Sunday, May 16, 2010

Into The Crystal Ball: 2010 Conference Final Edition

If Round 1 was the round of expectations, Round 2 was the Round of Surprises. At the time of prediction, I got seven of the eight first round series correct- the only one I didn’t was when the Buffalo Sabres lost to the Boston Bruins. Once the second round came, I only managed to get one series correct out of four- but the one series I did get correct featured those very Bruins, who became the third team to blow a 3-0 series lead to the Philadelphia Flyers in losing in seven games. That’s what you get for busting my bracket.

All kidding aside, I doubt when you drew up your playoff brackets at the start of the season- or even at the start of the playoffs- you would have drawn up two Conference Finals like this one. The San Jose Sharks always impressed during the season but failed during the playoffs, but the team grew mightily in dispatching the Detroit Red Wings, who were the very definition of “playoff pedigree” over the past three springs. The Chicago Blackhawks had multiple issues with their goaltenders and seemed to have no hope against Roberto Luongo and the Vancouver Canucks, but Antti Niemi stood tall, outplayed Luongo and got people wondering if we’ve been overrating Luongo just a bit. The Montreal Canadiens...well, their story’s been beaten to death in their ability to dispatch first the Washington Capitals and now the Pittsburgh Penguins, and while the story’s remarkable (especially the play of Michael Cammalleri, Jaroslav Halak and Hal Gill), perhaps the Canadiens showed the hockey world they were too quick to think of either team as serious contenders.

Then we get to the Flyers.

It’s not, ostensibly, a surprise that they defeated the Bruins- we are talking about the #7 seed taking out the #6 seed- but the manner at which they did it was astounding. Not only were they down 3-0 in the series, the Flyers saw a Game 4 lead evaporate in the final seconds after former Flyer Mark Recchi scored to send the game into overtime. There, as we all know, Simon Gagne scored to extend the Flyers’ season, but the win gave no indication that a comeback was in the cards. Gagne’s winner just made it look like they escaped the inevitable, since the Flyers’ Game 4 win wasn’t the kind of dominating performance that you could inspire some real belief that you could come back. Instead, the Flyers outscored the Bruins 10-4 in the next three games, including a 4-0 Game 5 win that was every bit as dominant as it looked and the famous 4-3 win in Game 7 where Philadelphia clawed all the way back from 3-0 down in the game to send the Bruins home with all the questions. Key to those victories was the cumulative effect of David Krejci going down for Boston in Game 3 and Gagne’s return a game later, since it swung the offensive advantage decisively in Philadelphia’s direction. What also helped was that the Flyers played very relaxed over the last four games, realizing that the Bruins had all the pressure to close out the series. The only exception was the first few minutes of Game 7, where it looked like the Flyers realized they had pressure themselves and forgot their aggressive ways. Once the timeout was called by head coach Peter Laviolette, the Bruins were doomed- the Flyers again realized they had nothing to lose and buried Boston with the burden of a pressure they weren’t prepared to overcome. The fatal blow? Gagne’s goal on a power play generated by a too-many-men-on-the-ice call. The irony there runs deep on so many levels. First, it’s the “penalty-du-jour” of the playoffs, being called well over 30 times in these playoffs after only 17 were called all of the last playoffs. Secondly, Boston was burned on a too-many-men-on-the-ice call in the 1979 playoffs, where they held that infamous late game lead over the Canadiens. Of course, at that time then coach Don Cherry tried to play with too many men on purpose, unlike this time where it was an unfortunate brain cramp, but the similarities cut too deep for Boston fans that were entitled dared to dream big.

That series was the series of the playoffs. The Canadiens-Capitals series the round before was the series of the playoffs before that one. With two successive “series of the playoffs” in the first two rounds, it makes me excited to wonder what is in store for the playoffs’ second half. To the Crystal Ball™ we go.

Eastern Conference Final

(7) Philadelphia Flyers vs. (8) Montreal Canadiens. How do you pick a series where neither team seems capable of losing? The Canadiens won both of their series having to overcome series deficits (including 3-1 against Washington) whereas the Flyers overcame 3-0 down, the mother of all comebacks. The way this is going, multiple overtimes in Game 7 is inescapable. Furthermore, both of these teams are very even on paper. Montreal’s attack is led by Cammalleri, who has a playoff-leading 12 goals, but he is commendably supported by the likes of Brian Gionta (12 points), Tomas Plekanec (11) and Scott Gomez (10). The only drawback is that there hasn’t been a lot of production from the backend, although superb youngster PK Subban (four points in nine games) looks primed to have a big series against the Flyers. The good news is that the Canadiens’ defence has been rock solid, even after Andrei Markov went down, because Jaroslav Spacek, Hal Gill and Josh Gorges have all done a remarkable job in their shutdown roles, which is a nice equalizer. The Flyers’ offence has one fewer forward with more than ten points (only Mike Richards (17), Daniel Briere (15) and Claude Giroux (11) have more than ten), but Chris Pronger has been a catalyst from the backend, being a significant contributor on offence (11 points and four goals) and in defence, eating up almost half the game in ice time. Also, Gagne looks primed to have a big series as well, with seven points in eight playoff games and three goals in his last four games. There is also a slight chance Jeff Carter gets to return in this series, though it’s not likely and not essential, as the offence looks set. The defence hasn’t always been ten-bell like the Canadiens’ but there are still several great pieces in Braydon Coburn, Kimmo Timonen and Matt Carle, which should stabilize the Philadelphia game. So with both teams even in front of net, the decider- as it always is- is in goal. Even though Michael Leighton has been stellar in relief of Brian Boucher, Halak has been nothing but extraordinary in the playoffs, so much so that his play has transcended the hockey world itself- the iconic “Halak stop sign” was spotted at the Madrid Masters tennis tournament on Thursday, a testament to the kind of buzz Halak has been generating with his play- and it’s all deserved. That will be the difference in this series, but again this series really could go either way- expect another classic and dramatic, overtime, Game 7 finish. Canadiens 4, Flyers 3

Western Conference Final

(1) San Jose Sharks vs. (2) Chicago Blackhawks. The playoffs have formed with remarkable symmetry over the first three rounds. After Round 1, Round 2 saw all eight seeds represented over the two conferences, and in this one we see the “bookends”- the top two seeds in the West coupled with the bottom two seeds in the East; and there can be no complaints about the matchups- all four teams are full marks for their participation to this point. Both Chicago and San Jose come to this round having overcome numerous questions about their team- for Chicago, it centred around Niemi and for San Jose it centred on their intestinal fortitude, and both teams delivered. The Sharks finally received dominant production from its “Big Three” of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley, all while receiving the same dominant production from its “Next Three” of Ryan Clowe, Devin Setoguchi and Joe Pavelski. Then we get to the defence and see the dominating play of Dan Boyle and Rob Blake, which will be instrumental in shutting down the explosive Blackhawks attack. Chicago’s offensive depth may be unmatched in these playoffs, with players like Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews (the scoring leader with 20 points), Patrick Sharp, Kris Versteeg, Marian Hossa, big Dustin Byfuglien and Dave Bolland to call on, to say nothing of Chicago’s dynamic defensive duo of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. Again, to separate the teams we must go to the goaltending, and Evgeni Nabokov has been better than Niemi, though not as much as it should be. Still, it’ll be enough to send San Jose through, though just like the East Final, this one could go either way. Sharks 4, Blackhawks 3

Stanley Cup Final

(W1) San Jose Sharks vs. (E8) Montreal Canadiens. You can’t end the playoffs without continuing with the symmetry, and what better way to do it than have the 8th seed of one conference face off against the 1st seed of the other conference? This one will be more evenly matched than it looks, but it won’t go seven. That’s because it’s here where the Canadiens’ magic runs out, and does so against a much bigger San Jose team that will just wear the Canadiens down. That’s precisely what happened when the two teams last met in a San Jose victory in early March (when Maxim Lapierre pulled off his boneheaded move of drilling Scott Nichol from behind) and should continue here. Montreal will give San Jose a push, but the Sharks will emerge with the Stanley Cup that team has waited too long to deliver- but hey, better late than never. Sharks 4, Canadiens 2



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