Wednesday, April 14, 2010

It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year

Some of you might remember a few years ago when ESPN produced commercials for college football Bowl Season, or "ESPN Capital One Bowl Week" as they call it, where the Worldwide Leader advertised its plethora of Bowl matchups to the strains of Andy Williams' "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year". These ads weren't all that annoying -- it's not a bad song -- but they were on all the time. If you so much as turned on your TV for four minutes of Sportscenter, you were bound to come across it, probably more than once.

There rub here comes in the fact that, well, Bowl Season isn't the most wonderful time on the year in the sports calendar. There are a number of sporting events that are far more exciting and intriguing, such as the NFL Playoffs, the MLB Playoffs, March Madness -- well, pretty much all of them really. Bowl season by comparison is utterly lame, and you can trace that to the fact that all but one of the 30-some games that are played are completely and utterly meaningless. And from the looks of it, that won't be changing any time soon, particularly with websites like these promoting a playoff.

No, the most wonderful time of the year on the sports calendar is actually in the spring time, and while I'm sure a number of you will tell me I'm being nepotistic or generally ridiculous, I really believe the most wonderful time of the year is the Stanley Cup Playoffs. For those of you who remember the excitement of watching the U.S. and Canada face off twice in the Winter Olympics earlier this year, that tournament was dramatic, exciting and gripping in all facets. Well, the Stanley Cup Playoffs are like that every night for two months. The change in tension and level of play from the regular season to the postseason is perhaps more dramatic than in any other North American sport with epic overtime moments dotting its historic landscape. Not to mention that the Stanley Cup Playoffs drive women crazy.

Oh yeah, and they start today.

That means a lot of you probably won't be seeing me until June -- hold back your tears -- but it's all for a worthy cause, and if the people of West Africa can find a reason to be excited about hockey, so can the rest of you.

Frankly, it shouldn't be too hard given the excitement of the season as it came down to the final day. In one of the wildest moments I've ever seen in hockey, the Rangers and Flyers played a win-and-you're-in showdown that came down to an unbelievably tense shootout. Meanwhile, Steven Stamkos, in only his second year, was locked up in a neck-and-neck race with golden boy Sidney Crosby, who had an absurd last few games, for the NHL's goal scoring title. Of course none of those goals came close to Daniel Sedin's wild between the legs tally on Miikka Kiprusoff Saturday night, which might have been the single greatest goal I've ever seen, if for no other reason than the amazing blind deflection pass made by his brother Henrik. Oh yeah, and it capped a hat trick.

That score had shades of Marek Malik, who some might recall ending the longest shootout in history with a similar between the legs shot back in 2005, and while moments on the last weekend ranged from the stunning, to the exciting, they also broached the sentimental, as Mike Modano played what is likely to be his last game, but did so in Minnesota, where his Dallas Stars used to toil as the Minnesota North Stars for the first few years of Modano's career. Not only did the Minnesota Wild fans show respect for Modano, who left the North Stars to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1991, but Modano paid it back by donning a North Stars jersey after the game when he was named first star.

Of course, there's little room for sentimentality in the playoffs. The NHL postseason is a grueling test of wills, grit and beard growing. It takes a tough team -- and maybe even some tough, and blunt fans -- to be the last one standing at the top, and as we get ready for this year's rendition to get underway, I have high hopes for my Devils and the Blackhawks as well, but, this tournament is an unpredictable one. And that's why these picks are going to be completely wrong.

(1) Washington over (8) Montreal in four
(2) New Jersey over (7) Philadelphia in six
(3) Buffalo over (6) Boston in five
(4) Pittsburgh over (5) Ottawa in four

(1) San Jose over (8) Colorado in five
(2) Chicago over (7) Nashville in six
(6) Los Angeles over (3) Vancouver in seven
(5) Detroit over (4) Phoenix in seven

I'll be the first one to admit that I'm going to be incorrect on at least one of those -- I change my thoughts on the Kings-Canucks series every few minutes -- but either way, it should be a particularly exciting playoffs, albeit more so in the West in the opening round. The top four in the East, however, all have ingredients for a deep run. Rather than make a foolish prediction for the finals that will ruin my entire credibility like some tournaments do, I'll simply say my preseason prediction of Caps-Sharks is looking fairly good and leave it at that.

Strap in. The next two months are going to be an awfully fun ride.

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