Eight wins down, eight wins to go for these conference finalists.
Sixteen combatants have been whittled down to four and Lord Stanley’s prize is just around the corner. But before we get there, we have a couple intriguing matchups to decide.
Out west, the top two seeds have survived, despite having to comeback in a series at some point. The Sharks have begun to break the franchise’s playoff curse, led by an unlikely Joe (Pavelski), while the other Joe (Thornton) came alive with his top line against the powerhouse Detroit Red Wings in Round 2.
A bigger and more skilled team than any the Hawks have faced yet, the Sharks will consider anything short of a Stanley Cup final appearance as a disappointment.
The Hawks’ Jonathan Toews leads the playoffs in scoring and the whole offensive unit is working like a well-oiled machine. Despite concerns, goalie Antti Niemi has sparkled and done the job the Hawks needed. Chicago got to this point in last year’s playoffs and return more experienced than before.
In the East we’ve seen some nasty upsets, none more shocking than Montreal’s two seven-game ousters over Washington and Pittsburgh. The most unlikely team left, the Habs are showing what the power of a hot goaltender can do and visions of 1993 are dancing through the streets of Montreal.
THN’s pre-season Cup pick, the Philadelphia Flyers, have finally turned a corner and moving along like the team we thought they’d be. Despite losing their starting two goalies, the Flyers managed to come back from a 3-0 series deficit against Boston, so even if these guys are down, they are never out.
Sitting at 7-5 after our Round 1 and Round 2 predictions, here is our breakdown and picks for each of the conference finals.
San Jose – 1-1-2 (11 GF, 17 GA)
Chicago – 3-1-0 (17 GF, 11 GA)
Chicago’s power play was a crucial weapon in the bludgeoning of Vancouver, as was a Blackhawks penalty kill that ranked second in the NHL through two rounds. A league-high three shorthanded goals (including a dagger from Dave Bolland in Game 6 against Vancouver) make the Hawks offensively dangerous on the kill as well. San Jose falls just behind Chicago statistically in both disciplines, but is far from inept. Edge: Chicago
Both teams are stacked up front and can bury the puck with relative ease, but San Jose’s introduction of a second potent combo in Joe Pavelski-Devin Setoguchi-Ryane Clowe tips the scales. Pavelski has been a playoff revelation with 15 points in 11 games, allowing Joe Thornton’s line with Dany Heatley and Patrick Marleau to flourish in a less-pressured sphere. Of course, Chicago counters with the current top scorer in the NHL post-season. Jonathan Toews sits at 20 points through 12 games while running mate Patrick Kane is tied with Pavelski at 15. Edge: San Jose
The Blackhawks have all the young studs on their side, led by Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. Niklas Hjalmarsson has really stepped his game up, while Brent Sopel is doing the lion’s share of penalty killing for the squad. But this crew hasn’t seen the combination of size and speed the Sharks bring and that will be a key matchup. San Jose counters with a potential Hall of Famer on the blueline in Rob Blake, plus Stanley Cup vets Dan Boyle and Kent Huskins and the rock-solid Douglas Murray. Edge: San Jose
The big question heading into the playoffs was whether Chicago could get big goaltending from rookie Antti Niemi. Question answered. The young Finn has done all the Hawks have required of him, Game 1 stinker against Vancouver notwithstanding. Evgeni Nabokov has battled a lot of demons in the Sharks net this year, including a rebound from a disastrous Olympics for Russia. Several goals in the Colorado series were caused by his own defensemen, but he didn’t let it get to him. Edge: Chicago
In just his second year, San Jose’s Todd McLellan has taken the franchise back to the conference final for the first time since 2003-04 and did so by slaying the franchise’s biggest nemesis, Detroit. In bashing the Red Wings, McLellan also proved to be an apt pupil of former boss Mike Babcock – no slouch behind the bench himself. Joel Quenneville has Chicago back in the semifinal for the second straight year, but has never taken a team farther. He needs to prove he can be a Cup-winning coach. Edge: San Jose
The Hawks have two players with some strange mojo in their systems. Defenseman Brian Campbell has now made the Stanley Cup semifinal every year since the lockout except one (2008), but never won the round. He failed with Buffalo twice in a row, then again with Chicago last season. Meanwhile, right winger Marian Hossa is chasing his third straight appearance in the Stanley Cup final with a different team. He lost as a member of Pittsburgh to Detroit, then memorably as a member of Detroit to Pittsburgh.
The two best teams in the West are near mirror images in terms of their offensive pop, defensive sturdiness and puck-possession strategy. But San Jose brings a whole lot of beef to the forward lines and Chicago doesn’t exactly have a punishing defense corps to repel them with. San Jose in seven
Who do you think will win? Vote HERE.
Philadelphia – 2-2-0 (10 GF, 8 GA)
Montreal – 2-2-0 (8 GF, 10 GA)
The Flyers have been slightly better on the power play during the playoffs and the Canadiens have been slightly better on the penalty kill. The teams were virtually identical on special teams during the regular season, but the Flyers power play dried up in the second round with just five goals in 29 opportunities and went just 3-for-18 in the final four victories of the series. If Andrei Markov can return at some point in the series, it improves the Canadiens considerably. Edge: Even
The highest scorer for the Canadiens (Mike Cammalleri with 12) has five more goals than the highest scoring player for Philadelphia (Daniel Briere with seven). The Canadiens have proven in the playoffs to be a dangerous team when it comes to being opportunistic. They’re getting scoring from all four lines, but they won’t be skating around the likes of Sergei Gonchar and Kris Letang when they face the Flyers. The return of Simon Gagne turned the tide of the Flyers series against Boston and Briere, with 4-1-5 totals against the Canadiens in the regular season, was lethal against Montreal. By Game 2, Jeff Carter will have been out four weeks and if he returns, that’s a huge plus for the Flyers. Edge: Flyers
The Flyers gave up considerably fewer shots and goals per game through the first two rounds, but you have to remember they were playing the offensively challenged New Jersey Devils and Boston Bruins, while the Canadiens faced the high-flying Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins. As a group, the Flyers are better, but you have to wonder if their four horsemen – Chris Pronger, Matt Carle, Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn – can continue to play almost 30 minutes a game and hold up. They’ll have much more speed and skill to deal with in the Canadiens. Unlike the first round when their defensive game plan was to give up 40 shots a game, the Canadiens have tightened up in a big way defensively. Edge: Flyers
During the regular season, Michael Leighton was in the nets for the Flyers two wins over the Canadiens, which came on back-to-back nights prior to the Olympic break. In the second game, Jaroslav Halak was pulled after giving up five goals on 17 shots, but then stopped 35 shots for the shutout in a 1-0 win April 2. Leighton was terrific in replacing Brian Boucher, but Halak and his .933 save percentage are drawing comparisons to Patrick Roy. Nobody is confusing Leighton with Bernie Parent. Edge: Montreal
You don’t get through two rounds of the playoffs without getting superior coaching. Jacques Martin did a masterful job of matching his defensemen against Sidney Crosby and has clearly adapted and become a more offensive coach. Peter Laviolette has leaned heavily on his best players, particularly on defense, and is skilled in making his team believe it is never out of a game or a series. He took over a fractured team and one that has been besieged by injuries and guided it to the final four. Edge: Montreal
There is some serious positive karma going for both teams here, as evidenced by the fact this is the first time a No. 7 and No. 8 have ever met in a conference final. You have to wonder if the Flyers have anything left after their monumental comeback in the second round, but you could argue the Canadiens might not have much left after successively knocking off the President’s Trophy winner and the defending Stanley Cup champion.
The Canadiens have a superior goaltender and the Flyers, from top to bottom, have a better team. Both are obviously far better than they proved in the regular season, but here might be the difference: The Canadiens have overachieved wildly behind a hot goalie, while the Flyers might finally be proving to be the Stanley Cup contender they were before the season started. Philadelphia in seven
Who do you think will win? Vote HERE.
PUCK PANEL - CONFERENCE PREVIEWS
PRODUCER: Ted Cooper | PRODUCTION ASSISTANT: Jason Cassidy