Round three is over, after two very anti-climatic series, compared to the round two match-ups, and I have another 500 record. Right about Detroit, wrong about Carolina. Nevertheless, thanks to the first round, I'm 10-4 overall, despite going 500 in the previous two rounds.
Like the last two articles in this series, I'm going to analyze the future of the losing teams and then predict the final winner. Unlike the previous two rounds, nobody looked bad and saw their career take a nosedive, so I won't have to write a section like that this time. So what does the future hold for the two losers?
This year's playoffs have punctured a theme that happens frequently in the postseason; an underdog team gets hot goaltending that propels them to the Stanley Cup with the goaltender winning the Conn Smythe trophy.
Secretly, I had been predicting a Vancouver-Carolina final based on that theory only to have Luongo and now Ward scored on like they were sieves. By no means is this defeat all Ward's fault.
In this round Carolina looked like a Don Cherry-Boston Bruin team from the 1970s. An average team with good goaltending that works so hard it can beat "superior" teams that aren't willing to pay the price but no match for any team with more talent that works just as hard as them.
Carolina was the hottest team in the last twenty games of the regular season and carried that momentum into two rounds of the playoffs. But Pittsburgh showed up their limitations. As long as Carolina has Cam Ward and the work ethic, they will make the playoffs regularly and will probably win a few series.
But to win the Stanley Cup again, they are going to have to upgrade their talent base. They looked very slow compared to Pittsburgh.
They need young players who will buy into the work ethic, who have speed, and can play a physical game; probably about half a dozen top young players in that mould. Good drafting and astute trading in the next two years could push Carolina to the top again.
The good news for Chicago is how far they have progressed this year. With all the talent they've displayed they shouldn't have any more drought periods where they fail to make the playoffs for a long time to come.
The bad news for Chicago is how far they are behind Detroit (and probably Anaheim too) when it comes to being a Stanley Cup contender. Chicago could not win even when Detroit was missing four key men.
Chicago's offense and goaltending are as good as Detroit and Anaheim, but they can't match those teams in either defensive and above all physical play. It's hard to see where this team goes from here other than adding more talent.
Chicago is great against teams that aren't overtly physical but can be shut down by tough, physical teams that have good goaltending and play good defense. If they had played Detroit or Anaheim in the first round, they would not have got as far as they did.
The problem is that Chicago's top players are not physical players but highly skilled marksmen. If they had a wish list, it would be to add Mark Messier, Esa Tikkonen, Scott Stevens, and Dennis Potvin to their lineup. It's that kind of player that Chicago is going to have to draft or trade for if they want to advance further.
After one year, we're back where we started from with Pittsburgh and Detroit. The theme of this year's final seems to be that Pittsburgh is an improved team that at least will do better than last year, if not win the Stanley Cup.
Pittsburgh is an improved team in two ways: they have more playoff experience and they've got better coaching than last year. Dan Bylsma gets a lot more out of his players than his predecessor. Pittsburgh can win the series if a combination of the following occurs:
1. There is a clear difference in goaltending in Pittsburgh's favour.
2. Crosby and Malkin establish themselves as a can't-be-stopped combination.
3. Pittsburgh does not get adversely affected by Detroit's physical play.
4. Detroit continues to suffer a loss of key personnel, something that hardly affected them against Chicago, but might affect them against a better Pittsburgh team.
As for Detroit, they keep rolling along. In the last game against Chicago, they had four key players out of the lineup and still won. And until you are the champion, you have to prove it. Defending champions seldom lose in the final. Ask yourself about the four factors listed above:
1. There's not going to be much difference between Osgoode and Fleury.
2. Crosby and Malkin are improved players but they can't do it all themselves. In 1983, the defending champion New York Islanders made Gretzky and Messier, members of a much more talented Edmonton team than the current Pittsburgh team disappear.
Next year, the wear and tear of the playoffs started to tell on the older Islander team and the championship finally changed hands. But except for Chris Chelios, there's been no significant drop-off in Detroit's play.
3. Pittsburgh plays more like Chicago than Anaheim.
4. Even with four key players out, Detroit still beat Chicago in only five games. By the time the series starts, some or all of the missing players will be back healthy.
So this series is two superior guys against a whole team of players of which the vast majority are better than the rest of your guys. Two against many. Pittsburgh is outnumbered.
Detroit is a more physical team and there are too many of them. Detroit limited Crosby and Malkin last year. New York limited Gretzky and Messier, 26 years ago. It's more of the same this year. Detroit in five or six games.