And then there were four. The 2009 Stanley Cup will go to one of these four teams: the Pittsburgh Penguins, Carolina Hurricanes, Detroit Red Wings or Chicago Blackhawks. Here are my predictions for the Conference Finals.
Eastern Conference Finals: #4 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. #6 Carolina Hurricanes
How about those Hurricanes? If I were a betting man, they’d have been the bane of my financial existence. I’ve picked nine of the 12 series correctly, but struck out on the Hurricanes twice (the Anaheim upset of San Jose was my other misfire). In Carolina’s first round matchup against New Jersey, I didn’t think the ‘Canes would be able to maintain their scorching hot play that propelled them into the playoffs (they won nine of 11 to close out the regular season). As stated in my second round preview column, however, while they didn’t exactly continue rolling along against New Jersey, the ‘Canes showed great grit, tenacity, heart and determination in their seven-game series win over the Devils. Those same characteristics were on display against top-seeded Boston in the second round. The Hurricanes bounced back from a Game One loss with a Game Two shutout win to get one of the two victories they would need in Boston. Then, after squandering a 3-1 series lead, they won Game Seven in overtime. In that overtime session, they needed to get some big saves from Cam Ward, but I thought they carried most of the play before Scott Walker scored. To perform that way in a Game Seven overtime session while on the road reveals their championship mettle. But can they now beat the Penguins, who are coming off a Game Seven road win of their own? The Pens have yet to face a goalie in this year’s playoffs with Ward’s pedigree and experience. Philly’s Martin Biron has never won a Stanley Cup and while Washington’s Simeon Varlamov played fantastically well throughout the playoffs, one had the feeling that his inexperience might cost him and the Caps at an inopportune time – he had a clunker in the Caps’ Game Four loss and was pulled in the second period of Game Seven. So Pittsburgh will have to beat a team with terrific chemistry and a Cup-winning goalie. A lot of pundits feel that Ward is better than Marc-Andre Fleury and if Carolina wins, it’ll be because Ward carried his team. I don’t completely disagree with that sentiment, but Ward doesn’t have to be on top of his game every night for the ‘Canes to win. Between Eric Staal, Ray Whitney, Sergei Samsanov and old friend Jussi Jokinen, Carolina has other weapons. Who the ‘Canes don’t have, however, is Sidney Crosby. In these playoffs, Crosby has re-established himself as the most dominant player in the game (Ovechkin was great, too, in their series, but Crosby ultimately outperformed his rival and his team won). Hockey’s a team game, not an individual sport, but to me, this series comes down to Sid the Kid. I think this will be an extraordinarily difficult matchup for the Penguins, but they can win it if Crosby puts his team on his back. If he doesn’t, Carolina will pull off its third straight road series win, but my feeling is that Crosby will lead Pittsburgh back to the Finals. Prediction: Pittsburgh in Seven.Western Conference Finals: #2 Detroit Red Wings vs. #4 Chicago Blackhawks
What a great matchup for the NHL. Two long-time Original Six rivals are squaring off for the right to play for the Cup. The Red Wings won the six-game regular season series, 4-2, although two of those victories came in the shootout. In other words, the teams are evenly matched. Neither team had an easy path to the Conference Finals. In the second round, the Red Wings barely survived a seven-game series against Anaheim, while the ‘Hawks twice rallied from series deficits to beat Vancouver in six. There are some who believe that the Anaheim series exposed some of Detroit’s perceived weaknesses: shaky goaltending, porous team defense and a less-than-stellar penalty kill. I prefer to give credit to Anaheim. Remember, the Ducks ousted the President’s Trophy-winning San Jose Sharks in the first round. That was no small feat. The Ducks’ defense is stellar and Jonas Hiller gave them incredible goaltending throughout the postseason. Hiller was the primary reason why the Ducks even forced a seventh game against Detroit. Now Detroit takes on a Chicago team with a less experienced blue line but more explosive offense. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Martin Havlat are some of Chicago’s big-name scorers, but the ‘Hawks have gotten contributions from all four forward lines. What’s been equally impressive about Chicago’s wins over Calgary and Vancouver is that the Blackhawks have captured both high-scoring and low-scoring contests. For example, the ‘Hawks blasted the Canucks, 7-5, in their clinching Game Six win, but also won the critical fourth game, 2-1, in overtime (a game they trailed, 1-0, late in the third). This ability to win games in a variety of ways will be critical against the Red Wings. I have a hunch that the scores will tend to higher than lower, though, especially with the ‘Hawks owning the best power play percentage in the playoffs. Ultimately, the series will come down to experience, though. The Red Wings just know how to win playoff games and series. They are such a well-rounded team that they have overcome the fact that the prolific Pavel Datsyuk only has four points in the playoffs. At some point, he’s going to heat up, making the Wings even tougher to beat. The series will provide the ‘Hawks with valuable experience – experience that will help them contend for a Cup soon. Just not quite yet. Prediction: Red Wings in Six.
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