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Sunday, May 16, 2010

Once again, a few comments on the round that was and on to the round that will be. First and foremost, we’ve learned one thing—a hockey playoff round, moreso than any other playoff round is all about winning four games. No matter how effectively you win 3, you have to win that fourth one. Hockey is about bounces and luck and just as easily as the bounces can go your way, they can just as quickly turn the other way. Montreal has now outlasted Washington and Pittsburgh after being down 3-1. Goaltending issues permeate from Washington and Pittsburgh. Philadelphia outlasted Boston after being down 3-0 for only the third time in NHL History. Out west, Chicago got it rolling over Vancouver and San Jose finally got an inch of top-line production, plus a mile of second-line production to make it to the Western Final for the second time in history.

Western Final:

(1) San Jose Sharks (8-4) [.95 5on5, 19.3% PP, 84.2% PK] vs. (2) Chicago Blackhawks (8-4) [1.05 5on5, 21.6% PP, 88.7% PK]

San Jose remains the enigma of the playoffs. The verdict has come in on the big three Dany Heatley (2G, 8A, -3), Patrick Marleau (3G, 4A, -1) and Joe Thornton (3G, 8A, -6)—these guys are not playoff players. After averaging 1.05 ppg and a combined +52 in the regular season, the trio has checked in at .90 ppg and a combined -10 in the playoffs (let it be known that the last series against the Red Wings saw an increased production from the trio—so baby steps in the right direction, I guess). The tight checking in the playoffs has spelled doom for the finesse trio. San Jose has gotten their production from a set of gritty forwards Ryan Clowe (2G, 8A, +5) and Joe Pavelski (9G, 6A, +7). The blueliners led by Dan Boyle (2G, 7A, +1) have been steady in front of Evgeni Nabokov (8W, 2.43GAA, .907 Sv%). San Jose needs to maintain its steady production from their second line of forwards, blue liners, and Nabokov. If they are able to get all of those things and also add a dynamic first line, there isn’t much that Chicago can do to stop them.

Chicago remains the scary potential team of the playoffs. The forwards, led by Patrick Kane (7G, 8A, +1) and Jonathan Toews (6G, 14A, +4) are as good as any two forwards left in the playoffs. The team can score from the blueline as well, and also play steady defense, led by Duncan Keith (1G, 5A, -1) and Brent Seabrook (2G, 6A, +5). Antti Niemi (8W, 2.57GAA, .909 Sv%) has been both good and bad, but overall very good. As if this isn’t enough to get the Sharks shaking in the boots (read: choking), they also have to deal with a steady dose of second line scorers, including Patrick Sharp (5G, 9A, +2), Marian Hossa (2G, 8A, +5), and a surprising showing from Dustin Byfuglien (4G, 2A, -3). Chicago should be able to get goals and their defense is good enough to stop any rush that San Jose throws at them. However, Niemi has shown that he can be beat. If Niemi plays like a Conn-Smythe winner, this will be a quick series and the Sharks will have an even-tougher time beating down their “choking legacy.”

All in all, I expect more of the same—San Jose’s top line will contribute sparingly, but their second line will carry the play. On the other hand, Chicago is going to get scoring from both lines. Both defenses are good enough to stop an offensive surge. Nabokov has been a little bit more steady than Niemi, but Niemi has shown more of an upside. Thus, I expect Chicago will win the series in six games, Niemi will give one away, but he will also steal one. The headline coming out of this series will be how the Sharks lost and didn’t get production from Heatley, Thornton, and Marleau.

(7) Philadelphia Flyers (8-4) [1.29 5on5, 21.7% PP, 83.6% PK] vs. (8) Montreal Canadiens (8-6) [1.04 5on5, 21.6% PP, 85.5% PK]

In an incredibly rare situation, a seven-seed will have home ice in the playoffs (the only way a seven ever gets home ice is if they make the conference finals and also if an 8 makes it too). The Flyers got to the Finals in typically Flyers fashion, by looking like world-beaters one day (destroying New Jersey and winning four straight against Boston to come back from a 3-0 series deficit to win) and looked complacent on other games. To be fair, the Flyers are dealing with some injuries (but who isn’t in the playoffs). The Flyers are without sniper Jeff Carter (2G, 1A, -3) and sparkplug Ian Laperriere(0G, 1A, -1) and played several games without Simon Gagne (4G, 3A, +3), who has returned to the lineup and then some. Philadelphia’s forwards have been led by Daniel Briere (7G, 8A, +3) who seems to be finding the net like it’s 2005, Captain Mike Richards (5G, 12A, +2), and newcomer Claude Giroux (5G, 6A, +3). A key story for the Flyers has been the steady of their top four defensemen, Chris Pronger (4G, 7A, +3), Matt Carle (0G, 7A, +7), Kimmo Timonen (0G, 5A, +1), and Braydon Coburn (0G, 1A, +1), who have kept their goaltenders workload in check. In goal, the Flyers have gotten steady play from the injured Brian Boucher (6W, 2.33 GAA, .915 Sv%) and his back-up Michael Leighton (2W, 1.55 GAA, .943 Sv%) didn’t skip a beat after being called into game 5 (which was elimination game), game 6 (which was an elimination game), and game 7 (which was an elimination game). With Gagne back healthy, scoring depth at forward, shut-down defense, and the steady Leighton in net, there isn’t anything that can stop the Flyers, except the Flyers…which they’ve demonstrated that they just don’t show up at time.

The Canadiens story is the story of Jaroslav Halak (8W, 2.42 GAA, .933 Sv%). He’s been sensational and he’s looked at more rubber than the Michelin Man. The Canadiens not only beat the best team in the east, and arguably the second-best team in the east in 7 games, but they did much of it with injuries on defense and virtually only one guy scoring goals. Mike Cammalleri (12G, 6A, -1) has been the one offensive bright spot for the Habs. Meanwhile, Hal Gill (0G, 1A, +2) and Josh Gorges (0G, 1A, +1) have shown that a team can win any game if they don’t give up any good shots. Montreal’s team defensive system makes them tough to crack, especially if they get up early. However, a team that isn’t prone to complete defensive lapses (read: Pittsburgh and Washington), should not get down against the Habs if they can stop Camalleri. That said, if Halak continues his hot streak, a team may only need four goals to win this series.

When push comes to shove, Philadelphia has more scoring depth than the Penguins, and nearly as many goal scorers as Washington. However, Philadelphia’s defense is far superior to that of Washington and Pittsburgh. Michael Leighton has stabilized this team. I’ve said this once, but I’ll say it again. Montreal will be outplayed in this series. Halak may be able to steal one game, but Pronger and Carle will shut down Camalleri et al., which means Montreal isn’t going to get the goal-scoring that they need to get up early to trap-to-win. Philadelphia in 5.

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