19 May 2006

2006 playoffs - round 3 preview

We’ve arrived at the Conference Finals – the NHL’s final four. It may not seem like hockey season with all the rain we’ve had up in Massachusetts over the past three weeks (I heard someone say that if it were snow we’d have had something nearing 20 feet - I could only think “cool.”), but this promises to be fantastic, even though there is something less-than-inspiring watching a playoff game at 2pm on a warm Saturday. Not that it will stop me…

I’d like to make a few points about a common theme I’ve been hearing over the past week. I’ve been reading a lot of snide comments about how this year’s final four must be making Gary Bettman squirm: four relatively unknown and smaller-market teams will kill the ratings. This ticks me off for a few reasons – first, we all know the US television ratings will be tractor-pull-esque regardless of who plays (how great were the ratings in October 2000 when baseball had both teams from The City That Never Sleeps play each other in the Subway Series? It was the lowest-rated Series in history to that date). Not to mention the last time I checked a map, Anaheim was basically, you know, Los Angeles. And come on - Raleigh, North Carolina is known for shutting down the city during the Cup finals every year*. (*this may not actually be “true.” Sorry Canes fans - it’s hard not to poke fun at a franchise that has a policy preventing opposing fans from buying their playoff tickets.)

Second - and most importantly to me – why would anyone (outside of the CEO of the OLN/Versus/Wango Tango raw meat eating Network) actually care? I see a lot of blatant hypocrisy in the fact that for years so many writers have complained about the style of the NHL, harkening back to the “glory days” of the 1980s’ “firewagon” hockey. Finally this year the league made huge strides in letting the skilled players play which resulted in the most exciting hockey we’ve seen in at least a decade, culminating in this final four where only the most skilled teams remain. Do these writers even remember who some of the most exciting teams were in the 80s? Edmonton. Calgary. New York….Islanders. Quebec. Montreal. In other words – mostly Canadian teams. As for the big-market squads (a term I’m not sure I’d ever heard until the mid-90s), Don Maloney and John Ogrodnick weren’t exactly leading the New York Rangers and Detroit Red Wings respectively to ultimate glory in the 80s. I’d like to think that not a lot of fans look back at the NHL of five-ten years ago with a lot of fondness when New Jersey and Detroit were winning championships in what was mostly a boring league. You can’t have it both ways.

This final four is great for the NHL if you care about the product, as I do and I suspect all true fans of the game do. Frank Deford once wrote a great essay about the NHL, comparing it to RC Cola. I know – please bear with me. He said that the NHL (like RC Cola) is a wonderful product and should be content – and proud – to be unique, while not striving to sell itself out to compete with the “big boys” (MLB, NFL, NBA…and to continue the analogy: Coke, Pepsi) and being something that it is not. Celebrate your differences, accept that you can’t “compete” with the other leagues, and embrace what makes your sport great.

The league basically killed itself for an entire season to implement (among other things) a salary cap – the cap was supposed to make all of this possible, to even the playing field a little bit. “Bettman’s worst nightmare?” Doubtful. I’ve never been a Bettman supporter but I will defend him here – three years ago he didn’t have to go to bat for the Ottawa and Buffalo franchises, which had both suffered embarrassing bankruptcies. He didn’t have to push for last year’s lockout, which would likely have resulted in more teams going broke or at least relocating to “bigger” markets. This year’s conference finalists are a direct result of all the positive changes the league bled itself to undergo. In the end, if you’re not a fan of this year’s final four, you’re not a fan of NHL hockey.

Before looking at the two conference finals, let’s take a quick look back at the quarterfinals – my predictions were a mirror image of the first round. In round one I had been perfect in the East and perfectly wrong in the West – just the opposite this time around:

Buffalo beats Ottawa in 5 (I picked Ottawa in 7).

This year was supposed to be the year Ottawa finally broke through to the finals…I’m quite sure they didn’t expect to get dumped in five games in the second round. To Buffalo. But this was less an Ottawa choke (despite the angst amongst Senators’ fans) and more a coming-out party for the season-long underrated Buffalo Sabres. Despite this being one of the tightest 4-1 series in memory (with three games going to overtime, all won by Buffalo), there were other underlying factors for the Sabres’ victory: while the Sens outshot Buffalo in all four Sabre wins, their quality of shots was low. The Buffalo defence was nearly flawless over the last four games and as a result the team is even better than it was two weeks ago.

Carolina beats New Jersey in 5 (I picked New Jersey in 6).

Another oops. I clearly didn’t respect Carolina enough and thought the Devils would continue their unearthly streak. Martin Brodeur finally came back to earth while Cam Ward continued his clutch play. The Canes gave notice in a game one blowout, winning 6-0 and generally skating circles around the baffled Devils. Now it’s the Hurricanes on a big streak, winning eight of their last nine games heading into the Eastern finals.

Anaheim beats Colorado in 4 (I picked Anaheim in 6)

…and it wasn’t really that close. The Avalanche didn’t score their first goal of the series until game three, in which they were beaten by four Joffrey Lupul goals, and were outscored 16-4 in the series. The speedier Ducks dominated this series in every way, and rookie Ilya Bryzgalov set a rookie playoff record for consecutive shutout minutes – the Avalanche really aren’t that great of a team anymore and appeared to run out of gas after a somewhat shocking upset of Dallas in round one.

Edmonton beats San Jose in 6 (I picked Edmonton in 7)

There were two big physical events in this series: the game two Raffi Torres hit on Milan Michalek and the game three dental work of Ryan Smyth. Even though the Sharks won the second game, the (borderline-legal) Torres hit showed the Sharks that they were about to be run down physically. In game three, Smyth took a puck in the grille, losing a few teeth, then returned to deliver the assist on the winning goal in the third overtime. They wouldn’t lose again. The Oilers were simply relentless and ended up being too much for the Sharks – at those times where the defence failed them, Dwayne Roloson picked up the Oilers nearly every time.

Without further ado, let’s look at the semi-finals:

Eastern finals: Carolina (2) vs. Buffalo (4)

This will be the first postseason matchup between the Sabres and Hurricanes/Whalers franchise; sort of surprising considering they were in the same division for 17 years. As has been written ad nauseum this week, nobody predicted both of these teams making the playoffs, let alone facing off in the Conference Finals but neither team is here on a fluky postseason run. Nearly mirror images of each other, the teams feature multiple scoring lines, blazing speed, underrated solid defence and rookie goaltenders. There is so little separating the teams that this one is more likely to be decided on some unforeseen circumstance.

Why Carolina Should Win – After a breakout regular season, Eric Staal continues to actually play better in the playoffs; with 15 points he’s second overall in playoff scoring (soon to pass Patrick Elias). In only giving up ten goals in five games to the red-hot Devils last round the team has proven that not only can they match any opponent in scoring, they can shut down opposing offences just as well. In the clinching game against New Jersey they weathered a first period where their penalty killing units were perfect in withstanding four penalties, keeping momentum on their side. Their power play has been deadly, scoring at nearly a 28% clip through two rounds – tops in the league.

Why Carolina Should Be Afraid Buffalo is a new beast – how will Carolina try to match up with a team nearly identical to theirs? Buffalo may not have the experience and the names but they have even more depth than Carolina up front – Canes coach Peter Laviolette will be on the spot at home, trying to figure out which line to match super center Rod Brind’Amour against.

Why Buffalo Should Win – We keep saying it, but the Sabres have the deepest team in the league. But no longer are they the “no-name” Sabres: Daniel Briere, JP Dumont, Chris Drury – this is a great offence, and oddly so in the postseason: one of the concerns for the Sabres heading into the playoffs was that much of their scoring during the year was based on their powerplay. Their powerplay has actually been pretty bad this postseason, yet their even-strength play has been phenomenal – scoring twice as many goals at 5-on-5 than their opposition.

Why Buffalo Should Be AfraidTim Connolly was Buffalo’s best player until being knocked into Hull, Quebec (and perhaps next fall) in game two by Ottawa’s Peter Schaefer. He hasn’t played since and there has been complete silence regarding his return. I don’t expect to see him again this year. Dmitri Kalinin was finally justifying the team’s faith in him as a top defenseman when in the same game he suffered a broken ankle. The team shuffled their lines and displayed – once again – the great depth in the organization by having Jiri Novotny and Rory Fitzpatrick fill in admirably but how long can a team win against elite opponents without two of their top players?

Random Useless But Fun Playoff Facts – Coach Lindy Ruff – actually maligned in some quarters before this season – has brought the Sabres to the Conference finals three times in his eight years, and now sports the fourth-highest all time playoff winning percentage for coaches (at least 40 wins) at .615 (40-25). The only thing the other coaches have that he doesn’t is a Stanley Cup.

Our Pick – This is hard to pick, this series could go either way, both teams are exciting, blahblahblah. Here’s where I’m calling the difference in these squads: after the wild game one in Ottawa (a 7-6 overtime Buffalo win) the vaunted Ottawa forwards didn’t score one even-strength goal for the rest of the series. Credit the Buffalo Sabres’ unheralded defence – led by Henrik Tallinder, Toni Lydman and Jay McKee (who continued to block shots at an impressive rate) – for the key difference in that series. Their confidence is high, and they’ve played remarkably mistake-free and smart positional hockey. You know the Sabres will score – their only question mark was preventing scoring. With their defence and Ryan Miller, the Sabres will make their third trip to the Stanley Cup finals, this time trying to finally bring the Cup home. Buffalo in 6.

Western finals: Anaheim (6) vs. Edmonton (8)

Those seed numbers make this one look like two teams on fluke runs but here’s why that’s inaccurate: often times so-called “Cinderella teams” make it through a few rounds based on the play of one or two players playing out of their minds. While a number of players on both squads are clearly playing their best hockey of the year, if not their careers, these teams are legitimately solid in all three zones. In the Oilers’ case, fans had been squawking all year that if they just settled their goaltending situation they’d be as good as anyone in the West – that certainly can’t be disproved now with Dwayne Roloson playing great hockey. The Ducks are simply continuing the run they’ve been on for months, only now with steady rookie Bryzgalov in net.

Why Anaheim Should Win – Their even-strength play has been devastating, and through eleven games they’re averaging over 31 shots per game. Teemu Selanne and Joffrey Lupul have led the offensive charge up front, scoring 12 goals between them. Can we once-again revisit the Sergei Fedorov trade (which I praised in this space last fall)? Admittedly I called that one addition by subtraction but the actual gains for Anaheim have been immeasurable: Todd Marchant has been fantastic, scoring eight points but more importantly playing his usual top-notch two-way play and sporting a nifty +10; and I’m not sure the Ducks realized how valuable defenceman Francois Beauchemin would be - he’s added seven points this postseason. Norris trophy finalist Scott Niedermayer has been brilliant as usual in carrying the puck out of danger. Bryzgalov has been positively stingy since taking over for J.S.Giguere in the Calgary series, and the team is giving up less than two goals per game.

Why Anaheim Should Be Afraid – They matched up well against the offensively-challenged Flames and the less-talented Avalanche. Edmonton presents a combined challenge – a team with a curious blend of young offensive flash and classic stereotypical Canadian grit. The Oilers will hit them harder than they’ve been used to, and that punishment could end up intimidating many of the young forwards. They need to continue to battle towards the net and take the punishment they will receive if they want to win this series.

Why Edmonton Should Win – If I were a forward playing against this team I might come down with an updated case of the Philadelphia flu – Chris Pronger, Jason Smith, Steve Staios. Ouch. These three provide a brutal and talented physical presence for Edmonton – in the case of Pronger he brings an outstanding offensive awareness (evidenced by his point-per-game pace this postseason) and more leadership on a team with captain Smith, Michael Peca, and “Captain Canada” Ryan Smyth. Up front Peca is playing his best hockey of the year, and Shawn Horcoff has taken over as a reliable top center, leading the team with 14 points. Edmonton got better with each game against San Jose and gave up only 12 goals in the six games to the Sharks – never fully allowing the dangerous Jonathan Cheechoo/Joe Thornton combination to dominate.

Why Edmonton Should Be Afraid – They are peaking right now, at the right time. But with such an aggressive and physical style of play, the risk is there that they will tire themselves out. In addition, they chartered out of Edmonton immediately following Wednesday’s conclusion of the Sharks’ series, giving them little time to rest up for the quicker Anaheim club. Edmonton needs to pick their spots and not be over-aggressive – their penalty killing has been great and although Anaheim hasn’t shown much to date with their power play, they have the talent and speed to tire out Edmonton. Stay out of the box. Also try not to look over at the Anaheim bench – assistant coach Dave Farrish kind of looks like he might be the devil.

Random Useless But Fun Playoff Facts – overall, the NHL’s California franchises haven’t had much playoff success. The Oakland/California Seals were 0-2 in playoff series over their nine years. The LA Kings have made the finals once in 38 seasons, and only eight other times have made the second round. In the Ducks’ 11 previous seasons they made the playoffs only three times, making one dramatic run to the finals in 2003. Edmonton has a few large meaningful colourful banners hanging in the Northlands rafters.

Our Pick – While Anaheim has the edge in youth, I see Edmonton making this a “throwback” series – using the body, getting chippy and nasty, and using the Ducks’ youth to their own advantage, although this might be a case where the longer the series goes the more dangerous it is for the Oilers as they could wear down. Right now there’s no more difficult place to play than the (formerly-named but more classic) Northlands Coliseum in Edmonton. The Ducks must win their first two at home or risk getting buried in Edmonton. In the end I think the Ducks aren’t quite ready to match up to Edmonton, and the Oilers make their first trip back to the finals since Peter Klima’s 1990 squad. Edmonton in 5.

04 May 2006

Campbell Corner - 2006 playoffs - round 2 preview

Eight teams qualified for the Western Conference playoffs…and the top four seeds all lost. Simply amazing. The NHL playoffs are notoriously pretty wide-open but in the West this year it is truly up-for-grabs. Virtually every one of the four remaining teams can make a case for winning this conference, and before we look at the two series, let’s take a quick look back:

Edmonton beats Detroit in six. The third period of game six was the best period of hockey in the playoffs, with the Oilers mounting a great comeback to clinch the series at home. Not many people saw this result coming, being that the Red Wings had an incredible 124 points and the Oilers squeaked into the eight spot with 95 points. But when you look deeper, it wasn’t nearly the upset that it seemed. While much has been made of the Wings beating up on a weak division, they still managed a fantastic record against the rest of the league. The Oilers are the team that deserved more credit – they played in an extremely difficult division, with the likes of Calgary, Colorado, and Vancouver. Even the last place Minnesota Wild won 38 games. Edmonton was a chic preseason pick to be one of the better teams, having made high profile acquisitions Michael Peca and Chris Pronger. The Oilers’ speedy and talented forwards made the difference in this series and give hope to the City of Champions that they could bring the Cup back for the first time since 1990.

Colorado beats Dallas in five. Another result very few people predicted – actually I thought this less likely than the Oilers upsetting the Wings, but a dominant game one and three overtime victories later and the Stars were wondering where it went wrong. Marty Turco is facing the dreaded label of being a poor playoff goalie, right or wrong. While history is rarely a factor in deciding a series, perhaps we shouldn’t have discounted the franchise’s playoff experience, having played in a league high 25 playoff series’ since relocating from Quebec. Veterans Joe Sakic, Andrew Brunette, and Milan Hejduk led the way but Ontario Hockey League MVP Wojtek Wolski (Brampton Battalion) was an unexpected surprise. Let’s not forget formerly forgotten ex-MVP Jose Theodore in net, who improved throughout the series and excelled in the game five overtime clincher.

San Jose beats Nashville in five. Frankly, I expected more out of Nashville. After winning the first game at home, they tanked the last four, scoring only six goals the rest of the way. San Jose rapidly became a media favourite in the last few weeks, with their impressive push into the playoffs and Joe Thornton’s inspiring play down the stretch. The Sharks proved to be more than just Jumbo Joe and Jonathan Cheechoo, as the man selected right after Thornton in the 1997 draft – Patrick Marleau – dominated with seven goals. Nashville’s team system broke down and they couldn’t manage much of an offence. Goalie Chris Mason was decent in goal, better than expected, but didn’t steal any games.

Anaheim beats Calgary in seven. The Ducks have been one of the best teams in the league since New Year’s Day, and figured to give Calgary a real battle. Calgary was many people’s preseason pick to win the West, but their Achilles heel all year was lack of scoring and that killed them in this all-too-short playoff run. The Ducks on the other hand have become an exciting team, and Teemu Selanne led the team in scoring and added grit. Scott Niedermayer is underappreciated and was fantastic – no slight to Niklas Lidstrom whatsoever, but if he and Niedermayer switched teams I say there’d be no question as to who would win the Norris (not Lidstrom). Credit to coach (and former Norris trophy winner) Randy Carlyle for inserting rookie goaltender Ilja Bryzgalov into the lineup for the final two games (which he won).

Now a quick look at the two second round series:

San Jose Sharks (5) vs. Edmonton Oilers (8)

Big market hockey fans might not know much about this series beyond Joe Thornton and the big Oilers upset, but this should be as exciting and anticipated as the Eastern matchup of Ottawa vs. Buffalo. Two highly skilled teams that can skate and put the puck in the net. Don’t forget about Edmonton and their “Best Ice Surface in the NHL”TM and this should be a highly entertaining set of games.

WHY SAN JOSE WILL WIN – Joe Thornton and Jonathan Cheechoo up front. Patrick Marleau on the second line. A young emerging scoring defence led by Tom Preissing and Christian Ehrhoff. The Sharks were torrid in April, winning eight in a row before losing their final game to finish with 99 points. They were the “team nobody wants to play” in the West, and Nashville drew the short straw. If the Sharks can dictate the pace and force the Oilers to play in their own zone they can make a short series of this.

WHY SAN JOSE SHOULD BE AFRAID – Edmonton plays a much more uptempo style than the Predators did. Edmonton is flying high with confidence and proved against Detroit that they can play any style of game – defensive, offensive, physical. San Jose’s defense is a big question mark – will they be able to contain the Oilers when they’re flying all over the offensive zone? They may not have the experience, size, or talent to match up against Edmonton’s forwards.

WHY EDMONTON WILL WIN – It’s hard to believe that any team is more confident than the Oilers. Chris Pronger was superhuman in the Detroit series – he averaged over 33 minutes per game, scored seven points, and took only two penalties while still maintaining his trademark physical presence on the blueline. Oiler captain Jason Smith is not going to contribute much offensively but his strong physical defensive presence is crucial to their success. “There was something in the air that night…Fernando…” Edmonton native Fernando Pisani may have written his name in Edmonton lore by scoring two big goals in game six. Ales Hemsky scored a pair and combined with rent-a-winger Sergei Samsonov on the beautiful and dramatic game winner. “Captain Canada” Ryan Smyth, Jarret Stoll, Shawn Horcoff, Raffi Torres…they’re not as consistent as a team like Buffalo but at their peak they can bring nearly the same depth of talent up front.

WHY EDMONTON SHOULD BE AFRAID – Inconsistency. One reason the Oilers had an up-and-down season was due to inconsistency – if their forwards aren’t forechecking, their defence will wear down. Jaroslav Spacek for one must dramatically improve his play if they are going to neutralize the Sharks’ talented offence.

OUR PICK – Call it a hunch if you will, but I think the Oilers can continue to put their game together and play an even better series than they did against the Wings. Chris Pronger is the most important player in this series, and I think he will be the single biggest reason that Thornton and company end their seasons. Edmonton in six.

Anaheim Mighty Ducks (6) vs. Colorado Avalanche (7)

Another very unlikely matchup - the Avalanche clearly were the bigger upset victor from round one – the Avs entered the playoffs as their lowest seed since they were playing at Le Colisee as the Quebec Nordiques (still the best uniforms ever – bring back the Nords please, Mr. Bettman). To generalize, can the group of young Ducks beat the veteran Avalanche?

WHY ANAHEIM WILL WIN – Teemu Selanne and Scott Niedermayer are superstars. Niedermayer to me is the best player in this series and will be playing nearly 30 minutes per night and dictating the pace of the game – playing a strong defence and bringing the puck out of his zone constantly.

WHY ANAHEIM SHOULD BE AFRAID – Aside from Selanne, their forwards are young. Really young. Last year would you have known Andy McDonald, Chris Kunitz, Corey Perry, or Ryan Getzlaf? The team is counting on all of them to contribute in a big way. They all need to take on some leadership roles and not fear physical play. Veteran Rob Blake will be waiting for them, and although he’s not the player he once was, you can likely count on him to be a reliable presence for Colorado. The name Jose Theodore could intimidate the youngsters if they have trouble scoring and fall behind. Joffrey Lupul needs to step up his game after only scoring one goal in the opening round.

WHY COLORADO WILL WIN – Joe Sakic is still capable of playing at an elite level. And with Milan Hejduk, Alex Tanguay, Brunette, and Wolski they can make life miserable for the Ducks. A

WHY COLORADO SHOULD BE AFRAID – is Jose Theodore for real? If it’s just a matter of confidence he may be able to use game five against Dallas as a catalyst, but if he reverts to his mediocrity of the recent past the Avs will be in trouble fast. I’m also not convinced that their defence will be able to match Anaheim’s skill set up front. This is an important series for John-Michael Liles to assert himself defensively.

OUR PICK – While the Avalanche scored an impressive upset over the Dallas Stars, Anaheim is no fluke. They’ve been playing at a high level for months and beating a hardscrabble team like the Calgary Flames – and dominating them in Calgary in game seven – shows a team that is poised to advance. Anaheim in five.

Wales Watching - 2006 Eastern playoffs - round 2 preview

We’re down to eight teams, as round two – the Conference semi-finals – begin tonight, and before taking a look forward we should look back at the first round to see what happened. I previewed the Eastern Conference in Wales Watching two weeks ago and from my point of view things turned out as expected….

BuffaloPhiladelphia. Sabres win in 6. My pick - Buffalo in 6.

I had this one right on but in truth, the Sabres could easily have swept this series. The Sabres took an early lead in every game – they dominated the games they won but games three and four in
Philadelphia they let slip away. Common reporting had Peter Forsberg taking over those games but in truth game four was the only one in which he brought his best game – he was largely ineffective for the rest of the series. The fleet Sabres followed the predicted script and thoroughly embarrassed the plodding Flyers; Robert Esche is taking some blame due to a barrage of goals but truth told, he was Philadelphia’s best player in many of the games – he had no chance on most of the goals, as the Sabres’ swarmed on him with countless odd man rushes. Philadelphia – once again – needs to rethink how they construct a team. And oh by the way, late word is that Forsberg might need surgery that will keep him from starting next season on time.

Ottawa - Tampa Bay. Senators win in 5. My pick - Ottawa in 4.

It was domination by the Senators, and their one loss was in my eyes more a case of them letting up their pressure in the Lightning zone. Martin Havlat was the star, scoring goals in every game en route to a 10 point opening round. 14 different Senators scored in the five games and Ray Emery rarely faltered as the East’s top team made short work of the defending champs. By the way: nice job by coach John Tortorella throwing soon-to-be-ex-Lightning goalie John Grahame under the bus.

CarolinaMontreal. Hurricanes win in 6. My pick - Carolina in 6

Two big stories in this one: Cam Ward and Saku Koivu. After two rough games the shaky Martin Gerber sat the rest of the way, giving the young Ward a chance to shine, which he did, helping the Canes win the final four games. The series may also have turned on the stick of Justin Williams; to be more precise, when Williams inadvertantly jammed his stick into
Montreal captain Saku Koivu's eye during the second period of game three, ending his season. Consider this: Montreal won the first two games, scoring 12 goals in the process. After Koivu left, the Habs scored just five goals over the next 13 periods.

New Jersey - New York Rangers. Devils win in 4. My pick - New Jersey in 5

While some risky (and perhaps illegal substance-ridden) prognosticators were taking the Rangers in seven games, most figured this one to be an easy one for the scorching Devils – winners of 11 straight coming in. Make it 15 now – we pegged Jaromir Jagr and Henrik Lundqvist as the keys for any chance of the Rangers winning. As you now know, Jagr left game one with an arm injury and either didn’t play again or was ineffective. Lundqvist was benched after a bad game one, perhaps a panic decision by coach Tom Renney, but it may not have mattered. The Devils’ big guns took care of business, led by Patrick Elias and his 11 points. Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta both contributed six points while Jamie Langenbrunner was huge with eight points. The Rangers’ lack of depth destroyed them.

I’ll just consider myself lucky that my Western predictions weren’t published...and without further ado, let’s look ahead to the second round:

Ottawa Senators (1) vs. Buffalo Sabres (4)

This should be a highly entertaining affair – to me, the two best teams remaining in the playoffs. We should see two teams with similar mentalities: run and gun. Both teams will feature multiple lines swarming through all three zones, reminding me of a quote a friend of mine once said: "forecheck, backcheck: paycheck" – this definitely applies to both Ottawa and Buffalo. After
Ottawa embarrassed the Sabres in Buffalo in November by the score of 10-4, the Sabres rattled off more wins than anyone in the league. Having said that, I think it's imperative that the Sabres take at least one of the first two games to reassert to themselves that they belong in this series.

The series will suffer from an odd schedule, thanks to hockey legend Dora the Explorer who will be starring in Ottawa this weekend, forcing game two to Monday night. Oddly enough, a concert in Buffalo next Friday will force back-to-back games next Wednesday and Thursday which should remind fans of the old divisional battles in the 80s – I’m looking forward to this one.

WHY BUFFALO SHOULD WIN - Despite being the underdog (although only finishing three points behind the Senators) Buffalo can win this series. They need to avoid the defensive mistakes that hurt them against Philadelphia in games three and four, where they succumbed to the temptation of chasing the puck carrier and getting themselves out of position – they need to continue their offensive game plan by relentlessly forechecking, which they executed to frightening perfection by the end of the series (Mike Grier's goal in game six was a result of linemates Chris Drury and Derek Roy forcing the Flyer defensemen to cough up the puck).

WHY BUFFALO SHOULD BE AFRAID - Early in the season the Sabres were completely psyched out by Ottawa - the low point being the aforementioned 10-4 pasting on home ice. Ottawa won the first five matchups between the two teams - and handily - until Buffalo took the final three, one each in regulation, overtime, and shootout. The memory of those games still remains with the Sabres as every time they face the Senators the local press can’t stop mentioning them.

WHY OTTAWA SHOULD WIN - Simply, this is the best team in the NHL. With superstars like Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza, Dany Heatley, and Martin Havlat and a top four defence unrivaled by any other team (Wade Redden, Zdeno Chara, Chris Philips, Andrej Meszaros) that alone would be enough. But the players that fill in the rest of the lines are nearly all valuable players – Peter Schaefer, Mike Fisher, and Patrick Eaves are strong two-way players who can score if needed. The team has no weaknesses.

WHY OTTAWA SHOULD BE AFRAID - This Sabres team is not the same as the one the Senators torched early in the season. Buffalo now knows they are a good team, rather than hoping they were one earlier in the year. Plus, Ottawa is supposed to win the East this year – all the pressure remains on them. This could prove to be Ottawa’s nightmare matchup – they are superior to Buffalo, but perhaps only in that they’ve proven to be the better team for a longer time. If there’s any team that Ottawa would have wanted to avoid at this point, it would be the Sabres – nearly a mirror-image squad to theirs.

RANDOM USELESS BUT FUN PLAYOFF FACTS - The Sabres have won both previous playoff matchups vs. Ottawa – a 1997 seven game affair that ended on a Derek Plante overtime goal, and a 1999 sweep by Buffalo – one that marked the beginning of Ottawa’s souring on Alexei Yashin.

OUR PICK - While the Senators fans will be jazzed, there will be a sense of nervousness behind them. The Buffalo fans on the other hand will be wild - the trials (literally) and tribulations of the past five years that have led up to this breakout season have re-energized Western New York and the Niagara Peninsula and they feel that they have nothing to lose at this point. Home ice could be a factor in this series - I can see the Sabres taking two of the three at home but can they win two in Ottawa? They can…but I don't think they will. I've said it all year - Ottawa is the most talented and dangerous team in the league and barring injury they can only beat themselves. This remains their Cup for the taking. Ottawa in 7.


Carolina Hurricanes (2) vs. New Jersey Devils (3)

Finally, we have a test for the Devils. No disrespect meant to the Rangers but they put up nothing against New Jersey, who hasn’t lost since – get this – March 26th.
Carolina finally found themselves after the first 2 games in which Martin Gerber had a rough go and was replaced by Cam Ward. Ward is their guy now, clearly, as he was the victor in four tight wins against the Habs including two overtime games. New Jersey looks to continue their amazing run against the surprise team of the year.

CAROLINA SHOULD WIN - Carolina had a great offensive attack this year, with ten players scoring at least 44 points. Regular season team scoring leader Eric Staal ended up leading the team with eight points in the first round and Rod Brind’Amour continues to counter the aging process while being one of the very best all around forwards in the league – averaging an amazing 26 minutes over the six games against Montreal. Cam Ward immediately settled down a sketchy goaltending issue and the team gelled in front of him – combine stability in goal with a solid defensive squad and this is a complete team.

WHY CAROLINA SHOULD BE AFRAID - The Hurricanes didn’t score a ton against Montreal – their highest output in one game was five, and they lost that one. They bring one of the most diverse offenses in the league, and while I’d ordinarily expect their scoring to improve, Martin Brodeur isn’t the goalie you want to face to break a scoring slump. If the Carolina forwards can’t find the net, they won’t find much help from a defense that doesn’t press much.

WHY NEW JERSEY SHOULD WIN - Once again we can write “this is the hottest team in the league,” not having lost in six weeks. Their offense has not been held to less than three goals since March 21st, a stretch of 18 games. And while their top forwards can play with anyone, they got quality offence from the blueline from Brian Rafalski and Paul Martin against Montreal. Martin Brodeur recovered from a rough start to the season to work himself into the final three Vezina nominees. The Devils are more well-rounded than they have been in years.

WHY NEW JERSEY SHOULD BE AFRAID - Defence. Carolina’s offence is not like the Rangers’ – they will bring numerous talented forwards and the Devils’ defensive corps can be unspectacular – this isn’t the same intimidating two-way defence of the Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer days. They need to play smart positional hockey in their own zone, and this means their forwards need to think in all three zones.

RANDOM USELESS BUT FUN PLAYOFF FACTS - The New Jersey franchise’s first playoff appearance came in 1978 as the Colorado Rockies, losing to the Flyers in two games. They wouldn’t qualify for the playoffs again for ten years, when they were the Devils. Carolina’s franchise was born in the World Hockey Association in 1972 as the New England Whalers. They won the championship – the Avco Cup – in their first year.

OUR PICK - The easy pick would be to stick with the team that never loses anymore. The clever and trendy pick would be to go with the young upstart team with the rookie goalie. While Carolina has had a better season than anyone could have imagined, the Devils aren’t merely hot – they’ve been the best team in the league over the past few months consistently. With two lines of Gionta, Gomez, Zach Parise and Elias between Sergei Brylin and Langenbrunner, and the calming influence of the unspectacular but steady Brodeur, it looks from here like the Devils will move on. New Jersey in 6.