We enter that time of the NHL season when I am torn.
You see, now that the playoffs are winding down, the hockey is getting better and better. The games are more intense, and we're just one step away from hockey's Holy Grail. The downside of all of this hockey goodness? Games are farther apart and fewer, and by this time next month, hockey will be pretty much done and gone. At least on the ice in the NHL.
So it'll be time over the summer to watch Doug Risebrough seek out players from leagues hidden in Europe as he tries to wish the Wild into legitimate contention, time for Scott Niedermayer to sit and decide whether or not he wants to retire before he saves his team a bunch of cash and opts to play in January of 2009, time to break out retrospective DVDs like the brilliant Legends of Hockey series, any of the 10 Greatest Games of the Philadelphia Flyers, or more of the Greatest Games In Stanley Cup History: Game 7 Collection.
So it's a bit sad that all will be gone in the near future but for now we have but one focus: Who will pull out the stops to secure a berth in the Stanley Cup Final, 2008 style? Well, let's see how things played out for me in the last round:
I took Philadelphia to win in 7 games over top seed Montreal. Philadelphia handled them much easier than anyone expected, mainly due to exceptional goaltending from Martin Biron in the Orange & Black (though, sadly, still more black than orange....they totally need to switch back!) and a Turco-esque swan dive by Carey Price in the blanc, bleu et rouge.
I figured the Rangers and Henrik Lundqvist would outlast the Penguins and choose poorly. Pittsburgh simply outplayed the Rangers at every turn.
I think everyone knew Colorado was doomed, especially when half their team was out on any given night. The injury to Stastny didn't help, and Detroit is just too deep for them. I gave Colorado credit enough to maybe win 2. I was wrong, but picked Detroit right.
When Calgary pushed San Jose to the brink and the Sharkies had the moxy to pull out the series win, I figured it was the kick in the dorsal fin that they needed to avoid the mistakes of the past. It was not. My pick of San Jose over Dallas didn't pan out but they played a hell of a final 3 games, and the 4-OT game could have been theirs had they taken advantage of their one powerplay as Dallas did to eliminate them.
So I ended up at 50-50. And I'm fine with that.
Now, the 3rd round is about to begin on Thursday night and this is what I see happening:
#1 Detroit Red Wings vs. #5 Dallas Stars.
How can anyone hope to keep pace with Detroit? It's becoming an oft discussed point over the past decade or so. Sure, someone eventually does, or else Detroit would have won every Cup in the last 20 years, but this Red Wings team is a behemoth, and probably the best team they've iced since the days of Steve Yzerman, Luc Robitaille, Sergei Fedorov, Vladimir Konstantinov, and Mike Vernon.
Look at what you need to do:
Stop Henrik Zetterberg. You did. Oh.
Then stop Pavel Datsuyk. Ok. Check.
Alright, stop Johan Franzen.
Don't forget to contain Nick Lidstrom.
And get those pucks past Chris Osgood.
In the first 2 rounds, no one was able to do that on a consistent basis and thus Detroit has had a fairly easy time this post-season. Dallas, however, is another matter.
Brendan Morrow is putting together a superb playoff and is already being regarded as a prime candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy (more farther down). The Shark Killer is tenacious on the attack and just as intense on the backcheck. And I still love the hit he put on Milan Michalek in the series finale against San Jose. More NHL players should watch video of that hit to learn how to actually do it properly. He did not hit him from behind. He did not take a huge run at him. He did not get his elbow or his stick up. It was a beautiful, hard, clean bodycheck which the league needs more of.
I want very much to give Mike Ribiero some credit but I simply cannot separate the Mike Ribiero of now from the "I've been shot from the Book Depository" Mike Ribiero of days past. The image of him writhing on the ice with his fake injury still makes we want to kick him. Twice. Just to make sure he's really injured. Others with greater powers of forgiveness can appreciate his game. I haven't been able to get there yet.
One guy I have underestimated thus far has been Marty Turco. He has been playing some exceptional goal for Dallas and even in the games they lost to the surging Sharks he never looked flustered or panicked. He just got beat. And he continued to fight through it. So more power to him.
The question is, who is going to have the goods to win this one out?
It may surprise you but I actually have to go with Dallas on this one. Detroit hasn't had a real challenge yet and after two rounds of cakewalk Dallas is really going to shake their foundation. I see Dallas shocking them in game one in Detroit, catching Detroit napping as they think about rounding things off in game four, and from then on this will be a series. Sure, Detroit took the season series 3 games to 1 but the post-season is a whole different animal.
Ultimately I see this series going 6 games and I see Dallas on the winning end.
#2 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. #6 Philadelphia Flyers.
I hate Pittsburgh. I mean I hate Pittsburgh. Always have. Don't mistake me. That doesn't mean I can't appreciate the abilities of, say, Evgeni Malkin or Marian Hossa. Because I can. And they've played well. Malkin, despite the presence of the Crowned One (or is that a tiara?) that is Sidney Crosby (Cindy Crysby?) is the true leader of that team, and he proved it when Sid was out with a hangnail for the better part of the last quarter of the season (or was he attending the elite Papa Floppa Forsberg's School of Diving?)
How much do I hate Pittsburgh? Well, if Al-Qaeda had a hockey team, I'd root for them.
That being what it is, and I know you appreciate the honesty, Pittsburgh is intensely powerful and they will not make this an easy round for Philadelphia. Much like Detroit, however, Pittsburgh has had it a lot easier. They trounced a freefalling Ottawa team that was not even a pale imitation of last season's Cup finalists. They beat a mediocre Rangers teams that just seemed to have nothing to inspire them on. And now they face a Flyers team that has slogged through two hard fought series, despite the perceived lopsidedness of the 4-1 series against Montreal.
Pittsburgh is high powered offense in action and they have all the tools in the box to finish the job when given opportunities. Malkin/Crosby/Hossa is a powerplay line combo no-one wants to see. On the backside, Marc-Andre Fleury has stepped up and played as strong as I've ever seen him in net.
Then again, Carey Price was da bomb until the Flyers got ahold of him. Then he just exploded into tiny Pricecicles and forced into a revolving door of "Am I Playing or Am I Not?" Leading the offensive charge for the Flyers is Danny Briere, who heard a chorus of boos from his Montreal brethren (and no doubt from Buffalo as well) every time he touched the puck. The real surprise, however, was in the emergence of R.J. Umberger.
Were it not for Johan Franzen in Detroit and the great series he had against Colorado, the talk of the NHL would be R.J., who played an Umberglieveable series against Montreal. He will be greatly needed in the Pittsburgh series, and hopefully his Pittsburgh roots will inspire him to rout his hometown team.
There is no Malkin or Crosby or Hossa on this Philly team. But much like the Buffalo Sabres of the previous two seasons, this is a team with a couple bigger name players and a depth of attack across the board. They are a hard working rough-and-tumble crew. Stop Briere all you like, you still have to square up against Umberger, or Hartnell, or Richards, or Carter, and ultimately you will have to beat Martin Biron.
Biron has been sensational for Philadelphia. Of course defensively the entire team has been exceptional, led by Captain Jason Smith and Kimmo Timonen. They're clearing lanes so Biron can see the puck from the point and other than one game against Montreal they have been very diligent about watching the backside player. And that will be key to stopping Pittsburgh, who love the quick cross ice pass to the back door player for the easy tap in. On those occasions when the D has slipped up Biron has been there to save their bacon. He has been mobile and aware at all times and for a guy in his first post-season play he looks every bit the capable veteran.
Two things Philadelphia will need to do here.
1 - Stay out of the penalty box. This, if nothing else, is a dire need. They are the most penalized team in the playoffs (though many a Flyer fan would argue that the League has it in for them) and if they spend too much time killing penalties they will only kill their chances to advance. That aforementioned Pens line will decimate them.
2 - Play 60 minutes of hockey. On many occasions during the Montreal series, and even in the Washington series, the Flyers have been guilty of not playing a full game. Coughing up 2-goal leads and having the ice tilted in their direction for long stretches of time simply cannot occur against Pittsburgh. It may seem odd, but I don't think we've seen a full out Philadelphia hockey game yet in this post-season. Now is the time to unmask the beast and unleash that Vengeance they keep talking about. For a full 60 minutes.
In this series, this intense cross-state rivalry, I have to go with Philadelphia. Not only because I so deeply despise the Penguins but because I do honestly believe that Philadelphia, on their best days, have the full capability to shut them down and take them out. The Flyers took down Pittsburgh 5 games to 3 in the regular season but, as I previously stated, playoffs are their own animal. I think this will be one hell of a series and I think that in the end, the difference maker is going to be one Mike Knuble, who just returned from a hamstring injury, and he's going to make the Pens pay.
Flyers win 4 games to 2.
* * * * *
Now, about that Conn Smythe Trophy.
The MVP of the playoffs is already being bandied about even though half of the "nominees" will vanish over the next 2 weeks. Besides, someone else could pop out of the middle of nowhere to take command of a team and a series, and propel themselves into contention.
Johan Franzen of Detroit is the top of the list right now. Everyone is loving this guy, and are amazed at his big 9 goals in 4 games output against Colorado. And that is damned impressive. But where was he in Round 1 against Nashville? 2 goals and 4 points in 5 games isn't quite so dominant. MVP is based on the PLAYOFFS, not one round. And while he had a great series against the pathetic, depleted Avs, I personally don't believe it's MVP worthy.
So who would I pick thus far?
Some of you may say I only pick him because he's a Flyer but that would not be true. But thus far, no one has been more integral to his team's success (which is what the Conn Smythe is all about) than Martin Biron has in goal for Philadelphia.
Detroit would have beaten Colorado without Johan Franzen. Chris Osgood has been a good story in Detroit stepping in for Dom Hasek. Mary Turco has been solid for Dallas. But those teams have also been consistently dominant and never as much behind the 8-ball as Philadelphia. The Flyers have not played supreme hockey and yet based on the strength of Biron's play they have fashioned victories over the #1 and #3 seeded Eastern Conference teams.
Right now, in my estimation, Martin Biron is the easy choice for MVP.
As an aside, ESPN is having a vote where you can rank the MVP candidates. They give you 12 of them, three from each remaining team. Very unscientific but fun to do none-the-less. At the time I voted, Johan Franzen was the runaway #1 selection with 183,983 points. Evgeni Malkin was second with 180,593, followed by Turco, Fleury, Crosby, Biron, Osgood, Briere, Morrow, Umberger, Kronwall, Robidas.
Of great interest to me is that Crosby is ranked 5th and Biron 6th yet Biron is destroying him in first place votes. 942 obviously demented and unknowledgeable fans picked Crosby as the MVP while Biron female dog-slapped him with 2,725 first place votes.