(Quick note to those of you in the playoff pool. Line-ups for the first week are due by noon on Wednesday.)
This could be a long one because I'm going to do the whole Eastern Conference at once just so it all gets done before the playoffs start. (Do I really need to say, "This could be a long one?" Is it at all shocking when I talk for a really long time?)
1. MONTREAL CANADIENS
I dig the Canadiens. There's no one on their team who I hate and there are even a few people who I really like (Saku Koivu and Mike Komisarek being the big two). Classic jerseys. A real hockey tradition. And I love their crowds. It can be annoying when you're on the other side but I love how quick Montreal crowds are to express themselves and I'm not going to lie, I love the "Ole Ole" song. I find myself singing along even when they're playing against the Sabres. The Canadiens are also really, really fun to watch. I love their fast back-and-forth style and I'm in awe of their powerplay. Going into the playoffs, the Habs are my favorite on the Eastern Conference side. We'll see if it sticks.
2. PITTSBURGH PENGUINS
I was born in Pittsburgh and raised by Pittsburghers. Every childhood vacation involved Pittsburgh and I still have family there. The Mario Lemieux-led Penguins were the first hockey team I was really aware of. Heck, my first jersey was a Penguins jersey (Ron Francis #10). When all is said and done, I probably should be a Penguins fan right now. Even though fate stepped in and steered me toward the team and city that has no pro sports championships instead of plenty of them (thanks, fate!), I do still have a soft spot for Pittsburgh and I do mostly like the Penguins. Now that I've managed to dig through the media hype I think Sidney Crosby really is the cat's pajamas. And I'm totally in love with Evgeni Malkin. I'm amazed at how he just took over while Crosby was out and I love his silent, slightly embarrassed smile. Part of me hopes he never learns to speak English. (Part of me believes he speaks perfect English and just chooses not to) Really, do we need to hear "We're just going to take it one game at a time" from yet another player? I think Crosby has that covered. I am decidedly pro-Penguins.
3. WASHINGTON CAPITALS
Remember how Kevin Sylvester kept saying, "All hockey fans would be happy to see the Caps in the playoffs" and other similar things? Kevin forgot to poll me. I fully acknowledge that Alexander Ovechkin is an amazingly gifted player and barring a career-ending injury or a total collapse will be one of the best players of my lifetime. But I'm just not sure how I feel about him. There are times when I get a kick out of him and there are times when I feel like he's veering awfully close to showboating. And again, while I fully acknowledge that the NHL could use a good kick of personality, that's never been my thing. I hate running backs who start dancing before they're in the end zone and defensive players who celebrate a tackle like they just won the lottery. I hate baseball players who stand at home plate and watch the ball soar over the fence. I also hit Ovechkin Overload weeks ago. And now he's dragged his team into the playoffs? The hype is about to go off the charts insane. I don't know if I can handle it.
The good news for the Caps is that I don't find the team itself particularly offensive and I don't outright hate anyone on the team. And the good news for Ovechkin (because you know he's weeping at the thought that I don't like him) is that once upon a time I refused to like Sidney Crosby because of the endless hype and adoration and what finally changed my mind was watching Sid in the playoffs last year. So I'm not completely closing the door on the Caps but right now it doesn't look good. This one could definitely go either way.
4. NEW JERSEY DEVILS
This is another team where blogging rears its head and influences my opinion. I've spent many an hour lounging around Interchangeable Parts and emailing Pookie and Schnookie, the ladies who run the joint, so I know a lot about the players on the Devils and have even come to like a few of them. If I didn't talk to Pookie and Schnookie so much I would probably never have given the Devils a second thought and might outright hate them after all the stupid shootout losses this season. But I like them okay and I love Marty Brodeur so I'll cheer for the Devils in the right situation. They're not the most exciting team to watch but I fear the Eastern Conference is going to end up being a battle of the lesser evil.
5. NEW YORK RANGERS
If this season ends with Chris Drury hoisting a Stanley Cup - and Kate and I have had endless discussions about how that might be the only way this season can end - I'm building a bunker under our apartment building. Then I'm digging underground tunnels that connect the bunker to the parking lot at work. And then I'm constructing a bubble to live in during those times I have to interact with the outside world. I'm cutting myself off from media of all kind - newspapers, magazines, sports radio, message boards, and 99.7% of the blogs I read. I will do all that and somehow, some way I'll still end up hearing about Chris Drury and how his Little League triumph prepared him for this day when he would lead the New York Rangers to the Stanley Cup and I'll still end up hearing about how the Buffalo Sabres have doomed themselves to a history of defeat and despair and Bucky Gleason will call it the Curse of Captain Clutch and in thirty years I'll be the haggard od woman with no teeth and a swarm of cats who stands at the corner outside the arena all day yelling, "CAPTAIN CLUTCH NEVER WON US NOTHING AND WASN'T VERY CLUTCH IN THE FACE-OFF CIRCLE AGAINST JASON SPEZZA!" and "THE SABRES WANTED TO MATCH BUT CAPTAIN CLUTCH WANTED TO BE A DIRTY RANGER!" and people will point and laugh and throw things. I would hope that this is a future we all want to avoid.
(Also, Jaromir Jagr? Sean Avery? Scott Gomez? It's like someone decided to dump the very douchiest of douchebags on one team. No one with a soul could possibly cheer for the Rangers.)
6. PHILADELPHIA FLYERS
In the battle of Former Sabres Lost in the Last Calendar Year, Daniel Briere is the one I'd be the most okay with winning it all if you put a gun to Mark's head and made me pick one. (I asked Mark what he would say if someone put a guy to my head and told him to choose Drury, Briere, or Brian Campbell and he said, "I'd tell them to shoot you," and then attempted to justify it with, "You wouldn't want to live in a world where any of those guys won a Cup!" I can't decide if that's really sweet or really disturbing.) I think Bucky and Co. would still go crazy but maybe not quite as crazy and I like Danny enough that it wouldn't make me throw up.
That said, it's the Flyers. I wasn't in Buffalo for most of the Buffalo-Philly history but even I hate the Flyers. And even if we just go by this year, how can you cheer for the the Flyers? The gooning it up? The stupid suspensions? The horrific mishandling of concussions? How many years has this franchise taken off Simon Gagne's career already? No, I'm afraid the Flyers are unacceptable.
7. OTTAWA SENATORS
I don't hate Ottawa the way some Buffalo fans do but I don't love them enough that I don't think this whole season has been pretty hilarious. With apologies to the Senators fans who I do know, like, and respect, this season has been a delight to watch. From the day the puck dropped against the Islanders I think Sabres fans knew we were going to be in for an up and down season. The Senators went something like 15-2 to start the season. Everyone was ready to hand them the Conference title if not the Stanley Cup. Even the most pessimistic and cautious fan had to be feeling pretty good about that kind of record. And then the team just fell apart. Gloriously and spectacularly. And now they get Pittsburgh in the first round? Without Daniel Alfredsson and Mike Fisher? Oh, Ottawa. You're toast. You're toast and yes, I think it's pretty entertaining. There is some small part of me that wouldn't be opposed to the Sens winning (with Mike Fisher) some year but if they pull it off this year it'll be way too much of a feel-good story. ("The struggling Sens pull off a first round upset in the name of their fallen captain!") This year I'm pulling for the collapse to be complete. The Ottawa Senators are a living example of why maybe it was better to just miss the playoffs instead of squeaking in.
8. BOSTON BRUINS
I can't think of any players on the Bruins who really disgust me (I kind of like Zdeno Chara) but I've had my fill of them for one year. The only thing the division heavy schedule really accomplished for me was making me hate them. And not in a "I love to hate them" kind of way. More like in a "I hate them and would rather pull my toenails out with tweezers than watch them for another second" kind of way. I do not want to see this team, playing this kind of hockey win anything. Ugh.
MONTREAL vs. BOSTON - Montreal in 4
PITTSBURGH vs. OTTAWA - Pittsburgh in 5
WASHINGTON vs. PHILADELPHIA - Washington in 6
NEW JERSEY vs. NEW YORK - New York in 6