Who gets Stanley? The NHL Stanley Cup Finals begin tonight in Raleigh, North Carolina, where the Carolina Hurricanes will host the first two games against the Edmonton Oilers. The series starts later on the calendar than usual this year for two reasons: 1) the Olympic break set the NHL back a couple weeks, and since the season didn't start early, and 2) some Sesame Street show was booked at RBC Center in Raleigh over the weekend. And, hilariously, it's not the only potential pre-emption of the Finals due to an arena booking, because Dora the Explorer, a show that already interrupted the Buffalo-Ottawa series in Ottawa, is booked for June 17 at Rexall Place in Edmonton. Apparently, that conflict will get worked out.
As for the hockey, I've broken down both teams before, and won't waste a lot of your time doing it all again. Here are three factors that will sway the series, along with my prediction.
(By the way, I went 6-1 in the East playoffs, missing only the conference finals. I went a more modest 4-3 in the West, where I didn't miss a series after the first round. And of the 14 series, 11 have been won by the team I was rooting for.)
Can Edmonton break the "extra rest leads to failure" trend that we have seen in these playoffs?
There's a side effect to earning a few extra days of rest by winning your series decisively while the other team has to play a six- or seven-game series to move on. Edmonton saw this first-hand, beating a more rested Anaheim team in the conference finals. Anaheim had swept Colorado quite decisively, while Edmonton had to battle through six games to get by San Jose.
Carolina has also seen the effect of extra rest, as they pounded a rusty New Jersey team 6-0 in Game One of the East semifinals, on their way to a five-game series win.
In this series, Edmonton has to deal with the extra rest. They ended their series against Anaheim in just five games, wrapping it up on May 27, and they haven't played since. Carolina, meanwhile, has only three days of rest after their conference final win over Buffalo, which wrapped up on Thursday. That would lead the lay-person to believe that Carolina is set up for a series win here.
The flip side of the argument? The three most prominent examples of a more rested team being more rusty than rested involve New Jersey in the East semis, Colorado in the West semis, and Anaheim in the West final. All three teams were either completely healthy or very close to it, and the rest was just that. Rest. There were no bumps or bruises that needed extra time to heal. There were no illnesses that guys needed time to recover from. Nobody was able to play in their team's next series that wouldn't have been able to play without the long rest.
Edmonton is a different animal. The Oilers had to deal with a nasty flu bug during the conference finals. A number of players were very sick, and a couple guys missed time because of their illnesses, losing significant weight in the process. There were rumblings that the Oilers were using this "flu outbreak" as a way to hide actual injuries suffered by some of the guys on the roster.
Either way, it could be argued that Edmonton will benefit from the rest, because it allows them to get healthy. They traveled East late last week, which was a smart move, because it allowed them to get acclimated to the heat and humidity they'll experience outside, and it allowed them to get away from the frenzied atmosphere of Edmonton. The Oilers have question marks, though, as a result of the rest. Can they get back to the frantic pace they were playing at on both ends of the ice? Can Dwayne Roloson stay sharp in goal?
We'll start getting answers later this evening.
Does Carolina have anything remotely resembling an answer for Chris Pronger?
Pronger is teetering on the edge of Conn Smythe contention entering this series, and the favorable matchup that awaits may push him up many voters' lists. I have nothing against Carolina's players. They have smart defensive forwards up front, and their defensive corps is a quick group that can really move the puck. But they don't have an answer for Pronger's physical play, puck-handling, or power-play prowess.
Pronger is guaranteed to be on the ice for upwards of 31 minutes a game as long as he's healthy. And he is healthy, by the way. He'll probably be matched up a lot with Eric Stall, and after seeing what Pronger has done to Teemu Selanne and Joe Thornton in the past two series, this is probably not a favorable matchup for the Hurricanes.
Will the goaltending battle go to the grizzled veteran or the relatively unknown rookie?
Cam Ward: 22.
Dwayne Roloson: 36.
Two first-time finalist netminders and two guys who no one could have figured would be where they are now. Ward entered the playoffs as the backup to Martin Gerber, who had a strong Olympics and looked poised to lead his team on a long run in the postseason before he fell apart in the conference quarterfinals against Montreal. Roloson is the starter for the eighth seed in the West, a team that was dismissed as a contender by most before the playoffs even started. Yet Roloson has posted a .931 save percentage in the postseason, and Ward has a 2.07 goals against average.
Neither goaltender has any obvious weaknesses, but Edmonton's defense has done a much better job of keeping pressure off their goaltender than Carolina's has. The Oilers may allow more shots, but it seems like, in most games, the Oilers have more quality scoring chances than their opponent. That's a huge advantage for Edmonton.
I'm riding the underdog train. I have nothing against Carolina. (I'm not one of these snobs who thinks that St. Louis is almost too far south to be playing NHL hockey. And I don't hate the Hurricanes for moving out of little ol' Hartford, either.) But I'm rooting for Edmonton, and I think the Oilers will ride Roloson to another win. This one comes in six games, and it will set off quite a celebration on Whyte Avenue.
By the way, one last plea here to NBC. Please air the singing of the national anthems in Edmonton before Game 3 on Saturday. I don't want to be forced to listen to it in CHED out of Edmonton again because you guys are too lazy to reconfigure your pregame format to show it to us live.
This week...World Cup stuff starting tomorrow. More baseball all week. More hockey all week. And I might even preview the NBA Finals, which start Thursday night.