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
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
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?
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
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:
This year was supposed to be the year
Another oops. I clearly didn’t respect
…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.
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:
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 Buffalo Should Be Afraid – Tim 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
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.
Random Useless But Fun Playoff Facts – overall, the NHL’s
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