Every day for the past two weeks, the NHL has announced candidates for each of its individual hockey awards. I’m not quite sure what the NHL’s logic was behind this daily media blitz. Why give the media something to cover instead of the Stanley Cup playoffs? Wouldn’t it make more sense to announce the award nominees when there was a lull in the playoff action, say, right before the Stanley Cup final?
I’m no public relations guru but I’m pretty sure what sells hockey is great hockey, not Selke or Lady Byng nominees.
Thankfully the first round featured some tremendous hockey, competed at a speed and intensity two notches up from regular season play (sadly, for the Toronto Maple Leafs, about 10 notches higher).
Since the NHL is handing out awards, so will I, prior to making my second round predictions:
Hart – Best First Round Playoff Performance: Jaroslav Halak
Runners-up: Sidney Crosby, Mikael Samuelsson
While I’m betting Halak is the next Steve Penney (rather than Patrick Roy or Ken Dryden), there’s absolutely no way the Montreal Canadians win their series without Halak in net. Red Fisher says it was one of the greatest goaltending performances in Habs history. Red would know. He’s been following the Habs for something like 200 years.
Norris – Best Defenseman: Dan Boyle
Runners-up: Drew Doughty, Hal Gill
Drew Doughty was the bigger offensive threat, and Hal Gill was a dominant shutting down (or blocking, for that matter) Washington’s attack. But Boyle turned a crippling moment (the OT game winning own-goal) into an afterthought for a team that seemed resigned to a first round playoff defeat. Four points and a +6 in San Jose’s next three wins, Boyle demonstrated veteran, championship leadership for a Sharks squad that desperately needed it.
Adams – Best Coach: Alain Vigneault
Runners-up: Jacques Martin, Dave Tippett
A tough call. The Coyotes game plan was so well executed that they were the better team for most of the series. And Jacques Martin did lead the Canadiens to perhaps the biggest first round upset since the Kings beat the Oilers in 1983. That being said, the Coyotes weren’t expected to win, and the Canadiens won mostly on the individual, heroic performance of their goaltender. I’ll go with the guy who made some smart lineup changes (Samuelsson to the first line, Demitra demoted lower in the lineup) and managed the most out of a banged up, shallow d-corps to overcome a game Kings team.
Best Thing About the First Round
Great individual performances. Terrific crowds for the most part. Lots of goal scoring. All of these are the wrong answer. I’m going to go with the fact that Coyotes fans threw snakes and Predators fans threw fish onto the ice, similar to Detroit’s legendary octopus throw. Nice to see what might be new traditions in very untraditional hockey markets.
Worst Thing About the First Round
With all due respect to the amazing tradition and crazy fans that fill the Bell Centre, the worst thing about the first round is that the Montreal Canadiens won. In a league that has tried to put greater emphasis on offense, skill, and speed, the Habs won their series based on a very pre-lockout, very defensively-oriented Jacques Martin game plan. Coaching to win 1-0, the Habs lined-up in front of their goal like they were defending a soccer penalty kick every time Washington turned up the heat. It’s kind of sad to see a team steeped in Flying Frenchmen tradition playing this way.
Pittsburgh vs. Montreal
The veteran, Cup champion Penguins have the killer instinct Washington lacked. And while Montreal should win the goalie matchup again, Pittsburgh has two dominant players, whereas Washington only had one. Have I mentioned the Pens have been to the Finals in back-to-back years? It will be fun to see Crosby play in Montreal. Pens in six.
Boston vs. Philadelphia
Don’t look now, but the Bruins might be the best team left in the Eastern Conference. Tuukka Rask outdueled Ryan Miller in the first round, and Claude Julien is a fine defensive coach. Add to the mix a healthy Marc Savard, and suddenly this Bruins team looks like one that can play any type of game. Meanwhile, the Flyers are banged up (Simon Gagne, Ian Laperriere and Jeff Carter are all likely out for the series) and they’re still relying on Brian Boucher to win games. It was enough to get past an over-the-hill Marty Brodeur and the Devils in round one. Not enough this time. Bruins in 5.
San Jose vs. Detroit
Interesting series on paper, as San Jose and Detroit play similar puck possession games at a similar pace. I took Phoenix in the first round, and I wonder if the Coyotes weren’t a Shane Doan injury away from beating the Wings. Detroit, while still the class of the NHL, are a veteran group, and really struggled to keep up with the Phoenix forecheck. Lidstrom was pedestrian until Game 7, and the team’s best defenseman on most nights was Brad Stuart. Meanwhile, San Jose won a series without a significant contribution from any of their top line. They’ll need Thornton and company to step up, and goalie Evgeni Nabokov to make a few key saves. Both of those happening are as likely as me owning a unicorn. Red Wings in 6.
Chicago vs. Vancouver
The rematch from last year and quite likely the most entertaining of second round matchups. The edge in goal goes to Vancouver, but the edge on the blueline goes to Chicago in a landslide. Both teams are solid up front, and it will be interesting to see who Vigneault matches the Kyle Wellwood line with. Can the same performance be expected from the Sedin Twins in Round Two? I’m not sure it can, which means Alex Burrows and Ryan Kesler need to have an impact 5-on-5. Chicago was outplayed for most of their series against Nashville, but grew stronger as the series went along. ‘Hawks in 7.
First-Round record: 5-3
[Editor's note: As y'all know, Tom is a good friend of mine, but he's a Leafs fan. Go easy on him for picking the Hawks. Don't worry - the rest of us believe in blue.]