NHL conference semifinals are set. And there aren't any universally distasteful teams left. It's going to be hard to build up any real disdain for the Colorados, San Joses, Ottawas, or New Jerseys of the hockey world so I can root for their opponents in the conference semis. The matchups should be interesting, and there certainly is some historical significance to what has happened this year in the NHL. The top four seeds in the Western Conference all have tee times as of today. As discussed yesterday, Detroit lost in six games to Edmonton. The second seed, Dallas, lost an excruciating series to Colorado (three OT losses out of five games played). Fourth seed Nashville lost in five games to a clearly superior San Jose team.
And then there's Calgary.
Stupid Flames. I had them in the Finals, but they decided to break out the golf clubs early, failing to even put up a fight in a Game 7 loss to Anaheim.
That leaves the fifth-seeded San Jose Sharks as the top remaining seed in the Western Conference.
Let that sink in for a moment, especially after you consider that the seeds held form in the East, where the top four all advanced quite convincingly (with the possible exception of Carolina, who had some close shaves after losing two straight at home to start their series with Montreal).
I'm going to spare you positional breakdowns and such, because I examined these teams quite closely before the first round (though, in the West, I apparently didn't examine them enough). But here are some quick thoughts on the four series:
Buffalo vs Ottawa --> This is what I expected to see happen, and I picked Buffalo at the start of the playoffs. Nothing I saw in the first round makes me think differently. Ottawa is extremely dangerous, but the Sabres' balance and goaltending are superior. The Senators aren't as strong defensively as Buffalo, either. The Sabres will ride Ryan Miller and the play of all four scoring lines to a win in a great series.
New Jersey vs Carolina --> With the play of Martin Brodeur in the series against New York, combined with Carolina's serious struggles against Montreal, this is the closest I will probably come to changing a previous prediction, something I really don't like doing. But I'm going to stick to my guns. Cam Ward has been great for the Hurricanes in goal after Martin Gerber flamed out, and the 'Canes are getting big goals from their veteran players, along with improved play from their less-experienced guys. If I'm going to be wrong, it's probably going to be on this series, but I think Carolina will win and advance to the conference final.
Colorado vs Anaheim --> Did anyone think Anaheim would end up with home-ice in the conference semifinals? Me, neither. They're a good team, though. I like their speed, and Scott Niedermayer was nothing short of incredible in the Calgary series. The Ducks got great goaltending from Ilya Brzkiginlasdaddygov, who stepped in after Jean-Sebastien Giguere was ineffective in Game 5. Colorado, to a certain extent, was lucky to advance, even though they won in just five games. Three of their wins were in overtime, and they had a couple games in there that they honestly didn't have any business winning. I think the lucky streak will end here, as the Avalanche just don't have the speed or defensive prowess to stay with Anaheim. Ducks win in six games.
Edmonton vs San Jose --> After they shocked Detroit (and did it with some amazing comebacks and bouncebacks), nothing that Edmonton does should be considered a surprise. The Oilers have speed, skill, depth, great goaltending from Dwayne Roloson (whose great play against the Red Wings was a huge, but somewhat forgotten, factor in the series) and an elite defenseman in Chris Pronger, who was on a level with Anaheim's Niedermayer in the first round. Pronger was on the ice in almost every key situation, and he was still able to avoid taking a penalty until Game 6. San Jose, however, is clicking up front. Jonathan Cheechoo, Joe Thornton, and Patrick Marleau will be hard to shut down, and Vesa Toskala had a great series against Nashville. This should be a great series. Edmonton has the speed and skill, and they are also very tenacious. The defense matches up better with the Sharks' top players than Nashville did, and I think Edmonton is better-equipped to cause problems with Toskala than Nashville was. Edmonton gets a second straight upset, this one in seven games.
For those who try to discredit college hockey...The influence that the college game is having on the NHL increases practically every year. This year is the best it's ever been. There are three former Hobey Baker winners still playing, including two (Chris Drury and Ryan Miller) on the Buffalo Sabres (Matt Carle of San Jose is the other). Counting Miller and Drury, who was a two-time finalist before he won the award at Boston University, there are 18 former Hobey finalists still playing. The full list of former finalists:
ANAHEIM – LW Chris Kunitz (2003, Ferris State), C Andy McDonald (2000, Colgate). BUFFALO – G Miller (2002, Michigan State), C Drury (1996, 1997, Boston University), RW Mike Grier (1995, Boston University). COLORADO – D Rob Blake (1990, Bowling Green), C Jim Dowd (1991, Lake Superior State), D John-Michael Liles (2003, Michigan State). EDMONTON – G Ty Conklin (2000, 2001, New Hampshire), C Shawn Horcoff (2000, Michigan State), G Dwayne Roloson (1994, UMass-Lowell). NEW JERSEY – RW Brian Gionta (1999, 2000, 2001, Boston College), C John Madden (1997, Michigan), LW Jay Pandolfo (1996, Boston University), C Zach Parise (2003, 2004, North Dakota). OTTAWA – LW Dany Heatley (2001, Wisconsin), Bryan Smolinski (1993, Michigan State). SAN JOSE – D Tom Preissing (2003, Colorado College).
With great young talents like Travis Zajac, Drew Stafford, Ryan Potulny, Robbie Earl, and Danny Irmen among a ton of college players about to make an impact in the pros, you can look for more lists like the above in future years. More and more highly-touted athletes are making their way into college hockey, and the trend will continue as those players find their way into big-time roles in the NHL.
Two more quick notes on the NHL playoffs so far. I promise I'll stop for now after I mention these two other notes. Through the conference quarterfinals, scoring is up an average of 1.5 goals per game from 2004 (5.9 goals this year, 4.4 goals in 2004). And through the conference quarterfinals, there have been 27 lead changes in games, compared with 10 through the same number of playoff games (44) in 2004.
If you didn't believe that the NHL was serious about opening up the game, or if you were like me and very skeptical about the officials making the same penalty calls in the playoffs that they made in the regular season, you've got some evidence now that the league was indeed serious about the players being allowed to play the game within the rules.
Full credit to Gary Bettman and officiating supervisor Steven Walkom for making sure the officials did their jobs in the playoffs. So far, so good.
Saying "No" to Barry. Give credit to baseball commissioner Bud Selig, who has managed to almost completely distance himself from controversial slugger Barry Bonds without doing anything stupid (i.e. suspending Bonds). Bonds' Giants were in Milwaukee this week, with Bonds just two homers away from tying Babe Ruth for second all-time, and Selig was nowhere to be found. Baseball has also made it clear that they won't celebrate Bonds passing Ruth, and they used the right reason publicly (they don't want to get in the habit of celebrating second place), even if that reason is somewhat bogus.
Suns survive undisciplined stupidity. The Suns beat the Lakers Thursday night to force a Game 7. That came after Raja Bell's warranted one-game suspension for a clothesline on Bryant in Game 5. I'm all for clotheslining Kobe Bryant, but it has to be done in the context of the game. Bell intimated that he was retaliating for some elbows he got from Bryant during the game, but he needs to learn that he's better retaliating when he actually gets hit than he is waiting until the game is basically over to gutlessly throw a random clothesline. It was a silly lack of discipline from Bell, and he's lucky his absence didn't hurt his team. Game 7, which is Saturday, should be a great game.
Larry King wants me to mention these notes. Prince Fielder almost killed Todd Greene on Thursday afternoon in Milwaukee. I hope Greene's okay, but that was a great collision at home plate. Pretty sure you don't want to stand in Prince's way unless you're wearing full body armor... Can't wait for the NCAA Baseball Tournament. I expect that defending national champion Texas will be the best team out of a major conference (the 'Horns have been hot lately after a rough start to their title defense), but look out for Nebraska out of the Big 12. With Joba Chamberlain at the top of the rotation and the bats having come alive even without Alex Gordon, the Cornhuskers are a serious threat. Rice, Cal State Fullerton, and Notre Dame are also very dangerous. Star WR Jeff Samardzija is also a pitcher on the Irish baseball team, and he's developed into one of their top starters. Kentucky has emerged as one of the best teams in the SEC, sitting at 34-11 overall entering this weekend. It should be a great tounament, with no real clear-cut favorite... Follow-up to the World Cup - Team USA will be without defender Frankie Hejduk in the tournament, as he has a bad knee. Chris Albright has been brought up from the list of alternates to the main roster for the tournament, which starts June 9 in Germany.
Time off. I will be taking a long weekend. Any posts between now and Wednesday will be brief, but I'll be back with something that will at least closely resemble a full post on Wednesday.