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Hockey Nights in California

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Hockey Night in Canada? Pfft. More like Hockey Night in California.

For the first time all three NHL franchises in California made it into the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the same season, and for the first time since the Anaheim Ducks entered the league in 1993 have both Southern California teams made the playoffs in the same season. In fact with only the Vancouver Canucks and Montreal Canadiens representing the great north, there are more playoff teams in California than in Canada.

Craziness, right? Well that is exactly what goes down in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

As anyone who followed the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in 2003 can attest to, anything can happen. Hell, they rode outstanding goaltending by Jean-Sebastian Giguere to take the New Jersey Devils to a Game 7 in the Finals.

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And that craziness crossed over into the regular season where the Ducks became an unlikely playoff team much less the fourth-seed and owners of home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Before the season it was acknowledged their defense had more holes than swiss cheese and smelled worse than limburger cheese. But they got a solid contribution all season long with Lubomir Visnovsky who led all defensemen in the league with 68 points and a +18 rating.

To make matters complicated goaltender Jonas Hiller went down after the All Star Break with vertigo and aside from a couple of ineffective minutes in a game against the Nashville Predators on March 24 was unavailable to the team. But their defense had improved by then making Ray Emery and Dan Ellis - both trade-deadline acquisitions - look like Vezina trophy candidates.

No one could deny their skills on offense especially with the top line consisting of Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf. When Getzlaf went down for a month with a broken face, Perry stepped up his game en route to 50 goals earning him the Rocket Richard Trophy for the League’s top goal-scorer and a top candidate for the Art Ross Trophy for the League’s MVP.

Also not to go unnoticed was the Finnish Flash Teemu Selanne who at the age of 40 still thrills the crowd with his speed and ability to find the gaps to shoot the puck.

They get a first round matchup against the Nashville Predators who have no flash and inferior talent. But head coach Barry Trotz always seems to get the most of what he has and keeps the team in playoff contention. The Predators have a true Vezina Trophy candidate in Pekka Rinne, and as everyone knows a goaltender can dictate the outcome of a playoff series. It has to be said that the Predators have never won a playoff series in five tries since their inception in 1998, but there’s always a first time for everything.

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Up the I-5 are the Los Angeles Kings the sure pick by most people to make the playoffs for a second consecutive season. Combined with excellent goaltending by Jonathan Quick and great defense led by last year’s Norris Trophy finalist Drew Doughty, the Kings survived the swoon in January to hang on to a playoff spot. Things were hairy in the final weeks when their second scorer Justin Williams went out with a dislocated shoulder and a couple of games later when their top scorer Anze Kopitar severely sprained his ankle requiring surgery and ending his season.

And that hurt since the Kings do not have speed on offense. Their offensive philosophy is nothing fancy: get the puck to the net and something good will happen. In a lot of instances something good doesn’t happen, but their defense and goaltending more than make up for it. For instance, the Kings were 21st in the League on the power-play but were fourth on the penalty-kill.

Even though the Kings let home-ice slip from their grips in the final week of the season, they do get some solace in facing their division foes San Jose Sharks. They split the six games in their season series, and familiarity will help the Kings out. This series will come down to which players step up and execute. No fancy wrinkles by the coaching staffs, no secret weapons. Just face-to-face hockey, pure and simple.

Here are my predictions for this year’s quest for Lord Stanley’s cup:

Western Conference

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First round
1. Vancouver Canucks defeat 8. Chicago Blackhawks
2. San Jose Sharks defeat 7. LA Kings
6. Phoenix Coyotes defeat 3. Detroit Red Wings
5. Nashville Predators defeat 4. Anaheim Ducks

Second round
1. Vancouver Canucks defeat 6. Phoenix Coyotes
2. San Jose Sharks defeat 5. Nashville Predators

Conference Championship
2. San Jose Sharks defeat 1. Vancouver Canucks

Eastern Conference

First round
1. Washington Capitals defeat 8. NY Rangers
7. Buffalo Sabres defeat 2. Philadelphia Flyers
3. Boston Bruins defeat 6. Montreal Canadiens
5. Tampa Bay Lightning defeat 4. Pittsburgh Penguins

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Second round
7. Buffalo Sabres defeat 1. Washington Capitals
3. Boston Bruins defeat 5. Tampa Bay Lightning

Conference Championship
3. Boston Bruins defeat 7. Buffalo Sabres

Stanley Cup Championship

Boston Bruins defeat San Jose Sharks in 6 games.