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Players to Watch - 2008 Conference Finals

by Jay Levin / Nashville Predators
With the Conference Finals match-ups set, looks at some of the unsung players to watch in both series.

Western Conference Finals: Detroit vs. Dallas
Players to Watch
Detroit – Johan Franzen. While the top line of Pavel Datsyuk, Tomas Holmstrom, and Henrik Zetterberg have been as dangerous in the playoffs as they were through the regular season, it’s Franzen who leads the league with 11 playoff goals, including four game-winning goals. Detroit will need continued production from its “secondary” players to combat Dallas’ stingy defense which has posted a 2.00 goals against average through the first two rounds against the talented offenses of Anaheim and San Jose.

Dallas – Sergei Zubov. When healthy, Zubov is one of the elite puck moving defensemen in the world. Injuries sidelined him for three months down the back stretch of the season and through the start of the playoffs, but he returned to post four points in five games at the end of the San Jose series, including logging a game-high 53:50 of ice time in the marathon four-overtime Game 6 clincher. Zubov will be a much needed “addition” to the Stars against the potent Red Wings offense which scored at least four goals in each game of their Round 2 sweep against Colorado.

Goaltending Match-up: Chris Osgood (Detroit) vs. Marty Turco (Dallas)
Osgood was some what of a forgotten man around the league when the season opened, viewed as the understudy to future Hall of Famer Dominik Hasek. All he did was go out and post a 27 win season while leading the NHL with a 2.09 goals against average, earning an All-Star Game bid along the way. Still, Osgood opened the playoffs on the bench before replacing Hasek midway through Game 4 of the First Round at Nashville and making his first start in Game 5's 2-1 overtime win. Through the first two rounds, Osgood has a 6-0 record with a 1.52 goals against average (first in the playoffs) and a .937 save percentage (third).

Turco's been one of the league's elite goaltenders since taking over the starting job in Dallas during the 2002-03 season. The big knock on his resume, however, was his inability to get his team out of the first round of the playoffs. Last year he post a 1.30 goals against average, .952 save percentage, and three shutouts, but the Stars still dropped a seven game series to the Vancouver Canucks. This season Turco finally got the monkey off his back with a six game series win over defending Cup Champion Anaheim in Round 1. He played both his college and IHL careers in the state of Michigan, but has yet to win a NHL game at Joe Louis Arena, something he'll need to "correct" if Dallas is to advance.

Eastern Conference Finals: Pittsburgh vs. Philadelphia
Players to Watch
Pittsburgh – Petr Sykora and Ryan Malone. The “Big Three” in Pittsburgh – Syd Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Marian Hossa – have played up to their reputations through the first two rounds of the playoffs, but the Pens will need other contributions to get past a physical Flyers team. Malone has produced at a point per game clip (3g-6a in 9 games) through the first two rounds, while his 41 hits are second on the team and tops among team forwards. Sykora scored 28 goals in the regular season and has a strong playoff pedigree, appearing in three Cup Finals series and winning the Stanley Cup once while with New Jersey.

Philadelphia – Jason Smith and RJ Umberger. Defensemen Kimmo Timmonen and Braydon Coburn have been logging the huge minutes, but Smith’s veteran experience along the blueline will be invaluable toward Philadelphia’s attempts to slow down Pittsburgh’s multi-line attack of the Crosby line or the Malkin line. Plus, as team captain, his leadership will be a necessity for the No. 6 seeded Flyers to pull off another upset. As for RJ Umberger, his stats speak for themself. The 26-year old Pittsburgh native enters the series against his hometown team as one of the hottest scorers in the league with nine goals in 12 playoff games – after scoring 13 goals in 74 games during the regular season – a nice added boost to an already balanced Flyers offensive attack.

Goaltending Match-up: Marc-Andre Fleury (Pittsburgh) vs. Martin Biron (Philadelphia)
Fleury was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2003 Entry Draft, but struggled with his early transition to the NHL. Last season he broke out with a 40 win campaign despite a pedestrian 2.83 goals against average. In his first taste of playoff hockey, he and the Penguins were ousted by the high-scoring Ottawa Senators in Round 1. This year he started slow before suffering a high ankle sprain in early December. After returning from injury, though, he's been a different goaltender, finishing the regular season with a .921 save percentage, fifth best in the league. He's continued that play into the post-season with an 8-1 record, 1.76 goals against average, and league-best .938 save percentage through the first two rounds.

Biron was the 16th overall selection by the Buffalo Sabres in the 1995 Entry Draft. After getting caught up in a goalie log-jam with the Sabres, first behind Dominik Hasek and then Ryan Miller, Biron was traded to Philadelphia last season and grabbed the No. 1 job early this season. In his chance to play in the post-season, Biron has backstopped his team to a Game 7 win over Washington in Round 1 and an upset of No. 1 seeded Montreal in Round 2.

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