Saturday, May 14, 2011

Into The Crystal Ball: 2011 Conference Final Edition

After we had a first round with four Game 7’s and six Game 6’s, the second round seemed to want to go away in a hurry. Three teams opened up a 3-0 series lead, with the other series being 3-1 after four games. In the East, it went according to plan, with the Tampa Bay Lightning sweeping out the Washington Capitals and the Boston Bruins sweeping out the Philadelphia Flyers (gaining a measure of revenge for last year’s embarrassing collapse). They both did it with a combination of physicality and high scoring offences, as both teams took advantage of wonky goaltending on both sides.

The West went all fluey.

The Vancouver Canucks, the only team that didn’t open a 3-0 series lead in the second round, saw a game Nashville Predators team stretch them to six games before bowing out. To be fair, the Predators played too hard to not deserve a sixth game, so while the Canucks can be chided for not closing out Nashville at home, few could argue that a Vancouver win in six games wasn’t a fair series result. The San Jose Sharks, though, took stretching to a whole new level.

The Sharks opened a 3-0 series lead on the Detroit Red Wings, though every game was a one goal affair. Detroit gutted out a 4-3 win in Game 4 that extended the series, but, like last year, it was viewed as the last gasp of an already defeated team. Instead, the Wings came back from 3-1 down in Game 5 and 1-0 down in Game 6 to improbably force Game 7. Detroit nearly came back in that Game 7 as well, making a 2-0 deficit into a 3-2 deficit late in the third, but this time the Sharks held on to win the series.

Their present? Those very Canucks, the President’s Trophy winning Canucks who were reborn against Nashville, with Ryan Kesler playing like a man possessed, scoring five times and 11 points in the six games. How much of that was because he was playing the Predators is an open question, but it is an indication the moribund Canucks offence is showing signs of life at just the right time.

With that said, it’s time to show how the Conference Final will play out.

Eastern Conference Final

(3) Boston Bruins vs. (5) Tampa Bay Lightning. If you ever wanted to have a good laugh, all you have to do is find a picture of Boston’s Zdeno Chara playing against Tampa’s Martin St. Louis. You literally see Chara, the league’s tallest player, towering over St. Louis, one of the league’s smallest players, so much so that St. Louis’ head barely know what I mean. Now, you’ll get to see a whole series of this hilarity, since it’ll be the key matchup of the series. Both were the engines that drove their team’s success, St. Louis the offensive anchor that sank the Washington Capitals under a deluge of goals and Chara the defensive anchor that perpetually kept the normally prolific Philadelphia Flyers offence sputtering, and whichever one has the bigger impact will likely decide the series. Both teams match up well, with the Lightning offence a little bit deeper than Boston’s but with the Bruins’ defence a little deeper than Tampa’s, though both teams have shown they’re capable at the other end of the ice. It’s difficult to know if Boston’s suddenly prolific offence had more to do with the Flyer carousel in net than if the team actually has that depth, but at least they enter this series with some offensive confidence. Still, if anything will separate these teams, it’s Boston’s physicality and the fact that Tim Thomas is just that much better than Tampa’s Dwayne Roloson (though only slightly). The Lightning may have physically dominated the Capitals as part of their victory, but they’ve yet to play a team that has the skills and the size as the Bruins. Tampa will make this a series- perhaps even a close one- but they’re just not big enough to deal with the Big Bad Bruins. Bruins 4, Lightning 3

Western Conference Final

(1) Vancouver Canucks vs. (2) San Jose Sharks. These two looked geared to play each other early in the second round- they just took their sweet time getting here. They took so long, it was longer than a New York City commute- especially the Sharks, who almost let the Detroit Red Wings come all the way back from 3-0 down in the series. To be fair, both of their opponents were strong enough that the series results were justified, but it does mean that neither team really enters this series on much of a roll. Still, if a team has an advantage there it’s the Canucks, since the Sharks have been streaky all season long whereas the Canucks were only really up and down against the Chicago Blackhawks. That’s not the only edge Vancouver has in this series- the Canucks have shown to be just as much a physical force as San Jose has been these playoffs, but Vancouver has more depth on offence (especially if the Sedin twins ever get on track) and on defence, plus they have the better goaltender in Roberto Luongo. Yes, San Jose’s Antti Niemi hasn’t lost a playoff series and got the better of Luongo last season, but that was a different Luongo then- he’s a lot more focused and confident this year now that he’s off to the third round for the first time in his career. The Canucks also look like they have a lot more purpose during these playoffs, unlike the Sharks whom you never seem to know what you’ll get. It is true that the Red Wings also came in with more purpose and San Jose beat them, but the Sharks were familiar with them whereas they’re not as familiar with the Canucks. This will likely be a good series, but the Canucks have far more going for them than the Sharks do. Canucks 4, Sharks 2

Stanley Cup Final

(W1) Vancouver Canucks vs. (E3) Boston Bruins. This could be dubbed the “Air Miles” series, since a staggering 3,189 miles (5,102 kilometres) separates the two arenas where these two teams play (the third longest distance in the NHL). If that isn’t tiring enough for both teams it’s the fact they’ll beat each other up by the end of the series, since both teams are very physical. They’ll also have a hard time scoring, since Thomas and Luongo are two of the game’s best and their defences are also good. The Bruins do have an anchor in Chara whereas the Canucks don’t, but the Canucks have offensive players who can create chances on their own whereas the Bruins don’t. That will be the difference in this series- the Canucks can match up with the defence, the size and the goaltending with the Bruins, they just have more offence; and that will be enough to lead them to their first ever Stanley Cup. Canucks 4, Bruins 2


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