Now, my picks for the Conference Finals!

Western Conference Final – Minnesota vs Anaheim

If you were to approach me before the all-star break and say to me there would be a Wild vs Mighty Ducks Western Conference final, I would have probably told you to get back in your corner at the bar and stay there.  Right about now you’d be laughing in my face (and maybe all the way to the bank)!

Well, so much for conventional wisdom and history.  History would have told you one of either Detroit, Colorado, Dallas or St. Louis should be here.  The Wild were not supposed to be able to win two series in the same playoff year after being down three games to one, but they did, which proves once again there’s a first time for everything.  Conventional wisdom may have allowed Vancouver another round in the postseason, and may have given either team a first round upset, but not both.  Here we have number six versus number seven, with the winner earning the right to play for the Stanley Cup.  Certainly not how it was expected to play out, but as I’ve said before, in the playoffs, anything can happen and usually does, and has it ever! 

You have to think this series will be an absolute dandy.  You have two teams who have never been here before but within the teams are players who have. Both teams are impeccably coached and don’t give an inch on the ice.  Both teams have great fanfare who will stop at nothing to cheer on their team.  If history becomes a factor, you have to give the edge to Minnesota, just based on their past playoff history alone when they had a team which currently calls Dallas home.  So with the resurgence of hockey in Minnesota and Atlanta, can we expect expansion to come back to Winnipeg, Hartford, and possibly even Quebec?  A story for another time, for now we have a series to be played.

The Ducks are no slouches either.  Anaheim has eliminated the two top seeds in the West to be here, and Minnesota has taken care of the third and fourth seeds respectively.  One of these teams was expected to earn a spot in the Stanley Cup final, but now all they can do is sit and watch these two duke it out.

I could analyze this match up and call it even on pretty much all fronts.  Goaltending gives us Giguere vs Roloson or Fernandez, whichever one Lemaire feels like playing.  We have the stars which fans of both teams can identify with in Marian Gaborik or Paul Kariya.  There are the veteran presences, Adam Oates against Wes Walz, Steve Thomas against Cliff Ronning, Steve Rucchin vs Jim Dowd, Sandis Ozolinsh and Keith Carney against any one of the Wild’s D-men.  We have players who never met their potential until now with Richard Park, Andrew Brunette, Petr Sykora (to a certain extent anyway) and Jason Krog.  The further this series goes, the more household names will be made out of these players.

The way this series will swing one way or the other will depend on team discipline.  The Wild scored key goals at key times on the power play against both Colorado and Vancouver, and it was this lack of discipline on the Canucks’ part which was ultimately their demise.  All the Wild needed was one and they were able to rally behind it.  The Ducks, on the other hand, were able to stifle Dallas with their strong defensive play, and, you guessed it, their disciplined play.  Unless the referees start pulling random calls out of their helmets, there won’t be much of a power play advantage for either team.  This means the five-on-five play will ultimately decide this one.

Since the rights to Cinderella are owned by Disney, you have to think it will be fitting if the Mighty Ducks are able to pull it off and advance to the Stanley Cup final.  Plus, once you eliminate the defending champions in a sweep, there has to be potential for more.  However, like Dallas, the Wild will not quit, but the Ducks have the upper hand in league experience and have a goaltender who simply won’t be denied, whereas the Wild have to rely on two, one of which is suffering from a groin strain.  Something tells me this will be the determining factor, especially if Roloson continues to play hurt.

Prediction: Ducks in 6 

Eastern Conference Final – Ottawa vs New Jersey

Does it get any better than this?  Number one against number two.  The Senators have already seen this movie once this season.  Let me take you back to February 27th for a minute, number one in the entire league Ottawa vs number two Dallas.  I had the privilege of being at this game, and let me tell you, up until now, I don’t think there was ever a bigger game for the Senators.  Times were great on the ice, but not so great off the ice.  During the second intermission of aforementioned game, Rod Bryden held a press conference to announce the dreaded news: his bid to buy back the team and the arena was rejected and he would not be putting in another bid.  At the same time, the Senators and Stars were deadlocked in a 2-2 tie.  Then with nothing doing after regulation time, we’re headed to overtime (in more ways than one).  Assuming this game ended in a tie, nothing would change.  The two teams would still be tied for first overall, with Dallas placing second only because they had fewer wins than Ottawa.  Then something happened.  Dallas had Patrick Lalime beat but hit the post.  The ensuing rush resulted in a two on none breakaway for the Senators, with Magnus Arvedson picking up the garbage and scoring in overtime.  Senators won the game, took sole possession of first overall and never looked back, eventually winning the President’s Trophy, and Arvedson avoided a trade at the deadline.

How fitting is it, then, for the Senators to end up in the Eastern Conference final series against a team they won their first ever playoff series against?  In 1998 the Senators came in the number eight seed against a New Jersey team ranked number one.  What ensued was pandemonium, as Ottawa took the series in six games.  A lot has changed since then.  Up until last year, the Senators had to endure some frustrating times in the playoffs, while the Devils managed to win a second Stanley Cup in 2000.  Last year, though, things were different.  Ottawa took out Philadelphia in five games, then it was on to Toronto for a third reincarnation of the Battle of Ontario, which they would lose in seven.  New Jersey, on the other hand, was frustrated in the first round against the eventual Eastern Conference champion Carolina Hurricanes.  Frustrating times for both teams, as both teams thought they had the ability to take the next step in the playoffs.

The Devils have had a fairly easy go of it up until now, doing away with a seemingly weak Boston Bruins team in five games, and duplicating the feat in round two against the upstart Tampa Bay Lightning.  One could argue New Jersey really hasn’t had to endure much of a challenge in the playoffs, until now.

Ottawa, on the other hand, after a fairly easy first round against the New York Islanders, had their work cut out for them in round two against Philadelphia.  Even though they dispatched the Flyers in six games, there were times in the series where fans of this team along with media had the “here we go again” mentality and were essentially counting this team out after game two.  This, however, is why they play a best of seven series as opposed to a best of three.  The Senators got their A-game going just in the nick of time, and again, never looked back.

So now, how does this series shape up?  As it should!  You have arguably the two best goaltenders in the game today in Patrick Lalime and Martin Brodeur (why Lalime is not a finalist for the Vezina trophy is beyond me).  You have two of the best defensemen in the game in Scott Stevens and Wade Redden (ditto for the Norris trophy, why is Wade not a finalist?).  Both teams have forwards and wingers who can score.  Both teams play a similar trapping style, where they dump the puck into the opposing team’s end, send one man in, and clog up the neutral zone with the remaining four players on the ice, daring the other team to make a move, or a mistake.  Both teams have great head coaches who know how to win.  And both teams have rabid fans in their respective arenas who have all been off the wall since this series became an official matchup.  This series should come down to goaltending and a timely goal or two.  Expect overtime to decide at least one or two games in the series.  Expect the team to score first to suffocate the other team with the same defensive style I already spoke of as they attempt to defend their lead.  Expect the unexpected?  Not a chance.  Both teams will give you nothing in the way of opportunities, they will have to be earned.  Expect a long, drawn out series, one I expect Ottawa to prevail in.  Even though the Devils have more experience, Ottawa has a ton more depth.  The Devils may be able to shut down Daniel Alfredsson, Radek Bonk and Marian Hossa, but it’s going to be players like Todd White, Martin Havlat, Peter Schaefer, Shawn Van Allen, Chris Neil and even Magnus Arvedson who will need to be watched as well (don’t wake the sleeping giant if you will).  Do the Devils have enough players to be able to stop the entire Sens roster?  I say no.  Yes, they have Stevens, Brian Rafalski and Colin White along with Joe Nieuwendyk, John Madden and Jamie Langenbrunner.  For the Devils to make a game of this series, players like Jeff Friesen, Scott Gomez, Grant Marshall, Sergei Brylin and newcomer Pascal Rheaume will have to step it up a notch (Just where is the Rheaume we saw in Atlanta anyway?).  Marshall got the series clinching overtime goal against the Lightning, so you never know.  We saw Ottawa’s depth at work against the Islanders, and again against the Flyers.  I just don’t see the Devils faring much better, but as they say, something will have to give somewhere.  May the best team win!

Prediction: Senators in 6

Next time around when I’ve provided my picks for the Stanley Cup final I’ll have another tidbit I’ve been working on for you, another rant of mine if you will.  Something’s been brewing inside me and is just waiting for a chance to come out in the open.  I know you’re all just dying to see this, but for now, let’s watch history in the making.  With three new faces in the final four, we’re sure to see some interesting hockey played in the next couple of weeks.  Stay tuned to this column for more and good luck with your picks!


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