We're down to four. Two rounds down, two to go. Four teams are now halfway to the Stanley Cup. The process of cutting that number in half begins tonight, as the conference finals commence. Obviously, I have a few things to say about that.
It's ridiculous that Edmonton is already playing. If the experience of the 2003 Minnesota Wild tells us anything, it's that the Edmonton Oilers are at a heavy disadvantage as the Western Conference Finals begin tonight in Anaheim. The Oilers beat San Jose on Wednesday night in Edmonton to clinch their series, then immediately chartered a plane for Anaheim to start preparing for the next series. I don't mind that there is a game tonight. Really, I don't. But Edmonton shouldn't have to play 48 hours after they won their series. Normally, there is a tangible reward (rest) for ending a series before a Game 7. For Edmonton, there is no such thing.
Anaheim had a ton more rest than Minnesota did in 2003, and they swept the series. While I think Edmonton will play well tonight, and I think Anaheim will be a bit rusty, I do think fatigue will be a huge factor in this thing before it's over. And that's unfortunate, because an extra couple days of rest could have meant the world to Edmonton, while it wouldn't have made any difference for Anaheim.
I'm doing well in the playoff prediction business so far this year. I hate to brag, but after an 10-2 run through the NFL playoffs, I'm 9-3 so far in the NHL playoffs, including a perfect 4-0 in the second round. With that in mind, here are my conference final picks. I hope the run continues.
West Finals: Anaheim vs Edmonton. I'm pretty stoked for this series. Edmonton has the speed and skill to skate and play with Anaheim, whereas Colorado was overmatched pretty much from the start of their series with the Ducks. The goaltending matchup should get a lot of ink, as Dwayne Roloson has been the most consistent goaltender so far in the playoffs, while one could argue that Ducks netminder Ilya Bryzgalov has been the flashiest. Roloson is also the only veteran of the group, as he's more than a decade older than Bryzgalov, Carolina's Cam Ward, and Buffalo's Ryan Miller.
The Oilers will run their four lines at Anaheim, forechecking hard and testing the ability of Anaheim to move the puck out of their own zone. It was a huge problem for San Jose in the second round, as their younger defensemen succumbed to the pressure and the physicality of Edmonton's forecheck. Anaheim probably won't have the same problems. Scott Niedermayer is as steady as they come in the defensive zone, and he'll log nearly as many, if not more, minutes than Edmonton's Chris Pronger. Francois Beauchemin, acquired in the marvelous (for Anaheim, at least) Sergei Fedorov trade, has seven points in the playoffs and is on the ice almost as much as Niedermayer is. Ruslan Salei and Sean O'Donnell are +9 and +6, respectively.
The Ducks won't give in to Edmonton's pressure, and they have a pretty fair forecheck, too. The Ducks forced a ton of bad turnovers in the Colorado series, and they turned many of those turnovers into game-changing goals. They were much more physical than Colorado in every area of the ice.
However, Edmonton won't back down like the Avalanche did. The Oilers are every bit as physical, and every bit as tenacious, as Anaheim. And despite the fact that the Ducks swept the Avalanche while Edmonton struggled with the Sharks, I think the Oilers are playing a little bit better.
Edmonton has more scoring depth, with the team having gotten huge goals from all over the place. Ryan Smyth, Shawn Horcoff, Ales Hemsky, Fernando Pisani (!), Jarrett Stoll, and even Jaroslav Spacek have all scored big goals, and Sergei Samsonov is always available to pick up a goal when the net is empty. Just ask Vesa Toskala about that.
Anaheim, meanwhile, is really leaning too much on veteran Teemu Selanne and youngsters Dustin Penner (5A, 6 pts) and Joffrey Lupul (7G, 8 pts) right now. They need more production out of their depth players, and they will need it quickly. If Selanne and Lupul are the only guys scoring, Edmonton will find a way to slow them down.
In the end, I think this comes down to the tenacity of the Oilers in the offensive zone, combined with the steady goaltending of Roloson. Edmonton will move on to the Stanley Cup Finals with a six-game series victory.
East Finals: Carolina vs Buffalo. I'm sure NBC is thrilled with the ratings possibilities. After all, the surfing program that preceded last weekend's Carolina-New Jersey game outrated the game, as did the broadcast of heads-up poker on Sunday afternoon at the same time. The small city in upstate New York and the non-traditional hockey market that's distracted this weekend by a NASCAR exhibition race in Charlotte should combine for a great rating. It's too bad, really, because this should be a great series.
The teams will play a faster style than most are used to seeing in the playoffs, and like the Ottawa series, it will end up coming down to goaltending, as it always does in the playoffs. I don't expect to see any 7-6 games in this series, but I do expect to see more than one 4-3/5-4 type of score. The national media in this country, at least the folks that pay attention to hockey, will probably focus on the low ratings. The rest of us will focus on the hockey, which will be fun.
(By the way, if you're looking for something to do tomorrow, sales are apparently slow for the games in Carolina. The games in Buffalo sold out in about 12 seconds. But the NASCAR fans can't get their minds off the All-Star Challenge long enough to think about hockey.)
Now...on to the games. The goaltenders take center stage because of their youth and their play so far in the postseason. Ward and Miller have been incredible, with Ward being perhaps a better story because he was the backup entering the postseason, and no one expected Martin Gerber to implode like he did. Ward responded with eight wins in nine starts, and he's posted a 1.77 GAA to go along with a .930 save percentage.
The Canes' forwards get a lot of ink, with Eric Staal rounding into superstar form, and getting plenty of help from crusty veterans Rod Brind'Amour, Cory Stillman, Mark Recchi, Ray Whitney, and Doug Weight. The defense has been steady after a shaky start in the first round against Montreal, and Bret Hedican, Frantisek Kaberle, and Mike Commodore were all very good against a tough New Jersey team. Carolina was the far superior team against the Devils, and it was very much due to their defensive play. The Hurricanes did a great job protecting leads in Games 3 and 5, and held their own in a defensive struggle in Game 2 before they got the game-winner in overtime.
And it certainly didn't hurt that Ward outplayed his idol, Martin Brodeur.
Meanwhile, the Sabres won four one-goal games to beat Ottawa. While their depth has been attacked a bit in the playoffs (Dmitri Kalinin is probably out for at least Game 1, while Tim Connolly also might not play against Carolina), it's still superior to the depth of the Hurricanes. But Buffalo needs some good things to happen in order for them to advance.
They need to stop taking penalties. Yes, the Sabres have five shorties in the playoffs, including Jason Pominville's series-clincher against the Senators. But spending time in the penalty box against the Hurricanes is just not a good idea. That power play will burn you if you keep letting them have chances.
They need to keep the balance going. The Sabres had a pleothora of 20-goal scorers during the regular season, and the balance has continued in the playoffs. The Sabres have nine different players with three or more goals so far in the playoffs. Five guys are in double digits in points. You can't just stop one line and expect to beat Buffalo, whereas Jersey was talented, but not nearly as balanced as the Sabres.
And the Sabres need to continue getting steady defensive play in front of Miller. Henrik Tallinder and Toni Lydman are both an unspeakable +13 (!) so far in eleven playoff games. Jay McKee is a shot-blocking machine, and Brian Campbell is also playing well.
I think Buffalo has too much balance, and they have the better goaltender in Miller. The Hurricanes will be the best team Buffalo has played so far, and it won't be as easy as their last regular season meeting (Buffalo won the season finale between the two teams 4-0 in Raleigh), but it will be a six-game series win for the Sabres, and an Edmonton-Buffalo Stanley Cup final matchup that will be bonkers in Canada and upstate New York, but will go over like a new episode of "Love Monkey" in most of the United States.