NHL Final Four: Preview Of Stanley Cup Conference Finals
Scott Walker proved to be the knock-out punch for Carolina, in more than one way, as the Hurricanes became the fourth and final team to mark their spot in the NHL Conference Finals.
Joining them will be last year's Eastern Conference Champs, the Pittsburgh Penguins, who will be chomping at the bit for another Stanley Cup appearance.
In the West, it's the Chicago Blackhawks against their Original Six rival Detroit Red Wings.
The Second Round gave fans everything they could ask for and more. They won't get much time to catch their breath, though, because the Conference Finals begin Sunday in Detroit.
With three out of the four Second Round series going to seven games, it will be hard to determine who really has the upper hand coming into this one.
As each team comes in loaded with young talent and just enough experience to advance, fans can expect one wild ride no matter who wins.
Eastern Conference Final: Pittsburgh Penguins (4) vs. Carolina Hurricanes (6)
In arguably the most evenly matched series, the Penguins and the Hurricanes will face in Pittsburgh for Game One on Monday night, with neither team having a real advantage over the other.
Both teams went the distance in their previous series against Washington and Boston. Pittsburgh came back from a 3-1 deficit in their series, and Carolina, after giving up a 3-1 lead against the Bruins, still pulled it out.
The team leaders, Sidney Crosby and Eric Staal, have become proven playoff performers. Crosby leads all players in both points (21) and goals (12), with Staal close behind (9 G, 13 P).
Both teams also possess other offensive talent, including the league's season top scorer, Evgeni Malkin, and Carolina’s ageless wonder, Ray Whitney.
Behind the stars, each team has had considerable contributions from their role players. Ruslan Fedotenko, Bill Guerin, and Kris Letang have each made clutch plays for Pittsburgh, while Jussi Jokinen and Chad Larose have been pleasant surprises for the Hurricanes so far.
Don't forget about the defense and the guys around the nets though.
Cam Ward has stolen the show in the 2009 Playoffs, plain and simple. With a .927 save %, 2.22 GAA, and two shutouts, he is the reason why the Hurricanes are here.
He has out-played, and out-lasted two of the best goalies in the league in the first two series (greatest of all time candidate Marty Brodeur, and probable Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas) and shows no signs of slowing down.
Marc-Andre Fleury's stats don't live up to that of a team-leading goalie (.901 save %, 2.72 GAA, 0 shutouts) but he has been rock steady when needed, coming up with some miraculous clutch saves.
The edge goes to Carolina around the net, but both goalies have proven they can perform when needed. Look for some huge performances from these two.
On the blue line, the biggest concern for the Penguins is the health of Sergei Gonchar, who is still recovering from a knee-on-knee collision with Alex Ovechkin last week. He played in their last game, but may still be playing with some considerable pain.
Kris Letang has stepped up since Gonchar's injury, and is staking his claim as one of the best young defenders in the league, while also showing a knack for the net.
Carolina's defense isn't pretty and they're not out for style points, but they certainly get the job done. Joni Pitkanen, Joe Corvo, and Tim Gleason were huge in the Boston series, shutting down the potent Bruins offense for long periods of time.
While plenty of games are decided by defense, this series might come down to whoever scores last, wins. We could be in for yet another All-Star showdown between Staal and Crosby, going pound-for-pound and goal-for-goal until one remains standing.
Ward and Fleury should rest up while they can, because once this thing gets started, they won't be sleeping much.
There are a lot of players that a team would want on the ice in the final minutes of the most important game of the season. Jussi Jokinen isn't one of those players.
Or at least he wasn't until the playoffs started.
Out of their eight wins, Jokinen has scored the game winner three times, and has been one of Carolina's best players throughout the first two rounds.
In a series that may come down to the wire, look for Jokinen to come out of the shadows while everyone focuses on the big guns, and continue to put a stake in the heart of his opponents.
Pittsburgh has proven that the series is never over until it's over.
Carolina has proven that the game is never over until it's over.
Hint: You might want to keep watching until this thing is over.
With each team's ability to come back from impossible odds, look for a very back-and-fourth type series, with plenty of goals and highlights for fans.
This series will come down to Sidney Crosby. "Sid the Kid," the nickname that doesn't fit the player, has never played as well as he is right now, and that is saying a lot. With the memory of last years loss still fresh in his memory, there is no way Crosby is letting any other team have a chance at raising Lord Stanley's Mug.
After coming out of a series going blow-for-blow with Ovechkin, there's no one else capable of standing in his way now. Whether it's a team effort, or Sid carries them into the Finals on his back, there is no way Crosby is going to let his team lose.
Case closed: Penguins in Six.
Western Conference Final: Detroit Red Wings (2) vs. Chicago Blackhawks (4)
Original Six rivals.
And enough history between the two to fill a library, the Hawks and Wings are by no means strangers.
This can only bode well for fans watching this series.
These two teams have battled it out longer than any fan can remember, or player on the team for that matter. The two cities will be buzzing with anticipation.
The Red Wings are the reigning Stanley Cup Champions looking to win back-to-back since, well, they last did it. Chicago, after already completing the best comeback of the franchise, is looking to put the sugar on top by reaching the Finals since Patrick Kane was six years old, 14 years ago.
The Red Wings are the only team in the league that have more Cup rings in the change room then cups of the jock variety. There are 19 players on Detroit who have won the Stanley Cup at least once.
Chicago only has three players that have won the Cup. In fact, for the majority of the team, this is the first time they've ever been in the playoffs at all!
Not too bad for a team of inexperienced kids though.
Detroit has veteran stars who know exactly what to do to win the Cup, because they did it 13 months ago.
Lead by one of the greatest defenseman of all time, Nik Lidstrom, the Red Wings come into the Conference Finals coming off their first Game Seven since they shell-shocked Patrick Roy and the Colorado Avalanche in the final game of their 2002 Conference Championship.
They were tested by Anaheim and it was shown that this team can be beat.
The stars Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk are capable of taking over any game at any time, but so far in the playoffs, they have been lackluster, especially Datsyuk who has only one goal. Struggling or not though, these two know what it takes to win, and now that the finals are so close, don't expect them to keep quiet.
The usual playoff show stealer, Johan Franzen, is up to his tricks this year once again, proving last year was no fluke and that he is still a dangerous threat.
For Chicago, on the other hand, the offensive game hasn't been a problem whatsoever. Since being questioned on their first playoff appearance, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Teows have quieted speculators.
They have shown, along with Patrick Sharp and Martin Havlat, that they can stun the opponent with a non-stop, spread out attack. Both the Vancouver Canucks and Calgary Flames are sitting at home because they could not contain the Hawks this attack.
It does not stop there for Chicago. Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, Dave Bolland, and super-rookie Kris Versteeg, along with the rest of the cast, have all stepped up.
On the back end, the defense for Detroit might be the best in the entire league. With Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski, Brad Stuart, and Niklas Kronwall standing tall, even getting a chance to score is slim not to mention actually putting one in the net.
But Chicago boasts a rather impressive defensive line. With young, solid blue-liners Brian Campbell, Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith, and Cam Barker, the Hawks can stop any attacking team, and can out-skate almost anyone at the same time.
If there was ever a match up of two Stanley Cup seasoned goalies, it is this one between Chris Osgood and Nikolai Khabibulin. Both have rings and considerable knowledge of how to buckle down and steal a game for their team in the playoffs.
This is a series of old vs. young and experienced vs. inexperienced, with the Red Wings looking to continue their legacy, and Chicago looking to start theirs.
When was the last time you saw Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo lose his cool and his focus in a game?
You might not have to think too hard, since Hawks' forward Dustin Byfuglien was able to get Luongo off his game on a nightly basis by crashing the net.
It worked for the Hawks in the last round, so look for Byfuglien to be right in Osgood's face immediately, crashing the crease on a frequent basis.
If Osgood starts to worry about the Hawks' tough guy too much, look for Chicago to take advantage just as they did with Luongo.
Experience is an advantage for the Red Wings in this series, that is no secret, but the skilled Blackhawks have been able to strangle their previous two opponents with a physical onslaught on every line and a mental manipulation of the goaltender.
This year will mark the beginning of the end for the Red Wings dominance over the NHL, and Chicago's young speed and skill will prove too much for the aging Wings.
The Blackhawks came into the playoffs labled the "up and comers," but they will prove with a win over the Red Wings that they are already here.
Khabibulin will outplay Osgood, who will not be able to withstand the kids of Chicago. Plus, the Blackhawks are 2-0 in their series against Canadian teams so far, and Detroit is about as close as you can get to Canada: Blackhawks in Six.
Yes, the New Kids on the Block are back in the music world, and the 2009 Stanley Cup Finals will be no different. A Pittsburgh vs. Chicago final will be the beginning of the new wave of NHL talent taking over in the playoffs, and battling for that title of NHL Champion.
Hold on to your hats, kids.
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