Well Round 3 of the Stanley Cup playoffs is over and at least I got 50% of this round right, meaning I'm still at .500 for the whole playoff series. The next series is make or break for me. Hopefully there will be a better final than the two anti-climatic series we saw in this round.
There were no players who were especially bad in the previous round so I'll skip that section, though I will be mentioning some possible changes when I analyze the losing two teams.
So I'll go straight to that section and then make my make or break pick for the Stanley Cup winner.
The Future Of The Losing Teams
Normally, when a team makes it to the Conference Final and loses, the experts say, "Just a few more changes, and they could win the Stanley Cup next season." Unfortunately, that is not true for the two losing teams this year.
This is the team that went farther than anybody predicted and fashioned two enormous upsets, including one that may be the second best of all time, over the defending Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins. The problem is that these victories are considered huge upsets, indicating a wide disparity in talent between Montreal and the teams they played. So what did Montreal gain by their epic adventure?
1. Valuable playoff experience for all their younger players.
2. Finding out the Jaroslav Halak is their goaltender of the immediate future, the kind of goaltender who can win games by himself, and who, with the right team, could take them all the way to the Stanley Cup. His emergence will allow Montreal to trade Carey Price for strengthening elsewhere.
3. Learning how to win playoff round series, particularly handling the pressure of game seven.
Despite all those wonderful gains, Montreal is still far away from a Stanley Cup. Pitted against two goal-hungry teams, who need to play better defensively, and have questionable goaltending, Halak was able to steal two series for Montreal. When they ran into a different kind of team, their bubble was quickly burst.
The two big differences between Montreal and Philadelphia were overall size and a bad mismatch at the forward position. This is the second time in recent years that Montreal has played Philadelphia, and each time the Flyers handled them easily. Montreal would not have made it out of the first round if the two teams had met then.
Like any other goaltender, Halak can't stop pucks he can't see, and that was because the Montreal defense and forwards couldn't keep the shooting lanes clear of the Flyers like they did in the first two rounds. Many times, Montreal players wanted no part of the bigger, more physical Flyers. And Halak can't win if all he's got is a popgun attack in front of him. This showed too in the first two series, but Halak was able to make up for it. It finally caught up against the bigger, tougher, Flyers. Only Mike Cammalleri and Brian Gionta played consistently well in every series.
So Montreal needs to get bigger everywhere, and more skilled up front. They need a top young forward, or better yet, a top young forward line to build around. They may not get as far as they did this year, next season. But if they make the right changes, they can move up in the regular season standings instead of just squeaking in, and if they have any series victories in the playoffs, they will be considered victories of a contender and not an upset.
What to do about the Sharks? Every off-season, management has reviewed the previous year with rose-colored glasses and refused to make any dramatic changes. The Chicago Blackhawks are now the class of the Western Conference, but of their three opponents, San Jose did the worst, and failed to win a single game. The ranking of this team's forward lines is highly questionable.
The Sharks got through the first round against a bad Colorado team only because of the inspired play of their "second" line, Devon Setoguchi, Joe Pavelski, and Ryane Clowe. They got nothing from the "number one" line of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and Dany Heatley who were bad minus players. Many commentators remarked through every series that Heatley seemed hurt. For his sake, he better have been.
When the second line finally started to run out of gas, midway through the Detroit series, the first line finally contributed to a series victory. But the second line was regulated to being a second line by Chicago, and an opposing team’s stars again outplayed the top line. Marleau can at least truthfully say he contributed, but that was it. Heatley was non-existent. Thornton stupidly commented that his main opponent, Dave Bolland, was "easy to play against;” he stupidly slashed him while taking a faceoff, which could have led to a suspension, and then got outscored 2-0 in the last two games by an opposing team's "checking" center.
The other questionable player is goalie, Evgeni Nabokov. While he was not the main culprit of his team's defeat, and he did manage to win two playoff series, he has never given San Jose the goaltending like that of Halak this year. He gives steady goaltending, but nothing special. When the team is over-matched or doesn't play well, he can give up goals at the wrong time.
San Jose management has refused to make any changes to their top line, indeed adding Heatley to supplement it. Yet many times during these playoffs, coach Todd McClelland was forced to break up the line in order to get something out of them. They have ridden this horse for close to half a decade now, never getting any farther than the Conference Final, which they have never come close to winning. The Blackhawks are going to be a contender for at least half a decade and San Jose failed to win one game against them. Despite the evidence generated every year, including this one, management has refused to recognize that it has a questionable number one line that can even play bad against a bad team like Colorado. It certainly doesn't match up to Chicago.
The time has come to change the chemistry of this team. Does the management finally have the courage to do it?
Stanley Cup Prediction
Chicago vs. Philadelphia
This is a series between two cursed franchises who each believe that they should have won another Stanley Cup a long time ago and who have suffered the agony of coming close and losing in the final several times since their last victory. If Montreal and San Jose are disappointed by their exit, the loser of this series is going to feel far more.
The winner will finally emerge from under a dark cloud that has hovered over it for at least three decades, while the loser will still writhe under the darkness of an evil curse. Philadelphia has waited 35 years for another championship. If Ottawa is discounted because they did not have an NHL team for over 60 years, Chicago is the current leader of NHL franchises waiting between victories, at 49.
At first, this seems a mismatch. Chicago finished with 112 points to Philadelphia's 88. But the Flyers have been impressive, showing resiliency against Boston, and taking out the Canadiens, and they did win their only game against Chicago this year. There is no goaltending edge in this series.
Chicago is the overall better team.
There are two keys for a Flyer upset victory: First, they must do what Nashville, Vancouver, and San Jose failed to do; clear the front of their net of the Blackhawk forwards, particularly Dustin Byfuglien. They have a better chance of doing this than Chicago's other opponents, because they have huge defensemen, particularly Chris Pronger and Braydon Coburn, and a better commitment from the team forwards to team defense. In particular, Byfuglien and Pronger will get to know each other very well. The other key is to win games in Chicago's United Center where for some mysterious reason, Chicago has struggled in this year's playoffs. Philadelphia's best chance for victory is to win the first two games in Chicago before the Blackhawks realize what has happened.
On the other hand, if one examines Philadelphia's playoff history since their return to respectability, the Flyers have trouble playing against teams that have stars. Pittsburgh eliminated the Flyers the last two years. So far the Flyers have not played a team with stars in these playoffs, and Chicago has too many to count. The Flyers will be playing against a much better team than any they have seen so far. The Flyers have some good, solid players themselves, but are they the equal of the Chicago stars? If Chicago talent shows itself as dominant, this could be a short series like the Conference Finals.
To balance things up a little more, and for those who believe in curses, the team that has Marian Hossa on its roster has lost the last two finals. Though there is a good chance for an upset, Chicago has too many stars and too much depth for Philadelphia. The Flyers will put up a better fight than most people believe they can, but Hossa will exorcise his curse and so will the Blackhawks. The longest current drought in the NHL will end (to be inherited by Toronto, St. Louis, and Los Angeles) and Chicago will win in six games.