NHL Playoffs: Conference Finals Preview
I went 3-1 in the second round, losing only with the Montreal Canadiens. I had picked the Habs to knock off the Flyers in five games but all that I had correct was the five games as the Flyers cruised past Montreal. My playoff record for this year now stands at 8-4.
Here are my Conference Finals analysis and predictions:
Pittsburgh vs. Philadelphia
The battle of Pennsylvania gets underway on Friday night from Pittsburgh on Versus HD. This should be a very good series pitting the very talented Penguins against the gritty and relentless Flyers who have taken advantage of their good fortune against the Caps and parlayed that into a chance to make it to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Against Montreal the Flyers were able to be very physical and wear the smaller opposing forwards down. Philadelphia has three very good lines that Coach John Stevens uses for the majority of the game as follows:
R.J. Umberger-Mike Richards-Joffrey Lupul
Vinnie Prospal-Daniel Briere-Scott Hartnell
Scott Upshall-Jeff Carter-Mike Knuble
Add in a very solid top three defense of Kimmo Timonen, Braydon Coburn, and Derian Hatcher to go with some great goaltending from Martin Biron and it makes sense why Philadelphia breezed past Montreal in the second round. The Flyers were able to keep Timonen and Coburn on the ice quite a bit against the Canadiens top line of Saku Koivu, Alex Kovalev, and Christopher Higgins.
Pittsburgh, however, is no Montreal because unlike the Canadiens the Penguins can also put three very good lines on the ice, including two incredible lines that will make this series very tough for the Flyers. The Pittsburgh top three lines are:
Pascal Dupuis-Sydney Crosby-Marian Hossa
Ryan Malone-Evgeni Malkin-Petr Sykora
Jarko Ruutu-Jordan Staal-Adam Hall (or Tyler Kennedy)
So Philadelphia has a difficult job of figuring out which line to put defensemen Timonen and Coburn out against. Do you put them on the ice with Crosby or Malkin? That is a tough choice for Stevens and assistant coach Terry Murray and will be interesting to watch and analyze. I think they have to put Timonen and Coburn out against Crosby and Hossa because Hatcher is too slow to cover that line. Hatcher and defensive partner Randy Jones are likely to have their hands full with the Malkin line.
On defense the Penguins really improved after they traded for physical defenseman Hal Gill (from Toronto). Also, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury has been very good since coming back from his ankle injury and switching to white goalie pads.
Philadelphia’s strategy will be to continue to crash the net and be physical. However, they must be cautious because the Penguin power play is deadly. The Flyers best chance to win this series is to stay out of the penalty box. If they continually go shorthanded then this series could get away from the Flyers very quickly.
Series Prediction: Pittsburgh in seven games
Detroit vs. Dallas
The Red Wings swept a very depleted Colorado Avalanche team while the Stars had to play 4 overtime games to finally knock off a very pesky and talented San Jose team. Immediate edge in the rest department goes to Detroit, especially with the series starting on Thursday night (Versus HD).
The Red Wings are very good and have a roster made up predominantly of European players. They rely heavily on their big three players of Pavel Datsyuk (Russia), Henrik Zetterberg (Sweden), and the best defenseman in the NHL, Nicklas Lidstrom (Sweden). The recent pleasant surprise for Detroit coach Mike Babcock has been the goal scoring of forward Johan Franzen (Sweden). Franzen scored 15 goals in his last 16 regular season games and has put up 11 more goals in just 10 games in the playoffs, he is on fire. Detroit’s defense is bolstered by Brian Rafalski, Nicklas Kronwall, Brad Stuart, and the ageless Chris Chelios (45 years old). The Wings also have forward Tomas Holmstrom who routinely sets up camp in front of the opposing teams’ net minder making games hectic for them.
As for the Wings goaltending, they started the playoffs with Dominik Hasek in net but that didn’t go too well and since they inserted Chris Osgood they have won six straight games. Osgood is not spectacular, but he is steady and his players have lots of confidence in him. He is underrated.
Dallas has been very good this post-season as well and as I speculated goalie Marty Turco is finally shining in the playoffs. Anyone who watched the deciding game of the Stars-Sharks series saw some incredible saves from Turco and Sharks goalie Evgeni Nabokov. Also playing at a Conn Smythe type level is Stars forward and team captain, Brendan Morrow, who leads, hits, and can score. Morrow has seven goals in 12 playoff games and he and center Mike Ribiero have formed a nice combination of power and finesse to lead this team on offense. The Stars are deep up front with a second line centered by former Conn Smythe trophy winner Brad Richards (with Tampa Bay) and a third line that is centered by future hall of famer Mike Modano. Dallas has depth and they’ll need it against the Wings.
Sergei Zubov’s return from hernia surgery has been big for Dallas and Stephane Robidas is playing the best hockey of his career. The young defensive trio of Matt Niskanen, Trevor Daley, and Nicklas Grossman continues to improve with each game giving the Stars some depth on the back end.
Detroit is the best team in the NHL. Anyone who has watched them play over the years knows that they are a puck possession team, you won’t see them dumping and chasing much. Dallas has a good team but watching the San Jose series they struggled at times to get the puck back from the Sharks, who also like to play puck possession, so the task will get even tougher against the Red Wings.
I think Detroit is just too rested and too good for Dallas unless Osgood falters and Turco plays unbelievable.
Series Prediction: Detroit in six games.
So there it is, I am predicting a Detroit-Pittsburgh Stanley Cup Final that I’m sure the executives at NBC are eagerly anticipating.
One other programming note: the great Don Cherry, who’s Coaches Corner segment on Hockey Night in Canada is can’t miss TV, will be doing analysis of the playoffs from here on out with ESPN’s Barry Melrose. While I am not a Melrose fan, I do like listening to Cherry and the two of them should be very entertaining together so ESPN looks like they finally will pay some attention to hockey again.