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by Bob Heethuis / Arizona Coyotes
It’s amazing to think that we’re only halfway through this year’s Stanley Cup playoff marathon!  The first two rounds of the postseason were terrific in my opinion, featuring great excitement, intensity and drama, with more one-goal games and overtime thrillers than ever before.  We can only assume that the best is yet to come, with the Conference Finals getting underway on Thursday in Buffalo and Friday in Detroit!

Regular season play was so competitive this year, with 11 of the 16 playoff teams accumulating over 100 points, that people were picking upsets all over the place when the postseason began.  Instead, amazingly, it was the favorites who flourished in the opening two rounds, with higher seeded teams winning 9 of the 12 series!  For the first time in recent memory, no “Cindellas” have made their way to the NHL’s “Final Four”, as skilled powerhouses Buffalo, Detroit, Anaheim and Ottawa are instead left standing to battle it out for Lord Stanley’s Cup.  The Sabres and Red Wings were both number-one seeds in their respective conferences, while Anaheim was a close second in the West, and Ottawa officially finished fourth in the East, although the Senators produced the conference’s third highest win (48) and point (105-tied with Pittsburgh) totals.  As the conference finals begin, you can almost flip a coin to decide who will win each series.  And both series are filled with great storylines.

The Eastern Conference Final features bitter Northeast Division rivals Buffalo and Ottawa.  The two clubs met eight times during the regular season (with Ottawa winning five), but the only game people remember is February 22nd; when Chris Neil’s rather questionable blindside open-ice hit on Buffalo’s Chris Drury touched off a spirited brawl which featured both goalies, Ottawa’s Ray Emery and now former Sabre Martin Biron, going toe-to-toe.  Emery also tangled with Buffalo enforcer Andrew Peters!  The two teams combined for 136 penalty minutes in the game, while Neil’s ugly hit left Drury with 20 stitches in his forehead.  Will we see more of the same over-the-top rough stuff in this series?  Probably not, but you can bet the emotion and intensity will be thick enough to cut with a knife-no make that a chainsaw-throughout the entire series!

These teams don’t like each other, and both clubs also feel that they have something to prove. Only a third period meltdown against Carolina in Game Seven of the Eastern Finals kept Buffalo from competing for the Stanley Cup last spring, while Ottawa hopes to finally end its long string of postseason underachieving.  The Senators have really been the most impressive of any team thus far in this year’s postseason, efficiently taking out the talented, young Pittsburgh Penguins four-games-to-one, before performing a five-game exorcism on the New Jersey Devils in round two.

The Sens’ success in the first two rounds was spearheaded by the almost unstoppable line of Jason Spezza (C), Dany Heatley (LW) and Daniel Alfredson (RW), along with much stronger defensive and physical play than in past postseasons.  The Spezza (5 goals, 7 assists), Heatley (5 goals, 9 assists), Alfredson (6 goals, 5 assists) trio has combined for a whopping 16-goals, and 37-points thus far in the postseason, and certainly the most intriguing question entering this series is can Buffalo stop them?  Likewise, can Ottawa shut down the dazzling speed and intense fore-checking of the well-balanced Sabres?  How about the goaltending match-up?  Ottawa’s Ray Emery has enjoyed a playoff coming-out party of sorts with his outstanding play in the first two rounds.  For the Senators to win this series, Emery must now raise his game to match or surpass that of Buffalo’s great young netminder Ryan Miller, who’s been quietly spectacular for a second straight postseason.

Speaking of needing to raise the level of play, there is a rather large contingent of hockey followers who feel that we have yet to see Buffalo’s best hockey in this postseason.  The top-seeded Sabres performed only as well as they had to, without much emotion, in dispatching the New York Islanders in five games in round one, while Buffalo stood just 7.7 seconds away from heading to Madison Square Garden down three-games-to-two to the New York Rangers in round two; before miraculously rallying to win that contest and then taking care of business in the series-clinching Game Six.  Buffalo will no doubt have to crank things up a bit to fend off the challenge of the red-hot Senators.

Adding spice to this series is the fact that Ottawa has never beaten Buffalo in the postseason.  The Sabres are 3-0 against the Sens all-time in playoff competition, including a five-game thumping in the second round last year.

Moving on to the Western Conference Final, one of the biggest stories centers around Detroit Head Coach Mike Babcock, who squares off against his former team in this series.  While working behind the Anaheim bench in 2003, Babcock orchestrated a stunning four-game sweep over the then-defending Stanley Cup Champion Red Wings and sending the Ducks on their journey toward a berth in Finals against New Jersey.

This time around he’s leading the guys in red and white, who, despite being the West’s top seed, have kind-of been the Rodney Dangerfield of this postseason.  Because of recent playoff failures, the Red Wings were picked as underdogs by many in their opening round series against Calgary and by the majority in their second round match-up against San Jose.  But the Wings are still in flight, and soaring with tons of momentum now after impressively winning three straight games to knock out the stunned Sharks.  They’re back in the Conference Finals for the first time since winning it all in 2002.

Anaheim, meanwhile, returns to the West Final for the second straight year, and third time in the last four seasons.  The Ducks have been a strong Cup favorite all season long and maybe even more so now after needing only 10 combined games to get through both Minnesota and Vancouver in the opening two rounds.  Anaheim has been idle for the past week and the age-old question of whether that helps or hinders a team will be answered beginning Friday night.

Just like the Buffalo vs. Ottawa tussle, this series is about as evenly matched as it gets.  Both teams have tons of confidence and they also have the ability to kick their game into an extra gear when necessary.  Up front, both clubs possess lots of skill and speed, while featuring two of the best checking lines in hockey.  Detroit’s trio of Kris Draper, Kirk Maltby and Daniel Cleary and Anaheim’s Samuel Pahlsson, Travis Moen and Rob Niedermayer, have the ability to not only shut down the opposition’s top forwards, but also provide big time offense as well.  In fact, the Pahlsson, Moen, Niedermayer line led the Ducks with 8 points (3 goals, 5 assists) in their second round series against Vancouver.

The Red Wings are probably a bit deeper up front than Anaheim, but the Ducks will get a big boost with the healthy return of veteran center Todd Marchant, allowing them to use four lines more effectively.  Meanwhile, Detroit fans, I’m sure, are wondering if this is the series that Todd Bertuzzi becomes a factor in, along with his linemate Robert Lang.  I think they have to if Detroit is to prevail.

On the blue line, we get the rare treat of having the NHL’s top three active defenseman taking center stage in this series.  Detroit’s Nicklas Lidstrom (4) and Anaheim’s Chris Pronger (1) and Scott Niedermayer (1) own a combined six Norris Trophies and are the three finalists for the award this season as well.  The three have been outstanding thus far in the playoffs and remain the most important players on their respective teams.  The fact that Anaheim boasts two of the “big three”, as well as a very underrated Francois Beauchemin, certainly gives the Ducks the edge defensively over the wounded Red Wings, who are missing their great two-way veteran Mathieu Schneider; as well as, up-and-coming star Niklas Kronwall.  The Wings’ ageless wonder, 45-year old Chris Chelios, has been playing out of his mind thus far in the postseason, while the healthy return of Brett Lebda from injury also helps. Anaheim will definitely try to be as physical as possible in the offensive end in hopes of wearing down the depleted Detroit defensive corps as this series moves along.

I’m really looking forward to the goaltending match-up in this series, featuring two of the game’s best in Detroit’s 42-year old, “human slinky” Dominik Hasek, and Anaheim’s Jean-Sebastien Giguere.  Hasek has lived up to his nickname as “The Dominator” at key times throughout this postseason, slamming the door when necessary against Calgary and San Jose.  Giguere, meanwhile, is back in his 2003 Conn Smythe form after missing most of the first round while dealing with a serious health issue concerning his newborn son.  Hasek has never lost a playoff series in a Detroit uniform, going 6-0, while it was Giguere who almost single-handedly led Anaheim to it’s shocking four-game sweep of the Red Wings four years ago.  Both netminders are also two of the best at closing out games when given a lead.  This should be a great goaltending duel, and extremely entertaining to watch!

So, I guess the only thing left for me to do now is to make predictions!  These four teams are so evenly matched that you could make a case for each one winning the Stanley Cup and I have, over and over in my head while writing this blog!  But if I must move off this comfortable fence, I’ll pick Ottawa in six and Detroit in seven! The Senators finally break through their longstanding playoff barrier to reach the Finals against none other than old friend Dominik Hasek!  We’ll see what happens!  As always, enjoy the action!

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