After an exciting second round of playoff action that saw three series go the distance and pitted the league’s top young stars - Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby - against each other. Many thought there would be a let-down after the excitement of the Conference Semifinals, but the four teams that advanced have offered enough storylines to at least keep us mildly interested if not completely entertained. Last round I was 3-1 (darn those Bruins), putting my overall record at 9-2-1 (the one being the cop-out on the Canes-Devils first round series).
Eastern Conference - #4 Pittsburgh vs. #6 Carolina
The Carolina Hurricanes have won six straight playoff series, and many key components of the 2006 championship team are still there. Eric Staal will need to score early and often if the “Cardiac Canes” want to advance to the finals. He was less than impressive against Boston’s Zdeno Chara, and his reward for the success he did have is a shot at Pittsburgh’s shut-down combination of Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi. The dynamic duo held Ovechkin to just one goal in three games at Pittsburgh where rookie head coach Dan Bylsma was able to get the matchup he wanted. Without home-ice, Staal can expect to see plenty of Gill and Scuderi.
Erik Cole has yet to score in this playoff season, and unless he does it is doubtful that Carolina can produce enough offense to win the race to four against Pittsburgh, even if Cam Ward continues to be outstanding in net.
Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury has been average this post-season, posting a goals-against average of 2.72 and a .901 save percentage. This would be good news for Carolina, if Pittsburgh wasn’t third in goals per game and leading the league in blocked shots. Crosby has been playing like a man possessed this post-season and Evgeni Malkin is quickly returning to the dominating force that tallied a league-leading 113 points in the regular season.
The awakening of Malkin has also led to the apparent awakening of the Penguins wingers. Absent from the score sheet for most of the first round and the start of the second, it seemed as though the top-six had become the top-two for Pittsburgh. Then Ruslan Fedotenko scored, then Bill Guerin, and Matt Cooke and before we knew it the wingers were back. Even Miroslav Satan was able to contribute with a handful of assists as the Penguins erased a 2-0 deficit to win their seven-game series with Washington.
The battle of Eric Staal against his brother Jordan will be interesting, but it’s ultimately nothing more than a side story. Pittsburgh has too many weapons and, just like the Hurricanes, they never panic. They’ve been here before, recently, and firmly believe in themselves and their coaches. Pittsburgh in seven.
Western Conference - #2 Detroit vs. #4 Chicago
A new chapter is about to be written in the original rivalry of Detroit and Chicago. The Blackhawks have the talent and composure to make things difficult for the Red Wings. They beat a veteran Calgary Flames team in the first round by not showing their opponent any respect, and we can expect the same against Detroit. The Hawks are backed by a great playoff goaltender in Nikolai Khabibulin, and have some weapons up front in captain Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Martin Havlat.
On the blueline the Blackhawks have the ability to score and to stop. Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith have a combined 14 points through Chicago’s 12 playoff games and are a combined plus-seven. Seabrook and Keith usually see time against the oppositions top forwards. In the first round they were often matched against Jarome Iginla. In the second, against Vancouver, the two were against the Sedin twins. But now comes the true test: who will they play against in Detroit? Marian Hossa would be the likely candidate, but Joel Quenville can’t discount the abilities of Henrik Zetterberg or Pavel Datsyuk. Keith and Seabrook can’t play every shift, so the pressure will be on the other four blueliners for Chicago.
The Blackhawks will also need more secondary scoring to be able to beat the Red Wings. Toews, Kane and Havlat are good, but to win the Hawks will have to see continued production from the rest of their lineup. This hasn’t been a problem yet for the Hawks, but it could be against a team allowing only 2.18 goals-against per game.
Detroit, however, cannot assume they have a free pass to the finals. Anaheim was a tough test, and they certainly have more sandpaper than the young Blackhawks. But what the Ducks did not have was the secondary scoring. Andrew Ebbett and Teemu Selanne were almost non-existent in the second round. In fact, through 13 games the Ducks only had four players with more than seven points and only two of those were forwards (Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry). By comparison, Chicago has four forwards with ten points or more and four more players with nine points.
Nicklas Lidstrom and company will have their hands full in front of netminder Chris Osgood as well. The Blackhawks are one of the few teams in the NHL that are as good as the Wings at getting traffic in front of the net.
Despite the talent and attitude of Chicago, Detroit is still the better team. They have more scoring depth, more playoff experience, and are better defensively than the Hawks. Chicago will make it tough for the defending champs, and they certainly have the potential for an upset. Detroit just appears to be too tough for Toews and Co. Red Wings in six.