The 2009 version of the Stanley Cup playoffs has been an incredible entry into the annals of the great tournament.
Early on some familiar storylines came to the fore – San Jose flaming out despite heightened expectations and the defending champion Detroit Red Wings taking their game to another level. From there, other great occurrences also made the playoffs memorable.
Take the Carolina Hurricanes. The unsuspecting Canes never led their series against Martin Brodeur and the New Jersey Devils until the final seconds of Game 7, when Eric Staal and Jussi Jokinen propelled Carolina past the Devils and onto Round 2. Carolina didn’t stop there, taking a 3-1 series lead against the East’s top-seeded Boston Bruins. Though they allowed the B’s to fight their way back to a Game 7 in Beantown, Cam Ward and the gang proved yet again they are big-game players, pulling out an overtime win thanks to a series-clinching goal from none other than Scott Walker.
The Pittsburgh Penguins are bucking the trend that Stanley Cup runners-up fail to even come close to mirroring their achievements the following season. Prior to this Pens run, the past 11 Cup finalists have combined to win just one series. But this young, superstar-laden team is proving the you-have-to-lose-before-you-win theory does in fact hold true.
The Chicago Blackhawks renaissance is widely documented. But despite their core of youthful talent and underappreciated armor, the Hawks were the popular choice to lose in each of their first two matchups. However, Chicago played big in knocking off the post-season’s two western Canadian teams– Calgary and Vancouver – in exciting fashion. No longer can the Hawks be considered underdogs; this team is back and hungry for a Stanley Cup.
And then there’s the Red Wings. Their age and goaltending are constant targets of criticism, but once again they have held strong as the Wings displayed exactly why they are the champions. A first round destruction of the Columbus Blue Jackets wasn’t a surprise, but the way they handled themselves through a difficult – both physically and mentally – seven-game series against a deceivingly low-seeded Anaheim Ducks squad should give any opponent the shakes.
And now those four teams are in the conference finals.
Each has its own story to tell and each has traveled a separate and distinct route to get here. To be sure, the final two rounds of the playdowns will be as exciting and unpredictable as the first two. Lord Stanley’s Mug is in sight, but looking too far ahead could lead to an untimely demise.
Detroit - 4-2-0 (23 GF, 20 GA)
Chicago - 2-2-2 (20 GF, 23 GA)
LEADING SCORER VS. OPPONENT
Detroit - Jiri Hudler 9 (4G, 5A)
Chicago - Martin Havlat 8 (2G, 6A)
This series pits the best two power plays in this year’s playoffs and two units that have struggled killing penalties in the post-season, so something has to give here. Both teams can throw out a lethal power play unit that has game-changing potential. Getting Brian Rafalski back late in the series against Anaheim was a boon to the Detroit man advantage. The bottom line is if either team gets into penalty trouble, it’s flirting with disaster. Even though the Red Wings have been uncharacteristically bad not been that great on the penalty kill – giving up 11 goals in 40 opportunities – confidence has to be buoyed by the fact they killed off two 5-on-3s in Game 7 against Anaheim. Edge: Even
Of the six games these two teams played against each other during the regular season, one ended 6-5 in a shootout, another was 5-4 in a shootout and another – the Winter Classic – was 6-4. All three of those games were won by the Red Wings, which indicates any team that wants to hang with Detroit by trading chances is courting disaster. Both teams are explosive offensively, but the Red Wings have been outshooting their opponents by an average of 13 shots a game in the playoffs. Tomas Holmstrom, Pavel Datsyuk and Marian Hossa produced almost no offense against Anaheim and you’d have to think that won’t last forever. On the other side, the Blackhawks tore apart one of the NHL’s most defensive teams in the NHL with and arguably the league’s best goalie in Game 7 against Vancouver. Edge: Detroit
Much has been made of Chicago’s promising young defense corps, but when it comes to overall defensive play, the Red Wings are by far the superior team. To wit: so far in the playoffs, the Red Wings have allowed just 13 even-strength goals against in 11 games. The Blackhawks, on the other hand, have allowed 24 even-strength goals against – more than double Detroit’s digit – in one fewer game. It will be interesting to see whether the experienced savvy of Nicklas Lidstrom and Rafalski wins out over the youth and potential of Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Brian Campbell. Edge: Detroit
Prior to the playoffs, Detroit GM Ken Holland told anyone who would listen that, despite a disastrous regular season, Chris Osgood would be just fine once the playoffs started. And, boy, was he right. It baffles us how a guy who had an .887 save percentage during the season and was one of the worst starting goalies in the league can suddenly morph into a guy with a .921 save percentage in the playoffs. Hey, whatever works for ya… Nikolai Khabibulin’s numbers in the post-season haven’t been near nearly as good, but he has been lights out when the Hawks have needed a big save at crucial times. Both goalies have Stanley Cup rings and neither is being counted on to carry his team. Edge: Even
Two of the best bench bosses in the game today will match wits in this series. Both are outstanding tacticians capable of making the necessary adjustments during the game or in the middle of the series to improve their teams. They both run efficient, high-tempo practices where not an inch of the ice is wasted and each is a master at preparing their teams for what lies ahead. Edge: Even
The Blackhawks will certainly take solace in the fact that, after failing to defeat the Red Wings in their first four games this year, they took back-to-back victories in the last two contests of the regular season. What they have to be concerned with is playing a team that is infinitely better than either Calgary or Vancouver. The Red Wings are in their third straight conference final and have seen it all. This series will likely be a lot closer than a lot of people think, but…
Chicago has made it further than many ever thought they would this season and proved themselves to be more than worthy opponents. They knocked off a tough, though hurting, Calgary squad and then brushed aside the Vancouver Canucks and their super goalie Roberto Luongo. This series will be their ultimate test as the Red Wings have all the tools necessary to be successful in the post-season. They won’t go quietly, but Chicago’s surprise run will end here. Detroit in six.
Who do you think will win? Vote HERE.
Pittsburgh - 2-1-1 (12 GF, 7 GA)
Carolina - 2-2-0 (7 GF, 12 GA)
LEADING SCORERS VS. OPPONENT
Pittsburgh - Sidney Crosby 7 (1G, 6A)
Carolina - Ray Whitney 3 (1G, 2A)
Neither of these squads are exactly firing on all cylinders special teams-wise this post-season. The Pens sit just seventh in both power play (19.7 percent) and penalty killing (81.6 percent). Pittsburgh did, however, begin to show life in the final three games of the Washington series, scoring five goals in 10 opportunities with the extra man. On the other side of the coin, the Hurricanes’ power play has deserted them in the playoffs. The Canes actually finished with a better regular season power play percentage than the Penguins (18.7 to 17.2), but only first round losers Montreal and St. Louis had worse post-season power plays than Carolina’s (10.4 percent).
However with killing penalties, Carolina is humming along at No. 2 in the playoffs at 90.7 percent efficiency. The Canes win draws, play a sound system and their best penalty killer has – as is always the case on teams with good kills – been their goaltender, Cam Ward. The Penguins, meanwhile, sit seventh in the post-season, killing-off 81.6 percent of their penalties – not bad considering that includes seven games versus the vaunted Washington power play; the Caps went six for 24 (25 percent) in the seven games. Edge: Pittsburgh
With Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin leading the attack, there aren’t too many teams in the league who can keep up. With 12 goals through two rounds, Crosby is on pace to break the all-time record for goals in a single post-season (19), set by Reggie Leach in 1976 and matched by Jari Kurri in 1985. Malkin, whose play has been up-and-down these playoffs, led the regular season in scoring and is No. 3 in the playoffs with 19 points. Secondary scoring was once a problem for Pittsburgh, but Ruslan Fedotenko started finding the net and Bill Guerin quietly has five goals, too. Jordan Staal and Chris Kunitz could be scoring more, but are contributing in other ways.
The Hurricanes have been getting goals from a wide variety of forwards. Eric Staal – as expected – leads the way with nine, but 22 goals have been spread around nine other forwards. Jussi Jokinen has six of those, including three winners; Sergei Samsonov has four goals and five points in his past five games. Disturbing for the Canes and their Caniacs is the lack of production from Erik Cole – just two assists – and captain Rod Brind’Amour (one goal, two points), who has seen his role on the team shrink considerably since Paul Maurice took over as coach and especially in the playoffs – he averaged just 12 minutes of ice time during the final six games of the Boston series. Edge: Pittsburgh
Sergei Gonchar (two goals, 10 points) may be the only defenseman on either team whose name a casual fan would recognize. He along with Kris Letang (three goals, nine points) provide the offensive punch from the Pens’ blueline. The muscle comes from the likes of Brooks Orpik (6-foot-2, 219 pounds), Hal Gill (6-foot-7, 250 pounds) Mark Eaton (6-foot-2, 204 pounds) and Rob Scuderi (6-feet, 213 pounds), who has been excellent of late. Philippe Boucher and Alex Goligoski have also played reasonably well when asked to fill in.
Carolina has a no-name, lunch-bucket defense corps that offers little in the way of offensive punch or depth. Joni Pitkanen is the all-around leader. He plays the most minutes (26:30) and has the most points (seven assists) this post-season. He, Dennis Seidenberg, Joe Corvo and Tim Gleason all played more than half of Game 7 against Boston. After notching 22 points in the final 24 games of the regular season, Anton Babchuk has disappeared and was a scratch the final game of the Boston series. Frantisek Kaberle and Niclas Wallin are the fifth and sixth defenders now. Edge: Pittsburgh
Marc-Andre Fleury took his team to the Stanley Cup final last season, but Cam Ward is the better goalie. Ward has a Stanley Cup and a Conn Smythe Trophy on his mantle from 2006 and in these playoffs has stared down arguably the best goalie in history – Martin Brodeur – and the probable Vezina Trophy-winner this season – Tim Thomas. Ward has been the Canes’ MVP thus far and will have to continue his stellar play if Carolina is to vie for the Cup a third time in seven seasons. Edge: Carolina
Dan Bylsma is a rookie coach whose only experience this deep into the NHL playoffs was as a depth player on the Anaheim team that lost the Cup final to New Jersey in 2003. But the Pens have been rolling since he took over Feb. 15 from the fired Michel Therien, going 26-8-4 including the post-season.
Paul Maurice brings 12 seasons of NHL coaching experience to these playoffs, 11 more than Bylsma. He was Carolina’s bench boss when the Canes lost the Stanley Cup to Detroit in 2002, but has otherwise never been further than the first round. Maurice, too, was at the helm of a late-season charge by his team; he returned to Carolina Dec. 3 replacing the fired Peter Laviolette and has since led the Canes to a 41-24-5 record. Edge: Carolina
Despite being the post-season’s No. 3 scorer, Evgeni Malkin is the wild card heading into the series. If he can sustain the kind of dominance he flashed at times during the Washington series and throughout much of the first round, this will be a short series. The Canes simply don’t have the horses to effectively check both Sidney Crosby and Malkin. One of them, maybe. Both, no way.
With Cam Ward playing as a Conn Smythe-winner does and outperforming Marc-Andre Fleury by a wide margin and with Carolina’s skaters playing above their collective head, the Canes manage to make a series of it, putting a scare into the defending Eastern Conference champs, but not getting past them. Pittsburgh in seven
Who do you think will win? Vote HERE.
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