TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING-CALGARY FLAMES.
COACHING: This is the first trip to the big dance for both the Lightning's John Tortorella and the Flames Daryl Sutter. Both men have done an outstanding job to get their teams to the Finals. Both can be demanding taskmasters, but Sutter seems to play it cooler than "Torts", and that might prove crucial in the pressure cooker that is the Stanley Cup Finals. ADVANTAGE: FLAMES.
GOALTENDING: Both clubs wouldn't be where they are now without the rock-solid netminding of their respective goalies. Calgary's Miikka Kiprusoff (12 wins, 1.90 GAA, .930 SP, 4 SO) and Tampa Bay's Nikolai Khabibulin (12 wins, 1.65 GAA, .939 SP, 40 SO) have stood tall when their teams have needed them most, and there's no reason to believe either man will falter now. Statistically, Khabibulin has a slight edge in GAA and SP, but the way both "the 'Bulin Wall" and "Kipper" have played, it's quibbling at this point. ADVANTAGE: NONE.
DEFENCE: The blueline corps of both clubs were considered non-descript heading into the post-season, but they've shown steady improvement as their clubs marched their way to the Finals. The Lightning's defence is led by the steady play of Dan Boyle, Brad Lukowich and Pavel Kubina, but it's been the play of the Flames defence, led by rising young stars Robyn Regehr and Jordan Leopold, that has garnered the most attention. Shutting down three division champions enroute to the Finals is no small feat and that gives the young Flames an edge. ADVANTAGE: FLAMES.
OFFENCE: The Flames playoff run has been fuelled by three main forwards: team captain Jarome Iginla and linemates Craig Conroy and Martin Gelinas, who've been on the ice for the timely goals that paved the way to their unlikely Cup Finals appearance. But as good as they've been, the Bolts offence has been better. Core forwards Martin St. Louis, Brad Richards, Vincent Lecavalier, Fredrik Modin, Cory Stillman and Ruslan Fedotenko have been outstanding for the Lightning and gives their club an edge in scoring depth over the Flames, one that could tilt the series in their favour if Calgary's defence fails to contain them. ADVANTAGE: LIGHTNING.
INTANGIBLES: The Lighting have a better winning percentage, scored more goals per game, gave up fewer goals per game, and possess better powerplay and penalty killing stats than the Flames. So it would seem that the Bolts should win this one handily, however, those stats are somewhat misleading. The Lightning faced lesser talented clubs (NY Islanders and Montreal Canadiens) in the first two rounds, compared with the Flames opposition (Vancouver Canucks and Detroit Red Wings). It's important to note than the Lightning struggled to put away an aging, banged-up Philadelphia Flyers team in seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals, while the Flames defeated their mirror image in the San Jose Sharks in six games. The Lightning also haven't faced a team like the Flames, who can not only match them in goaltending and skating but are probably the most physical club they will face in these playoffs. The Isles and Habs were by comparison physical creampuffs, and while the Flyers certainly played a strong physical game, most of their core players struggled to match the Lightning's speed. The Bolts will have the additional inspiration of popular and respected team captain Dave Andreychuk, but the Flames have the knowledge that they beat three division champs to get to this point. They know they're not supposed to win and thus have nothing to lose. Having spent several days recently in Calgary, I got the sense the Flames are a loosey-goosey bunch. They've rallied several times in this year's playoffs when it seemed their luck was about to run out, something else the Lightning haven't had much experience with in this year's post-season.
KEYS TO THE SERIES:
The Lightning can win it all if:
- Khabibulin outplays Kiprusoff
- They can shut down the Iginla line.
- They can jump to a 2-0 series lead. The Flames have rallied from one-game deficits but they've yet to show if they can rally after being down by two games in this year's playoffs.
- They can stymie or at least match the Flames physical play.
- Tortorella keeps his cool.
The Flames can win it all if:
- Kiprusoff outplays Khabibulin.
- The Flames blueline corps can shut down the Bolts top forwards.
- Iginla has another strong series.
- They punish the Lightning with their physical play.
- Other Flames forwards step up to take pressure off the Iginla line.
PREDICTION: As the top regular season team in the Eastern Conference and based on their play in this year's post-season, the Lightning aren't a fluke. They deserve to be here and will be Cup contenders for several years to come. But as I noted earlier, the Bolts faced lesser competition in the first two rounds than the Flames did, and have yet to face a team that plays the fast-paced physical style of the Flames. In the end, I believe that will make the difference in this series and should tip it in favour of the boys from the Stampede City. FLAMES WIN THE STANLEY CUP IN SIX GAMES.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING - PHILADELPHIA FLYERS.
Coaching: This is virgin country for the Bolts John Tortorella, who's making his first trip as a head coach in the Conference Finals. For the Flyers Ken Hitchcock, this too is his first trip to the Conference finals...in the East. He's been to three Western Conference Finals during his days with the Dallas Stars. ADVANTAGE: FLYERS.
Goaltending: The Flyers Robert Esche and the Lightning's Nikolai Khabibulin will be experienced Conference Finals pressure for the first time. Esche has given his club steady, reliable goaltending, but Khabibulin has been outstanding thus far, particularly against the Montreal Canadiens in the second round. ADVANTAGE: LIGHTNING.
Defence: The Lightning's blueline corps hasn't received much credit for their work in this year's playoffs. They may be unspectacular but they've done a very good job thus far and the Flyers forwards could have their hands full getting scoring chances. The Flyers, however, appear to have a better balance in terms of good young blueliners and experienced veterans. They did a very good job containing the Devils and Maple Leafs offensive lines. ADVANTAGE: FLYERS.
Offence: The Flyers are loaded with experienced "name talent like Roenick, Primeau, LeClair and Amonte, plus some good young forwards in Simon Gagne and Michal Handzus. Most have been here before and knows what it takes to go all the way. That being said, they're squaring off against one of the fastest forward corps in the league, spearheaded by guys like St. Louis, Lecavalier, Richards, Modin and the returning Cory Stillman. The Flyers haven't had to face the speed that the Bolts can bring in this year's post-season and that should work to the Lightning's favour: ADVANTAGE: LIGHTNING.
Intangibles: It's the classic matchup of age and experience versus youth and speed. In the regular season the Lightning won all four matchups, but the Flyers will play a much more physical game this time around. The Bolts didn't really encounter that much physical play in their previous two rounds so it'll be interesting to see how they adjust to the Flyers physical play. As for the Flyers, they'll be well-advised not to go into a defensive shell when taking a lead against the Lightning. This club's speed and tenacious forechecking (even when on the penalty kill) is deadly against any club that sits on a lead, as the Montreal Canadiens found out the hard way in Round Two. If Khabibulin continues to play as well as he did in the first two rounds, and Lecavalier and Richards carry over their scoring exploits from the previous series, it should tilt in favour of the Bolts. PREDICTION: LIGHTNING IN SIX.
CALGARY FLAMES-SAN JOSE SHARKS.
Coaching: This is San Jose's Ron Wilson's third time in Conference Finals action dating back to his late-90s tenure with the Washington Capitals, while it's the first go-around as a coach for Calgary's Daryl Sutter. That being said, both clubs are evenly matched in terms of the coaching styles and the systems they play. ADVANTAGE: NONE.
Goaltending: The Flames Miikka Kiprusoff is perhaps the main reason his club has gone as far as it had thus far. He was outstanding against the Canucks and Red Wings. The same can be said of the Sharks Evgeny Nabokov, who was unflappable against the Blues and Avalanche. This could be shaping up to be a classic goaltender's duel between these former teammates. It's the first time in Conference finals action for both men. ADVANTAGE: NONE.
Defence: The Flames younger blueliners, notably Leopold, Regehr, Commodore and Montador, have risen to the ocassion as their experienced mates were sidelined with injury. So too have the Sharks young defencemen, who's oldest member, Mik Rathje, turns 30 later this month. Both defence corps play the similar hard-hitting, hard-working style. ADVANTAGE: NONE.
Forwards: The Sharks are a good mix of experienced talent (Damphousse, Ricci, Brown) and rising youth (Marleau, Cheechoo, McCauley, Dimitrakos). The same can be said of the Flames, who mix experience (Conroy, Gelinas, Simon) and youth (Iginla, Lombardi, Nilson) into what's also been a winning combination. ADVANTAGE: NONE.
Intangibles: What can I say, these clubs are very evenly matched. Even their season series was a draw (2-2)! This series could very well be, in the words of the late, great Flames and Stampede Wrestling broadcaster Ed Whelan, "a ring-a-ding-dong dandy!". I'll be very surprised if it doesn't go the full seven games and it could be perhaps the most entertaining series of the playoffs. It could likely go either way. That being said, however, I believe there are a couple of things that could tilt this in favour of the Flames. First, they're getting some of their injured players (Simon, Denis Gauthier) back, which'll bolster their depth, and I believe Sutter and Kiprusoff will be especially motivated to burn the team that dumped them. PREDICTION: FLAMES IN SEVEN.
Spector's Note: Seems there are a few people who are upset with my second round predictions. So as a gentle reminder, here's the disclaimer I posted when I made my first round predictions:
These predictions are just that: predictions. This isn't an exact science, gang. I'm merely making an opinion, based on the available info about each of these teams and that little thing called "a gut feeling".
The wonderful thing about playoff hockey is that one never really knows how certain intangibles can effect a series. One team can on paper look superior to another, but as the Anaheim Mighty Ducks proved in the first two rounds of the 2003 playoffs, what happens on paper and what happens on the ice are two completely different things.
Sometimes we "experts" are right and sometimes, like last year, we're badly wrong. If you agree with me, fine, but if you don't that's fine too. They're just opinions, and I'll respect differing ones, as long as I'm spared the insulting profanity-laced taunting e-mails if you happen to guess right and I guess wrong.
Remember, as the great Toe Blake once said, "Predictions are for gypsies"!
Keep that in mind, and have fun!
PHILADELPHIA FLYERS-TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS.
Coaching: Philadelphia's Ken Hitchcock and Toronto's Pat Quinn matched lines and wits last spring with Hitchcock coming out on top in a hard-fought seven game series. Don't expect them to deviate from their game plans in the rematch. ADVANTAGE: NONE.
Goaltending: If not for Eddie Belfour, the Maple Leafs would've been easily beaten by the Ottawa Senators. He was clearly the difference in that series and is on top of his game right now. Flyers netminder Robert Esche had a very good series against the Devils in the first round but has limited experience compared to "Eddie the Eagle". ADVANTAGE: MAPLE LEAFS.
Defence: The Leafs blueline corps was once again bailed out by their goaltender in post-season action, although they did play better in the final two games against the Senators. The Flyers have a much deeper defence but they're missing Eric Desjardins who's out for the season with injury and have Kim Johnsson playing with a hand injury. Regardless, they'll extract a tough physical price from the Leafs forwards. ADVANTAGE: FLYERS.
Offence: This is where both clubs match up well. They hammered away at each other last season and will likely carry over the bad blood into this series. The Flyers forwards are healthy and rested, while the Leafs should be bolstered by the return from injury of Mats Sundin and Owen Nolan. Both teams have veteran leadership and depth on all lines. Look for Toronto's Darcy Tucker and Philadelphia's Jeremy Roenick to renew their hardhitting acquaintance. ADVANTAGE: NONE.
Intangibles:The Flyers won the season series 3-1. If you love tough, hard-hitting playoff hockey, expect this series to be one of the most exciting of the playoffs. Whichever club plays the better defensive game and stays the healthiest will emerge the victor. Given the additional days of rest the Flyers have had and their defensive depth, they should be that victor, although the Leafs seem to get tougher when they're wounded. PREDICTION: FLYERS IN SIX.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING-MONTREAL CANADIENS.
Coaching: Montreal's Claude Julien did a masterful job of quietly rallying his players from a 1-3 series deficit to upset the Boston Bruins in seven games. Tampa Bay's John Tortorella is more outspoken about his players weaknesses but they do seem to respond to his criticisms. This is Tortorella's second trip to the Conference semi-finals, Julien's first. ADVANTAGE: NONE.
Goaltending: Tampa Bay's Nikolai Khabibulin chalked up three shutout wins in the first round against the NY Islanders. Montreal's Jose Theodore started slowly against the Bruins but was a rock for his Habs in the final three games of that series. Khabibulin wasn't tested as severely in the first round as Theodore, who has proven in the past that he can steal a series. ADVANTAGE: CANADIENS.
Defence: The Lightning's blueline corps did a very good job of shutting down the NY Islanders throughout most of their series. The Canadiens defence played well against the Bruins but appeared to have trouble against the Bruins speedy second line. Both blueline corps will be tested by the speed of their respective opponents forward lines. ADVANTAGE: NONE.
Offence: The Canadiens small, speedy forwards took advantage of the plodding Bruins defenders, led by their veteran first line of Kovalev, Richard Zednik and team captain Saku Koivu. The Lightning, spurred by Ross winner Martin St. Louis. Brad Richards and Fredrik Modin, match the Habs speed and could be tax the Canadiens blueline corps. Montreal's Michael Ryder and Tampa Bay's Vincent Lecavalier were fairly quiet in the first round and both could bust out in this series. ADVANTAGE: LIGHTNING.
Intangibles: These clubs match up very well, as their season series record (2-2) clearly indicates. The Bolts are hoping defenceman Jassen Cullimore and forward Cory Stillman will return from injury for this series. If the Habs shut down St. Louis and Modin (no easy task) the Lightning will need offence from Lecavalier, who's yet to step up as a consistent post-season scorer. The Lightning must shut down the Koivu line but could risk opening up ice for the Ribeiro line, which was the Habs top scoring line this season. Goaltending could well become the determining factor in this one. Khabibulin has now won two playoff series but still must prove to his critics and the Lightning that he can carry them deeper into the playoffs. Theodore as noted earlier can carry his team through a series if needed. This s promises to be an exciting, fast-paced tilt. PREDICTION: CANADIENS IN SEVEN.
DETROIT RED WINGS-CALGARY FLAMES.
Coaching: Detroit's Dave Lewis is still facing questions about his ability as head coach of this veteran club, but still deserves credit for motivating his troops to overcome a plucky Nashville Predators team in the first round. Calgary's Daryl Sutter has years of post-season coaching experience and will draw on that experience to motivate his young, hungry Flames. ADVANTAGE: FLAMES.
Goaltending: Calgary Miikka Kiprusoff carried over his strong regular season play into the postseason where he was one of the key reasons for the Flames upset of the Vancouver Canucks in the first round. Detroit started with Manny Legace but went back to veteran Curtis Joseph for the series clinching victories against the Predators. "CuJo" has years of playoff experience but still faces questions about his ability to win the big ones, while "Kipper" appears as unflappable as his teammates. ADVANTAGE: NONE.
Defence: The Red Wings have a star-studded veteran blueline corps but they also seemed at times to struggle against their younger, faster opponents from Nashville. The Flames young blueline corps, particularly Jordan Leopold and Robyn Regehr, played very well against the Canucks in their first-ever playoff experience. This will be an interesting test of youth versus experience. ADVANTAGE: NONE.
Offence: The Flames top two forwards, Jarome Iginla and Craig Conroy, were key factors in their clubs first round victory, and the entire forward corps played a very strong two-way game against the Canucks. The Red Wings are loaded with veteran star talent, but like their defensemen seemed to struggle at times in the Nashville series. Still, their experience and depth will make it tough for the Flames to contain. ADVANTAGE: RED WINGS.
Intangibles: The Red Wings won the season series 3-1. Comparing the name talent of the Wings against the young workhorses of the Flames this series appears a mismatch, but as previously noted, the Wings struggled against the upstart Predators leading to suggestions age may finally be catching up to them. While the Wings must be respected, the fast-skating, hard-working, hard-hitting Flames will be a stiff test for the veteran club. Detroit must get to Kiprusoff and shut down the Iginla line, and they'll be looking to Joseph to give them top-flight goaltending. Most importantly, they must get their offensive game in gear early and often, something that was lacking against the Predators. The Flames will have their hands full against the Wings, but if they stick to their system and continue to get outstanding goaltending, they'll be in good shape. As with the Lightning-Canadiens series, this one could come down to the goaltending. This series has the potential to be an upset. PREDICTION: FLAMES IN SIX.
COLORADO AVALANCHE-SAN JOSE SHARKS.
Coaching: Colorado's Tony Granato silenced his critics by coaching his Avs to victory over the Dallas Stars. This'll be his first trip to the conference semis. Sharks head coach Ron Wilson has been several times and his experience, combined with his young team buying into his system, could be a key factor in this series. ADVANTAGE: SHARKS.
Goaltending: San Jose's Evgeny Nabokov was brilliant against the St. Louis Blues and will need to carry that brilliance over against the Avs offence. Colorado's David Aebischer has dispelled the opinion that he's not capable of carrying the Avs as their starting goalie, playing well in defeating the Stars. Nabokov does have an edge due to experience. ADVANTAGE: SHARKS.
Defence: The Sharks blueline corps is younger than their Avalanche counterparts but they've played Wilson's defensive system very well. They'll need to be in top form against the Avalanche's scoring depth. The Avs possess a strong veteran corps, led by Rob Blake and Adam Foote, who were instrumental in shutting down the Stars scorers in round one. ADVANTAGE: AVALANCHE.
Offence: Colorado's forward lines are deep in experience offence, led by a healthy Peter Forsberg and Joe Sakic. They've been here many times before and know what it takes to win. The Sharks have younger, hard-working forwards and they do have some veteran leadership in Vincent Damphousse and Mike Ricci, but they'll have their hands full against Colorado's seasoned veterans. ADVANTAGE: AVALANCHE.
Before we begin, it's disclaimer time. These predictions are just that: predictions. This isn't an exact science, gang. I'm merely making an opinion, based on the available info about each of these teams and that little thing called "a gut feeling".
The wonderful thing about playoff hockey is that one never really knows how certain intangibles can effect a series. One team can on paper look superior to another, but as the Anaheim Mighty Ducks proved in the first two rounds of the 2003 playoffs, what happens on paper and what happens on the ice are two completely different things.
Sometimes we "experts" are right and sometimes, like last year, we're badly wrong. If you agree with me, fine, but if you don't that's fine too. They're just opinions, and I'll respect differing ones, as long as I'm spared the insulting profanity-laced taunting e-mails if you happen to guess right and I guessed wrong.
Remember, as the great Toe Blake once said, "Predictions are for gypsies"!
Keep that in mind, and have fun!
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING-NY ISLANDERS.
Coaching: Bolts bench boss John Tortorella is making his second straight appearance in the post-season, while Isles coach Steve Stirling is making his first. Both coaches have had to deal with controversy this season, but "Torts" had been able to get the most out of his squad. ADVANTAGE: LIGHTNING.
Goaltending: Islanders netminder Rick DiPietro has finally begun blossoming into a quality starter, although he's still capable of inconsistent play and tends to wander too much to play the puck. Veteran Garth Snow has plenty of postseason experience and can fill in if DiPietro struggles. Bolts goalie Nikolai Khabibulin has been inconsistent throughout the season and in previous playoffs but may have something to prove this season. Backup John Grahame has proven more than capable to step up if "the 'Bulin Wall" crumbles. ADVANTAGE: NONE.
Defence: The Lightning blueline got a huge boost this season from the improving Pavel Kubina and the addition of veteran Daryl Sydor, while Dan Boyle remains one of the most underrated defenders in the game. The Isles, however, counter with more experienced depth in Adrian Aucoin, Roman Hamrlik, Janne Niinimaa and Kenny Jonsson. ADVANTAGE: ISLANDERS.
Offence: The Isles forwards have been inconsistent this season. Their three leading scorers - Alexei Yashin, Oleg Kvasha and Mariusz Czerkawski - have weak playoff records, which could cost the Islanders if that trend continues. The Lightning counter with one of the most explosive offensive attacks in the league. Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards and Fredrik Modin will be hungry to improve their playoff records, but Ross winner and Hart contender Martin St. Louis proved last season he was a clutch postseason performer. ADVANTAGE: LIGHTNING.
Intangibles: Goaltending is always the key factor in every playoff series, but an important factor in this series will be how well the Isles defence can shut down the Bolts offence. The Islanders won three of four against the Lightning this season, including two convincing wins in March. If this trend carries over into the playoff, the Bolts could be in trouble. Even though the Lightning have the advantage in two of the above four categories, the Isles were hot down the stretch and the Lightning uneven. While I like the Bolts and feel they've got a great future, I smell an upset in the making here. PREDICTION: ISLANDERS IN SEVEN.
BOSTON BRUINS-MONTREAL CANADIENS.
Coaching: This is the first kick at the post-season cat for both Boston's Mike Sullivan and Montreal's Claude Julien. Both have done a tremendous job with their respective clubs this season and this'll be a good test for both men. ADVANTAGE: NONE.
Goaltending: Bruins rookie Andrew Raycroft has given his club superb goaltending this season and has some experts touting him for the Calder Trophy. However, this is his first time experiencing playoff pressure. Montreal's Jose Theodore, on the other hand, is a former Hart and Vezina winner who single-handedly stole the 2002 series the last time these two clubs met. If Theodore ratchets up his game again, the Habs stand a great chance. ADVANTAGE: CANADIENS
Defence: Both clubs made significant improvement with their respective bluelines this season. The Bruins strong finish was due in part to late-season acquisition Sergei Gonchar, while the Canadiens Sheldon Souray was considered a Norris candidate before a knee injury sidelined him for several weeks. Boston's young Nick Boynton has shown much improvement this season, while Montreal's Andrei Markov ably filled in for Souray in his absence. The Bruins "D" is still considered big but slow and Montreal's still considered small but fast. ADVANTAGE: NONE.
Offence: The Canadiens offence is much deeper thanks to the rise this season of Mike Ribeiro and rookie sensation Michael Ryder, who helped share the offensive load with Saku Koivu and Richard Zednik. The Bruins, however, countered with perennial 30-goal man Glen Murray, the always-dangerous Sergei Samsonov and the late-season addition of Michael Nylander. If they can get superstar Joe Thornton back from injury for this series, they'll be much more lethal. ADVANTAGE: BRUINS.
Intangibles: This series will come down to two factors: goaltending and offence. If the Bruins can shut down the Canadiens attack, get Thornton back healthy and Raycroft matches or out-plays Theodore, the series is theirs. But if Theodore repeats his 2002 first round heroics, Raycroft struggles under the playoff heat, the Habs speedy offence takes advantage of the slow-footed B's blueline and the Bruins struggle without Thornton, it'll tilt in the Canadiens favour. The Bruins edged the Habs in the season series 3-2-1 and every games was very close. Expect another tough, entertaining battle between these long-time rivals. PREDICTION: BRUINS IN SEVEN.
PHILADELPHIA FLYERS-NEW JERSEY DEVILS:
Coaching: A classic matchup between two coaches with similiar styles and success. The Flyers Ken Hitchcock and the Devils Pat Burns won Stanley Cups because of their adherence to the defensive game and at this time of year, defence wins. It'll be interesting to watch these two strong-willed coaches match wits. ADVANTAGE: NONE.
Goaltending: The Flyers face yet another post-season with questions about their goaltending. Robert Esche has struggled of late while Sean Burke still hasn't won a playoff series since 1988. As for the Devils, they've got the best goalie in the league right now and the reigning playoff clutch performer in Martin Brodeur. ADVANTAGE: DEVILS.
Defence: The Devils are renowned for their stingy blueline corps, but some of the lustre has gone off it of late. They'd love to get captain Scott Stevens back from concussion but that's not going to happen. Still, with notables like Scott Niedermayer, Brian Rafalski and Colin White, the Devils defence remains very tough to play against. The Flyers are icing one of their deepest bluelines in years, consisting of Kim Johnsson, returning veteran Eric Desjardins, hard-rock Danny Markov and rookie sensation Joni Pitkanen. Still, the Devils key blueliners have been together longer and have a more proven track record: ADVANTAGE: DEVILS.
Offence: The Flyers head into this matchup with one of the deepest forward lines in the league. In Mark Recchi, Jeremy Roenick, Keith Primeau, Simon Gagne, John LeClair and Tony Amonte, they've got a veteran core with plenty of playoff experience who can play both ends of the ice well. The Devils have one of the most dangerous one-two offensive punches in Patrik Elias and Scott Gomez, and their forwards all play the defensive game well, but they lack serious offensive punch beyond the first line and there are concerns about their lack of depth at centre: ADVANTAGE: FLYERS.
Intangibles: For all the depth on the Flyers roster, injuries have kept them from truly dominating the Eastern Conference this season. The Devils aren't the same team without Scott Stevens, but they did have a strong finish to the season. They also proved last season that lack of offence means nothing when you've got strong goaltending and defence. In the end, that could make all the difference. The Flyers beat the Devils in four of their six matchups this season but I've got a feeling the Devils are on a roll going into this series. PREDICTION: DEVILS IN SIX.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS-OTTAWA SENATORS:
Coaching: The Leafs Pat Quinn and the Senator Jacques Martin once again join battle for the fourth time in five years, with Quinn's Leafs have beaten Martin's Senators each time heading into this one. Martin may be due but the wily Quinn will once again do whatever he can to motivate his charges to throw the Sens off their game. ADVANTAGE: MAPLE LEAFS.
Goaltending: The Senators until this season were able to rely on Patrick Lalime, but he's struggled at various times throughout this year's campaign. They hope to have him back from a late-season knee strain for this matchup, but they're probably more concerned over his mental state than his knee. As for the Maple Leafs, crusty veteran Ed Belfour seems to have shrugged off his back problems, playing very well down the stretch. A healthy "Eagle" gives the Leafs a big edge. ADVANTAGE: MAPLE LEAFS.
Defence: The Maple Leafs got a huge boost when they obtained Brian Leetch before the trade deadline, bringing in the kind of superstar defenceman they've been lacking for over twenty years. Bryan McCabe has improved this season, and a healthy Ken Klee would also improve their blueline, but Tomas Kaberle has really struggled of late. As for the Sens, they still possess one of the best bluelines in the game, anchored by their "big four" of Wade Redden, Zdeno Chara, Chris Phillips and recently acquired Greg de Vries. Forget about the Leafs blowing out the Sens in their final regular season matchup, because the Sens will be much tougher in the post-season. ADVANTAGE: SENATORS.
Offence: This will be a great matchup . The Senators have serious firepower with Daniel Alfredsson, Marian Hossa, Martin Havlat, Jason Spezza, and Peter Bondra, while the Maple Leafs counter with Mats Sundin, Alexander Mogilny, Joe Nieuwendyk, Gary Roberts and Ron Francis. The Sens are younger and faster, but the Leafs are tougher and more experienced. ADVANTAGE: NONE.
Intangibles: Leafs fans used to brag that the Sens were pussies, but they'd be foolish to make that statement now. The Senators are just as capable of playing it mean and nasty now as the Maple Leafs. Still, the Leafs have the psychological advantage over their provincial rivals having beaten them in every post-season meeting since 2000, as well as the fact they took four of six games this season. The Senators must also be concerned over the status of their goaltending. This latest Battle of Ontario could be the best one yet, but if it comes down to goaltending, the Leafs will emerge victorious once again. PREDICTION: MAPLE LEAFS IN SEVEN.
DETROIT RED WINGS-NASHVILLE PREDATORS:
Coaching: Barry Trotz has been with the Preds from the beginning and this club is very loyal to him. However, it's his first time coaching in the playoffs and he'll have his hands full against Dave Lewis' Red Wings. Lewis has years of experience at all levels of coaching in the NHL playoffs, plus he won't allow his charges to be upset in the first round two years running. ADVANTAGE: RED WINGS.
Goaltending: Backup Manny Legace has done an outstanding job filling in for the injured Curtis Joseph and will likely get the start to begin the postseason. He has limited experience in post-season action, marginally more than Predators netminder Tomas Vokoun, who struggled at times down the stretch but was the main reason why the Preds are in their first-ever postseason. ADVANTAGE: NONE.
Defence: The Predators have played a trapping team style since their inception. Marek Zidlicky gives them valuable offence from the blueline. However, the young Preds are no match in depth compared to the Red Wings, who boast loads of experienced talent, led by Norris and Smythe winner Nicklas Lidstrom. ADVANTAGE: RED WINGS.
Offence: The Red Wings are loaded with firepower, notably Robert Lang, Brett Hull, Pavel Datysuk, Brendan Shanahan and the aging but still effective Steve Yzerman. The Preds got some much-needed scoring depth before the deadline in Steve Sullivan and Sergei Zholtok to compliment Scott Walker, but they're no match for what the Wings will throw at them. ADVANTAGE: RED WINGS.
Intangibles: No offence to the Predators and their fans, and the season split between the two clubs is duly noted, but Nashville is in way over their heads here. There's no question they'll give their best and won't go quietly, but this is perhaps the mis-match of the 2004 playoffs. Preds supporters may be hoping their club can make like last year's Mighty Ducks and upset the powerhouse Wings, but that is highly unlikely, even if Vokoun should turn into a stone wall like JS Giguere did for the Ducks last season. The Wings won't be upset twice. PREDICTION: RED WINGS IN FOUR.
SAN JOSE SHARKS-ST. LOUIS BLUES.
Coaching: Mike Kitchen has experience as an assistant but this will be his first time running the show in the playoffs. The Blues have responded well to him since he replaced the fired Joel Quenneville, but the Sharks have the experience of Ron Wilson going for them. He's done a tremendous job and was a big reason why the Sharks rebounded from a disappointing 2002-03 season. ADVANTAGE: SHARKS.
Goaltending: Evgeny Nabokov played well this season but he has an inconsistent post-season record. Backup Vesa Toskala has terrific stats but has never played in the post-season. Blues netminder Chris Osgood has years of experience and won two Cups with the Red Wings, but inconsistency continues to dog him. Like Toskala, Blues backup Reinhard Divis lacks playoff experienced: ADVANTAGE: NONE.
Defence: If the Blues could get Al MacInnis and Barrett Jackman back to join Chris Pronger on their blueline, they'd get the nod over the Sharks in this category. Unfortunately for the Blues, that won't happen, and the Sharks will key on Pronger every chance they get. San Jose counters with a healthy young defence corps, powered by Brad Stuart, Kyle McLaren and Scott Hannan, who'll make life difficult for Blues forwards. ADVANTAGE: SHARKS.
Forwards: The Sharks have a good mix of rising talent (Patrick Marleau, Nils Ekman, Jonathan Cheechoo and Alyn McCauley) and aging but still effective veterans (Vincent Damphousse,Scott Thornton, Mike Ricci) giving them plenty of depth. The Blues have lethal firepower in Keith Tkachuk, Doug Weight and Pavol Demitra, and the additions of Brian Savage and Mike Sillinger have helped. Still, there remains concerns about their overall offensive depth beyond the first line. ADVANTAGE: SHARKS.
Intangibles: The season series between these two was split 2-2. The Blues have plenty of playoff experience which still makes them dangerous if the Sharks make the mistake of taking them lightly. However, I don't believe that'll be the case. There must be concern over the lack of depth on their blueline and up front. The Sharks have made tremendous strides this season and are a confident bunch. They are younger, faster and hungrier and in the end that will probably make all the difference. PREDICTION: SHARKS IN SIX.
VANCOUVER CANUCKS-CALGARY FLAMES:
Coaching: Vancouver's Marc Crawford has a Cup championship on his resume and once again done a tremendous job with the the Canucks. However, that championship was with the Avalanche eight years ago and he hasn't come close since. Calgary's Daryl Sutter has years of playoff experience under his belt and has done equally as well in coaching the Flames as Crawford with Vancouver. ADVANTAGE: NONE.
Goaltending: Calgary's Miikka Kiprusoff was outstanding between the pipes and has some suggesting he be nominated for the Hart Trophy. However, he has limited playoff experience and it'll be interesting to see how he handles the pressure in hockey-mad Calgary. It's Vancouver's Dan Cloutier, however, who'll face the most pressure. He must step up this season to answer his critics and prove to the Canucks front office that he's the guy to carry them to playoff success. ADVANTAGE: NONE.
Defence: The Canucks boast one of the deepest blueline corps in the game, anchored by Ed Jovonovski, Brent Sopel , Mattias Ohlund, Sami Salo and Marek Malik. They also love to join the rush, adding to Vancouver's offensive attack. The Flames have a promising defence, consisting of Jordan Leopold, Toni Lydman, Denis Gauthier, Robyn Regehr and Rhett Warrener, but for all but Warrener it'll be their first ever playoff experience and that could be a factor as this series progresses. ADVANTAGE: CANUCKS.
Offence: The Flames have a lethal first line featuring the always dangerous Jarome Iginla and his set-up man Craig Conroy, and Shean Donovan has emerged as a promising scorer in this own right. Unfortunately, their offensive depth drops sharply after these guys, and if the Canucks shut down the Iginla line, the Flames could be in trouble. Canucks captain Marcus Naslund is still hampered by injury and they don't have big Todd Bertuzzi to create havoc, but the emergence this year of the Sedin twins, the presence of reliable centre Brendan Morrison and the late-season additions of Martin Rucinsky and Geoff Sanderson gives the Canucks valuable scoring depth. ADVANTAGE: CANUCKS.
Intangibles: On paper, the Canucks seem to have the clear advantage from the blueline out, and with their strong play in their final regular season games seemingly put the ugly Bertuzzi incident behind them. The Canucks also had the edge in their regular season series 3-2-1. Still, they go into this year's playoffs facing serious questions about Naslund's health and Cloutier's goaltending. What's more, the Minnesota Wild last year proved a team with strong goaltending and defence can shut down the vaunted Canucks offensive attack, so we can expect Sutter will be counting on Kiprusoff's goaltending and his tight defensive system to do the same thing this spring. Expect this battle to go to the wire just like the last time these two clubs meet in 1994, but the results could be different. PREDICTION: FLAMES IN SEVEN.
COLORADO AVALANCHE-DALLAS STARS.
Coaching: Both Colorado's Tony Granato and Dalla's Dave Tippett faced criticism at various times this season for their coaching style. Fortunately for Tippett, his came earlier in the season and has been largely forgotten by his club's strong second half. It's the second time around for both men coaching in the post-season, but Tippett has the slight edge based on his first round victory over Edmonton last year. ADVANTAGE: STARS.
Goaltending: Colorado's David Aebischer played splendidly this season for the Avs, effectively putting to rest the notion he couldn't carry the club as their starting goalie throughout a regular season. But he has limited playoff experience and that's going to be a question mark heading into this season. Dallas' Marty Turco rallied from a slow start to again post strong regular season numbers, but his playoff experience is only marginally better than Aebischer's. Still, Turco is going into this on a roll and is considered one of the top goalies in the league, which gives him an edge over Aebischer. ADVANTAGE: STARS.
Defence: Once the hallmark of the Stars, their blueline slumped somewhat this season with the loss of Derian Hatcher to free agency. The rash of injuries to key veterans at various times hasn't helped matters either, but they're still tough to play against and shouldn't be taken lightly. Neither should the Avs, who still have reliable veterans Rob Blake and Adam Foote, but the overall play of their blueline wasn't much better. ADVANTAGE: NONE.
Offence: Dallas remains deep in veteran scoring talent, led by Bill Guerin, Jason Arnott, Valeri Bure, and Brendan Morrow, but captain Mike Modano struggled this season due to off-ice distractions. The Avs counter with lethal firepower in Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, and Milan Hejduk, but Alex Tanguay is out with an injury while Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne failed to light things up this season as expected. ADVANTAGE: NONE.
Another regular season is finally winding down and with most of the pretenders now eliminated, it's time to see how the contenders rate. Please note that this rating will only be of those clubs officially in the 2004 playoffs, thus the list may be incomplete for the clubs battling for the final berth in the Western Conference. This preview will be updated as the picture becomes clearer.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING:
Strengths: Possess a fast-paced offensive attack spearheaded by leading scorer and potential Hart candidate Martin St. Louis. Their speed forces opponents into costly turnovers in their own zone. When goalies Nikolai Khabibulin and John Grahame are on their respective games, the Bolts have one of the best tandems in the league.
Weaknesses: Khabibulin and Grahame have struggled at times in the second half. Head coach John Tortorella's confrontational style could grate on his players as the postseason heats up. There are suggestions the club may have peaked too soon.
Strengths: Rookie goalie Andrew Raycroft is perhaps the best netminder the Bruins have had in years. Late-season additions Sergei Gonchar and Michael Nylander have bolstered the Bruins offensive attack. Possess one of the top forwards in the league in Joe Thornton.
Weaknesses: Raycroft is untested in playoff action. Thornton has struggled in his recent playoff appearances, and if the second line can't step up, the offence could be in trouble. There remains concerns about the depth and speed of the blueline corps.
Strengths: When healthy they're one of the deepest teams in the NHL. Getting back Jeremy Roenick, Keith Primeau and Eric Desjardins from injury will bolster their roster. Ken Hitchcock's coaching experience also gives them a edge. Goalie Robert Esche might provide the strong playoff goaltending they've lacked for years.
Weaknesses: This club has proven susceptible to injury this season and that might carry over into the playoffs. Despite Esche's strong play this season there remains concerns over how he'll perform in the post-season. The number of players moved around by Clarke this season might have an adverse effect on team chemistry as injured players return.
Strengths: Very deep at forward and defence, which was further bolstered by the additions of playoff veterans Peter Bondra and Greg de Vries. They continue to play head coach Jacques Martin's system well. They came so close last season and are determined to go to the Finals this year.
Weaknesses: Patrick Lalime's inconsistency in goal is worrisome, as is the team's puzzling tendency to be lackadaisical at times this season. Both traits could prove costly if it carries into the post-season.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS:
Strengths: Loaded with veteran talent well-experienced in postseason action. Ed Belfour is still one of the top pressure goalies in the league. Adding Brian Leetch finally gave the Leafs the blueline stud they've been missing for years. Captain Mats Sundin is at the peak of his game and has turned into a clutch performer.
Weaknesses: The Leafs are the oldest team in the league, and they've struggled against both injuries and younger, faster opponents. There is a distinct lack of depth in goal behind Belfour, and if his much-reported bad back should flare up in the post-season, the Leafs hopes of ending their 37 year Stanley Cup drought are doomed.
NEW JERSEY DEVILS:
Strengths: They're the defending Stanley Cup champions which provides a psychological edge. Goalie Martin Brodeur is one of the top clutch goalies in playoff history and is also the reigning "top dog" of netminders. Their suffocating defensive style is almost impossible to overcome once they take a lead.
Weaknesses: Captain Scott Stevens has been out for nearly three months recovering from a concussion and they're not the same club without him. If their inspirational captain isn't available for the playoffs, it could be a tough mental hurdle to overcome. Their lack of offensive depth, particularly at centre, is also a concern.
Strengths: A vastly improved club from a year ago, thanks in no small part to the coaching of Claude Julien. In Jose Theodore and Mathieu Garon they possess one of the top netminding tandems in the league. The emergence this season of Mike Ribeiro and Michael Ryder has provided them with valuable offensive depth.
Weaknesses: All-Star defenceman Sheldon Souray continues to struggle with injury, while late-season pickup Alexei Kovalev has done little to bolster the Habs offensive attack. They still lack size up front, thus there's concern the smaller forwards could be worn down by larger opponents.
Wildly inconsistent, at times they play like world beaters and
on other occasions like one of the worst teams in the league.
It's anyone's guess which version will show up for this year's
DETROIT RED WINGS:
Strengths: Very deep at forward and defence. Possess not only skilled veterans but also promising young talent. Should be further bolstered by the return from injury of forwards Robert Lang and Kris Draper.
Weaknesses: Curtis Joseph continues to be plagued by injury and questions about his playoff record. Their key players are still aging warhorses like Steve Yzerman, Brendan Shanahan and Chris Chelios, who might feel the effects of the playoffs the longer they go.
SAN JOSE SHARKS:
Strengths: Younger players like Patrick Marleau, Jonathan Cheechoo and Brad Stuart have stepped up their games this season, playing a big role in the club's turnaround. Evgeny Nabokov and Vesa Toskala are a solid tandem providing the Sharks with outstanding goaltending. Coach Ron Wilson has the Sharks playing a strong team game.
Weaknesses: Key veterans like Vincent Damphousse and Mike Ricci have struggled with injuries and declining play. Nabokov's playoff record is spotty and Toskala has never played in the postseason. Can the young Sharks shoulder additional responsibilities under playoff pressure?
Strengths: Loaded with seasoned playoff talent like Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Milan Hejduk, Adam Foote and Rob Blake. Deadline acquisitions Matthew Barnaby, Ossi Vanaanen and Tommy Salo could provide valuable depth. First year starting goalie David Aebischer has played well in the regular season.
Weaknesses: There is concern over Aebischer's ability to handle the role of playoff starting goalie. Hired guns Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne have fired blanks for most of the season. Tony Granato's ability as head coach has been questioned, and there are concerns about the team's psyche in the wake of Steve Moore's injury.
Strengths: Overcame a mediocre first half of the season to become one of the better teams in the second half. Marty Turco gives them solid goaltending, plus they're still deep in quality veteran talent experienced in acheiving post-season success.
Weaknesses: Captain Mike Modano is having the worst season of his career, and veterans Pierre Turgeon and Scott Young are shadows of their former selves. There are also concerns about the overall health of their blueline.
Strengths: Possess one of the deepest blueline corps in the league which got a shot in the arm with the return of all-star defenceman Ed Jovanovski from injury. The Sedin twins have finally emerged, and trade deadline acquisitions Martin Rucinsky, Geoff Sanderson and Marc Bergevin should also bolster their depth.
Weaknesses: Questions remain over Dan Cloutier's playoff goaltending, and the loss of power forward Todd Bertuzzi to suspension has not only been a major blow to their offence but the fallout of that suspension has harmed team morale. Team captain Marcus Naslund is hampered by injury.
Strengths: Team captain Jarome Iginla is in Richard Trophy scoring form, and they've received outstanding goaltending from Miikka Kiprusoff. Their defence corps is one of the best in the game, and late season acquisitions Marcus Nilson and Chris Simon provides valuable depth up front. Coach Daryl Sutter has this team believing in itself.
Weaknesses: Most on the roster have limited playoff experience. Lack of goaltending depth behind Kiprusoff. Over-reliance on the Iginla line could prove fatal if it's shut down by opposing checkers.
ST. LOUIS BLUES:
Strengths: Former Norris winner Chris Pronger returned to form this season and bolstered an injury-ravaged blueline. Veteran forwards Keith Tkachuk, Doug Weight and Pavol Demitra providing valuable offence and leadership. Deadline acquisitions Brian Savage and Mike Sillinger bolstered their late-season run.
Weaknesses: Chris Osgood was inconsistent between the pipes in the second half. Absence of Al MacInnis and Barrett Jackman hurts the defence corps. Still concerns over lack of offensive depth beyond the first line. No longer considered a powerhouse in the West.
Strengths: Goaltender Tomas Vokoun a major reason for their improvement this season. Spreads their offence throughout the roster. Late season acquisitions Steve Sullivan, Sergei Zholtok and Brad Bombardir provide much needed experience and depth.
Weaknesses: Played poorly down the stretch. Lacking offensive depth at centre. Most of them have never been in the playoffs before and that inexperience could hurt them. Will face the Detroit Red Wings, who won't be upset by an underdog two seasons in a row
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