O Canada, your teams all now play golf…sorry. Had a bit of a jingoistic feeling to work through. You see, some people had the impression that the Flyers-Canadiens series was being played by the Montreal rule book instead of the one used by the rest of the NHL. As much as I tend to disregard conspiracy talk, since the typically inept NHL officiating really affects every team and the breaks eventually even out, I was beginning to have my doubts. But hey, they did even out…a little…eventually…
So we’re now down to the NHL’s Final Four. While Canada is no longer represented, there are teams from three longstanding hockey cities. Oh, and also Dallas.
In the conference semifinals I picked only two out of four correctly. (Overall in the playoffs I’ve gotten 9 of 12 right.) In my defense, I did hedge a bit on the San Jose Sharks, my pick to win the Cup before the playoffs started. They struggled to get past Calgary in the first round and ultimately continued to underperform -- even considering that five of the six games, including four that went to at least one overtime, were decided by one goal -- in being eliminated by the Stars.
Eastern Conference: (2) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (6) Philadelphia Flyers
How they got here: Pittsburgh - defeated Ottawa in 4 games, defeated NY Rangers in 5 games; Philadelphia - defeated Washington in 7 games, defeated Montreal in 5 games
Season series: Philadelphia 5-3, all games decided in regulation
Let’s take a look at that season series for a moment. The Flyers won the first four games, all of which occurred before their February-March meltdown that nearly cost them a playoff spot. The Penguins took the next three. The Flyers beat the Penguins on the final day of the regular season, in a game that a number of observers felt the Penguins weren’t trying very hard to win. Had the Penguins won, they would have faced the Flyers in the opening round. By losing they ensured a matchup with Ottawa instead. So they rested Sidney Crosby and were shut out.
Was it a good idea? Well, Pittsburgh easily dispatched the Senators, and the Rangers didn’t put up much of a fight in the next round. They’re getting the expected results from stars Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and they’re getting strong goaltending from Marc-Andre Fleury.
They’re also getting a Philadelphia team that has already handled one team with a superstar and another with superior speed. They are much more confident and playing more consistently than at any time during the season. The Flyers have seven players with 20-plus goals during the regular season, yet it was R.J. Umberger, with only 13 goals, who burned Montreal for eight goals in five games. Umberger, a Pittsburgh-area native, picked up 6 goals and 11 points against the Pens this season. That scoring depth should offset the Penguins’ star power. If Martin Biron continues to be the classic hot playoff goaltender that he has been so far in the postseason, he can carry the Flyers into the Stanley Cup finals. The key will be how physical the Flyers can get without taking too many penalties and risking getting burned by the Pittsburgh power play. The guess here is -- and as with my pick of the Flyers-Capitals series, I admit it’s a bit of a homer call -- the Battle of Pennsylvania will go to Gov. Rendell’s favorite team. Philadelphia in 7.
Western Conference: (1) Detroit Red Wings vs. (5) Dallas Stars
How they got here: Detroit - defeated Nashville in 6 games, defeated Colorado in 4 games; Dallas - defeated Anaheim in 6 games, defeated San Jose in 6 games
Season series: Detroit 3-1, all in regulation
The Red Wings finished with the league’s best record. At first glance you might think it was because they dominated their own division, with only Nashville joining them as Central Division playoff representatives. This isn’t the case. Detroit was only 17-12-3 in their own division but 30-7-3 against the rest of the West. They are playing well. They had little trouble in the last round against injury-riddled Colorado. They have Johan Franzen, of all people, leading the league with 11 goals in the playoffs. And they have two veteran goaltenders; Chris Osgood took over for Dominik Hasek in the fourth game of the first round and has been strong, but it wouldn’t be too surprising if Detroit has to go back to Hasek at some point.
They’ll be sorely tested by the Stars. Dallas has been a giant-killer in the 2008 postseason. They’ve knocked off the defending champions and the team with the second-highest point total. The line of Brenden Morrow, Mike Ribeiro and Jere Lehtinen has excelled, and the return of Sergei Zubov from sports-hernia surgery has bolstered the defense corps. Marty Turco, long thought of as a playoff underachiever, shed that label last year and has been nothing short of spectacular in the first two rounds. He stopped 61 of 62 shots in the four-overtime clincher against San Jose. He has to overcome his career record of 2-10-5 against Detroit, but that might be easier than overcoming “playoff failure” status. The ESPN.com “experts” are unanimous, all predicting a Pittsburgh-Detroit final. Just like in the East, I’m going against the grain. Eagles vs. Cowboys for the Stanley Cup! Dallas in 7. -- Joe Guckin