Hockey is that entity that is misunderstood by so many. Is it a game? Is it a sport? Is it mayhem? It is all of those and more and this year it proved to be a beast. Many perennial favorites had great years as expected, some faltered and some just plain failed. Decade long traditional losers became winners overnight, literally in some cases. The losers, the lucky, the overrated and some superstars are gone.
It is now down to 4. 4 teams to decide who wins Lord Stanley's Cup. This is not just a trophy, it is not just a playoff series, this is what people live and die for in hockey cities. The Cup is what fans yearn to see their teams raise, sometimes it is the very reason for their love of the game and it is certainly the reason that hockey fans will watch a 3/4/5 overtime game into the darkest hours of the night. The 4 teams that are left are the Beasts of the league. My thoughts on both series are below.
Eastern Conference Finals:
Many years have gone by with Ottawa being soft in the playoffs and not having people step up when it counted. Playing the Sens in the playoffs the last few years has been a positive thing for the fans of the teams that were lucky enough to match up against them. That has all changed, and changed drastically. Daniel Alfredsson is playing some of the best hockey of his life and has become a true leader. Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza are playing the most inspired playoff hockey the Senators have seen since they came back into the league. Redden, Phillips, Volchenkov, all having amazing runs. Chris Neil, hated by many loved by few is playing smart and disciplined. Crazy I know, but true nonetheless. Mike Comrie - listed at 5'10" which must be with him standing on a stool is playing much bigger then he ever has. Last but not least is Ray Emery. Stood on his head to beat arguably the best goalie ever to play the game even though he had help by said goalie having one of the worst series he has ever played. Take nothing away from Ray Emery, take nothing away from the Ottawa Senators. As much as I hate to say this, the Senators are for real, but are they for real enough to beat the Sabres? Stay Tuned.
Buffalo Sabres. What can I say but I hate them and man are they talented. The Sabres seem to have an uncanny ability to squeak by opponents that they should slaughter. Do they play down to their opponent? It has not mattered yet, but the 6 game set they just completed should not have been as close as it was except for the fact that the Sabres just did not play as they had all year, as a cohesive, strong unit in the first 4 games. That certainly changed in the last 2 however and the Sabres showed the hockey world what they had in them. Daniel Briere and Chris Drury together as captains of this team have certainly done an amazing job. Phoenix, Calgary and Colorado have to all be wondering what-if about these 2 guys, while Buffalo doesn't have to wonder what-if, they get to watch in dumb-founded amazement as these 2 guys work. Zubrus had been a solid player, good low 2nd, high 3rd line guy until he went to work with the Sabres. Talk about stepping up! Roy, Kotalik, Gaustad, Afinogenov et. al. have been playing inspired hockey all year. Stars - nope - not yet. Faces of the franchise - nope - not yet. Grinders, muckers, and workers - you bet your hockey puck. The Sabres roll 4 lines, can you tell which is #2, #3, #4 - not very often. Then you have the possibly best young goalie in the NHL with Ryan Miller. What more can you say about him that his stats cannot already say.
This series will be amazing. These teams absolutely detest each other. There is not an ounce of compassion from either team to the other and it goes all the way up the the brass in the suites. Tell me you wouldn't want to see Regier and Muckler mucking it up in a luxury box with Lindy and Bryan smacking the hell out of each other in the no-mans-land between the benches.
With all this said - I pick the Sabres in 7 games in OT because they have home ice.
Western Conference Finals:
Pick against them. Go ahead, everyone else does. Nobody seems to understand that the best team in the regular season in the West did not get there by accident or some freak force of nature. They got there because they are good, really good. Old - yes. Good - absolutely. Underrated and overlooked - you bet. These are not the 1996-97 Wings, true. They are the 06-07 Wings, a team all their own. Still some familiar faces, some guys who have been around a while and some new guys. But all this does not seem to matter because the Wings just know how to win when they get on a roll like this. Chelios - 45 years old - are you kidding me! This guy should be sitting on a beach somewhere eating BonBons and yet he is playing better than he has in years. Hasek should be on a roller rink somewhere beating up a helpless defenseman in the Czech Republic. Nope - both of these old men are helping the Wings move on in dramatic fashion. Lidstrom is unbelievable, Zetterberg has found his way, Draper - can you say underrated and overlooked, Maltby, Lilja, Samuelson, Kronwall - all playing amazingly well as a team. Schneider's injury is a shame but they have the pieces to plug into that hole and not miss a beat. This is a team that understands how to win and is beating other teams at their own game and better yet, making teams beat themselves at their own game.
Pronger, Niedermeyer, Beauchemin, Pahlsson. Defense and defensive minded. These 4 guys have kept Giguere's job easier than most. 1.98 GAA in the first 2 series! That is amazing to say the least. Not only do the Ducks have a defensive core that is 2nd to none. Perennial Norris finalists, a Selke finalist this year and likely years to come, and another potential Norris candidate in a few years in Beauchemin. That is just the backstop. The play of Selanne, McDonald, Getzlaf and Penner has been unbelievable, as has Scott's brother. This is not your mothers Mighty Ducks anymore - this is the Ducks and this team is strong. 4 strong lines. 4 powerful defensemen. Inspired play. Tactical play. Brian Burke is a talented GM who put together a winner and put the right guy at the helm in Randy Carlyle.
This will be a great series especially because it opens at the Joe. It's the Joe and it's Hockeytown - self proclaimed but Hockeytown nonetheless. The Wings are good. The Ducks are better and with the injuries to the Wings blueline they will suffer. Hasek does not like to be run. The Ducks run goalies, just ask Luongo. Luongo is a better, stronger goalie than Hasek right now, IMHO, and they solved him. Ducks will win this series in 6.
Nice piece. I'm on the fence with Ducks/Red Wings. I might yield to the Wings poise in being there year after year. Also, the Vancouver D that let them run Luongo is a farcry from the Wings D.