Monday, May 28, 2007

Into The Crystal Ball: Stanley Cup Final Edition

Anaheim Ducks (West #2) vs. Ottawa Senators (East #4)

The 114th edition of the Stanley Cup Playoffs started on April 11, 2007 with 16 teams vying for the cherished mug. Today, the Finals officially get started with the Anaheim Ducks and Ottawa Senators squaring off at the Honda Centre in southern California, the first Stanley Cup playoff game on the West Coast since the Ducks won Game 6 against the New Jersey Devils in the 2003 Finals.

Now, before the playoffs began I didn’t think either team had what it took to be Cup champion, as the Ducks were lacking in depth (especially at forward) and what the Senators do every year rhymes with “bloke”. However- as is the case in every playoff year- surprises do creep up, and while Anaheim were pre-season favourites to get this far, they were overshadowed over the course of the season by the likes of the Detroit Red Wings, San Jose Sharks and Nashville Predators who made bigger splashes at the trade deadline than they did, only adding Brad May. Yet it’s the Ducks who are here with essentially the same roster that got them through the season over the Wings, Predators and Sharks who proved that adding impact players at the deadline doesn’t always translate to playoff success.

As for the Senators, doubts existed because, despite being in the playoffs every year since 1997, they had only been out of the second round once- in 2003, losing in seven games to the eventual champion Devils. History also wasn’t on Ottawa’s side- they had never beaten a team in the playoffs that had beaten them previously, meaning that second-round date with the Devils weighed heavily against them. Instead, Ottawa steamrolled past both New Jersey and the President’s Trophy winners Buffalo Sabres, two teams that had previously beaten Ottawa, to get to the Finals, after cruising past the inexperienced Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins. For what it’s worth, the Senators didn’t make a huge deadline deal trade either- their biggest acquisition was Oleg Saprykin from the Phoenix Coyotes, which was coupled with the Mike Comrie trade in January. Neither player looked to be the kind of player that would morph the playoff-challenged Senators into a contender, but this year, the same Ottawa club that had gone through embarrassments of years past suddenly became unstoppable. They’ve played with the kind of purpose you wouldn’t have expected them to play with, and it’s paid off nicely for them. Perhaps what signalled to me that this year’s club was different was shortly after Andrej Meszaros opened the scoring for the Senators against the Penguins. His celebration had the kind of “relieved excitement” only scoring in the playoffs can bring, because he knows goals are hard to come by and that makes every goal that much more special. Of course, Ottawa wound up coasting to a 6-3 victory that day but it showed that the Senators had a different mindset- they came prepared to work harder and that may have caught their playoff opponents off-guard and helped Ottawa through to this point.

With that out of the way, here’s each team’s path to the Cup as well as my reasoning as to why both teams could and should win, as well as who will win:

PATH TO THE CUP:

Anaheim:

Western Conference Quarterfinals: defeated Minnesota Wild 4-1. Turning Point: Rob Niedermayer’s third period blast after corralling Kyle Burns' fanned attempt on goal in Game 3 put Anaheim up 2-0 midway through the third and allowed the Ducks to gain a 3-0 series stranglehold before dusting off the offensively challenged Wild in five.
Western Conference Semi-Finals: defeated Vancouver Canucks 4-1. Turning Point: Travis Moen’s overtime winner in Game 4 completed a two-goal Anaheim comeback that prevented the Canucks from evening the series and set up Anaheim’s Game 5 series-clinching victory.
Western Conference Finals: defeated Detroit Red Wings 4-2. Turning Point: Teemu Selanne’s overtime backhander in Game 5 after Scott Niedermayer tied the game with 47 seconds left stole Game 5 from the Wings, a momentum shift that caused Anaheim to go up 3-0 after two periods in Game 6 before closing out the series with a 4-3 victory.

Ottawa:

Eastern Conference Quarterfinals: defeated Pittsburgh Penguins 4-1. Turning Point: Ottawa’s 6-3 Game 1 victory set the tone for the entire series, as although Pittsburgh eked out a Game 2 win to draw the series even, the Senators dominated the Penguins in all five games of the series.
Eastern Conference Semi-Finals:
defeated New Jersey Devils 4-1. Turning Point: Tom Preissing’s floater that eluded Martin Brodeur gave Ottawa a late 1-0 lead in Game 3 that broke the Devils’ back, allowing Ray Emery to earn his first career playoff shutout and continued Brodeur’s shaky playoff that ultimately led to the Devils’ demise.
Eastern Conference Finals: defeated Buffalo Sabres 4-1. Turning Point: Joe Corvo’s double-overtime goal in Game 2 erased a last-second Sabre comeback and gave Ottawa a 2-0 series lead going home that proved too much for the deflated Sabres to handle.

WHY THE DUCKS SHOULD WIN: Two words: Teemu Selanne. He may not wear the “C” but he’s effectively the Ducks’ captain, a long-time member of an Anaheim team that has been in the NHL cellar for most of its history. This is the first year where the Ducks have been a favourite for the Cup, even though it’s Anaheim’s second visit to the Cup Final in four campaigns and their third visit past the second round in that same span. The difference was that in both 2003 and 2006 the Ducks (no pun intended) flew under the radar as underdogs, especially in 2003 where it was a then up-and-coming Jean-Sebastien Giguere who led the seventh-seeded Ducks to stunning upsets of the Wings and Dallas Stars, No. 2 and No. 1 in the Western Conference respectively, as well as a four-game sweep of Minnesota before succumbing to the Devils in the Cup Final in seven, where the home team won each game. Before 2003, the Ducks had only been to the playoffs twice, in 1997 where they rallied from a 3-1 deficit against the recently-transplanted-from-Winnipeg Phoenix Coyotes to win their first round series in seven before getting swept out of the second round at the hands of the Wings, who would also sweep them in their other playoff trip in 1999. History shows that Anaheim has had little to cheer for, and while this year’s team isn’t as heart-warming as the plucky 2003 team was, it still has a lot of its character. A Cup win here would be Anaheim’s first, and the first Cup win for a West Coast team since the Victoria Cougars- the last non-NHL team to capture the Stanley Cup- did it in 1925.

WHY THE SENATORS SHOULD WIN: Unlike Anaheim, the Senators have been in the playoffs for ten straight seasons but have only advanced past the second round once before coming this far, coming in 2003, when Ottawa won its sole President’s Trophy. Ottawa has also been at both spectrums of the NHL landscape- ten years before hitting the summit, Ottawa- led by the likes of Sylvian Turgeon, Jody Hull and Peter Sidorkiewicz, set a new record for futility with 70 losses and 24 points. That season also the Senators set a new mark for consecutive losses on the road, failing to record a road win in 39 tries before beating the New York Islanders 5-3 in April. All those years of futility led to quality draft picks that quickly turned the fortunes of the club around, culminating in their first playoff appearance in 1997 where they stretched the second-seeded Sabres to overtime of the seventh game where Derek Plante finished them off. In 1998, Ottawa knocked off New Jersey in a seven game upset before losing in six to the eventual Cup-finalists Washington Capitals, setting the stage for the Senators’ first division championship in 1999. However, since that point, history wasn’t kind to the Senators, as each season- besides 2003- they hit a roadblock early in the playoffs at the hands of either Buffalo or the Toronto Maple Leafs, getting swept by Buffalo in 1999 and Toronto two years later, the latter series seeing Curtis Joseph shutting out the Senators until the last minute of Game 3. The Leafs would also beat Ottawa in 2000 (six, Conference Quarterfinals) and 2004 (seven, Conference Semi-Finals), whereas Buffalo would beat them in five in 2006 that saw the first-ever shorthanded goal in overtime to decide a series (by Jason Pominville) after Buffalo went up 3-0 following Jean-Pierre Dumont’s overtime goal. While the Senators probably would have liked to have faced the Leafs to exact revenge on their playoff misfortunes, beating Buffalo this year- in a series that mirrored Buffalo’s triumph of a year ago where Alfredsson, burned on Pominville’s winner in 2006, scored in overtime to lift Ottawa in Game 5 after the Sabres staved off elimination staring a 0-3 hole in Game 4. In addition to their past history, an Ottawa win would be the first Canadian Cup triumph since the Montreal Canadiens- who happened to be the last Canadian team to beat Buffalo in the playoffs before Ottawa did it this year- did it in 1993, and would also mark the first time a European captain (Alfredsson, a native of Gothenburg, Sweden, in this case) has won the Cup.

WHY THE DUCKS COULD WIN: Giguere isn’t as other-worldly as he once was, being somewhat slow in his cross-ice movement and too technique-oriented to allow him to make saves as quickly as he could have in the past. That said, he’s still an extremely effective goaltender that has been difficult to beat- boasting a .931 save percentage, tops between Ottawa and Anaheim- and whatever deficiencies he may have in his game have been overcome far better this year than in years’ past. Also, the Ducks’ first unit of Selanne, Andy McDonald and Chris Kunitz may be the second-best first line in the playoffs behind Ottawa’s Dany Heatley-Alfredsson-Jason Spezza unit. The Ducks also boast a trio of All-Star defencemen in Scott Niedermayer, Chris Pronger and Francois Beauchemin as well as a great stable of dependable checkers- maybe the best in the business- in the likes of Samuel Pahlsson, Rob Niedermayer, May and Travis Moen. Anaheim also has the ability to put second-line scoring threat Ryan Getzlaf on the point on the power play as well, where he has been very effective. Also, if Giguere falters, the Ducks can rely on Ilya Bryzgalov, who won the first three games of the playoffs for Anaheim while Giguere attended to personal matters. Bryzgalov is also not far behind Giguere in save percentage at .929, a full ten percentage points better than Ottawa’s Emery. Also, in the battle of the coaches, Randy Carlyle wins out slightly over Ottawa’s Bryan Murray, as Carlyle has coaching experience this deep into the playoffs and Murray does not, although Murray advanced to the Finals as the Florida Panthers’ General Manager in 1996. History is also on Anaheim’s side in this one, as the Ducks have yet to lose at home in the Finals and this time they have home ice advantage.

WHY THE SENATORS COULD WIN: The Heatley-Alfredsson-Spezza unit is hockey’s best first line at the moment, as they are first (Heatley), second (Spezza) and fourth (Alfredsson) in playoff scoring, which is sure to be 1-2-3 after the Cup Final (as Detroit’s Nicklas Lidstrom, who has no more games to play, is No. 3). The Senators also boast an array of offensive talent past their top line in the likes of Comrie, Mike Fisher, Patrick Eaves, Antoine Vermette and Peter Schaefer, while Dean McAmmond and Chris Kelly have produced solid two-way play. Ottawa also boasts depth on the blueline as well, with Wade Redden, Corvo, Preissing, Meszaros and Anton Volchenkov all netting at least four points, more than what could be said of Anaheim’s backline. In addition to that, Volchenkov leads the playoffs with 61 blocked shots. Redden- Ottawa’s leader in ice-time- also averages seven minutes less of ice-time than Pronger, Beauchemin and Niedermayer do, so should the games get longer, the situation favours Ottawa. In net, Emery leads the playoffs in shutouts with three, something neither Bryzgalov or Giguere has done in these playoffs. Also, while the Ducks have historically not lost at home in the Cup Final, Ottawa can draw on the fact that since 2002, every team that has defeated Detroit in the playoffs- as Anaheim did in the previous round- has lost in the Cup Final, and the Ducks have done that once already- in 2003.

WHO WILL WIN: Difficult to say. Both teams have compelling reasons to believe they can win- the Ducks have the best defence in the playoffs, the Senators the best offence, although both are not bad at the other end of the spectrum. Ottawa comes into the Final as the underdog, but unlike the Edmonton Oilers and the Calgary Flames, the Senators match up far better with their adversary, since they’re still essentially the same team that dominated regular seasons in the past even though they didn’t quite reach the summit this year. This may also work in Anaheim’s favour, as they know how well Ottawa can play and can thus better prepare for it, unlike the Carolina Hurricanes and Tampa Bay Lightning who may have underestimated the Oilers and Flames respectively because both teams were such overwhelming underdogs. Still, neither team is much stronger than the other and that translates to a fourth-straight seven-game set, which may even see overtime in the deciding game this time around because it’s that close. In the end, my heart says Ottawa but my gut says Anaheim, and I have to go with my gut- championships are won on defence, and in the battle of defences, there’s no comparison: Anaheim’s top three defencemen are head and shoulders above Ottawa’s, and as good as Emery has been in these playoffs, Giguere and Bryzgalov have been that much better. The Senators will take it to the wire, but to quote The Score’s pre-season guide, it’s time for Lord Stanley to learn how to quack. Anaheim 4, Ottawa 3.

-DG


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-DG

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