I would tend to disagree, and would point at the late-'90s battles between any two of Detroit, Colorado, and Dallas as examples to the contrary.
That being said, this first round was rife with upsets, dominance, and great play.
For the record, even though I didn’t write an opening-round playoff column and there’s only one person who can vouch for this, I was seven for eight, in the First Round, correctly predicting all but Anaheim’s upset of San Jose.
Included in the predictions was calling all three sweeps, and that it would take Carolina seven games to KO New Jersey.
Now that the table has been set, let’s get to the now.
Western Conference Semi-Finals
(2) Detroit vs (8) Anaheim
The obvious conclusion to jump to here would sound something like ”Detroit is the defending champs, Anaheim is only the eighth seed, and they knocked off a team built for show, not for dough.”
But really, that doesn’t take much though, does it?
At this point, seeding means about as much as realism in a soap opera, so let’s forget that.
Pavel Datsyuk, who I believe was nominated for 17 NHL awards this year, is getting a lot of play as “the best all-around player in the NHL,” a mantle once reserved for the likes of Foppa himself, Peter Forsberg. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that he’s the best forward in this series.
Henrik Zetterberg, who is currently getting over the flu, should be ready for this series. He should have more than enough energy despite the flu, seeing as he screwed over a pool or three of mine by taking the regular season off.
Checking guru Kris Draper is seeing a doctor before Game One in hopes of getting cleared to play in spite of his “upper-body injury.” Ah, the vaunted upper-body injury.
Anaheim counters the finesse of Detroit’s top players (other than Franzen) with the bullishness of Ryan Getzlaf (who also clogs up the middle of the ice in the offensive zone fantastically—right, Joey T.?), Corey Perry—whose nickname should be “Bulldog” if it isn’t already—and the surprisingly gritty Bobby Ryan, whose forechecking caused San Jose nothing but fits in the first round.
If Anaheim can get any of these guys (who usually play on the same line) out against Detroit’s second defensive pairing of Kronwall and Stuart, and those two play as unevenly as they did in the regular season, Anaheim’s forwards could reach their full potential this series.
Otherwise, the way that Neidermayer & Pronger are playing, I think the forwards could cancel each other out. This would leave it up to the individual team’s grinders & depth players to score, in which case Detroit has the advantage.
Watching what I was able to of these teams respective series’, I noticed that Anaheim’s top D were highly visible, and Detroit’s weren’t. In both cases, this is a good thing.
Neidermayer was all over the offensive zone vs Columbus when it was warranted, and Pronger’s passing was pinpoint—he looked tremendous moving the puck in all areas of the ice. Lidstrom and Rafalski didn’t need to be as visible vs. Columbus, but will absolutely need to be against Anaheim.
Again, with the high-end players that both sides posses, this comes down to depth for me: Whitney and Beauchemin vs. Stuart and Kronwall. Whitney has been fantastic with Anaheim, and Beauchemin is playing for his next contract. Stuart and Kronwall have been uneven all season, and are matched up vs Selanne and...really, who cares who else?
Which Chris Osgood will show up? The one who pitched shutouts last round like his name was Greinke and whose butterfly is fantastic—or the one whose mechanics are shot and can’t get his stuff straight?
On the other side of the pond where the Ducks hang out, Jonas Hiller has been a revelation to the majority of hockey fans, who hadn’t heard of the West Coast sensation. Rumour has it he’s something of a cross between Ron Hextall—and anything else equals sketchy insanity, so yeah.
Hiller's focus is second-to-none, so don’t be surprised when he stonewalls Detroit during this series.
At this point you can say this about all of the series, but more than any other one, this series could go either way.
Which forwards dominate all three zones? You know that one group will likely get thrown off (a la Ottawa two Cup Finals ago), but both of these groups are playoff-hardened.
You know that one team’s second and third defensive parings are going to get burned by mismatches perpetrated by the opposing team's Head Coach, but which group will it be?
Will Chris Osgood show up—because even if Hiller flakes, the Ducks will be happy to get Giggy with it? I throw my hands up.
Prediction (as I throw a coin into the air...): Detroit in seven games.
(3) Vancouver vs (4) Chicago
This is what I call an “Ugh Series.” There’s just something about it that doesn’t sit right with me, but let’s forget the extra-sensory and focus on the actual match-up.
Martin Havlat—who the hell knew? The Sedins—really? Jeez, you’d think these guys were playing for contracts or something.
Can Patrick Kane play his fancy-pants game vs Vancouver’s defense? Yes, because he’s so much faster than they are. Watch for Chicago to attempt to exploit the quicksanded tendencies of Vancouver’s D with their speed, leading to long stretches of sustained pressure in the Canucks’ zone.
On the other hand, the way that Duncan Keith and especially Brent “Underrated” Seabrook are playing. With the tools that they have, I seriously wonder if the Sedins can work the cycle down low against these guys. Alex Burrows, you have your work cut out for you this round, my good man.
And on a separate note, a special best wishes to Taylor Pyatt. I couldn't possibly imagine what you've gone through. All the best to you if you play this round.
To recap, Chicago’s D is mobile, and has two guys who will get serious consideration for Team Canada’s 2010 Olympic hockey team.
Vancouver’s...not so much. Lots of quality depth, but not the right guys to play this group of forwards.
Look, Khabibulin’s Cup ring means jack to me. Luongo has been destined for greatness from the first time his daddy thought to strap the pads on the wee one. I won’t believe Khabi can outplay Lalongo (don’t ask) until I see it with my own eyes.
It doesn’t fit on paper, but then again, neither does life. Lalongo steals a series, he’s in the mood to stuff an ear with a Cup ring, and his play lifts his team.
Mats Sundin, can you hear us? There are no rings in your ears yet.
Prediction: Vancouver in six games.
Eastern Conference Semifinals
(1) Boston vs (6) Carolina
My elbow is really sore from typing. As much as Eric Staal is awesome, and Cam Ward suddenly is worthy of praise for his current play as opposed to living off of 2006, Carolina gets shizzle-kizzled here. Sorry ‘Canes fans.
Prediction: Boston in six games.
(2) Washington vs (4) Pittsburgh
Now this, my friends, is worth a few thousand words—so I’ll try not to do that. That being said, this could well be the most entertaining match-up in the 2009 NHL Playoffs. (Not the most technically sound by any stretch, but technicality doesn’t exactly inspire Americans to throw down their money, now does it?)
Sidney Crosby: Scores goals only when he’s inspired to by trash-talk, or when his team needs a lift. Both are good things, and both should be bountiful in this series. Six goals isn’t at all out of the question.
Alex Ovechkin: Roller derby on ice, with hands so soft Ivory soap supposedly tried to file copyright infringement against them. Oddly enough, he didn’t play all that well in Game Seven last round, save for one uber-effortful play.
Evgeni Malkin: Superlative size, skills, and now it would seem, desire. We’ll see in this series if he holds up under the pressure—both physical and psychological.
Alex Semin: I’ve written about him ad nauseum in the past. In all likelihood, the most purely skilled player in the NHL today. Would’ve scored over 100 points if he’d played the full season this year. Can still disappear at times, but then reappear a la Brett Hull with an absolutely blazing wrist shot that would make your grandma blush, and she wouldn't even know why.
Semin has a team-leading five goals and eight points in round one, pretty much the same as last year. Does he start to create a positive legacy in this series, or do we get another appearance from Dr. Semin?
Neither team has a true fighter at their disposal until Donny Brashear makes his return in Game Six, so these teams will have plenty of room to pond it up.
You know what, even Baby Staal vs. Old Man Fedorov is likely a wash. For me, seeing as Bill Guerin is a notorious washout the deeper his teams go into the playoffs, this comes down to Nicklas Backstrom vs Chris Kunitz.
In Round One, Backstrom played almost 22 minutes a game, and had seven assists in seven games. The Kunitz on the other hand, played under 16-and-a-half minutes a game, and had a grand total of two assists.
Kunitz is the one with the Ring, though, so I fully expect him to play inspired hockey on Crosby’s wing—and really, does he even have a choice but to do so? Backstrom should be fine as well, unless Staal takes away all of his space, thereby neutralizing his vision and playmaking abilities. But I’m not honestly sure that will happen.
Green vs. Gonchar—sounds like an old-time boxing fight. Depending on who you listen to, either Green disappeared in the first round (TSN), or played solidly in front of Washington’s goalies (ESPN). Either way, with only one goal in seven games, Washington counts on and needs more offensive production from him in this round, especially since it’s going to be a firefight of the highest degree.
Gonchar, on the other hand was a minus-one against a team that was completely incapable of scoring, so he’s absolutely going to have to pick up his defensive zone coverage. If I were him, I'd do my utmost to stand up the Washington rush at the blueline—and worst-case scenario, keep it wide and force bad-angle shots.
Considering Ovechkin’s penchant for cutting into the middle at the blueline and being so scary that no one is willing to step up and try to make him pay for it, this might be a pipe-dream at best.
Beyond that, the Penguins’ D is playoff-proven, whereas Washington’s resembles swiss cheese a little too often (and badly needs to step up its play), which the Pens will absolutely make them pay for.
Oh Bruce Boudreau, you wondrous sensory visionary. You just know when to pull the craziest stuff out of your hat, and make it work. When you pulled a Laviolette and pulled former MVP and Vezina Trophy winner (that seems like it was 20 years ago) Jose Theodore for the rookie, I had to endure a 25-minute diatribe from a friend of mine who hated the move.
I, on the other hand, loved it. Said rookie was awesome in very limited action during the regular season, and I had seen this coming in March (when you have Theo in a pool and get the chance to witness his inconsistency on a consistent basis, you think about these things). And now that Simeon Varlamov has a) co-carried the Caps to a seven-game victory over the NY Rangers, and b) instituted his yearly changing of the pronunciation of his name—this time from Varlamov to Varlamov—Washington now has themselves a playoff goalie.
But then again, so does Pittsburgh. M-A Fleury got hot at the right time again this season, and has carried it into the playoffs. Can he post a 2.39 GAA and .922 save percentage vs the Caps? I doubt it, but I also don’t think Varlamov is going to be anywhere near the insane 1.17 GAA & .952 save percentage that he posted. vs the inept Rangers’ offense.
I think whichever goalie here can post a .910 save percent will see his team win the series. So, let’s carry this into predictions.
This will be a seven-game epic battle that harkens back to the days of the 1986 NHL Playoffs, where Edmonton and Calgary waged a legendary series that still sees the deciding game replayed on CBC every year during the playoffs.
And just like that series, I think the team that should’ve won on paper, the team destined for greatness, gets upset by a team of immediate destiny.
Prediction: Washington in seven games—and enjoy every last second of it. We may not see hockey like this again for awhile.
There, I did that series in only under 1000 words—and again, 3000 was not out of the question there. While I have the soapbox out, I’d like to touch on one further subject before ending this.
For years, people have been degrading the efforts that the Scotts, Stevens, Neidermayer, Ken Daneyko, and Brian Rafalski, along with a host of plumber defensemen, contributed to the three Stanley Cup wins by the New Jersey Devils.
Martin Brodeur has gotten so much play for what he did, and as the years have gone on, Brodeur has been virtually the sole focus of those who reference the Devils’ Cup victories, all-but-erasing the memory of the contributions of the defensemen in front of him as a result.
Now every season, when prognosticators prognosticate about New Jersey making yet one more run, they talk about how the Devils’ now no-name defense (Paul Martin, definitely a name, despite the hyperbole) will be fine because the Martin Brodeur is back there.
It’s Patrick Roy Syndrome all over again. People ignore a team’s shortcomings, regardless of what they are, because of the name of the goaltender they have. (They do this in Vancouver too, but that one gets called because Luongo doesn’t have a ring—yet.) It really bothers me that the contributions, the sacrifices that the aforementioned defensemen made get brushed under the rug, simply because it’s more fun to deify a single person—to create another Roy—than it is to talk about a team effort.
I’m not here to have the Roy > Brodeur—err, I mean the Roy-Brodeur debate. We can save that for another day.
What I’m here to say is, don’t be so freaking surprised that the Devils lost, and lost the way they did, giving up two goals in 43 seconds within the final 80 seconds of the game.
Martin Brodeur is a sure-fire Hall of Famer (but then again, so is Doug Gilmour damnit!), but Brodeur is also a human being. It’s time for the prognosticators, along with fans everywhere, to stop expecting him to be Superman every year.
Hockey is real life, not a movie. Three rings or not, the long layoff giving him so much rest during the season or not, it take 23 players, four Coaches, the right training and medical staff, incredibly supportive wives/girlfriends (and let’s be honest here, a boyfriend or two as well), and a perfect storm of things to fall into place for a team to win the Stanley Cup. It takes infinitely more than a reputation based on the past, and staked in nothing tangible from present-day.
So let’s get off the Martin Brodeur is the end-all and be-all kick, and let’s start looking at things a little more rationally.