If the season ended today ...

January, 19, 2009
Saturday's schedule was a gem, eh? You don't have too many dates when the top two teams on each side face off on different coasts. In case you missed it, just like the NFL conference championship games, the two home teams won. The Caps edged the banged-up Bruins 2-1 in D.C., while the Sharks outscored the Wings 6-5 in the Shark Tank.

As you can tell by the scores, the games were very different. The Bruins, without injured forwards Phil Kessel, Milan Lucic and Patrice Bergeron, came to play a tight road game, and did just that. With the game tied at 1 in the third, the B's were undone by a brilliant individual effort by Caps sniper Alexander Semin, who outmaneuvered Bruins defenseman Mark Stuart at the Caps' blue line, streaked down the right side and launched an absolute rocket just inside the post behind goalie Tim Thomas.

On the other coast, the Wings and Sharks were looking to send each other a message, and both teams succeeded in different ways. There was an edge to every puck battle. It was really good, hard hockey. For me, it was hockey as it should be played.

Because Saturday's games got me thinking of the playoffs, I figured I'd play a little game of "If the season ended today." You know that game. A lot of us media types like to play it as the season winds down. I'm going to be a little bold and roll it out today.

So ... here we go.

1. Boston vs. 8. Pittsburgh: Despite the fact that the Bruins recently swept a home-and-home series from the Pens, I get the sense Boston coach Claude Julien would hope for a different first-round opponent. I'm sure he'd rather see the Hurricanes or Panthers in that spot.

2. Washington vs. 7. Buffalo: The last time these two teams met in the playoffs, they were both wearing different uniforms. It was The Dominator vs. Godzilla. The Caps won that meeting en route to the Cup finals. Hmm.

3. N.Y. Rangers vs. 6. Philadelphia: This wouldn't be good news for the Rangers. Star goalie Henrik Lundqvist usually isn't at his best against the Flyers. His career save percentage against Philly is below .900. That won't cut it in a playoff series.

4. Montreal vs. 5. New Jersey: I imagine a healthy Martin Brodeur would love nothing more than closing out the Habs during their Centennial season.

1. San Jose vs. 8. Columbus: The Blue Jackets -- with savvy coach Ken Hitchcock and hot young goalie Steve Mason -- would be a live underdog. I could see them giving the Sharks a scare before falling in six.

2. Detroit vs. 7. Vancouver: Maybe they should play this series in Stockholm with all the Swedish stars on both sides. The only chance for an upset, however, rests with Canadian-born goalie Roberto Luongo.

3. Calgary vs. 6. Phoenix: Coach Wayne Gretzky's kids earned a 4-3 win in Calgary on Saturday night. In a best-of-seven playoff series, I have to figure the more experienced Flames wouldn't lose more than once. I also think the Coyotes would be pretty thrilled just to get to the postseason this spring.

4. Chicago vs. 5. Anaheim: This would be a very interesting matchup. It would also be a real test for a young team like the Blackhawks, who would make their first playoff appearance in several years. If the Ducks are playing well, they could put an early end to a Cinderella season in Chicago.

So, there you have it. That's how it looks on Jan. 19. It will change a thousand times in the next couple of months. Once a month, I'll revisit things to see where we stand.

E.J. Hradek

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
E.J. Hradek is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, joining the staff prior to its launch in 1998. He began covering hockey as a writer/editor for Hockey Illustrated in 1989.




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