2009 NHL Playoffs Preview and Picks – Conference Finals

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By Mike Ivcic

Generally speaking, I’m fairly accurate with my predictions, but even last round was a shocker to me. With Carolina’s overtime winner in Boston to eliminate the East’s top seed, I not only correctly predicted 3 out of 4 winners, I also predicted the correct games for each of those three series. Perhaps it was my allegiance to the Capitals that prevented a 4-for-4 round, but I certainly can’t be blamed for believing in Alex Ovechkin. If only he had some help. Alas, the rest of the roster came up significantly short in Game 7, and now it appears as though we’re headed for a Stanley Cup Finals rematch. But, before we get too far ahead, a quick breakdown:

4) Pittsburgh vs 6) Carolina
It’s rare in the playoffs that a team has home ice advantage in rounds one and three and not in round two, but that is the case with the Pens. The biggest knock on this squad, ironically, was that Sidney Crosby wasn’t able to dominate a series by scoring, but only by setting others up. Any of those critics should be silenced after he virtually matched the league’s best goal-scorer over the past two seasons in Ovechkin. Meanwhile the team’s second-best player, Evgeni Malkin, was nearly non-existent. Pitt will need him to show up on a much bigger scale this round, get a similar performance from Marc-Andre Fleury in net, and hope that Sergei Gonchar can return to full health to quarterback the power play if they want to repeat as champs of the East.

On the other side, it must be a relief for the Hurricanes and their fans to know that the team can actually win a game in which Eric Staal doesn’t score. Prior to their series-clinching win over the Bruins, Carolina was 7-0 when Staal netted a least one goal and 0-6 when he was scoreless. He didn’t record a goal in that decisive game, but the ‘Canes pulled it out anyway. Carolina will need an Ovechkin-like or Crosby-like performance from Staal this round, but they do have an advantage in a surprising area – goaltending. As good as Fleury’s been, Cam Ward has been better, plus he has something Fleury doesn’t – a Stanley Cup ring.

Overall, this series lacks the star power of Pitt-Wash, but it should be just as entertaining. Carolina has beaten two very good teams by outworking them, something very difficult to do when it’s the Devils and Bruins getting outworked. Unfortunately, as Flyers and Capitals fans found out, the Pens work pretty hard too, as evidenced by getting to every loose puck and dominating every facet of their 6-2 Game 7 blowout in D.C. – and they have more talent than New Jersey or Boston. It all points to the Pens getting back to the Finals for a second consecutive year.
Pick: Pittsburgh 4-2

2) Detroit vs 4) Chicago
When the playoffs started, there were only two Western Conference Finals that the NHL would have wanted to see – San Jose-Detroit and Detroit-Chicago. Thanks to a relatively human performance by Roberto Luongo and the sheer talent mismatch between the Wings and Ducks, the league got the latter, and it couldn’t have come at a better time for either city. Detroit is without question one of the most depressed cities in possibly the world right now, and despite good seasons in recent years from the Pistons and Tigers (sorry Lions fans – 1957 isn’t recent anymore), the Motor City is still Hockeytown USA, and they’ve earned that right by constantly supporting the Wings regardless of any other circumstances. On top of that, this is one of the most talented teams ever assembled, with the lone exception of the goaltender. Somehow, Chris Osgood has three Stanley Cups and is halfway to his fourth. Its borderline inexplicable, but he gets the job done. The Wings need Pavel Datsyuk to improve on his 1-goal, 4-assist performance through the first 11 games if they’re going to triumph, but there’s a good chance if he doesn’t, someone else will. Hossa, Lidstrom, Franzen, Holmstrom, Filppula, Hudler, Zetterberg… I could keep going, but I think I made my point.

If there was any doubt about how good Nikoli Khabibulin is, that should erased after he thoroughly outplayed Roberto Luongo in the Blackhawks semifinal series over the Canucks. Combined with the rare sight of a team scoring 7 goals in a playoff game, the Blackhawks emphatically announced their arrival to the NHL’s upper tier. They have two special young players up front with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, who have benefitted from the raised level of play from Martin Havlat in the postseason. All that aside, this team was elevated to this point during the last offseason, when the Hawks got active in the free agent market and signed defenseman Brian Campbell. He has had an immeasurable effect on this team, leading the defense, starting the rush, clearing the zone, and doing just about everything when charged with shutting down the opposition. It’s a tough call for head coach Joel Quenneville as far as which line to match up Campbell against, but whichever line draws the veteran D will most likely see its production drop.

The correlation has been made in many a place that there is a striking similarity between this series and a series on the NBA hardwood that happened twice, back in 1990 and 1991, between the defending champion from Detroit and an young, up-and-coming franchise from Chicago. Personally, I find that analogy of the Wings to the Pistons and the Blackhawks to the Bulls very accurate, save for either Toews or Kane becoming the greatest hockey player who ever lived, a la Michael Jordan. As fans of both teams remember, however, the first time the Bulls and Pistons met, in 1989, the Pistons had won only one championship and they knocked off the Bulls on their way to title number two. It wasn’t until the Pistons were two-time champs and met the Bulls for a second time that Chicago finally triumphed. Consider this series history repeating, only one ice.
Pick: Detroit 4-2

After this playoff season ends, I firmly believe that last round will prove to be the best, as the comments in the post with the schedule alluded to. These are, however, four very good teams who will provide even more spectacular highlights and drama, as is always the case when its playoff time in the NHL. Now pass me another overtime.

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