To me, Chris Berman will always be the Swami. His fearless, if sometimes off-the-wall, NFL predictions have long been one of my favorite SportsCenter segments.
But there is fear today in Boomer's Bristol, Conn. office. Fear that he may ultimately lose the title of Swami to yours truly, if my run of winning Stanley Cup playoff predictions continues.
After picking seven of eight winners in the first round of the National Hockey League Playoffs, I managed a strong round two as well, posting a 3-1 won-loss record. I correctly picked the Penguins, Hurricanes, and Wings to be part of the National Hockey League's final four, with only the Blackhawks messing up my perfect record.
That gives me a 10-2 record overall in the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs, a statistic that hasn't earned me any money to this point. Unless, of course, you count the thumping I'm giving my friends and family in the annual MacDonald Clan playoff hockey pool.
But what to do for an encore? How about picking the winners of the NHL's conference finals? Sounds like a plan to me.
So without further ado, here are my selections for the Eastern and Western Conference championship series. As usual, no guarantees, but I think they are just about as reliable as Gary Bettman's claims that he doesn't have any personal animosity towards Jim Balsillie.
Series M—Pittsburgh Penguins (4) vs. Carolina Hurricanes (6)
Season Series: The teams spilt the regular season series, with each club winning twice. One of Carolina's victories came in overtime.
Playoff History: This is the first time the two teams have met in a Stanley Cup playoff series.
Stanley Cup Experience: The Hurricanes have nine players who have taken a drink from Lord Stanley's mug. Pittsburgh has five players on the roster with Stanley Cup rings and most of the key players return from the team that went all the way to the Stanley Cup finals in 2008.
Who's Hot: Pittsbugh captain Sidney Crosby leads all playoff scores with 12 goals and 21 points, while Art Ross Trophy winner Evgeni Malkin sits third with 19 points. Sophomore defenseman Kris Letang had three goals and three assists against the Capitals, while veteran Ruslan Fedetenko had five points in the last five games of the Washington series.
For Carolina, center Eric Staal continues to shine with nine goals and 13 points through two rounds. After a slow start, winger Sergei Samsonov caught fire against the Bruins with four goals in the final five games of the series. Defenseman Joni Pitkanen had a pair of huge assists in Game Seven to break out of a postseason slump.
Who's Not: Winger Petr Sykora has virtually played himself out of the Penguins lineup after going pointless in six games and has been replaced by Miroslav Satan. The same goes for winger Pascal Dupuis, who's been a healthy scratch the last three games after failing to record a point in 10 games to start the playoffs. Despite 23 goals during the year, Chris Kunitz is still looking for his first tally of the postseason.
Carolina's getting little or no offensive support from their third and fourth leading scorers during the regular season. Center Tuomo Ruutu has only a goal and three assists in 14 games after recording 54 points in 79 regular season contests, while captain Rod Brind'amour, fresh off a 51-point campaign, has just two points through two rounds. Power play specialist Anton Babchuck, has only one assist in 12 playoff starts after scoring 16 goals during the regular season. He also gives Hurricane supporters a heart attack every time he handles the puck on his own end.
Key Matchup: Eric Staal vs. Jordan Staal. Brotherly love will take a back seat to a potential Stanley Cup title when two of the NHL's three Staal brothers hook up in a classic head-to-head matchup. Eric is the undisputed offensive leader of the Hurricanes, while younger brother Jordan is Pittsburgh's premiere defensive center. Both are big, fast, and physical. This should make for interesting conversation at this summer's family barbecues.
X-Factor: A driven Sidney Crosby. The Pittsburgh captain seems to be a bit upset he didn't receive a Hart Trophy nomination as the league's most valuable player and is intent on reclaiming his status as the National Hockey League's top player. His intensity and performance were both off the charts in the Washington series and he probably won't be satisfied with anything less than a Stanley Cup ring in 2009.
Prediction: Despite Carolina's strong run, the Penguins are just too talented. Take the Penguins in six.
Series N - Detroit (2) vs. Chicago (4)
Season Series: The Red Wings one four of six games during the regular campaign, with two of the victories coming in overtime. One of the Detroit wins was a 6-4 triumph in the NHL's Winter Classic at Wrigley Field on New Year's Day.
Playoff History: Perhaps surprisingly, the Blackhawks hold an 8-6 edge in the playoff series between the two teams. It's been a while since they met in the postseason, however, with the last meeting coming in the 1995 Conference final (won by Detroit in five games). The clubs have met twice in the Stanley Cup final, in 1934 and 1961 and both series were won by the Blackhawks. The 1961 Cup victory was the last time the Chicago franchise captured hockey's ultimate prize.
Stanley Cup Experience: As the defending champions, it's not surprising that the Red Wings have 22 players on the roster with at least one Stanley Cup ring. Five Detroit players—Nick Lidstrom, Tomas Holmstrom, Kris Draper, Kirk Maltby and Darren McCarty—have their name on the cup four times.
Chicago has three players with championships including starting goalkeeper Nikolai Khabibulin, who backstopped Tampa Bay to the 2004 title.
Who's Hot: Winger Johan Franzen had six goals and three assists against Anaheim and leads the team with 15 points in 11 games. The 2008 Conn Smythe Trophy winner Henrik Zetterberg also caught fire in the second round, recording at least one point in all seven games (3-7-10). Six-time Norris winner Nick Lidstrom is on a point-a-game pace through two rounds with three goals and eight assists in 11 games.
For Chicago, second-year winger Patrick Kane exploded in the Vancouver series with eight points in six games, including a hat-trick in the series-clinching game six. Fellow sophomore Jonathan Toews broke out of a mini-slump with two goals and an assist in Game Six, while Martin Havlat continued his torrid pace with seven more points against the Canucks to raise his team-leading total to 13. Third-line center Dave Bolland was also on fire in the conference semifinals, contributing six points in six games.
Who's Not: The strange disappearance of Pavel Datsyuk from the scoring summaries continues to baffle observers. The Red Wings' leading scorer in the regular season with 97 points contributed only three assists against the Ducks, and has just a goal and four assists in 11 playoff games. Similarly, Datsyuk's frequent linemate, winger Marian Hossa, has also underachieved. Except for a two-goal performance in Game Four, the All-Star had just a single assist in the seven game series with Anaheim.
For the Hawks, center Patrick Sharp had only a single point in the final four games against Vancouver and he'll need to contribute if Chicago has a chance against the defending champs.
Key Matchup: Nikolai Khabibulin vs. Chris Osgood. Both goalkeepers have overcome long stretches of mediocre play during the regular season to get their respective teams to this point. Still, the prospect of one or both blowing up at a key moment in the series remains a real possibility. With talented shooters on both sides, good goaltending will be required to make a trip to the Stanley Cup finals.
X-Factor: Scotty Bowman. Nobody knows the Red Wings' system and players better than their former coach. If anyone can give the Hawks the insight they need to pull the upset, it's Bowman.
Prediction: The Red Wings looked vulnerable against a one-line Anaheim team in the conference semifinals. They'll have to play much better to beat a deep Chicago squad. It says here that won't happen. The Blackhawks pull the upset in seven games.
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