season of 97 points, a career high of 32 goals and a series of interviews that revealed a whimsical personality have set up Datsyuk for a breakout postseason; especially after the last two playoffs put to bed any notion that he's a playoff underperformer.
Remember when Hossa (26 points in 20 playoff games) used to be called a playoff choker? Yeah, neither do we; but his groin problems could be an issue.
That "choker" label would never stick on Zetterberg or Franzen, who are aces in the postseason. The stat lines tell you everything about the across-the-board effort by Zetterberg in last season's Stanley Cup run; 10 power-play points and five shorthanded points is still a little mind-blowing. Before injuries slowed him, Franzen was on a Smythe pace, too.
The Columbus top line of Kristian Huselius, Manny Malhotra and Rick Nash have a herculean task ahead of them: Handle whatever line Mike Babcock matches against them; handle what will most likely be Nicklas Lidstrom on the blue line; and then carry a Jackets offense that was 21st in goals scored this season.
We'll stubbornly admit that we were wrong about the Antoine Vermette trade. His 13 points in 17 provided the team with valuable secondary scoring the Jackets are going to need to win this series; not only from Vermette, but from RJ Umberger, Jacob Voracek and a healthy (all things considered) Freddy Modin.
Defensemen (Advantage: Detroit)
That the Blue Jackets were ninth in the League in goals-against is a tribute to the total team commitment to Ken Hitchcock's system; because the personnel isn't exactly all-star quality on defense: Jan Hejda, Mike Commodore, Fedor Tyutin, Rostislav Klesla, Marc Methot and Kris Russell.
That said, some of these players have had solid seasons, and Commodore and Tyutin are going to be counted on for their experience. Well, and Commodore for his magic bath robe.
One assumes that Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski will get the call against Nash's line, but the Red Wings' second duo of Nicklas Kronwall and Brad Staurt can be shut-down guys, too. Brett Lebda is one of those guys who thinks he's a TV reporter when he's loaded. There's one at every bar.
Goalies (Advantage: Columbus)
The last time Chris Osgood played in a postseason game, it ended with him raising the Stanley Cup. Since then, he traveled with the Cup to the premiere of "The Love Guru" and visited with Jay Leno; if that wasn't bad enough, his status as starting goalie was questioned, he was sent home for retooling and mental stability, and he enters this postseason as the universally agreed upon "weak link" in the Wings' lineup.
But there are believers, like Kostya Kennedy of SI:
Something tells me that Osgood, now 36 years old, is going to show some real poise and be a bedrock for the Red Wings -- not just in the opening series but throughout the playoffs. This may be the postseason in which he establishes himself as the most underrated goalie of his time.
Wait, how does one establishing being underrated again?
Not underrated: Steve Mason, the rookie goalie who saved the BeeJays' bacon when Pascal Leclaire went down. The Calder favorite (sorry, Stamkos) was second in the League with a 2.29 GAA and led the NHL with 10 shutouts. While it's assumed he's going to have to steal a game or two for the Jackets to win, Columbus would probably settle for consistent goaltending from a playoff newbie instead of a Carey Price Bomb like the one we saw for the Habs last year.
If This Series Was a Movie, It Would Be ...
... about the awkward beauty of postseason virgins.
Power Play (Advantage: Detroit)
Playing the percentages, give the Red Wings four power plays and they're putting a goal on the board. Detroit was first in the League at a 25.5 conversion rate, and had five players in double-digits for man-advantage goal --s along with four players that had over 20 power-play assists. It's the kind of special teams unit that just toys with you, like a cat taunting a mouse in a trap.
Columbus is at the other end of the spectrum. Well, literally: The Jackets were 30th in the NHL (12.7) on the power play, most likely because Derrick Brassard was injured and Fedor Tyutin wasn't.
Penalty Kill (Advantage: Columbus)
Columbus was 13th overall with a 82.1 kill rate, which is perfectly respectable and expected with Mason between the pipes.
The head-scratcher continues to be the Red Wings at 25th in the League (78.3). It improved late in the season after a few tweaks, but it didn't exactly race up the charts.
Fight We'd Love To See