It's the team, not the star: 2nd-round playoff picks

"It's one of those special moments," NBC coordinating producer Sam Flood said.

"These are iconic players with global popularity, people are aware of their names; they transcend their markets and the average fan," NHL marketing VP Brian Jennings said. "It's a great opportunity for our sport."

>>Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

For those who want the game to "grow" and draw more casual fans, this faceoff of Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin really is a wonderful opportunity for the league. If we're lucky, maybe it will happen a couple more times before they're done.

But these two teams happen to include five or so of this season's most outstanding players, plus some smooth veterans like the Sergei's (one of whom, Gonchar, was essential to the Pens' turnaround and should be a key two-way performer in this series).

So to tune in only for the manufactured Sid vs. Alex drama would be like watching "Rock of Love" or "Real World 82: Newark" while "The Wire" airs, brilliant and neglected, under your nose. It is this very phenomenon that makes me wonder whether I really mind the NHL's "fourth sport" status in the U.S. (I have seen the mass-market hysteria built around the other pro and college sports, and it tastes like tripe. I'll take my NHL served niche-y, beautiful and boom-goes-the-dynamite free, thanks.)

As for who will win this matchup? It's not really about either star: It's about the teams around them. Disregard every partisan fan who whines that "the league wants Crosby to..." Forget every Cherry high-horse who holds one foolish celebration up as a judgment on Ovechkin's character. The reality is that both are exciting stars for our game -- already over-commercialized or not -- and both will bring their unique strengths to this series.

Yet neither star will advance to the conference finals without monumental efforts from the team around him. Barring a lopsided affair, whoever wins should not, in fact, be ordained the "better" star; he should be deemed to have the better team. [Second-round picks from the head and the heart, after the jump.]

Caps-vint_medium             Pit-glove_medium

SBN blogs: Japers' Rink vs. Pensburgh

Head Says: It's hard to evaluate this series because the Penguins struggled against the Caps this season yet have been so different since the promotion of Dan Bylsma and the trade deadline. Meanwhile, the Capitals very nearly blew it in the first round: Are they still too green for this dance, or did that near-death experience wake the bear?

No matter what Crosby or Ovechkin do -- or Malkin or Backstrom or Semin, for that matter -- their playoff fortunes, as always, rest on strong goaltending. Both Marc-Andre Fleury and Simeon Varlamov have the goods to steal a series. But Washington's shooters are quite familiar with Fleury, whereas the book on Varlamov is still unwritten. The advantage here may just be with the rookie. Yet ultimately, it will be which goalie's great games give his team the win, and which one's head-standing performances fall just short.

For the Caps' unsettling first round and for the Penguins' experience, blueline, and new life under Bylsma, I'll say Penguins in 6.

Heart Says: Honestly, as a fan, I enjoy both of these teams. I also watch teams learn and progress in their "moment." The Caps have already advanced beyond last year's sqaud, so I'll mildly pull for the Penguins and ol' Islanders captain Billy Guerin. But more than that: a seven-game series.

Ex-Islander Factor: Tom Poti? No. Guerin and "Tank" Fedotenko it is.

 

Bos-oldhub_medium             Carolina3rd_medium

SBN blogs: Stanley Cup of Chowder vs. Canes Country

Head Says: The season-long juggernaut versus the last month's hottest and most miraculous team. To see Carolina pull the rug out from under the Devils at the end of Game 7 was enough to make one wonder if the gods really do gamble on games.

Sounds like a broken record, but goaltending again will be key. Yet I don't see either Tim Thomas or Cam Ward faltering: They may cancel each other out. And if they do Boston seems to strong and too deep to fall. What the Canes did against the Devils, they should not be able to do against the B's. Bruins in 5.

Heart Says: I just want a long series, but there's always at least one series that's disappointingly short. Might be this one. Still, any Southern hockey success pleases me, as it goes against script and ticks off hockey's self-righteous. That's win-win there, baby.

 

Det-wheel_medium              Ana-duckish_medium

SBN blogs: Winging It In Motown vs. Battle of California

Head Says: It's the Wings depth vs. Chris Osgood's demons. True, Osgood was fine against Columbus (no dynamite offense, that), and he's indignant about defending his playoff pedigree. Yet just as there is a reason he claims he doesn't doubt himself, there is a reason others do: He has stunk before and he can stink again. Will he do it this time? Probably not enough to submarine the Wings' chances, but it's always possible...

The Ducks' discipline -- and how this series is called -- will also be pivotal. If the Ducks can get away with murder stay out of the box and Jonas Hiller continues to stand on his head, they can pull it off. Still, regretfully: Detroit in 7.

Heart Says: You know what would be even funnier than hearing the smug sect of Wings fans rationalize -- again -- that "the better team lost"? Hearing them rationalize that the better team got swept.

 

Van-icebreak_medium             Chi-feathers_medium

 

SBN blogs: Nucks Misconduct v. Second City Hockey

Head Says: Nikolai Khabibulin is back in form, so he shouldn't be terribly outdueled by his deified counterpart. Meanwhile, Canucks fans are about to see (or wonder where he went) Playoff Perimeter Pavol. That's the version of Pavol Demitra that finds a quiet corner on the perimeter when the playoffs get rough -- which I expect them to, based on these teams' first-round series. With Sundin an afterthought and Demitra being Demitra, the Canucks become a one-line team who rely too heavily on a defensive orb around Roberto Luongo while waiting for counter-attack chances for their speedy forwards.

If the Hawks are too banged up from the Calgary series, or if Coach Q gets too conservative (as he is wont to do), that Luongo-and-a-prayer approach just might work. But I'm not betting on it. Hawks in 6.

Heart Says: I have no love for either of these teams. I prefer the Hawks' style of play, but I cannot in good conscience root for them. In fact, I don't like how the West is shaping up at all. Dammit.

No matter what happens, i'm ready for more. Feel free to leave your own picks -- or rooting preferences -- in comments. Always fun to hear your reasons for loving or hating another team (or questioning my sanity, of course).

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