Thursday, May 04, 2006
Western Conference Semi-final Preview
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.
What positives can I take out of it? Well, at least it’s Anaheim and at least- in Game 7 anyway- they played well and deserved the win. It’ll set up an interesting series with the Colorado Avalanche who are just as feisty and position-wise as the Ducks are, setting up two Western Conference series that should be fun to watch. Can’t wait for them to begin.
Tuesday, May 02, 2006
Eastern Conference Semi-final Preview
How they got there: Ottawa- defeated Tampa Bay 4-1. Buffalo- defeated Philadelphia 4-2.
The Skinny: After dispatching their spitting images the Tampa Bay Lightning handily, the Ottawa Senators get the chance to do it again, this time against the speedy Buffalo Sabres. There are, however, a few key differences in this series than in the Tampa Bay series: Buffalo has a proven star goaltender in Ryan Miller and is a bit more sound position-wise than the Lightning were; but conversely the Sabres don’t have an explosive game-breaker of the likes of Martin Havlat or Daniel Alfredsson. Other than that, Buffalo and Ottawa are essentially the same team- two fast, exciting teams that use speed, puck control and quickness to generate offence, with a defence that’s impenetrable in their own end and isn’t afraid to jump into the play.
Key Players: Buffalo- C Daniel Briere, G Ryan Miller, D Henrik Tallinder. Ottawa- RW Daniel Alfredsson, LW Martin Havlat, D Wade Redden
Buffalo’s Burning Question: They shut down Peter Forsberg and Simon Gagne, but can they shut down the likes of Jason Spezza, Dany Heatley, Havlat et all?
Ottawa’s Burning Question: Everyone makes a big deal about how the Senators can’t beat the Toronto Maple Leafs, however, the Sabres have beaten the Senators twice in the playoffs- a stirring seven-game series in 1997 and the four-game sweep in 1999. Can Ottawa overcome its demons and overwhelm the Sabres?
The Lowdown: Ottawa owned the Sabres in the regular season, but Buffalo proved they’re capable of playing with Ottawa by posting a 6-2 win in their last meeting. The Sabres also have a clear edge in goal with Miller proving himself in net while Ottawa’s Ray Emery- despite being good against Tampa Bay- hasn’t had much of a test. If Buffalo can get to Emery early and overwhelm the Senators with their speed, they might have a chance to win this series, and they’re proven playoff winners whereas the Senators still have a lot left to prove with all their previous early exits. However, the way Ottawa has been playing, that will be difficult, and given that talent-wise, Ottawa is pound for pound better than Buffalo, I really don’t think Buffalo can come out of this one (as much as that pains me to admit that). The Sabres won’t make it as laughable as the Lightning did since they’re pretty close to the Senators and do have Miller to rely on, but Alfredsson, Havlat, Spezza, Redden et all are simply too much for even the Sabres’ talented defence to handle.
The Verdict: Ottawa in seven.
#2 Carolina Hurricanes vs. #3 New Jersey Devils
How they got there: Carolina- defeated Montreal 4-2. New Jersey- defeated NY Rangers 4-0.
The Skinny: The Devils have been off for over a week, the Hurricanes have been battling back from a 2-0 series deficit to hand the Montreal Canadiens a shocking early exit. A lot has been made of New Jersey’s 15-game winning streak since the end of March and of how the Devils completely dismantled the New York Rangers, but few seem to understand that the Rangers were effectively playing without Jaromir Jagr and thus couldn’t put out much of an effort. The Hurricanes have been riding the goaltending of Cam Ward past Montreal and have seemed to hit their groove, but their vaunted offence has hit a snag- they scored 15 goals in their six-game set, and only nine in their last four games. The Devils, meanwhile, are playing well behind the play of goaltender Martin Brodeur, Patrik Elias and Brian Gionta, mixing their forwards’ explosiveness with sound defensive hockey to produce a well-rounded team that last lost 4-3 to the Toronto Maple Leafs on March 26. However, Carolina will be their first playoff test after the Rangers effectively wilted after Jagr was injured early in Game 1.
Key Players: Carolina- C Rod Brind’amour, G Cam Ward, D Bret Hedican, RW Eric Staal. New Jersey- LW Brian Gionta, RW Patrik Elias, G Martin Brodeur, D Brian Rafalski.
Carolina’s Burning Question: With their offence sputtering against Montreal- despite winning the last four games- can Carolina find their on switch and regain the explosiveness they’ll need to get past the New Jersey defence?
New Jersey’s Burning Question: They swept the Rangers- good. They weren’t much of a test, playing more like the Washington Capitals without Jagr than a Rangers team that effectively dominated the Atlantic Division in the regular season. Now, they have to face a Carolina team that’s also on top of its game and hot at the right moment. Can the Devils continue their hot streak and eliminate Carolina?
The Lowdown: There’s no reason why the Devils can’t continue their hot streak against Carolina. A lot will say about how this series will come down to Cam Ward vs. Martin Brodeur in net but this is really about the Hurricanes’ offence- they need to be better if they expect to beat New Jersey. Gionta, Elias and Scott Gomez are all going to be coming hard at their net and won’t be easy to contain, and while Bret Hedican, Aaron Ward et all were effective at neutralizing the likes of Richard Zednik and Alexei Kovalev, the Devils’ offence is a different beast altogether, and, as a whole, the Devils just play a lot more sound defensively than either the Hurricanes or the Canadiens do. It probably won’t be a sweep, but unless the Hurricanes rediscover their legs and their scoring touch- both of which won’t be easy against Brian Rafalski & Co. and Brodeur- they won’t be able to take more than one game in this series.
The Verdict: New Jersey in five.
What A Finish
To recap: in Montreal, the Carolina Hurricanes received great goaltending from Cam Ward to finish off the Montreal Canadiens 2-1 in overtime off Cory Stillman’s shot from the blueline at 1:19 of the extra frame; while in Philadelphia the Buffalo Sabres skated around the Philadelphia Flyers as if they were pylons en route to a 7-1 shellacking that few thought could happen to such a talented Flyers team. The results mean that Buffalo and Carolina advance to the second round of the playoffs to face off against the Ottawa Senators and the New Jersey Devils respectively.
Personally, I don’t know what to make of tonight’s action. I thought the Sabres- my favourite team- were in tough on the road against Philadelphia, since they’d failed to bring their dominant style of play on the road with them in Games 3 and 4, but, considering Buffalo scored first in every game of the series and looked so good in the dominant 3-0 win in Game 5, I knew this series would probably go to Buffalo- it would be just a matter of when. I didn’t expect a 7-1 win in Game 6. How the Flyers utterly collapsed in what was supposed to be their most important game of the season is beyond comprehension, especially considering that they might be extra motivated to not be blown out tonight after the Sabres blew them out 8-0 in Game 6 of their first round series back in 2001. Still, there was little question in my mind that Philadelphia was outclassed here- in Game 2, Buffalo hammered Philadelphia 8-2 after eking out a 3-2 win in double overtime in Game 1, while in Games 3 and 4, despite the fact the Sabres lost, the Flyers really won because of circumstance. As stated before, Buffalo opened the scoring in both games there (including a 2-0 lead in Game 4), and kept both games close, with the Flyers barely beating them. The TSN analysts were surprised that the series went to six because it really was ugly for the Flyers, and I agree- the Sabres’ speedy attack, led by the likes of Jean-Pierre Dumont and Daniel Briere, as well as the stellar play of goaltender Ryan Miller and the underrated Buffalo defence led by Brian Campbell, was simply too much for the Flyers. Perhaps the only reason why Philadelphia even had a chance was Peter Forsberg, arguably the best player in the NHL. Of course, there’s only so much one guy can do, and without backup help from the likes of Simon Gagne and Mike Knuble- who are both supposed to step up- the Flyers were done. I just didn’t think they’d give up this easily.
As for Montreal-Carolina, everyone knew it would be a goaltending duel, but nobody could have guessed how it would end. 1:19 into the extra session, Cory Stillman takes what looks to be a harmless- but hard- slapshot from the point that somehow beats Canadiens goaltender Cristobal Huet. On its own, the soft goal would send shockwaves, but in a series known for stellar goaltending, Huet’s gaffe stood out even more. Now, while Huet should have had that puck, I’m not going to fault Huet for Montreal’s failure to win this series after leading it 2-0- the real reason for Montreal’s failure was a failure to execute up front. Part of the reason was stellar goaltending from Cam Ward, but part of this was how Michael Ryder, Alexei Kovalev, Mike Ribeiro et all couldn’t find the back of the net. Many will point out that Ward allowed only five goals in the last four games of the series, but few will remember that Ward also allowed three goals in the last four periods of Game 2, including the overtime winner. Sure, you can say that Saku Koivu’s absence changed the series, but the Canadiens are not a one-man team- the rest of the team should have stepped up. They didn’t and now they’re out.
Am I disappointed? Maybe- I would have liked to see a Montreal-Ottawa second round so that my beloved Sabres would avoid the Senators, but then again the other option was the New Jersey Devils, so it’s pick your poison. Instead, it’ll be the Senators with a chance to exorcise old demons, as it was the Sabres who famously handed Ottawa a first round sweep in 1999 en route to a visit to the Stanley Cup Final, while the heavily favoured Sens had to stew a long off-season wondering what could have been. It’ll be a fun series nonetheless.
Out West, there’s only one game left- Calgary and Anaheim. How the Anaheim Mighty Ducks managed to force Game 7 is beyond me- the Calgary Flames are simply better in every way. Okay, okay- the Ducks are a better puck possession team, but that’s all I’ll give them. The Flames are better defensively, they’re better offensively, they’re better in goal, and they’re better on the special teams- heck, they’re even better in the concession stands. Really, anything short of a Calgary win is unacceptable. I know, it’s harsh, but the Flames seem to be taking it too easily. Now’s the time for Jarome Iginla and company to show that 2004 wasn’t a fluke.
Regardless, it’ll be a wild night in Calgary. You live for Game 7- and now we’ll see it. Hopefully, Calgary will win and set up a Calgary-Edmonton second round, but even if the Ducks win it’ll mean the top four seeds in the West all fell. The NHL wanted parity? It got it- and how.
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