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.

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