Following a first round that featured three sweeps and two dramatic Game Sevens, the second round gets underway on Thursday. Here are my predictions for the Conference Semifinals.
#1 Boston Bruins vs. #6 Carolina Hurricanes
Kudos to the Hurricanes, who rallied for an incredible Game Seven win against the Devils on Tuesday night. A lot of people felt the ‘Canes would win that series – they enjoyed a nine-game winning streak late in the season, while the Devils stumbled down the stretch. But readers of this column know that I picked the Devils over Carolina. I felt that New Jersey would find its usual playoff form and elevate its game. I also thought that the Hurricanes couldn’t keep up their torrid pace of the season’s final month. Both occurred in that series – the Devils only had one clunker, a Game Six shutout loss in Raleigh. And the Hurricanes endured a couple of one-sided losses in Games One and Five. So rather than cruising against a struggling opponent, the ‘Canes had to fight and claw their way to the second round. That is what makes this accomplishment so impressive. The Hurricanes dropped Games One, Three and Five, so they were constantly playing from behind. Then, in Game Seven on the road, they trailed, 3-2, with less than two minutes left. In short, the ‘Canes showed heart and resiliency unmatched by any other team in the first round. Now the question for the Hurricanes is – can they keep the magic alive against the top-seeded Bruins? There are a couple of factors working against Carolina. First, the Bruins are a better team than New Jersey – a) they can get scoring from all four lines and their defense, b) they’ve got Zdeno Chara, one of the league’s best defensemen, anchoring a solid blueline and c) Tim Thomas, the likely Vezina Trophy winner, is their goalie. Second, a long, tense series takes both a physical and emotional toll on players. It won’t be easy for Carolina to quickly regroup and amp up their game anew. The Hurricanes have proved me wrong before, but the Bruins will be too much for Carolina to handle. Prediction: Bruins in Six.#2 Washington Capitals vs. #4 Pittsburgh Penguins
Many hockey experts felt that the Caps were vulnerable with Jose Theodore in net. Apparently, Bruce Boudreau agreed – he pulled the veteran after a weak Game One against the Rangers. Simeon Varlamov, who is projected to be the Caps’ goalie of the future, took advantage of the opportunity and gave the Caps the stability in net they sorely needed – he picked up two shutout wins and yielded only three total goals in his two losses against New York. The Penguins, however, are much more capable offensively than the Rangers, so Varlamov will be tested against Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Bill Guerin, Sergei Gonchar and the rest of the Pens. Of course, the Penguins will have their hands full trying to contain the Caps’ dangerous attack. This will be a compelling series for another reason, too. Earlier this year, Crosby and Alex Ovechkin publically exchanged barbs and clearly don’t care for each other. That could be an intriguing sidebar as these two marquee teams square off. It figures to be a hard-fought, high-scoring, back-and-forth series. A coin toss. In the end, I think the Penguins’ experience of reaching the Finals last year will get them over the hump. Prediction: Penguins in Seven.Western Conference
#2 Detroit Red Wings vs. #8 Anaheim Ducks
With their first round upset of top-seeded San Jose, the Ducks made a lot of people eat crow (myself included). Most pundits figured that the Sharks would have a battle on their hands with the experienced Ducks, but not many thought that the President’s Trophy winners would be eliminated in the first round. Perhaps that’s because not many expected Anaheim goalie Jonas Hiller to play at such a high level. Or that rookie Bobby Ryan would have netted a team-high four goals. So if the Ducks were able to oust the Sharks, we shouldn’t discount their ability to get past the Detroit Red Wings. But if it’s going to happen, then the Ducks will need another outstanding performance from Hiller and more clutch scoring from unexpected sources. As referenced in my first round predictions, the Red Wings did allow an unusually high number of goals this year – at least by their lofty standards. Yet in their first round sweep over Columbus, Chris Osgood let in only two goals in the first three games. Despite giving up five goals in Game Four, Osgood received six goals of support. That’s one of the reasons why Detroit is such a formidable opponent. The Red Wings are capable of winning games either 1-0 or 6-5. The Ducks have more offensive weapons than Columbus and if they can exploit Detroit’s team defense, then they’ll have a shot at winning the series. But as good as Detroit is offensively, one would speculate that the Ducks will need to score at least three goals if they hope to win a game. My guess is that they won’t be able to score enough to win four of them. Prediction: Red Wings in Six.#3 Vancouver Canucks vs. #4 Chicago Blackhawks
This should be an exciting, close series. Vancouver goalie Roberto Luongo leads all netminders in playoff GAA and save percentage after yielding only five goals in four games against the Blues. Nikolai Khabibulin is coming off a 43-save effort in Chicago’s clinching Game Six win in Calgary and let in only two goals in the last two games of that series. With sensational stars like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Kris Versteeg and Martin Havlat, the Blackhawks would appear to have more offensive weapons than the Canucks. On the other hand, Vancouver enjoys home ice advantage, has a more playoff-seasoned defense corps (Sami Salo, Willie Mitchell and Mattias Ohlund
in particular) and entered the playoffs as one of the league’s hottest teams. So this series will likely come down to goaltending, special teams play and which team gets a few more bounces. The Canucks dispatched the Blues in four straight games, so they haven’t played since April 21. If the long layoff adversely affects the Canucks and they come out with a flat Game One effort, then the ‘Hawks could steal an early one at GM Place. Either way, my hunch is that the ‘Hawks will find a way to get one in Vancouver and hold serve three times in the raucous United Center. Prediction: Blackhawks in Six.