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.

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