2006 Stanley Cup playoffs
Conference Finals preview
Conference Finals preview
Looking back: I feel a little like Tommy Salo staring down a Belarussian floater from the blueline; my pick 'ems confidence has been shattered by the way these playoffs have unfolded (I'm 7/12 through two rounds).
Still, in this business, you have to give the people what they want, so I'm putting away the Mach III and embarassing myself for one more round. (Round 2, Best pick: Edmonton over San Jose in 6; Worst pick: Ottawa over Buffalo in 6 — especially considering I picked the Sens to lose in Round 2 in my Round 1 preview.)
The teams squaring off in these series are brutally equal, and I don't imagine we'll see the four- and five-game breeze-bys (Briseboises, in Colorado's case) that have happened so far.
Get on your hard hat; it's time to go to war.
(2) Carolina v. (4) Buffalo
Series key: Desperation
My series key in the Hurricanes' series against the Devils was 'shutting down Staal and Brind'Amour.'
Well, Eric Staal had four goals and seven points while Rod Brind'Amour had two goals and five points in five games. Mission unaccomplished, Lou Lamoriello.
The thing is, such an assignment might as well be Mission Impossible™. The 'Canes had what was the best one-two punch at centre in the East all year, and I really think that depth is what's going to make the difference here. Carolina's special teams have been unbelievable so far, and their power play is humming along at a 20-per-cent better success rate than Buffalo's.
But it's not just that. Moreso, it's how desperate this Carolina team looked in that New Jersey series, one where few picked the Hurricanes to advance from. And there's a tangible reason for that. Of those remaining in the postseason, Carolina has three of the four most tenured players: Glen Wesley (1,311), Mark Recchi (1,256) and Brind'Amour (1,187). (Wesley and Brind'Amour have yet to win the Cup, while Kamloops native Recchi last won as a 23 year old in 1991.)
After two fruitless trips to the finals in past years and in the midst of a career-defining season at age 35, Brind'Amour wants this bad. Buffalo will have to put everything on the table to stop one of the toughest players in the league.
Sabres fans aren't going to like my saying this, but I truly believe they've yet to be tested by a team playing at the top of its game. Here's their chance to prove me wrong (for the third time in a row, no less).
Prediction: Carolina in 6
(6) Anaheim v. (8) Edmonton
Series key: Ilya Bryzgalov (and J-S Giguere)
'Team of Destiny' is a phrase that's thrown around a little too often in hockey (we seem to have a half dozen a year), but that's what the Oilers look like this postseason. I highly doubt an eighth seed has ever quite dominated two of the best teams in their conference the way Edmonton did Detroit and San Jose.
This series comes down to a lot of things: The Ducks' key shutdown specialists' ability to stop guys like Ryan Smyth and Shawn Horcoff, the forward depth contributing goals (for both sides), Scott Niedermayer v. Chris Pronger, depth on the blueline (the Oilers have more, but the Ducks' system makes everyone look good) and, of course, coaching (where Randy Carlyle is quickly emerging as one of the league's best).
Ultimately, however, I think Anaheim wins or loses this series based on how well Bryzgalov (or Giguere, if it comes to that — which it may considering the Ducks are probably the only team in Conference finals history with a Conn Smythe winner warming the bench) copes with what the Oilers are going to be throwing at him (which is everything, including a few more Smyth chicklets and various Oilers' corpses). I think we'll be seeing more of what we've seen so far from Dwayne Roloson; it's in the Ducks' crease that there are questions.
For Edmonton, they're running up against a much stronger penalty-killing unit than the one the Sharks had, and the Oilers won't be able to score nearly as many goals as they've racked up so far. Fourteen of Edmonton's 38 postseason goals have come on the power play — Anaheim only has eight (of 33) with the man advantage. I suspect whoever pots more in that category wins this series.
Andy McDonald and Ryan Getzlaf were dynamite on the PP late in the year, and they're really going to need to get it in gear here. Even though Anaheim's averaged three goals a game so far in the playoffs, goal scoring has to be a concern, and they can't expect to keep winning with Todd Marchant, Francois Beauchemin and Dustin Penner outscoring their more prolific offensive talents. (Getzlaf, in particular, has the tools to be a star in this league; we certainly haven't seen that yet.)
I've been picking Brian Burke's Ducks to do extremely well in the playoffs since early March; it's time to back that up.
Prediction: Anaheim in 7