Saturday, May 7, 2011

Ted Mouths Off: Handicapping the conference finals

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Western Conference

(4) Chicago Blackhawks vs. (2) Detroit Red Wings

Series lowdown: This series is loaded with subplots and back stories that should keep the hockey scribes busy even during non-game days. Two Original Six teams who have had long periods of serious enmity for each other will go head-to-head in what should be a long and tense series. The Blackhawks play the role of young upstarts well. They are fast, tenacious and have lots of depth. The Red Wings are the old masters, trying to win their fifth Stanley Cup in the last 12 years. They are led by a cool and calm collection of savvy veterans who never seem to get riled, no matter what the situation is. The Wings are coming off a seven-game victory against Anaheim that featured some of the toughest and most suspenseful playoff games in recent history. They can weather whatever storm Chicago cooks up. The 'Hawks are coming off a slightly surprising victory against Vancouver, in which they scored seven goals in the series clincher. Caveat to 'Hawks fans: They will not score seven goals in a game against Detroit. They'll have to win 3-2 if they want to prevail in this series.

How the Blackhawks can win: Chicago's best chance to upset the Wings will be to dump the puck into the Detroit zone and use their superior speed to chase it down and start cycling. This could wear the older Detroit defense down. Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Jonathan Toews, Adam Burish, Martin Havlat and company should get lots of quality chances to score if they keep harassing the Detroit defense. The Blackhawks will also need Nikolai Khabibulin to be at his best in goal, because he's likely to see a lot more rubber in this series than he did in the previous two.

How the Red Wings can win: By playing their steady and patient style, waiting for their chances and capitalizing on them when they present themselves. With all due respect to the Flames and Canucks, the 'Hawks haven't yet faced a team that can roll four very good lines, and can throw out there a top four defensive corps like Nicklas Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski, Niklas Kronwall and Brad Stuart. Chris Osgood has also been on top of his game, and he'll need to play very well for the Wings to have a chance.

Series prediction: Detroit in six games.


Vancouver Canucks: The Canucks will have to solve the nagging issue of poor goaltending and leaky defense that doomed them in the Chicago series. Roberto Luongo will soon have to steal a couple of playoff series to maintain his status as the best goaltender in the Western Conference. If he had played 20% better, the Canucks would have won the series. The Mats Sundin experiment didn't really pay off, either.

Anaheim Ducks: The Ducks came within a hair of beating Detroit, after upsetting the President's Trophy-winning San Jose Sharks in the first round. The questions in Anaheim over the summer will center on the status of Teemu Selanne, Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger. Selanne and Niedermayer take their sweet time pondering the retirement question, and the Ducks were looking at moving Pronger late in the regular season to free up cap space for the next generation of Ducks. They seemed a little shy in the forward depth department against Detroit. One wonders what would have happened if the Ducks had been able to hang onto Andy McDonald and Dustin Penner, rather than jettisoning them for cap maneuverability.

Eastern Conference

(6) Carolina Hurricanes vs. (4) Pittsburgh Penguins

Series lowdown: Both of these teams have made appearances in recent Cup Finals, and both are eager to return for another shot. This will be a series of contrasting styles. Pittsburgh likes to play the run-and-gun, high-octane offensive game, and Carolina competes best in low-scoring affairs. Both teams have excellent young goaltenders who have experience in high-stakes playoff games. Of course, by the end of this series we'll all be sick of hearing the hundreds of stories about Eric and Jordan Staal facing each other. Really folks, there will be a lot more to this series than the battle of the Staals.

How the Hurricanes can win: By trying to keep the Penguins to three goals or fewer in each game. Carolina's best chance is to try to keep scoring chances down, and keep the Penguins forwards to the periphery. Cam Ward will have to be at his very best to keep the 'Canes in the games. The surprisingly mobile Carolina defense does have shutdown capabilities.

How the Penguins can win: The Penguins' best players —Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury— have risen to the occasion so far in this postseason, and there is no reason to believe they won't continue to do so. They'll be motivated further by their near-miss in last year's Finals. The additions of Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz helped beef up their forward lines, and both players are effective in the trenches.

Series prediction: Pittsburgh in seven games.


Boston Bruins: The Bruins' season was a study in contrasts: A lightning-fast start coupled with long periods of tepid, indifferent play. They had little trouble with Montreal in the first round, but couldn't quite finish off the Hurricanes, despite coming back from a 3-1 deficit to force a seventh game. They have a lot of young talent, and it will take a couple of years before they can seriously contend for the Stanley Cup. But this year represented a valuable experience for the entire organization, one on which they can build for their future success.

Washington Capitals: How does a dynamic team like the Washington Capitals lose a Game 7 by a 6-2 count (falling behind 5-0) at home? That's a preparation problem more than anything, and while the players need to take the lion's share of the blame for that season-ending debacle, the coaching staff should be looking in the mirror as well. There is just no good excuse for playing that badly in arguably one of the biggest games in franchise history. That said, the team has a bright future that features a core of current and budding superstars that will bring Washington fans out of their seats most nights.

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