Thursday, May 04, 2006

Western Conference Semi-final Preview

#5 San Jose Sharks vs. #8 Edmonton Oilers

How they got there:
San Jose- defeated Nashville 4-1. Edmonton- defeated Detroit 4-2.

The Skinny: What has been said that hasn’t been about the Sharks’ Patrick Marleau? He’s been magnificent in these playoffs, leading all goal scorers with seven goals. However, that was against a Nashville Predators defence that didn’t pay attention to him, and the Oilers aren’t going to make the same mistake. As far as Edmonton is concerned, they were really outclassed by Detroit in their series, only emerging because they worked harder for it than the Red Wings did, although if Fernando Pisani and Ales Hemsky really have hit their stride Edmonton may be hard to beat. The story of the Oilers’ first round were the play of Dwayne Roloson and Chris Pronger, both of whom were steady in goal and in defence (respectively), shutting down the Wings for the entire series. San Jose is also playing great defensively though with the likes of Scott Hannan and Kyle McLaren upfront, with Vesa Toskala providing steady goaltending.

Key Players: Edmonton- G Dwayne Roloson, D Chris Pronger, LW Ryan Smyth, RW Ales Hemsky. San Jose- G Vesa Toskala, C Joe Thornton, C Patrick Marleau, D Kyle McLaren.

San Jose’s Burning Question: Marleau scored seven goals virtually uncontested by Nashville. Can he keep up his pace against an Oiler team that won’t make the same mistake?

Edmonton’s Burning Question: They outworked Detroit and may have thus slain Goliath. However, the Wings coasted into the playoffs and were flat as a result of it, but San Jose is on a tear- can the Oilers keep up or has the magic run out?

The Lowdown: This is one of those series that is hard to predict. Normally, I’d say that hands down, San Jose would win this outright, but I also said that about Detroit in the first round and Edmonton hammered them. One thing that may work in Edmonton’s favour is the fact that they’re playing with a lot of confidence right now- which was more than anyone could say of the reeling Predators- and may be able to throw whatever San Jose can bring them right back at them. This will be a long but eventful series, also going to seven like the Calgary-Anaheim series did, with the Oilers and their magic again coming out on top- but barely.

The Verdict: Edmonton in seven.

#6 Anahiem Mighty Ducks vs. #7 Colorado Avalanche

How they got there: Anaheim- defeated Calgary 4-3. Colorado- defeated Dallas 4-1.

The Skinny: A few lucky bounces, some crisp passing and a Calgary Flames team that simply had nothing left and the Anaheim Mighty Ducks surprisingly found their way to a second round date with a Colorado Avalanche team whose dismantling of the Dallas Stars that was equally shocking. A lot was made of how the Ducks possessed more speed and intensity than the Flames did, and pretty much won the series because they were better able to keep the puck, but I’m still not thinking that their victory was anything less than a fluke. The team essentially played at half-speed and faced a team that really didn’t play to their potential, which, if they did, would have creamed them. Sure, there are parallels to the Edmonton-Detroit series but the difference is that the Oilers handled the Wings in six games while the Ducks barely squeaked out in seven despite playing marvellous hockey down the stretch during the regular season. Bright spots do include defencemen Scott Niedermayer and Francois Beauchemin, goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov (who is probably for real) and Teemu Selanne, the last one who single-handedly destroyed the Flames with a speed that was inescapable. As for Colorado, their offence is clicking on the heels of Joe Sakic and Andrew Brunette and showed a lot of resilience in staying with and eventually defeating Dallas, but there are question marks in goal as Jose Theodore has looked increasingly shaky. There is also the question surrounding Colorado’s ability to refocus after a long layoff from a series that was far closer than it looked on paper, but the good news is that injured centre Steve Konowalchuk is expected to return against Anaheim after being out since November 21 with a broken wrist, which should give Colorado an excellent two-way game.

Key Players: Colorado- C Joe Sakic, D Rob Blake, LW Andrew Brunette, G Jose Theodore. Anaheim- D Scott Niedermayer, D Francois Beauchemin, RW Teemu Selanne, G Ilya Bryzgalov.

Anaheim’s Burning Question: Ilya Bryzgalov played excellent in Game 6 against Calgary, but had little work in Game 7 and still has yet to play a full series. Can Bryzgalov carry the Ducks through a full series or was his performance a fluke?

Colorado’s Burning Question: The story against Dallas was that despite the fact the Colorado defence was effective in shutting down the Stars’ top forwards, Jose Theodore still looked very shaky in net. Can Theodore find his game and shake the rust off of not playing for a while before the Dallas series or were the Montreal Canadiens right in trading him?

The Lowdown: This series is going to go down to goaltending. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Kelly Hrudey was adamant that this series would go no more than five games, but I disagree. Anaheim doesn’t have the firepower up front to really test Theodore that the Ottawa Senators have or even Dallas, but Bryzgalov doesn’t look beatable right now and the Ducks do have enough offence to give Colorado nightmares, even if it won’t overwhelm them. The Avalanche have the edge in offence with Sakic, Milan Hejduk and Brunette up front and have a capable defence, but Anaheim’s passing game is deadly right now and Bryzgalov will be difficult to beat. The Avalanche won’t make it embarrassing, but it won’t make it out alive.

The Verdict: Anaheim in six.

-DG

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-DG

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