Van Smack’s NHL Playoff Preview

Clones, I don’t know about you, but I woke up this morning PUMPED. Pep in my step — hammered that alarm clock so hard I almost got two minutes for roughing. Accidentally put a hip into Jake, who was up early this morning, and almost put him through the glass door. Because THE STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS ARE HERE.

Lace up the skates. Buckle the chin strap. Throw away the razor — Get ready for two months of war — 16 teams squaring off in the fiercest postseason in sports, every game a battle, every series a bloodbath, and all for the right for some bearded Warriors to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup.

You might not be a hockey person. But you should be a playoff hockey person. Because nothing in sports delivers like the next four rounds of hockey. And after a fairly vanilla end to the regular season — we enter the postseason with a WIDE OPEN bracket — maybe a DOZEN teams are legitimate contenders to win the Cup — and a few storylines you can’t ignore: Like the YOUNG GUNS, Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews. Two generational talents taking the league by storm. And two young stars about to get their first taste of playoff hockey. How do these guys handle the pressure cooker that is playoff hockey? And how do they build on the historic starts of their careers?

In McDavid, there LITERALLY might not be another player like him to ever play in the league. The NHL scoring champ is 20, just the 5th guy since 1990 to score 100 points in a season before turning 21.The kid with the “C” on his sweater just brought Edmonton back to the playoffs after the longest drought in the NHL and is to hockey players what Russell Westbrook is to hoopers — hell, what Usain Bolt is to track and field — the freakiest athlete in a game filled with genetic all-stars; a guy scouts and coaches already think is fastest guy to EVER LACE EM UP —  a blend of size, speed and skill that nobody has seen, already one of the scariest 1-on-1 matchups in the game.

Matthews is doing his own trailblazing. The rookie who was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 draft grew up playing hockey in SCOTTSDALE and has fast-tracked Toronto’s rebuild — the first teenage rookie to score 40 goals since some guy named Mario Lemieux. And if McDavid wows you with his singular speed and skill, Matthews makes you shake your head that there’s a kid that grew up in the desert, playing on mini-rinks in ARIZONA, who is still just 19, and plays the game like a seasoned vet who has dominated for a decade, not just a few months.

So let me get to my pick. And before I do, let me again tell you — I don’t take these powers lightly. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve run into — on the weekend, at one of Jake or Logan’s baseball games, in traffic on the 5 freeway — who just keep HAMMERING ME, “Rome, Rome — who’s winning the Cup?” “Rome, I’m heading to Vegas — who you got in the NHL Playoffs this year?” It’s exhausting.

When little Van Smack was coming up in the San Fernando Valley, a great hockey mind just lying dormant, my dad always told me, “with great power comes responsibility.”

And I’m ready to make it. Because I can see the future and it’s going to be incredible. The hours of penalty minutes that we’re going to see when the Ducks and the Flames put on the armor and go back to battle. Sidney Crosby at the height of his powers, trying to go back-to-back for the first time since the 1998 Red Wings. The Blackhawks chasing down a dynasty — looking for their FOURTH CUP in 8 years, the 1 seed in the Western Conference with that core of Patty Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Marian Hossa — and Coach Joel Quenneville looking to hang ONE MORE BANNER.

But I’m going the other way. I see the future of the cup and its four letters: C-A-P-S. That’s right — this is FINALLY the year for the Washington Capitals to shake that monkey off their back. This is the year that Alex Ovechkin hoists the Cup. After year after year of disappointment, after playoff disasters, this year is different. TRUST ME.

I know it hasn’t been easy. I know the Caps haven’t even made it out of the second round since Ovi came to town. And I know Barry Trotz hasn’t won a second round series, either. But all those reps, all the raps — all the heart-ache — it’s all going to be fuel for this run to the title. This isn’t last year’s CAPS — and this time they’re going to get through Pittsburgh, a Penguins team that’s just too banged up to keep up with the most well-rounded and dangerous team in hockey.

Because the ingredients are there — and the President’s Trophy winners have everything you need: A Vezina winner in nets in Braden Holtby, the league’s stingiest defense. And one of the NHL’s elite offenses. Top to bottom they’ve got skill, they can carry the puck as well as anybody, they have depth, the have experience, they have grit and toughness. And most importantly they have Alex Ovechkin ready to get his name etched onto the greatest trophy in sports.

I’ve got the Caps beating the Hawks in the Stanley Cup final. A seven-gamer that ends with Ovi hoisting the Cup over his head and the CAPS finally getting over the hump. TAKE IT TO THE BANK.

Sure, you may be saying, way to put yourself out there, Rome. Way to pick the favorites from each of the respective conferences. That’s not what this is about? It’s not about the safe pick or the obvious pick, it’s about the RIGHT pick. And where I’ve been wrong many times, about many things in my career, the Stanley Cup Playoffs is not one of them.  There, I’m never wrong. And it says right HERE, the Caps finally get over.

I don’t why I have this gift; I don’t where this gift came from. I just know it exists and I will never, ever disrespect it. Just like I will never ever, be wrong in this regard. Do what you want with it, just know it’s going to happen. Because when it comes to playoff hockey, everything I say, happens. Every year.

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