After a nearly perfect first round, we enter the Conference Finals with a 50% winning percentage in the second round. Even with that mediocre record, I was pretty spot on in my predictions. The Boston sweep of the Flyers being the only exception. But all that is meaningless now. We've reached the final four; two games to decide who will make it to the Stanley Cup finals and compete for the most expensive trophy in all of professional sports. I'll give you a hint at who it will be: let's just say Colin Campbell is not going to be psyched about the ratings.
No. 3 Boston Bruins vs. No. 5 Tampa Bay Lightning
Both of these teams are coming off second round sweeps, so neither is exactly tired. As the old cliche goes, goaltending wins in the playoffs, and the Bruins have one of the best in Tim Thomas, but he's facing a Lightning team who seemingly scores at will. I still find it unbelievable this team who is so loaded offensively, has flown relatively under the media's radar, but anyone who's been paying attention knows how good of a scoring team Tampa Bay is. Boston is no slouch either, though their hopes rest squarely on the shoulders of Thomas and a defense backed by the big goon Chara, who will both have to be especially good to slow down the Lightning. Despite being the Eastern Conference finals, I'm expecting another quick series for these two teams, unfortunately for the Bruins, not in their favor.
Prediction: Lightning in 5
No. 1 Vancouver Canucks vs. No. 2 San Jose Sharks
Unlike the East, these two teams have been the best in the West for most of the regular season, so it makes sense to see them meet to decide who will represent their conference in the finals. Also unlike the East, both of these teams are coming off back-to-back grueling series, and I don't expect much to change. The Shark's Antti Niemi redeemed himself after a terrible first round where he was pulled twice, but after letting the Red Wings come back to force a game seven after being up 3-0, you have to wonder about his mental stability. On the other bench, the Sedin brothers broke out against the Predators—one of the best defenses in the league—after a terrible first round series in Chicago. Now the table is set, no excuses, it comes down to brass tax and performance. With that in mind, I have to go with the team who has been the best in all three phases of the game the entire 2010/2011 NHL season.
Prediction: Canucks in 6
I would just like to state for the record that I was right on seven of the eight first round series—you can see for yourself below. Of course, my excitement was subdued by the fact the only team I cared about, the Buffalo Sabres, lost a heartbreaking seven-game series to the Flyers; a series in which they led 3-2 and were leading by a goal with roughly five-minutes left in game six. The rest is, well, just the status quo for your average suffering Buffalo sports fans. But enough of that, let's move to round two where I am sure to amaze and confound all the experts.
No. 1 Washington Capitals vs. No. 5 Tampa Bay Lightning
The Caps come into the second round having vexed some prior playoff demons, but it's hard to read too much into beating the worst team left standing in a relatively easy five games. The Lightning dispatched the Penguins in seven long games, and will probably be the more tired of the two teams, but other than that one fact, this series is pretty even. Both teams feature high-power, quick-strike offenses with hard forechecking defenses, and slightly below average goaltending. While safe bets would ride with the Capitals, nothing is more detrimental than the weight of playoff pressure (just ask any Buffalonian), and I'm a fan of Dwayne Roloson, so I'm going to flip the script and go with the Lightning.
Prediction: Lightning in 6
No. 2 Philadelphia Flyers vs. No. 3 Boston Bruins
Who do I hate more? The team that bounced the Sabres last year, or the team lucky enough to get by them this year? Yeah, I realize I'm being a homer right now, but seriously, if you don't live in Boston or Philadelphia and you like either of these teams, you're an asshole. That's not opinion, it's factual. The good thing about this series is neither will make it to the finals. While they may be higher seeds than the Lightning, both are considerably weaker up front than them or the Caps, but unfortunately, I guess I have to pick one. Logic would say the Bruins because their stiff D with Chara and backed by Tim Thomas in net would prevail, but look how that turned out for Ryan Miller, who lost despite two shutouts. I just don't see the Bruins being able to create enough offensive pressure to keep up with Briere and company, and James Van Riemsdyk has propelled himself to be one of, if not the, best players in this Eastern Conference playoff season.
Prediction: Flyers in 6
No. 1 Vanouver Canucks vs. No. 5 Nashville Predators
Vancouver “slayed the dragon,” bouncing the defending champion Blackhawks in a crazy seven-game series. Nashville is one of the most unrecognized teams nationally, but probably the last the Canucks wanted to face in the second round. As I mentioned in the first round, they have one of the best defenses and goalies left in the tourney, and everyone is still waiting for Pekka Rinne to break-out as an elite goaltender in these playoffs. Despite winning in the first round, it relied on a total team effort as Rinne was merely average. Yet, as much as I like the Preds, I just can't believe the Sedin twins will stay quiet for another whole series, even facing a stout defense. And it's still possible for the goalie to be the best player in a losing effort.
Prediction: Canucks in 7
No. 2 San Jose Sharks vs. No. 3 Detroit Red Wings
Two of the most successful teams face off in the second round for the second straight year. These are two tried and true franchises that know how to build winners; yes, big names are important, but depth is key, and both the Sharks and Red Wings have three forward lines that could be many teams top one. San Jose's Antti Niemi had a terrible first round, getting pulled twice, and one has to wonder if he'll find his rhythm against an even stiffer opponent. On the flip side, Detroit goalie Jimmy Howard backed a sweep of the Coyotes with respectable, though not amazing, numbers. I don't expect goaltending to be the key to this series, but if either stands on their head, it will be the deciding factor. I fully expect this to be the tightest, most competitive series of the second round, but it's only a lead up to the Western Conference finals matchup most of us want to see.
Prediction: Red Wings in 7
The NHL might seem like a forgotten sport in the States, but any true fan will tell you that nothing compares to playoff hockey. It's like soccer, but exciting. It's like baseball, but fast. It's like football, but with harder hitting. It's like boxing, but with better fights. It's like basketball, but with less injuries. Yeah, it's pretty much the best about every sport without all the pussies.
No. 1 Washington Capitals vs. No. 8 New York Rangers
Everyone is making such a big deal about the importance of this postseason for the Caps and coach Bruce Boudreau, yet no one is talking about the horrible second half the Rangers are coming off of. Maybe it's because we're used to seeing the Rangers make the end of the season playoff push so exciting, but this team was perched as high as No. 6 before needing Carolina to lose on the last day of the regular season in order to just make it into these playoffs. Moral of this story? This is as uneven as the 1 vs. 8 would suggest.
Prediction: Capitals in 5
No. 2 Philadelphia Flyers vs. No. 7 Buffalo Sabres
No team in the East has been better than the Buffalo Sabres since Jan. 1, going 28-11-6. Meanwhile, the Flyers come in having lost 16 of their final 25 games. Normally I would dismiss this stat, especially considering we're talking about a Flyers team who is not much different from the one that went to the finals last year. But defensive rock Chris Pronger is questionable to start the series, and even if he does come back, probably won't be 100% until the second round. This is important to note, because Philly's biggest weakness is their goaltending, so facing the ninth best offense in the league minus your best defensive player will be a tough test for the No. 2 seed. This is, rightfully so, the most obvious choice for an upset, but in a very evenly contested Eastern Conference, it's hard to say either side is favored.
Prediction: Sabres in 6
No. 3 Boston Bruins vs. No. 6 Montreal Canadiens
Hide your wife, hide your kids, Zdeno Chara is coming back to Montreal. For those of you who don't know, this 7-foot goon took out Max Pacioretty with a controversial hit that put the Habs winger in the hospital with a broken neck and a concussion. The hit drew so much attention north of the border, that Montreal police are said to have an arrest warrant ready for Chara when he comes back. Unfortunately for Montreal, the Bruins don't come to town until game three, and this series could already be out of reach by then. The most exciting matchup of the first round, between two teams that have met in the playoffs more than any others in NHL history, will be filled with tight checking, hard hits, plenty of drama, but will be short on length.
Prediction: Bruins in 5
Zdeno Char's hit on Max Pacioretty
No. 4 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. No. 5 Tampa Bay Lightning
No team is more of a question mark heading into the playoffs than the Pittsburgh Penguins. When they're at full strength their easily one of the top 5 teams in the league, but how good they are without their two best players—Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin—is anyone's guess. Conversely, the Lightning have two prime time stars of their own in Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis who will be playing, and will have no problem keeping the offensive pressure on the Penguins. The biggest issue is whether or not Tampa's 41-year-old Dwayne Roloson will be a strong enough backstop to carry them defensively, but I just don't see the Penguins providing enough of a test for him. Ultimately, Crosby remains a conversation piece only.
Prediction: Lightning in 7
No. 1 Vancouver Canucks vs. No. 8 Chicago Blackhawks
I like the defending champs' first round matchup with the Presidents' Trophy winners. If you want to be the best, you got to beat the best, and despite the Hawks' No. 8 seed, logic would place these two teams as the most likely to make it out of the West. I know the Blackhawks are the trendy upset pick, and unless your a Canucks fan you probably want to see the best team in the regular season out of the playoffs early, but let's be serious. Vancouver sports the league's best offense, the best defense, and the second best goalie. As if that's not reason enough, they have two twin brothers—Daniel and Henrik Sedin—who are the No. 1 and 4 scorers in the league respectively. They're basically the Yankees, Lakers and Patriots all rolled into one. Let's put it this way, if they played in America, people might actually care about hockey here.
Prediction: Canucks in 6
No. 2 San Jose Sharks vs. No. 7 Los Angeles Kings
A lot is being made of the all-Cali matchup. Add in Anaheim's No. 4 seed, and you have three teams from the state (two from Los Angeles alone) in the playoffs. Definitely a boon for a league who's been struggling to capitalize on their California obsession since Wayne Gretzky went East, but what does it mean in terms of the game? San Jose comes in a Stanley Cup favorite who remain one of the league's best teams. The Kings are no slouch, making their second consecutive postseason, but the loss of Anze Kopitar on a team that is ranked 25th in goals scored will make it extremely difficult to get past the Sharks. The all-California storyline is nice on paper, but this is the least exciting series of the first round.
Prediction: Sharks in 4
No. 3 Detroit Red Wings at No. 6 Phoenix Coyotes
Detroit comes into their 20th straight postseason looking just as bored by that stat as we are. In an equally miraculous stat, the Coyotes are the first team to declare bankruptcy and play the Wings in the playoffs two consecutive years. I'm guessing the finish will be somewhat similar to last year; a hard-fought, seven game series that will have the anti-Red Wings contingency praying that the toughest playoff out in all of sports comes early. Or at least before your team has to face them, because as Paul proved, you don't bet against the octopus.
Prediction: Red Wings in 6
No. 4 Anaheim Ducks vs. No. 5 Nashville Predators
In what is sure to get little notice outside of Nashville and Anaheim (and even that might be debatable), the Ducks/Preds series might be an oversight for most hockey fans. Anaheim remains a favorite of experts, in large part because of the amazing Corey Perry, the league's only 50 goal scorer in the 2010/11 season, while Nashville remains, well, a mystery. But this much is known: They have one of the best defenses and goalies of all 16 teams standing, and expect Pekka Rinne to be the breakout star of this series as he single handedly steals it in seven games.
Prediction: Predators in 7