Monday, May 5, 2008

NHL Conference Finals Preview!

As the calendar turns to May, we are three weeks into the NHL playoffs and the original field of 16 contenders for the Stanley Cup has been whittled down to four. My predictions for the second round were close, but not entirely correct. If we look back, I chose Montreal and Pittsburgh in the East and Detroit and Dallas in the West, which proved me to be right in three of my four predictions. As usual, here's my recap of the series followed by my preview of the next round.

Montreal proved to be my only incorrect pick, as the Canadiens played poorly and lost to the Philadelphia Flyers in five games. I honestly thought that the Flyers were the better offensive team, but that their goaltending would hold them back and prevent them from reaching the conference finals. Boy, was I wrong. Martin Biron, the Flyers goalie, has been arguably the best goalie in the playoffs thus far, even though he has been a perennial backup in the past due to his inconsistency. Of course, if someone had told me that the Flyers would ride into the Eastern Conference Finals on Biron's shoulders three weeks ago, I would have checked their pockets for a crackpipe. Nonetheless, I admit that I was wrong and that Biron has played excellently; the Flyers would not be where they are without him.

In the other East match-up, I thought that Pittsburgh would end the Rangers' playoff hopes in seven games, and instead they accomplished the feat in a closely contested five-game series. Even though I'm enamored of the Penguins, I still think I've underestimated them. The Rangers have a spectacular team and even they couldn't win more than a game against this talented Pittsburgh squad. Marc-Andre Fleury has kept the Penguins in games during their momentary lapses and the powerplay line of Crosby, Malkin, Gonchar, Hossa, and Sykora/Roberts has been unstoppable. They even have some big guys in Pasqual DuPuis, Hal Gill and Georges Laraque that can hit and punish teams that try to beat the Penguins through physical play. I haven't seen an Eastern Conference team this good in a long time, not since the heyday of the New Jersey Devils in the late 1990s.

Meanwhile, in the Western Conference, the Detroit Red Wings embarrassed the Colorado Avalanche in a four-game sweep and the Dallas Stars pulled out a gutsy series against the San Jose Sharks in six games. I predicted a six game series for Detroit and Colorado, which seemed reasonable at the time but was clearly wrong after Detroit flexed its offensive muscle. Jose Theodore, the Colorado goalie who was fantastic in their first round series victory over Minnesota, was pulled before the third period in three of the four games, allowed 15 total goals, and was nothing short of absolutely dreadful. The Avs suffered from injuries to some of their best players but in regards to that excuse from Colorado fans, it was clear that the Avalanche didn't play well enough to win the series even if they were dressing a lineup of All-Stars. Detroit was just better. Period.

In Dallas, the Stars are still celebrating their quadruple overtime victory in game six that pushed them into the conference finals on Sunday night/Monday morning. The series was more lopsided than I thought, as the Sharks didn't play very well throughout the series and were left in a 0-3 hole before they won two games to make the series more interesting. The Stars were much better and Marty Turco outplayed Evgeni Nabokov to send the Sharks home for the summer. The Stars did show some weakness though, as they almost blew a 3-0 series lead with two chances to win the series at home, but they did get the job done and that's all that counts.

Finally, what you've all been waiting for: a look inside the two match-ups that will decide each conference finalist and who will move a step closer to raising the coveted Stanley Cup.
(2) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (6) Philadelphia Flyers

This will be another great series with plenty of young talent on both sides. The Flyers, who were actually the worst team in the entire NHL last year, have rebounded with an amazing season and qualified for the Eastern Conference Finals with wins over the fan-favorite Washington Capitals and the top-seeded Montreal Canadiens. So, they certainly deserve to be here. The Penguins, who had a good-but-not-great season last year, have proved themselves to be the most talented team in the East by winning eight of their nine playoff games and doing it against the defending East champs, the Ottawa Senators, and a New York Rangers team with plenty of future Hall-of-Famers. I'm amazed at how good the Penguins are as a team, but I've also been amazed with how well Martin Biron has played in these playoffs. It's hard for me to doubt Martin Biron for a third straight series, but I don't see how the Flyers can overcome the superior talent of the Penguins. Pittsburgh in five.

(1) Detroit Red Wings vs. (5) Dallas Stars

Two experienced teams with an even mixture of young guns and old veterans will make this series a very exciting one to watch. The Stars have had a great run in the playoffs and have beaten two of the best teams in the West on their way to these finals: the Ducks and Sharks. I thought that either the Ducks or the Sharks would be facing Detroit in the West Finals so for the Stars to come through and beat both teams is a testament to the way they have played in the playoffs so far. Marty Turco has been stellar in net and Stars captain Brendan Morrow has shown leadership and toughness in key games to lead his team to this point. The Red Wings, on the other hand, had another great regular season and have dominated their inferior opponents in the first two rounds of the playoffs. Johan Franzen has 26 goals in his past 25 games, which is absolutely ridiculous, including a whopping nine goals in Detroit's four-game sweep of Colorado. Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg have also performed well both at home and on the road, which is different than last year's playoff run when they didn't score on the road until the final game of the playoffs in Anaheim, when Detroit was eliminated. I think that the Stars are going to give the Red Wings one hell of a series, but Marty Turco has never, in his entire career, won a game in Detroit and is 2-10-5 lifetime against the Wings. Therefore, I see Detroit winning in hard-nosed fashion and moving on to face the Penguins in the Stanley Cup Finals. Detroit in six.

I'm very excited to see how these series will unfold, though it will be hard to wait another two days before the first game gets underway. On a side note before I go, the NBA playoffs just finished its first round and I was a perfect 8-0 in my predictions. The Celtics looked pretty weak on the road against the abysmal Atlanta Hawks though, and I fully expect them to have a lot of trouble with LeBron and company in the second round. If they can get past King James, then they will have just enough left in the tank to lose to the heroic Pistons, who have looked fantastic against Orlando after a short struggle against the 76ers. Anyway, everyone have a fantastic week of sunny Spring weather and most importantly, Go Red Wings!

1 comment:

Penny Kittle said...

GO WINGS. There is NOTHING like playoff hockey. I'm glad you know all of this because now I know what to watch for. See you soon.