In what was a semifinal round for the ages (which, in my personal opinion, should be released in a DVD set with interviews, full games, and exclusives with players, coaches, and fans), four elite teams emerged. These four teams now meet in the Conference Finals starting on Sunday.
In the East, you have the Penguins, who are fresh off of an epic seven-game series with the Capitals, and the Hurricanes, who are coming from Boston after Scott Walker scored the Game Seven OT winner.
This Eastern Conference matchup will be all about the skill set of the Pens, the grit and no-quit demeanor of Carolina, and Staal vs. Staal.
Sidney Crosby leads all active participants in playoff scoring after scoring 13 points in the last series.
Leading the Canes into battle is Eric Staal, who had it rough in round two, having to contain the monster that is Zdeno Chara.
Staal played a great series against the Bruins; he stole a few games, aggravated Chara (we all know Chara would kill Staal if they fought, but Staal did an amazing job keeping composure in encounters with the 6'9" Boston captain), and has 13 points in the playoffs.
The Canes are 7-0 when Staal scores a goal and 1-6 when he doesn't.
Jordan has been relatively quiet compared to his older brother, scoring two goals and three helpers throughout the postseason, but now the spotlight is on him and his older brother, so a boost in point production could come.
The goaltender matchup should be interesting as well.
Cam Ward has proved time and time again that he can steal games and beat the sports elite. He has shown that this postseason, outdueling multiple-time Vezina winner and future HOF'er Martin Brodeur in a round one upset of the Devils and this year's favourite for the Vezina, Tim Thomas, and the Boston Bruins in the last series.
Marc-Andre Fleury is no slouch either. He has the experience behind him to carry a team to the Cup Finals. Fleury shut down the high-powered Capitals with a collection of highlight reel saves, including an early Game Seven save on an Alex Ovechkin breakaway, a save that changed the course of the game dramatically.
Season Series: Tied 2-2-0
Game One is set for Monday, May 18 at 7:30 pm, live from Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh.
The Western Conference tilt sets the defending champion Detroit Red Wings against their division rivals, the Chicago Blackhawks.
The Red Wings have owned the Hawks this season, winning the first four games of the season series before a home-and-home sweep at the end of the season by Chicago.
These two teams are notable for competing in the Winter Classic on New Year's Day at Wrigley Field.
Martin Havlat leads Chicago with 13 points in the playoffs; ditto for Johan Franzen, leading the Red Wings with 15 points this postseason.
The Blackhawks wiped the Canadian content this playoff, defeating the Flames and Canucks, both in six games.
Detroit swept the playoff rookie Blue Jackets before running into the juggernaut that is the Anaheim Ducks. The Wings fell behind early in that series, only to come back and win their first Game Seven since the 2002 Conference Finals against the Avalanche.
The Hawks' playoff highlight was their series clincher against the Canucks.
Patrick Kane got his first hat trick, and Roberto Luongo was lit up for seven goals in a game for the first time since his Islander days. The game, however, was still close as the Canucks came back and even had two leads, but the Hawks proved to be better, winning it 7-5.
These two teams have met 14 times before in the postseason, with the Hawks winning eight times to the Wings' six.
Ironically, the last time two "Original Six" teams met in a Conference Finals was Detroit and Chicago in 1995; Detroit won that series in five games.
Season Series: Detroit 4-2-0
Game One is set for Sunday, May 16 at 3:00 pm, live from Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.
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