The chase for the Cup begins |

The chase for the Cup begins

Welcome to the second season, the Stanley Cup Playoffs.It’s time for the two-month marathon that will end in one giddy team (preferably clad in teal) lifting the silver chalice.This year’s playoffs are notable, in part, for who is not playing.Conspicuous by its absence is the Colorado Avalanche. Darn shame. For the first time since the team moved from Quebec, the Avs are on the golf course. Just breaks the heart.We don’t have Carolina or Edmonton, last year’s finalists, in the field. And, Woe, Canada, the Canadiens and Maple Leafs essentially knocked each other out last weekend. The sounds you just heard were Canadian Broadcasting Company executives jumping off the roof. (Ottawa, Vancouver and Calgary are nice, but nobody brings the postseason numbers like the Leafs or the Habs.)We’re also missing Vail Daily sports reporter Ian Cropp who is off on a hut trip. Thus, dear reader, you don’t have to hear Ian’s rantings about the greatness of his Buffalo Sabres, this year’s President’s Trophy winner.If Ian were here, this is what it would sound like:Ian: This is the year for Buffalo.Chris: Nope. West is best.Ian: Which team has the most points? Sabres, the best in the East and best in the NHL.Chris: 5-0. (The score by which the Sharks beat the Sabres the last time they met, yes in December 2005, and also the ratio of Super Bowls won by our respective football teams, the San Francisco 49ers and the Buffalo Bills.)Ian: That was one game a long time ago. Who went further in the playoffs last year?Chris: Did you win the Cup?Ian: How many times have the Sharks been to the finals? The Sabres have been twice.Chris: Brett Hull’s foot was in the crease in 1999 AND the goal still counted.This hypothetical conversation illustrates the following points:n One, it’s a miracle we get a section out each day, given this yammering.n Two, Ian is dead wrong. (What are you going to do about it, hut boy?) The West is a vastly superior conference this year. Case in point: San Jose’s 51 wins makes the Sharks a fifth seed out West, while the Sabres are tops in the East with 53. (Not that I’m bitter about this.) The West, for the second year in a row, won interconference play and also won the All-Star Game. (OK, the latter really doesn’t matter, but you get the point.)n Three, if it comes down to Buffalo and San Jose in the finals, as we both predicted back in October, the Vail Daily’s sports section will cease publication for two weeks in June.So, with this craziness in mind, we give you a look into the crystal ball for the first round of the playoffs.Eastern ConferenceBuffalo (1) vs. New York Islanders (8)Isles coach Ted Nolan returns to his old stomping grounds. Much will be written about this. It’s a great story. Nolan never should have been booted from Buffalo. He certainly shouldn’t have been black-balled from the NHL, and he’s done a good job in a crazy situation in New York. It still won’t matter. The most amusing thing about this series will be watching Ian running all over the news room screaming, “It’s over. The Sabres are going to lose the series. They’re never going to win the Cup,” when the Islanders manage to get a one-goal lead in one of the games. The Daily should really sell tickets for this.Sabres in four.New Jersey (2) vs. Tampa Bay (7)Martin Brodeur set the league record for wins in a season, but there should be an asterisk by it. Terry Sawchuk, Patrick Roy and the like didn’t get wins via the shootout. It doesn’t diminish the fact that Brodeur, always in the shadow of New York’s other teams, is a stud in the playoffs.The Devils, despite on their way to winning the Atlantic, fired their coach late in the season. Remind you of 2003? Devils in six.Atlanta (3) vs. New York Rangers (6) I’d pull the trigger on the upset automatically, if it weren’t the fact for that the Thrashers are playing the Rangers. Upon further review, what the heck? Goalie Kari Lehtonen and the Thrashers are playoff novices, not that the current Rangers are exactly vets. The Blueshirts are overrated too, so with not much confidence …Rangers in seven.Ottawa (4) vs. Pittsburgh (5)The good news for the Sens is that the Maple Leafs are not in the playoffs. The bad news is that Ottawa is just a dreadful playoff team no matter who it plays. The second bit of bad news is that Ottawa has the Penguins. The NHL will promote the living heck out of this series because of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and with good reason. If Pittsburgh had a better goalie than Marc-Andre Fleury, the Pens would win the East.Penguins in seven.Western ConferenceDetroit (1) vs. Calgary (8)This is doubtless the trendy pick for the upset, given the Winged Wheel’s early exits the last few years. Nope. The Wings are younger (slightly) than in years past. Is Chris Chellios drawing Social Security yet?Everyone will say that the Wings are one groin pull away from disaster. Yes, Hasek is frail, but Detroit has Chris Osgood in the Wings. Calgary also can’t win a road game to save its life. (That, Avs fans, is the only reason Colorado even had a shot at the playoffs.)Detroit in five.Anaheim (2) vs. Minnesota (7)Not an easy pick. The Ducks have their hands full here. Former Conn Smythe winner J.S. Giguere (Brodeur had three shutouts in the finals in 2003 and didn’t win it?) hasn’t seen much playing time recently because of family matters. Ilya Bryzgalov is a good back-up.But this should be Niklas Backstrom’s coming out party. The Wild – couldn’t we just call them the North Stars – get revenge for their 2003 Western finals loss to the Ducks.Wild in seven.Vancouver (3) vs. Dallas (6)Every year I pick Dallas in the first round and every year, splat. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me two to six times, shame on you. I get the message. Plus, Canada’s got to have one team move on.Canucks in six.Nashville (4) vs. San Jose (5)Yes, Nashville picked up Peter Forsberg. Yes, Paul Kariya enjoys beating San Jose into submission. Yes, Thomas Vokoun wasn’t in net last year when the Sharks smoked the Predlies in five.You think I care?Sharks in six.Sports Editor Chris Freud, the county’s biggest (and only) Sharks fan, can be reached at 748-2934 or

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