2010 NHL Playoffs: Eastern Conference Finals Preview & Prediction
While the Western Conference Finals sees the top two seeds square off to determine a Stanley Cup Finalist, the Eastern Conference has provided quite a twist this postseason.
The seventh-seeded Philadelphia Flyers will play the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens. Both teams are very unlikely picks to get this far and are set to do battle for the right to represent the East in the Cup Final.
The Montreal Canadiens have turned their city upside down, as the club tries to get back to the Finals since winning it all in 1993. After coming back from a 3-1 deficit against the President Trophy-winning Washington Capitals, the Canadiens also came back from a 3-2 deficit to oust the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Pittsburgh Penguins.
In the process of getting to the Eastern Conference Finals, the Habs have taken down the game's best superstars in Alexander Ovechkin of the Capitals, and Sidney Crosby of the Penguins.
Meanwhile, the Flyers surprisingly disposed of the second-seeded New Jersey Devils with ease in the first round, and then pulled off one of the greatest comebacks in professional sports history, defeating the Boston Bruins in 7 games after being down 3-0 in the series.
Even more amazing: Philly came back after being down 3-0 in Game 7 on the road.
Get set to watch the two Cinderella teams take each other, and unfortunately, the clock will eventually strike midnight for one of these squads.
I'm pretty sure that when this postseason started about a month ago, nobody expected it to be Jaroslav Halak vs. Michael Leighton in the Eastern Conference Finals. If you did, well hopefully you put a wager down, as you probably would have won pretty big.
Halak has been absolutely dynamite in these playoffs, as he has backstopped the Habs past two offensive juggernauts in Washington and Pittsburgh. He has had a couple of rough games, but hey, nobody is perfect.
He has faced the most shots out of any other goaltender in these playoffs, and his save percentage is also the best out of all goalies to play at least 10 playoff games.
At the other end, there was a worry that the goaltending for the Flyers wouldn't be strong, but it was quite the opposite, as Brian Boucher outdueled the great Martin Brodeur in the first round. Boucher eventually got hurt in the second round against the Bruins, but it really didn't make much of a difference, as Michael Leighton stepped up his game, especially when it mattered the most in Game 7.
Although Leighton did play relatively well in Game 7, and also in relief of Boucher in Game 6, the Habs netminder is playing in a totally different world.
The Canadiens defensive corps has done well as a group, shutting down such big stars as Alexander Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Alexander Semin in the first two rounds. That same effort will be required in the Eastern Conference Finals, as Mike Richards and Simon Gagne will have to be contained.
Hal Gill has been instrumental in the one-on-one battles, while Roman Hamrlik and Jaroslav Spacek have provided sound veteran presence on the back end. Marc-Andre Bergeron is an important cog on the powerplay, while rookie PK Subban has shown the poise of a 15-year veteran at times, while also bringing some spunk and flair to the blueline.
Josh Gorges plays an unspectacular but solid game as well.
It's quite possible that Andrei Markov, who is arguably one of the best defenseman in the game, might return at some point during this series, which will only boost the team's morale.
The Flyers boast one of the strongest back ends in the entire league, led by former Hart and Norris trophy winner Chris Pronger, who has done exactly what he was brought in to do last offseason, and that is provide some great offensive and defensive prowess, while being the rock in the locker room.
Kimmo Timonen is also one of the more talented blueliners in the league, and although age is starting to catch up to him, he still has the ability to make the dangerous play when least unexpected.
Matt Carle and Braydon Coburn are both very young, and though prone to the occasional error, can be very solid contributors and minute-munchers.
Ryan Parent and Lukas Krajicek make up the third defensive pairing, and do what is required in limited minutes.
Although collectively the Habs have been very sound defensively, the top four of the Flyers will pose a lot of problems for Montreal's smaller forwards.
This is one area that would have favored Philly hands down, as the club possesses one of the most talented and deep lineups up front, but injuries have changed that advantage significantly.
Philly is powered by their captain, and one of the best two-way players in the league, Mike Richards. He has been one of the better performers in the postseason, and currently sits among the top 10 scorers.
Peter Laviolette likes to shake up his lines quite a bit, so it could always be different combinations every shift, let alone every game.
Usually, Simon Gagne and Claude Giroux line up with Richards on the top line. Gagne has missed a good chunk of games this postseason, but since he did return in Game 4 against Boston, Philly did not lose a game, so there might be something there (although of course, that could all be coincidence).
Giroux has the talent to see the ice very well, and make big plays when you least expect them. Of course, being so young, he is prone to having mental lapses, and can be very inconsistent. The same could also be said of James van Riemsdyk, who has been very up and down in these playoffs.
Danny Briere had a quite regular season, but has been absolutely on fire in the postseason. Scott Hartnell, Aaron Aasham and Dan Carcillo provide some toughness, but also can put the puck in the net from time to time.
Ville Leino was an afterthought for most of the first round, but started to come around against the Bruins in key situations. Blair Betts and Darroll Powe are two of the better fourth-line players in the league, and both have the ability to play on another line when necessary.
Of course, losing Ian Laperriere and Jeff Carter for the rest of the playoffs hurts the team quite a bit, but it's quite possible that the latter might make a miraculous return during this series.
Montreal has seen Michael Cammalleri turn into a postseason hero in these playoffs, as the 27-year-old leads all players in goals, and has been a threat every time he steps on the ice.
Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta and Tomas Plekanec have been the team's best players, which is exactly what is expected of them.
Andrei Kostistyn, and his younger brother Sergei, have been huge disappointments this year, and haven't contributed much. However, it has been the role players that have stepped up their play: Maxim Lapierre, Travis Moen, Dominic Moore and Tom Pyatt have played exceptional at various times.
Mathieu Darche, Benoit Pouliot, and Glen Metropolit make up the fourth unit, steady and doing their job in limited minutes.
Advantage: Philadelphia, but very slightly
Both teams have had great stories in this year's postseason for very different reasons. Unfortunately, one of these two teams will have to go home, while the other moves on to the Stanley Cup Final.
The difference in this series will be Jaroslav Halak. He has been phenomenal in these playoffs, and at this point, is probably the frontrunner for the Conn Smythe.
However, I don't expect this Philly squad to go quietly. It is going to be another long and thrilling series, and both teams will put on quite a show.
Prediction: Canadiens in seven