Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Quest for the Cup contines

By Eric Redner
The Phanatic Magazine

The first round is finished and I'm sure you're all wondering how I did on my picks. Six of eight correct. I honestly thought Sidney Crosby might have had it in him to give the Penguins at least one series win and considering some of Ottawa's lackluster playoff performances I thought this series had the making of an upset, albeit not much of one. However, the Senators came out and shut down Pittsburgh in five games, not the six game Penguins series victory.

Better luck next year Sid.

My other mistake was Anaheim. Minnesota was playing very well down the final stretch of the season and I thought they matched up well against the Ducks. Anaheim and its potent special teams, however, allowed the team to dominate Minnesota through the series.

The beards are getting longer as the chase for the Cup heads into the semifinals. The Elite Eight of the league are left so lets take a look at what might be expected.

Eastern Conference

1. Buffalo (53-22-7) versus NY Rangers (42-30-10)
Season series - Buffalo won 4-0 (two wins in overtime and one in shootout)

Both teams had relatively easy first round series, with the Rangers sweeping a series for the first time since 1994. This series features two very good offensive teams with goaltenders who are starting to garner a lot of attention in the league. Buffalo swept the season series, but these teams have not faced each other since December 1. Also, this is the first playoff series between
these teams since 1978.

Is Henrik Lundqvist starting to emerge as a star goaltender? It's still to early to start asking such questions, but a big series win, such as beating Buffalo, will go a long way to seeing such banter thrown about. Lundqvist was very good in the opening series against Atlanta, posting a fourth-best 1.50 goals-against average with a shutout against a high-powered attack.

Ryan Miller raised a lot of eyebrows in last year's playoff run for Buffalo, but has he lived up to the hype in his sophomore playoff run? In the first round against the Islanders, Miller played good enough. But, good enough will not cut it against the Rangers, who have some well-seasoned offensive talent that is coming off a long rest.

Another big question in this series is how will the Rangers handle Buffalo's speed?

The Rangers proved that they are playing a better team defense than in previous systems, but the Sabres are much more talented than the Thrashers. Buffalo can wear down a team by rolling lines with players who have a knack for getting the puck in the net. Also, Buffalo's speed allows the team to generate power play opportunities. Among the teams remaining in the playoffs,
only San Jose had more power play chances in the regular season.

Still, New York will get its opportunities to score and should Miller falter, or Lundqvist plays spectacular, the Rangers stand a very good chance of playing in the Conference Finals.

New York in six games.

2. New Jersey (49-24-9) versus Ottawa (48-25-9)
Season series - New Jersey won 3-1 (one win in the shootout)

While Ottawa will be seeing a different team than its first round opponents, New Jersey will be facing a similar style team, but one with much more talent.

The Senators completely dominated Pittsburgh in their five-game series win. Chris Phillips, Anton Volchenkov and Zdeno Chara highlight possibly the best defensive corps in the league and they contained the amount of damage from Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. New Jersey doesn't have anyone with the raw talent of the Penguins top two players, but the Devils do have good forwards who know how to find the back of the net.

The Devils faced the league's third and fifth best scorers in the regular season in Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis in the first round. While the Lightning did some damage, the Devils were able to persevere and limit the rest of Tampa Bay to just six goals. Martin Brodeur looked a little sluggish at the beginning of the series, but bounced back with a shutout in Game 5 and 30-plus save efforts in the final three games.

If Ottawa's trio of Dany Heatley, Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza can cause some pressure in the New Jersey end the team will get its goals.

These are two very talented teams that match up reasonably well against each other. The Devils and Senators will both have a big fight on their hands if they want to make it to the Conference Finals.

The last time the teams faced each other in the playoffs, New Jersey knocked out Ottawa in seven games in the finals in 2003 and went on to win the Stanley Cup.

I picked against Ottawa in the first round because of the tendency for this club to choke in the playoffs. This time I'm going to pick against them because of Brodeur.

New Jersey in six games.

Western Conference

1. Detroit (50-19-13) versus San Jose (51-26-5)
Season series - San Jose won 3-1

San Jose looked very strong in its first round dismantling of a strong Nashville team. Detroit started out strong, faltered a bit on the road, but bounced back with two convincing wins to take its opening round series against a much weaker opponent in Calgary.

These two teams have not met each other since January 4 when the Sharks demolished the Red Wings, 9-4. Still, despite, the regular season results, these two teams are very evenly matched.

San Jose has a good defensive corps and strong players up front, but the team will find it much harder to generate offensive pressure against Detroit's well-experienced defensive squad. Joe Thornton and the other big scorers for San Jose will have to step up their play and put some pucks in the net if the Sharks hope to advance to the finals for the first time since 2003.

I thought the Red Wings would drop a step this year after losing Steve Yzerman and Brendan Shanahan. However, other players filled the vacancies and the veterans assumed some of the leadership duties and the team again had a successful season and fought through a rough spot to dispatch Calgary in six games. Todd Bertuzzi played the final four games of the quarterfinal series and posted three points and could be that added boost that the Wings will need
to get past a much better opponent than what they faced in the first round.

If this series comes to a Game 7 I don't believe that Detroit will lose it at home. However, I don't see this series coming down to seven games.

San Jose in six games.

2. Anaheim (48-20-14) versus Vancouver (49-26-7)
Season series - Anaheim won 3-1

Poor Vancouver can't even get a Thursday series start after playing close to nine games (counting overtime) to knock out Dallas. Anaheim, on the other hand, is well rested after easily handling Minnesota in five games.

All that Anaheim has to do to win games is score a goal or two and let its fantastic defense and solid goaltending take over from there. Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer are a fearsome pair of blueliners for opposing teams to face and they proved that in the opening series against Minnesota as they helped limit the Wild to nine goals, four in Anaheim's only loss in the
series. Should Anaheim's big line of Teemu Selanne-Chris Kunitz-Andy McDonald generate some chances, especially on the teams potent power play, it will be a solid lock to advance to the finals.

Vancouver has to be somewhat depleted after a series that featured three overtimes, including Game 1's four overtime thriller, the sixth longest game in NHL history. Vancouver has a strong defensive corps and one of the game's better goaltenders in Roberto Luongo. However, the team does not have that strong of an offensive punch as the three games the Canucks lost to the Stars
they were shutout. The Sedin twins and Markus Naslund will have to contribute more than they did in the first round if Vancouver wants to advance.

The Canucks need some luck if they want to beat the Ducks. I don't see that happening and I'm going to call it a California Conference Final.

Anaheim in five games.
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