Who could have predicted this? The top two teams in the West will meet for the rights to tower over the remnants of the East, where the bottom two seeds are set to do battle.
San Jose Sharks (1) -vs- Chicago Blackhawks (2)
With all of the chaos that the Stanley Cup playoffs have delivered, it's almost surprising to see the top two teams actually advancing to the Western Conference finals. This sets the stage for a classic series where neither team can truly be favored over the other.
Both goalies have been good, but not great, in the playoffs so far. Antti Niemi came out of the gate flying, posting 2 shutouts in the opening series against Nashville. He had a much tougher challenge in Round 2 against the high scoring Canucks, but he didn't miss a beat. He enters round 3 with a 2.57 GAA and a .909 save percentage.
Evgeni Nabokov has stumbled a couple times this postseason, but for the most part has delivered his normal steady goaltending for the Sharks. He edged Niemi in GAA, with a 2.43, but is slightly behind with a .907 save percentage. He'll have to avoid the meltdown games against the Hawks, who are fully capable of scoring in bunches.
Both of these teams are capable of putting up big numbers, having finished 2nd and 3rd in total goals out West in the regular season. Chicago features some superstar talent in Toews, Kane, and Hossa, while the Sharks can throw out a top line of Marleau, Thornton and Heatley to match. The big story so far has been the surprising play of Joe Pavelski, who has racked up 9 goals in 11 games. He's gotten good help from Ryan Clowe and Devon Setoguchi to bring a commanding 2nd line scoring threat to the series.
Chicago has also been getting contributions down their roster, as Dustin Byfuglien, Patrick Sharp, Kris Versteeg, and Dave Bolland have all contributed offensively to the cause. It remains to be seen if Byfuglien can distract Nabokov and repeat the havoc he generated against the Canucks.
Neither of these teams are hurting when it comes to quality players on the blueliner, which likely explains why they've made it this far. Despite a couple of awkward own-goals, Dan Boyle has contributed with 9 points in 11 games, while Douglas Murray and Rob Blake have held the fort defensively for the Sharks.
The Blackhawks haven't gotten the goalscoring they've come to expect from their defense yet, but the crew has been solid in preventing chances. Seabrook, Keith, and Campbell have just 3 goals between them through two rounds. If they start to contribute from the point, it could balance the scales in favor of Chicago.
Making predictions this playoff season has been a joke of an effort, but that's not going to stop us now. Expect a lopsided game or two along the way with all the offense on the ice this series. In the end, expect to see Hossa back on the stage for the third straight season.
Chicago in 6.
Philadelphia Flyers (7) -vs- Montreal Canadiens (8)
When's the last time a team had to win the last game of the season to qualify for the playoffs, then ended up with home ice advantage in the Conference Finals? These are strange days we're witnessing in the NHL. Just try picking a winner at this point.
In a postseason with many fascinating stories, perhaps the biggest one is the play of Jaroslav Halak. Then again, how did the Flyers make it this far with their goal recycling program? Clearly one team has leaned heavily on this position, while the other has gotten by with whatever they can find. Halak doesn't have to single handedly steal games the way he did in the first two round, but don't be surprised if he does it anyway.
The Canadiens aren't the most threatening bunch of characters, but they score when they need to. Kind of reminds me of a Montreal team from 1993. The Flyers continue to rotate forwards as they suffer and heal from various freakish ailments. Regardless of who they insert up front, they've found a way to score goals and come back despite silly odds against them.
The names on the Canadiens roster won't impress you much, but if you've watched the job they've done to this point, you just have to tip your hat. Can they keep it up? While the Flyers can't match the Penguins or Caps in terms of top tier superstar talent, they may be more of a threat, as they can bring a balanced array of scorers across all their lines. The likes of Subban, Georges, and Gill will have to continue to block shots they way they have for 14 games.
The Flyers defense is a mixed bag, but you can't deny the outstanding job Pronger has done to lead this crew.
Ask me 10 times who will win this series, and I'll probably waffle like John Kerry and give you a different answer each time. It's that close and that unpredictable. For the first time this year, fans would not be surprised to see Montreal win a series. So, don't be surprised when they lose.
Flyers in 6.
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