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Sunday, April 14
Updated: April 19, 3:30 AM ET
The best time of year

By John Buccigross
Special to

HIT THE ICE by Michael Fischer

It's the best time of year, because all that matters is the winning. All day long you will think about your team's game tonight. You will wake up and wonder and imagine and act out, all the possibilities that will get your team to the finals. On the way to work, you think about the opponent. By lunch, you wonder if your goaltending will be good enough. On the way home, you wonder how your team is feeling. Are they confident? When the clock hits 6 p.m., your stomach is in a frenzy. The game is drawing near. With each passing minute the feeling in your stomach is growing more and more intense. Excitement. Anticipation. Nervousness. A bad batch of chicken quesadilla. Whatever it is, it makes you feel alive. This is the best time of the year. Spring has sprung. The weather is warm. The air is fresh. And the best sport in the world is about to embark on two months of mayhem to claim the coolest prize in sports. Welcome to the jungle.

Predicting the NHL has become almost impossible. With low scoring and great goaltending, almost every game is a close one. The winner will be determined a good bit on bounces. There are 16 teams that have reached the playoffs, but I feel only six have a chance to win it. Instead of picking an absolute final and champion, what follows are the teams I feel have a chance to win the Stanley Cup, ranked in order of probability.

1. Detroit Red Wings: Certainly not a lock, but, the most likely to win it all. Could they lose in the first round? Sure. But, I feel they are the smartest team in professional sports. I feel their intellect, talent and savvy will carry them through. They will get better with each round. The concerns are Steve Yzerman's knee and Dominik Hasek's brain. He's been acting goofy in net recently. But, that usually means he's really into it, so perhaps that's a good sign for Red Wings fans. Can they just "turn it on" and bring their "A" game after finishing so uninspired? Yes. They displayed a greatness THAT NO OTHER TEAM CAME CLOSE TO MATCHING for much of the season. Again, they may not reach that level again and they could be bounced, but until then, they are the odds-on favorite to win.

2. San Jose Sharks: This teams reminds me of the New Jersey Devils a little bit. Deep, rugged and balanced. The key is the play of the young guys. Elias and Sykora came through as young guys. Patrick Marleau is blossoming right now. But, he'll have to work twice as hard in the postseason. On the surface, he doesn't seem like that kind of guy. We'll find out. I think Teemu Selanne will play gritty and nasty and will produce. His free agent price could go up with a good playoff.

3. New Jersey Devils: The trade with Dallas was enormous. Martin Brodeur finished the season playing goalie like a madman. He wasn't nearly this good at the Olympics. They just seem to have that certain indefinable edge over the Eastern Conference teams. I can't imagine Byron Dafoe beating Brodeur head to head. Toronto cannot match the Devils depth.

4. Colorado Avalanche: The greatness of Raymond Bourque will be missed dearly. People look at you differently when you drive a Mercedes. Bourque gave the Avs that kind of power. The injury to Milan Hejduk is COLOSSAL. He is a GREAT player. Way better than most hockey fans realize. They are very smart. Their game plan is centered around their goalie. For them to win the Cup, they have to have AWESOME power play numbers. They have enough of those players to achieve that.

Bruins over Canadiens in 5
Flyers over Senators in 6
Devils over Hurricanes in 4
Leafs over Islanders in 7

Red Wings over Canucks in 5
Avalanche over Kings in 6
Sharks over Coyotes in 5
Blues over Blackhawks in 7

5. Boston Bruins: The best group of forwards in NHL. Put Nicklas Lidstrom and Hasek on this team and the Bruins finish with more points than the Red Wings. Bruins fans should be worried about Dafoe and his penchant for challenging every shot. When he gives up a goal, he is usually out of position. They ARE the best team in the East and were my preseason pick in ESPN The Magazine to reach the finals. They have an excellent shot to do that. However, they don't get many big goals from their blue line and their goaltender sometimes plays small. That's not a Cup combination. Outside of Dafoe playing well, Kyle McLaren's play is the most vital to the B's success.

6. Toronto Maple Leafs: I love Mats Sundin. His physical and mental game are at its peak right now. His leadership can get them to the finals. He might be the best leader in the game right now because of his passion and his game. He has Phil Mickelson's game and grinds like Tiger Woods. What worries me if I'm a Leafs fan is Cujo. Is he rusty? Does he feel resentment toward the Pat Quinn and the Leafs for his lack of contract and the benching at the Olympics? Cujo seems sensitive. Why not ...

1. St. Louis Blues: Good team. Lots of angst. When the going gets tough, these guys tend to press. Maybe Chicken Parm can loosen things up before they all get sick of him. They need all the dominos to fall right, getting all the right matchups, to advance.

2. Philadelphia Flyers: If the Flyers get bounced early, Bobby Clarke should just take the role of President and let someone else set the tone. The Flyers are like St. Louis. Relax. Simmer. Less is more.

This is how I see it after watching the league 24/7 for the past seven months. I hope I'm wrong. I hope the unexpected happens. Something that we don't expect. That often happens in the NHL playoffs. The league is tight. The games will be close. A bounce here, and a bounce there and who knows? Maybe another Ray might be holding the Cup over his head for the first time. Only this time, instead of champagne, the Cup will be filled with chicken parm and marinara.

The Los Angeles Kings are playing the Colorado Avalanche in the first round of the playoffs. Last year, the Kings took the Avalanche to seven games in the second round of the playoffs. This year, they have to be confident they can pull off the "upset." Colorado has no Bourque, looks like no Hejduk, and a Peter Forsberg who might be a hair rusty. Colorado is not as dangerous because they are not as potent offensively. Plus, the Kings have Jason Allison. Allison led the Kings in scoring despite playing in just 73 games.

Jason Allison
Jason Allison has three goals and nine points in 12 games as a King.
No. 1: What kind of skates and sticks do you use?
"CCM skates and Louisville sticks."

No. 2: Why was the Kings power play so good this season?
"We keep it simple. We try to get a shot from the point from the center of the ice. If that's covered, we send it down low in the corners and try to make a play."

No. 3: Why No. 41?
"It was a number given to me in Juniors and I just have stuck with it."

No. 4: Who is the Kings DJ and does the team have an official song?
"That's one area we are lacking. We have an unorganized, poor DJ system."

No. 5: Everyone says the Eastern Conference is wide open. What about the West?
"Anyone in our conference can beat anyone. Detroit had a great regular season, but they are not safe."

No. 6: What are the strengths of the Kings?
"We are a smart team. Unselfish. Guys don't go sniffing for goals. We stick to the game plan and stay disciplined. If you have to take a punch, you take a punch."

No. 7: How do you feel about NOT being considered an elite player despite your recent production?
"I've never been a high-profile guy. I know a lot of people say I'm not a great skater, but all the coaches I've played for have never said that. It seems ridiculous to me what a guy looks like when he skates."

No. 8: What are your off-ice interests?
"I recently joined my first fantasy baseball league and I AM REALLY INTO IT. I have a few baseball friends, and I ended up drafting them. Jim Edmonds and Phil Nevin. I'm a very competitive guy."

All year we have been tracking the top five candidates in five award categories (Hart, Vezina, Norris, Calder and Jack Adams). Here is the final High Five for each.


1. Jarome Iginla: Consistent excellence. The total package on and off the ice.

2. Patrick Roy: The Avs are the No. 2 in the West because of Patty.

3. Jose Theodore: The Habs are in the playoffs because of Jose.

4. Mats Sundin: Carried his team to 100 points. One of the leagues best captains.

5. Markus Naslund: Bertuzzi has been the bomb, but I think this guy is Vancouver's glue.


1. Patrick Roy: Been too long since he's won one.

2. Jose Theodore: The makings of a star.

3. Nik Khabibulin: This man must have more bruises on him than a two-week-old banana.

4. Sean Burke: He was my Olympic pick for Canada.

5. Martin Brodeur: My favorite goalie to watch. He sneaks in here because of his last month. A plus.


1. Nicklas Lidstrom: Effortlessly handles so much responsibility.

2. Chris Chelios: When you finish with a plus greater than your age you've had a good year. Especially when one's 40.

3. Rob Blake: OK, King fans, it's time to stop booing him now.

4. Sergei Gonchar: More goals than Lidstrom, Pronger and Rafalski. COMBINED. That has to have some value.

5. Ed Jovanovski: The Canucks have soul because of his ferocity.


1. Ilya Kovalchuk: I know I'm alone here.

2. Dany Heatley: I want my son to turn out like "Heater."

3. Erik Cole: 254 hits!

4. Kristian Huselius: 20/20 guy. Goals and assists. Not bad on a crappy team

5. Rostislav Klesla: Future Norris Trophy winner.

Jack Adams

1. Brian Sutter: Resuscitated a lifeless Original Six team.

2. Peter Laviolette: Born to coach.

3. Robbie Ftorek: One of those people who will spend his last seconds on this earth thinking about how he can be better.

4. Marc Crawford: This team and the players on this team keep getting better.

5. Bob Hartley: He has this team playing great team defense.

Off whose hair would you rather hit your 8-iron? Marc Crawford's or Kerry Fraser's?
Evan Bynum
Fort Collins, Colo.

That depends on pin placement. Fraser's coif would provide a very tight lie as a result of its hardened state and provide lots of spin. Excellent for shaping shots or stopping the ball quickly. Crawford's hair would leave one with a flier lie. Difficult to shape, less spin and more roll. If my Titleist lands on Crawford's hair, I'm taking one less club, land it short of the hole and let it release.

Wouldn't it be cool if you and Melrose had matching mullets?
Bryan Pope

For the love of Kip Winger, Bryan, NO!!

How does it feel to have the greatest job in the world?

You know when you are taking one of those warm showers that you never want to end? You just can't seem to turn the water off, even though you've just used up the entire water supply of Fiji and your skin is pinker than Henrik Sedin's nine seconds in the sun? That's what it feels like. I don't want to turn off the water.

Tell Gary Bettman that I won't approve or understand if there is a work stoppage.

After he's done mowing my lawn I will.

I think the NHL and NHLPA should get together and sponsor a NASCAR team.
Ross Fort
Washington D.C.

Lubomir Vishnovsky meet Rusty Wallace. Rusty? Meet Lubomir.

What will you grow, eat and not wash during the playoffs?

1. Darren Pang chia pet
2. Lots of chicken parm
3. Bobby Holik's back

Every fan knows Slapshot is the must-see hockey movie, but are there any must-read hockey books?
Eric Mossel

There are tons. The latest two hockey books I am reading are "Ice Time," by Jay Atkinson and "Frozen Memories-Celebrating a century of Minnesota hockey," by Ross Bernstein. As far as a non-sports book to get you in the playoff mood? Read "In the Heart of the Sea," by Nathaniel Philbrick. Unreal.

I honestly think you're America's answer to Don Cherry, but, your taste in music sucks.
Boothwyn, Penn.

What's that Mike? Sorry, I coudn't hear you. I was just burning my Celine Dion-Gloria Estefan-Creed greatest hits CD. What was the question?


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