Today is the beginning of the Final Four in this years road to the Stanley Cup. The one constant that has become apparent, as we approach the final two weeks in the quest for Lord Stanley's mug, is just how unpredictable these playoffs have thus far played out.
I have termed this years playoffs as the 'expect the unexpected' edition and hear is what I mean.
In the Eastern Conference Final, here we have the battle of the second seeded Pittsburgh Penguins and the sixth seeded Philadelphia Flyers. Two teams with youthful exuberance and limited playoff experience.
Did we expect the upstart Pittsburgh Penguins to so easily dispose of an equally talent laden Ottawa Senator team in just four games? Also, did we foresee them having their way with the veteran savvy of the New York Rangers led by the likes of previous Cup winners Jaromir Jagr and Brendan Shanahan?
Who would have expected that the worst team in the Eastern Conference last year - the Philadelphia Flyers - would make the playoffs in '08, let alone compete and win in this years playoffs? Did we expect them to so easily defeat two very talented teams in the Washington Capitals and the Montreal Canadiens?
Over in the Western Conference we can see a very similar story unfolding in regards to the Dallas Stars and their rise above mediocrity in this years quest for the 'Holy Grail.' Who would have predicted that the Stars would manhandle last years Cup winners the Anaheim Ducks in relative ease? While they were at it, they made several hockey pundits look mortal as they disposed of one of the Cup favourites in the San Jose Sharks in similar ease. Coming into the playoffs the Sharks were the hottest team in the last twenty games of the regular season. Who saw that derailment coming?
The only expected team to travel without a hiccup in these playoffs have been the Detroit Red Wings and their disposal of the feisty Nashville Predators and the simple dismantling of Jose Theodore and the Colorado Avalanche. The only unexpected and unforeseen moment in regards to the Wings 2008 juggernaut thus far has been that goalie Chris Osgood and his playoff best goals against average of 1.52 has sent veteran playoff icon Dominik Hasek to the end of the bench and is now in an unfamiliar back-up roll.
You can expect to see some more exciting hockey as we head into the Stanley Cup Finals and here is my breakdown as to how I see this years remaining Final Four matching-up.
Western Conference Finals
Detroit Red Wings (1) vs Dallas Stars (5)
Begins tonight (May 8th) in Detroit.
The Red Wings played some great defence this year against the Stars. They won three of four matches and out scored Dallas 12-5. Both teams had a shutout.
The Wings have played the Stars three times in both teams history. Unfortunately it was when Dallas played in Minnesota. The Wings won all three series, winning in the old 'Chuck' Norris division. The last time that they met was in 1998 and that went to Game 7.
"That loss in 1998 probably was the beginning of everything for us", Michigan native and former team captain Mike Modano told the Dallas Morning News of the Stars bouncing back in 1999 (after moving to Dallas) and winning the '99 Cup and losing in the 2000 finals. "That was the beginning of a lot of success for us. They (Wings) are just as good now as they were then."...Goalie Marty Turco who has been outstanding so far in '08 has an ugly 2-10-5 record against the Wings and hasn't won at the Joe Louis Arena since he played at the University of Michigan...The Stars are coming off four overtime games, the most in one NHL series since 1999 when they beat the St. Louis Blues in six...The wings are trying to reach the final for the fifth time since 1995...They are led by a pretty powerful group of players including Henrik Zetterberg (7-6-13 pts) and super scorer Johan Frantzen who leads the playoffs with 11 goals and having scored 10 in his last six games...on defence they are powered by the two Nicks' (Kronwall and Lidstrom)...The gritty Stars are being fronted by Mike Ribeiro and his 14 points and team captain Brenden Morrow (11 pts), throw in trade deadline acquisition Brad Richards and you have a formidable foe for the Red Wings...The wings are 7-0 when leading after two periods so far in these playoffs, but the Stars are the only team above .500 when trailing after two (3-2).
The only injuries to report are Detroit is missing C Tomas Kopecky (torn ACL knee) and Dallas will be without D Philippe Boucher, but he may return soon.
Keilty Predicts: Detroit in six.
Eastern Conference Finals
Pittsburgh Penguins (2) vs Philadelphia Flyers (6)
Begins tomorrow night (May 9th) in Pittsburgh.
Last season was a horrible year for Philly, they lost all eight meetings against the Pens.This year the Flyers won the first four games by a combined score of 20-8, they also won the season finale 2-0. The two teams had a lot of physical, almost violent games together. The Pens were rarely healthy with both star players Sidney Crosby and first string goalie Marc-Andre Fleury injured for most of these confrontations.
This is the latest in the playoff history of these two cross state rivals. The Flyers have won all three previous series, in 1989, '97 and 2000, with the '89 Patrick Division final going to Game 7.
It is probably a good thing that there is a very large mountain range that keeps these two teams apart. The four to five hour drive between the two rivals is also a good thing because these two teams do not like each other..that is a given.
Among the great battles that we will witness is Crosby (14 pts) against Daniel Briere (8-6-14pts), Evgeni Malkin versus the entire hard-hitting Flyer defence and a French Canadien goalie match-up between Fleury and former Buffalo Sabre cast-off Martin Biron...Flyer's red-hot sniper R.J. Umberger and his nine playoff goals is from the Pittsburgh area (he grew up in the Mario Lemieux era) and he will be battling another hometown boy in Ryan Malone, who backs down from no one...The late great Flyer head coach Fred Shero has some roots laid out in this Cup run, his son Ray is now running the show in Pittsburgh as their GM and present day architect of this very young and talented Penguins club...The Flyers are trying to become the first team since the '91 and '92 Pens to go the distance in a first round series and have enough 'mojo' left to win a Cup...Pens veteran Gary Roberts will be called upon to help keep the young Penguins focused and stable in the quest to make it back to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since winning it back to back in the early nineties.
The only major injuries to report are Mark Eaton is out for the Pens. The Flyers are missing LW Simon Gagne (concussion) and D Mike Rathje (hip/back).
Keilty Predicts: Pittsburgh in six.
There it is, we have come to expect the unexpected and that is what the playoffs are all about in any sport. Sometimes the underachiever, underdog, call them what you will, rise to the occasion when their season is on the line. No, we would never have expected the feisty Philadelphia Flyers (unless you are a die-hard Flyers fan) to be in this years Eastern Conference Final, but they are and between them and the gritty Dallas Stars this years Stanley Cup Final may still take an 'unexpected' turn. Either way, the excitement of this years playoffs is only growing, as are the nerves of both fans and players and even those playoff beards still have some growth left in them!