Unlike Korea, most Russians know the NHL, its teams and many of its players. Maybe this is because a large proportion of NHL players are Russian. Maybe its because Russians like hockey and are good at the sport. Maybe this is because it isn't an American sport per say, and sometimes that's all a Russian needs to like something.
It's fun to talk NHL hockey with some of my students in class. I've followed the race to the post-season and after much discussion with Russians and Wonderpants, here are my predictions.
Round 1: Eastern Conference
Washington Capitals vs Montreal Canadiens
Despite Washington's domination of the league this past year, and the star lineup of its offence (including Russian superstar Alexei Ovechkin), this isn't a done deal. Montreal managed to scrape into a playoff spot by sheer stubborn determination, and Ovechkin's former teamate from his days with the KHL in Russia, Andrei Markov, will be facing off at the center line with the hockey rock star himself. I project a gritty first two games with Washington taking it in 6.
New Jersey Devils vs Philadelphia Flyers
The Devils will have one of the best goalies of the year in net while the Flyers are the second strongest team in the league for goals against. Neither team is very strong in the goal-scoring department. This will make it a gritty defensive series with all the drama of First World War-style attrition...on ice. I call New Jersey in 5, only because they are slightly better at scoring goals.
Buffalo Sabres vs Boston Bruins
Buffalo ranks last in the league for goal scoring. Boston ranks first in the league for goaltending. If there is to be a major upset in this year's playoffs, it will come from this match, otherwise I call Boston in 5.
Pittsburg Penguins vs Ottawa Senators
This marks the third time in four years that these two teams have met in the first round of the playoffs. Despite a poor start to the season, Ottawa rebounded and secured itself a comfortable playoff spot early on, while Pittsburg is the defending Stanley Cup champion and is led by Ovechkin's superstar rival, Sid the Kid Crosby. The question isn't how well will Crosby play; the question is how strangely will Ottawa screw this up? Ottawa, with their strong offensive lines and creative in-game strategies, will give Pittsburg a run for their money, but in the end it won't be enough. I predict Pittsburg in 7.
San Jose Sharks vs Colorado Avalanche
Danny Heatley left the Ottawa Senators and joined the Sharks, but hasn't really done anything spectacular for them. San Jose's goaltender, Yevgenie Nabokov, is aging and ready for the retirement home, while the Avalanche blasted into the 2009-2010 season like a rocket and quickly ran out of fuel. This will be a slow and slightly pathetic match-up. I call Colorado in 7.
Chicago Blackhawks vs Nashville Predators
I never could figure out what Nashville was doing with a hockey team, but they keep making it into the playoffs and ultimately, who am I to decide which geographical climates should have ice and which shouldn't? Nashville doesn't have much up front; they were only 18th in the league for goal scoring last year and their defense is average. Chicago, on the other hand, is bigger, faster, stronger, better. This is a clear cut case of Chicago kicking Nashville out of the playoffs in 4 games (the Preds might win one...)
Vancouver Canucks vs Los Angeles Kings
Vancouver has Roberto Luongo in net (Olympic gold-medal champion and one of the best goalies in the league), the Sedin twins up front (consistently high-scoring, hard hitting and fast as hell) and two more lines filled with elite talent. Los Angelese has Wayne Gretsky's jersey, and that's about it. The rest of the team are young and inexperienced and require a few more seasons before they are ready to play with the big boys. I call Vancouver in 5.
Phoenix Coyotes vs Detroit Red Wings
The Coyotes are the second best story in hockey all year, after Washington. They are becoming the darlings of hockey, and they've been playing with heart, grit and determination all year. In short, they've been playing playoff hockey since October. The Red Wings, on the other hand, are the third best team in the NHL and have a very deep team with lots of playoff experience. This will be, in my opinion, one of the most exciting matchups in the first round. The young and idealistic Coyotes vs the older and wiser Red Wings. It's a hard call, but I predict the Coyotes in 7.