A true hockey fan's fantasy always includes April.
It's that time of year when you can both realize and admit that six months of the NHL regular season is really only a glorified practice session, that there is real accomplishment to being permitted to enter the Stanley Cup tournament.
So as we start all over again, it's time for the real questions about the NHL season.
And in the Eastern Conference half of the playoff bracket where four series are about to get underway, goaltending is going to be a central issue, one way or another, of every encounter.
Oh, there's some immense star power at play in the East. Welcome back Sidney Crosby. How's it feel to be the Hart Trophy favourite, Evgeni Malkin? What's your next chapter in an enigmatic season, Alex Ovechkin? Can you still pay the price needed, Jaromir Jagr? Can you flip the switch, Zdeno Chara? Do you have another gear, Jason Spezza? Are you ready to prove the value of your free-agent signing, Brad Richards?
But the intrigue is that every series likely hinges on at least one goaltending question.
Is there any way to beat the impregnable force that Henrik Lundqvist has been for the New York Rangers virtually all season?
Is Tim Thomas both rested enough and focused enough after a regular campaign that has seen many twists and turns, boycotts and distractions?
Are the Washington Capitals serious? Is Braden Holtby really the man in charge of saving a nondescript, turbulent-mostly-in-a-bad-way season? On that, there is no choice, due to injuries to Tomas Vokoun, who was brought in just for such an assignment, and Michal Neuvirth.
Can Marty Brodeur recapture the magic? He's down to his final kick or two at the cat (or cats, as in the Florida Panthers here) but the New Jersey Devils still rely on him for playoff success. It might not be out of the question, as Brodeur -- who will turn 40 during these playoffs -- had at-worst reasonable numbers (31 wins, 2.41 GAA, .908 save percentage) during the season.
And maybe most intriguing of all, in the No. 4 vs. No. 5 series, will Marc-Andre Fleury stand up and be the difference if his Penguins need him to be? The Penguins regular-season defensive numbers are not exactly stellar, but that Grant Fuhr quality, stop it when it counts, could well be in play.
In the same series, will Ilya Bryzgalov of the Philadelphia show up for the playoffs for the first time in, say, five years? "Bryz" was clearly absent last spring when he might have been the Detroit Red Wings' first-round MVP while playing, sort of, for the Phoenix Coyotes. Expect that ghost to appear at some point during this post-season, for banishment or not.
Dive in, good reader, to see where the puck stops.
New York Rangers (1) vs. Ottawa Senators (8)
2011-12: The Sens won three of four
Game 1: Thursday, 6 p.m., CBC
Why the Rangers will win: The Rangers under volcanic coach John Tortorella play a determined, defensive style, and it's very suitable to having Henrik Lundqvist, a Hart and Vezina candidate, in goal. Lundqvist is certainly capable of stealing a series on his own, but that may come later. The Rangers block a lot of shots, which will present Ottawa's powerful offence (fourth-best in the East) with more thinking, mainly whether to go to Option B on any given play. And while a pressuring and defence-first team, the Rangers have skaters who will score, given the opportunities. You've met Brad Richards, Marian Gaborik, Ryan Callahan and Derek Stepan, who accounted for 115 goals between them and given the Sens' defensive record, they might not have too much trouble getting to the Ottawa net.
Why the Senators will win: If Ottawa can find a way to just pry open a little room, they have the skill to advance. Regular-season victories can instill some confidence. (The Sens scored 14 goals on the Rangers this season. By comparison, the out-of-the-playoff Jets had just three.) Of course captain Daniel Alfredsson and snipers Jason Spezza and Milan Michalek are going to have a weight on their shoulders to deliver that offence. It's an absolute must that the Sens get above-average goaltending from Craig Anderson but the most critical factor might be defenceman Erik Karlsson, who has had a breakout season. Karlsson's offensive participation will be required but more importantly, if Karlsson is not exposed as a mediocre defender against the determined Rangers, Ottawa will have a solid chance.
Who will win:
Tim Campbell: Rangers in 6
Ed Tait: Rangers in 5
Gary Lawless: Rangers in 6
Boston Bruins (2) vs. Washington Capitals (7)
2011-12: Caps won three of four, one by shootout. All games in second half.
Game 1: Thursday, 6:30 p.m., CBC
Why the Bruins will win: The defending Cup champs have a very good idea, and also fresh in their minds, of what it takes to win four rounds of the playoff marathon. All of the key winning pieces are in place -- Boston had the top five plus-minus players in the league in 2011-12 in Patrice Bergeron, Tyler Seguin, Chris Kelly, Zdeno Chara and Brad Marchand -- and after a tired and lame start to the season and some late-season struggles which we can only surmise was due to boredom, the Bruins put up 102 points to easily win their division and be the second seed. The Bruins are a deep team with a lot of weapons plus a likely Selke finalist in Patrice Bergeron. Zdeno Chara on defence and in the playoffs is large in more ways than one. Boston's long-term viability in the playoffs might be questioned because goalie Tim Thomas's numbers are off from last year, but Thomas is a proven performer at crunch time.
Why the Capitals will win: Well, his name is Alex Ovechkin and few would argue his ability to take over a game. If he's willing, and a few other cast members do their part, the Caps are not to be taken lightly, which as the season has dragged on, has become more and more likely. All the inconsistency, all the coaching questions and all the doubts about chemistry could be quickly forgotten if just-returned centre Nicklas Backstrom is in top form and defenceman Mike Green, also injured for much of the season, shows that he has learned something from past playoff failures. And then there's the matter of goaltending, where injuries will likely lead the Caps to put call-up Braden Holtby on the firing line -- but hey, rookie goalies have done great things before.
Who will win:
Tim Campbell: Bruins in 5
Ed Tait: Bruins in 6
Gary Lawless: Bruins in 6
Florida Panthers (3) vs. New Jersey Devils (6)
2011-12: Split four games.
Game 1: Friday, 6 p.m., TSN
Why the Panthers will win: Under new coach Kevin Dineen, it's clear the Panthers have chemistry this season, having led the division most of the way to the finish. A shaky final three weeks may not turn out to be problematic, since many clubs laze their way into early April. Florida has defenceman Brian Campbell, sure to be an experienced, stabilizing force. Given the team's changeover last summer, the club's history shouldn't be as much of an albatross as it could be in other locations. Florida has two other potential assets that could come into play; goalies (Jose Theodore and Scott Clemmensen) who have gotten the job done this season and home-ice advantage, earned by winning the division, however weak it's perceived to be.
Why the Devils will win: If Dineen has been a spark for Florida, imagine how eager New Jersey coach Pete DeBoer is to show the Panthers the error of their ways when they dismissed him last spring. DeBoer has been an excellent fit in New Jersey and hasn't been hurt with an elite group of forwards like Zach Parise, Patrik Elias and the recently returned Travis Zajac. Calder Trophy candidate Adam Henrique enhances New Jersey's depth. The Devils came up with 102 points this season, just one less than Philadelphia but as the lower seed and with last season's regular-season failure close in the rear-view mirror, league-wide expectations may be on the low side. It's not always directly translated into playoff performance, but New Jersey's regular-season penalty kill was wicked, giving up just 27 power-play goals all season long.
Who will win:
Tim Campbell: Devils in 5
Ed Tait: Devils in 5
Gary Lawless: Devils in 6
Pittsburgh Penguins (4) vs. Philadelphia Flyers (5)
2011-12: The Flyers won four of six
Game 1: Tonight, 6:30 p.m. TSN
Why the Penguins will win: Defence wins championships, it is so often said, but the depth of Pittsburgh's talent up front will override that truism, not replace it. Pens' coach Dan Bylsma has this team playing a most productive way at both ends of the ice. Sidney Crosby played only 22 games this season but looms as Philly's biggest worry; this in the light that Evgeni Malkin is coming off a spectacular season and is the likely Hart Trophy winner after 50 goals and 109 points. Jordan Staal, if you can imagine it, is centring the third line. And Pittsburgh's defence, in particular Kris Letang and Brooks Orpik, are a big advantage in this series as impact players. Still, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury can't afford an off-series, since the Flyers will be a handful and a head-full. If the bickering between these rivals becomes more important than the games, the Pens can still win but Bylsma or one of his superstars will have to reach into a bag of tricks for something better.
Why the Flyers will win: Goalie Ilya Bryzgalov was more in form late in the season, great news for the Flyers, who stuck their necks way out last summer and signed the quirky netminder to a rich, long-term deal. Bryzgalov had 10 wins and four shutouts in March and finished with 33 victories. The four he will require against the Penguins would eclipse all of that. The Flyers might actually be able to match Pittsburgh's firepower, including an awesome power play that scored a league-high 66 times this season, but a committee of excellence may be required. Claude Giroux had 93 points during the regular season and Jaromir Jagr and Daniel Briere are impressive supporting cast members. The Flyers can do this without Chris Pronger, but the likes of Kimo Timmonen, Brayden Coburn and Nicklas Grossman will have to make a strong move towards being household names for success in this series, given what they'll be facing in waves up the ice once it starts. If the Flyers can get the Penguins into the trenches, physically and verbally, and continue to ride a great power play, it could be an exciting spring in Philly.
Who will win:
Tim Campbell, Penguins in 6
Ed Tait: Penguins in 6
Gary Lawless: Penguins in 7