The Conference Quarterfinals were quite the spectacle to watch this year, with three different series going to seven games. Not only that, but there were some veritable "upsets", like Philadelphia removing the League's MVP (or at least I think so) Alexander Ovechkin from the playoff race by eliminating the Capitals.
However, there are some subtle differences between the Quarters and the Semis that will pose new challenges to teams like New York and Colorado. There gap of talent between the first round and the second round is tremendous, and it looks as if more intensive thought must go into each series before picking a winner:
(1) Montreal Canadiens vs. (6) Philadelphia Flyers
Flyers fans rejoice! Jump for joy! You've made it into the Semifinals! Okay...did you celebrate yet? Good. Savor it. Because the difference between Washington and Montreal is substantial. I hope I didn't break your spirits.
The fact is, Philadelphia was facing a team that hadn't made the playoffs since 2001, when they lost to Pittsburgh in the first round in six games. While the next few years they rode Jaromir Jagr's back through the NHL, they continued to decline. It seems that Washington doesn't really excel when there is only one star on the rise in the America's capital.
Now, I'm not saying that Washington isn't a fluid team with great offensive abilities. However, I am saying that history does repeat itself, and Ovechkin just happened to be in the playoffs for the first time, reaching uncharted waters, so to speak. They will be back next year, just like Crosby and the Penguins returned this year from last year's heartbreak to Ottawa.
What we can learn from this Washington fact is that Philadelphia did outplay the Capitals in game seven this year. Joffrey Lupul's goal did catch Christobal Huet off guard (and let me just say that Olaf Kolzig should have played game seven, due to his ability of being extremely clutch). Nevertheless, the Capitals came back in game six while on the ropes to beat Philadelphia in their own building. Now the question becomes whether or not the unsure Flyers squad will be able to handle a quicker, more cohesive Canadiens team.
Then we have to look at the other side of the card towards Montreal. They too were winners in seven, but they were only one game away from being eliminated by the stagnant regular season Boston Bruins, who did not impress with their play this off-season. Another question that arises is whether or not Montreal will be able to harness their abilities in time to control a surging Daniel Briere and the rest of the Flyers.
Look for this series to be a hard hitting one, as well as the true test will come from which team's defense will be solid enough to stop one another's star players. I believe that Montreal's special teams play will be too much for the constantly penalized Flyers to handle, especially if the Flyers plan to play Martin Biron as much as they did against the Caps. Finally, it looks like the NHL overlooked Carey Price for the Vezina Trophy, because he is looking like the best goaltender in the postseason right now.
Max's Prediction: Montreal in Five Games
(2) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (5) New York Rangers
As of right now (yes, right now), the world is watching Martin Brodeur's career begin to decline. People have been wondering when Brodeur will begin to lose his luster that he's been able to keep for so long. As this past round has proved, this will be the beginning of the end for Brodeur.
When the Rangers would play the Devils this season, it seemed that one man, Sean Avery, was the only man with skates on who could deliberately piss Martin Brodeur off to the point where it affected his play. I have never seen Brodeur so emphatically pissed off about something until I saw the regular season game where Avery, after making a great individual play, skated in and (maybe accidentally, maybe not) ran into Brodeur. Brodeur was so angry, he pushed Avery, expecting nothing to happen in response. Clearly, Brodeur had temporary Alzheimer's because he forgot that Sean Avery is going to mess you up if you try to mess with him first. Brodeur went flying backwards as if he was being tugged from behind by a rope that was attached to his waist.
Then, Avery pulled his childish taunting routine in the Quarters. Brodeur, as a result, became affected by after Avery left, because Avery would skate into the zone less than a minute later and beat Brodeur short side to the left. While I am not advocating Avery's conduct, I am advocating that Brodeur is suddenly become less and less of the classy player that he has been known to be.
And it showed when Avery was not on the ice. The Rangers pelted Brodeur with shots and Brodeur, trying to be the savior as always, would tend to be out of position and lackadaisical at times, proving fatal for the Devils squad.
However, do not take this section as an "I hate Brodeur" shopping list. The Devils skaters really did not do anything to help out their goaltender. They did not produce on the power play, they could not shut down Jagr, Gomez, Drury, and Avery, and they all around became a shell of the team that they used to be. It is a tough time today to be a Devils fan.
Focusing the attention towards the Semifinals, the New York Rangers need to prove that their victory over the Devils was not a lucky break, as the Pittsburgh Penguins are on tear, shutting out the Ottawa Senators in four games during the Quarterfinals. The second-best team in the Eastern Conference, led by Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, have been offensive waterfalls, as they have flooded their stat sheets with goals and assists for not just the stars, but also for long-time veterans like Gary Roberts and Petr Sykora, as well as younger stars Ryan Malone and Marian Hossa.
The way the Semifinal match sets up is that the Rangers must be able to have their defense shut down the setup abilities of Crosby and finishing abilities of Malkin, as well as penetrating through the defensive prowess of Sergei Gonchar on the blue line. All Pittsburgh needs to do is keep bursting through the neutral zone while skating the puck, and the line chemistry will do the rest.
Finally, the true defensive test for both teams will rest on the net-minders, Pittsburgh's Marc Andre Fleury and New York's Henrik Lundqvist. Both goaltenders did amazing jobs in their Quarters, and it will be a true test of sheer will power to see which goalie will be the savior in net, assuming that there will be overtime games played (which there probably will be, and count on impressive goaltending from both ends).
Max's Prediction: Pittsburgh in Six Games
(1) Detroit Red Wings vs. (6) Colorado Avalanche
It's just ironic how certain things come back to haunt us. And I mean haunt in a good way. The Avalanche/Red Wing series has been played five times between 1996-2002 (Avalanche with a 3-2 rivalry lead). This one will be the sixth, and will be one to remember in the rivalry for a while.
Whenever these two teams play, you can expect the game of hockey to be played at a heightened sense from all team personnel on the ice at all times. The series has always been chronicled by hard hitting and incredible goaltending, scratching the surface with names like Roy and Hasek. It seems that this series will feature the same goaltending battles, as Dominik Hasek still dons the red and white, while Jose Theodore in Colorado continues to defy pucks from entering his net, something he did well in Montreal, and continues to get better at in the Mile High City.
The Red Wings seem to have a handle on their team play, as their domination over the Nashville Predators was sound and, while they did lose to the Preds twice, they were close games that could have went either way. The Wings' special teams continues to be a top five force in the NHL, and Nicklas Lidstrom keeps the blue line tighter than ever, as he is sure to win the Norris Trophy (yes, again) this year. As if Lidstrom wasn't reason enough, Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, and Tomas Holmstrom are keeping the highlight reels covered whenever their blades touch the ice, and it will be hard for the Colorado defensive corps to handle.
Peter Forsberg and Joe Sakic are familiar with the Wings/Avalanche rivalry, having participated in each a number of them (Sakic in all of them). Just as long as the Colorado offense (Sakic, Forsberg, Wolski, Hejduk, Smyth, and Svatos...namely) keeps scoring goals, the Avalanche should have a good even surface to play on against the Wings. However, it will come down to the abilities of the Colorado defense, mainly in the arms of Ruslan Salei and Adam Foote, to shut down the powerful Detroit offensive line-up.
This series will be a tough one, as there are sure to be plenty of bone crunching hits, as well as very close scoring situations, the majority turning into stalemates for overtime to decide (more so than the Rangers/Penguins series). Whichever team that decides to respond the strongest from their Quarterfinals series, and address the rivalry the most seriously, will be the victor in the end.
Max's Prediction: Detroit in Seven Games
(2) San Jose Sharks vs. (5) Dallas Stars
Well, I'm proud to say that I was right about the Sharks, although it took one more game than I thought for them to prove me right. However, I don't believe that the Sharks did as much as they could have during the earlier part of their series with the Calgary Flames, which clearly looked to be the better team during play.
If the Sharks intend to win their series against the Stars, they will need their veterans to step up big time. The main issue that was prevalent with the Sharks was that their defense did not seem to be in the playoff mindset, mainly in the play of Brian Campbell. He looked shaky and unsure during his ice time, and made bad decisions with the puck, especially on the power play, once resulting in a shorthanded tally for the Flames. Also, the Sharks defense needs to start out-letting the puck quicker and more accurately, as Calgary is a speedy team and intercepted many mid-ice passes from behind the San Jose blue line. Plus, the entire team needs to take more shots on the power play, as it looked like they were trying to make the fancy play, which doesn't have a necessary place in playoff hockey (Washington did the same thing, and it got them nowhere).
The Dallas Stars did what some people were skeptical about: eliminating the defending Stanley Cup Champion Anaheim Ducks. They did it with such effectiveness and force, and Mike Modano came out of his shell from the regular season and turned it on this postseason, scoring two goals and four assists. Also, players like Loui Eriksson and Stephane Robidas, virtually low key players for the stars, netted eleven points between them, as well as Mike Ribeiro and Brendan Morrow lighting the lamp for the Stars offense.
What the Sharks need to address is the explosiveness of the Stars offense in Modano and Ribeiro, as well as making sure that they do not take too many penalties, as the Stars special teams are highly effective when given a chance to fire away. For the Stars, Marty Turco needs to outshine Vezina Trophy candidate Evgeni Nabokov in goal if the Stars expect to continue on to the next round. As long as that happens, the Stars skaters will take care of the rest.
Max's Prediction: Sharks in Seven Games