MOVING RIGHT ALONG

2004 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS - ROUND 2 PREVIEW

Well, I said some very good teams would be going home early, but I never imagined what transpired in the first round.  Vancouver, Dallas, Boston, Ottawa, and the defending champs New Jersey, are all done for the 2003-2004 season.  Last season was described as a testament to expansion.  This season and so far the playoffs can only be described as weird, and we havenít even made it to the final four yet. 

It would be unsportsmanlike of me to throw in the towel altogether, but quite frankly, I give up trying to predict whatís going to happen, so Iíll give you some insight on the eight series we have ready to go for the second round, and then Iíll flip a coin and decide.  Surely I canít do much worse than I did for the first round, so here goes nothing.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

#1 Tampa Bay (46-22-8-6) vs #7 Montreal (41-30-7-4)

Season Series:  Tie (2-2-0-0)

The first round just wouldnít have been the same without a couple of series to go all the way to seven games, and this time around we had three, all resulting in Canadian teams advancing.  You can now make it 23-7 for Montreal lifetime against Boston in the playoffs, with the Bruins going down to the Habs twice in the past three years.  Just in case you have the idea Montreal pulled off an upset, consider this:  out of the 7 times Boston has won the storied original six battle, Boston has only ever won two of them in a seventh and deciding game.  What makes the win for the Canadiens even more remarkable and unbelievable is the fact theyíve never in their history come back to win a series after being down 3-1, until now.  Are the Habs back?  Fans in Montreal would like to think so!

The Canadiens will now face almost a mirror image of themselves.  There are players on this Tampa Bay team who probably would be better suited putting on the blue, red, and white, yet are making a name for themselves in Florida just the same.  Of course Iím talking about Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis.  St. Louis has already won the Art Ross trophy and heís also a finalist for the Hart trophy.  Letís make one more prediction here.  If Tampa Bay makes it to the Stanley Cup Finals, look for him to be a candidate for the Conn Smythe trophy as well, but letís not get too far ahead of ourselves just yet.

The Bolts had a fairly easy go of things in the first round; dispatching a listless New York Islanders team in five games, with three of their four wins resulting in shutouts.  Theyíll need the impeccable goaltending of both Nikolai Khabibulin and John Grahame to continue if they have any hope in this series, because at the other end of the ice is none other than ďthe next Patrick RoyĒ, Jose Theodore.  Brad Richards and Fredrik Modin stepped up in a big way for Tampa Bay, and can be expected to bring it all to the table in round two.  Lecavalier as well as Cory Stillman were fairly cold, yet could break out of their scoring rut anytime.

Montreal had a very rough start in their first round series against Boston, but like many of their counterparts in the past, they got it together when it counted most.  Some will blame Joe Thorntonís injury, others will blame the inexperience of Andrew Raycroft, others will even bring the old ďForum GhostsĒ story into it, but what I witnessed was a Habs team who rose to the occasion and made it happen.  It wasnít from a lack of trying, either team could have won Game 7, yet for all intents and purposes the series probably should never have even gone there.  Most everyone (myself included) had the Habs all but buried after Alex Kovalev coughed up the puck to allow Glen Murray to score in overtime in Game 4, but Kovalev made up for this in a big way, figuring in more than half of the scoring for Montreal between Game 5 and 7.  The line of Saku Koivu, Richard Zednik and Kovalev was on fire and the Lightning will have to find a way to contain them.  Dave Andreychuk and Tim Taylor will help, but while theyíre busy with the top line, theyíll have to also watch out for Calder trophy candidate Michael Ryder, who was all but invisible in the first round.  After seeing him put up big numbers all year long, heís due for a playoff breakout.  Letís not also forget about Jan Bulis, and proven playoff performer Joe Juneau.  If Juneau could ever get on the board, look out.

Defensively, the Lightning has Dan Boyle, Pavel Kubina and Darryl Sydor who will match up nicely against Craig Rivet, Sheldon Souray and Patrice Brisebois.  Both teams can and will showcase a lot of talent up front and as a result we should see a lot of open ice back and forth, as both teams like to play with an offensive edge, and only trap when protecting a lead. 

On paper, this series for the most part will be dead even as both teams split the season series against each other, but as we know, regular season standings and stats mean nothing now (just ask the teams who are out).  The power play for Montreal, however, was better than Tampaís in both the season series and in the first round, which will make special teams very important on both ends. 

Given Montrealís rich playoff history and their seemingly return to tradition attitude, this one should be a no brainer, but weíll see.  If you believe in karma, you must believe the Habs can win this series.

Prediction: Canadiens in 6

 

#3 Philadelphia (40-21-15-6) vs #4 Toronto (45-24-10-3)

Season Series: Advantage Philadelphia (3-1-0-0)

Toronto and Philadelphia both have something in common, they both took care of one of last yearís Eastern Conference finalists in the first round, and now meet each other in a rematch of their own.

Four Battles of Ontario, four times victorious for Toronto, although this time around it was closer than the scores indicated.  The beloved or hated Leafs (depending on where you live) once again had Ottawaís number and now move on to face the team who ended their season a year ago.  Ottawa fans are once again bitter over losing to their hated archrivals, but lets be honest here.  One of the teams had to win.  Thatís playoff hockey.  Unfortunately since this is the fourth time in five years the Sens havenít been able to beat Toronto in the postseason, inevitable change ensues.  Fans will see a very different Ottawa team next time we have NHL hockey.   Theyíll have a new head coach, for starters, as Jacques Martin along with assistant coach Don Jackson and goaltending coach Phil Myre all got handed pink slips within 48 hours of the series loss.  Donít be surprised either to see a shakeup or two on the roster, perhaps a new face in goal, even if it happens to be Ray Emery.  A very interesting summer is already underway in Ottawa.

If Toronto thinks they can coast downhill armed only with Ed Belfourís heroics, theyíve got another thing coming.  A goaltender canít be expected to stop over 35 shots every game and win, yet this is exactly what he did against Ottawa.  Can he duplicate the feat?  Donít bet on it.  The good news is the Leafs should be able to bring in some healthy reinforcements, as Mats Sundin and Owen Nolan both could return before the series is half over.  It appears Nolanís knee sprain wonít require surgery and is getting better every day.  Sundin will be back by Game 2 or 3 as both teams will get an extra dayís break between the first three games.  

Philadelphia took matters into their own hands in round one and sent the defending champion New Jersey Devils straight into hell without even so much as a fire extinguisher, and they did it with Robert Esche in net.  He will need to continue standing on his head, because at the other end is a recently turned 39 year old Belfour who is playing the best Iíve ever seen him play, ever, the 1999 Stanley Cup with Dallas considered.  Philly has a backup plan, however, and his name is Sean Burke.  Whoever said the Flyers donít have goaltending probably still think Ron Hextall is playing.

On defense, the Flyers have Kim Johnsson, Vladimir Malakhov and Danny Markov, and the Leafs have Brian Leetch, Brian Marchment and Brian McCabe.  Losing Eric Desjardins to the injured list was a huge blow for Philly, but youíd never say it based on their first round results.  When you have as explosive an offense as the Flyers have, why would you worry about defense anyway? 

I expect the puck will most likely be in the opposition end more often than not.  Iíve been very impressed with Phillyís relentless fore checking as they send in the top lines of Jeremy Roenick, Tony Amonte, Alexei Zhamnov, Keith Primeau, Sami Kapanen and Simon Gagne.  Seasoned veterans like Mark Recchi, Michal Handzus and John LeClair have figured in the score as well, but just imagine what can happen if they can get it going full tilt.  Eric who?

To defend against all these weapons, Toronto has Gary Roberts, Joe Nieuwendyk, Darcy Tucker, and if they get healthy Mats Sundin and Owen Nolan.  Tie Domi is another player whoís had a tremendous year, as hard to believe as it may seem.  Domi has so far figured in on two game winning goals and always seems to be crashing the net.  Matt Stajan and Alex Ponakarovsky bring much needed youth.  If the Leafs can get Alex Mogilny and Mikael Renberg going it will be a boost, but will it be enough for this always resilient squad?

During the regular season, Philly dominated Toronto in three straight games until the Leafs finally squeaked out a narrow 3-2 win.  Some say the difference there was the acquisition of Leetch, and they may be right.  You have to wonder though how much emotion the Flyers are riding on after eliminating the defending champs.  They seem to have learned from their mistakes in the past and seem poised to take the Eastern Conference by storm.  Then again, 1967 is still in the back of everyoneís mind in Hogtown.

Toronto had home ice advantage in their game seven from round one, and the seventh man seemed to do wonders for them, but now Philadelphia will have the advantage, not to mention a long rest.  Donít expect a different result from last year, Belfour has been great, but the Flyers are bigger, stronger, faster, and seem to be more determined than the Senators.  Sure, Nieuwendyk and Belfour are familiar with the Flyers head coach Ken Hitchcock, but what does it matter?  The Leafs will simply run out of gas, if they havenít already.

Prediction: Flyers in 7

 

WESTERN CONFERENCE

#1 Detroit (48-21-11-2) vs #6 Calgary (42-30-7-3)

Season Series: Advantage Detroit (3-1-0-0)

I really took it on the chin from Flames fans over my prediction for Vancouver to advance in seven games.  Well at least I got the number of games right.  Make no mistake, both teams played an excellent series, the absolute best series of round one, and itís a shame one of them had to lose so early in the playoffs.  Game 6 represented what hockey is all about, and I challenge anyone to say hockey is boring after watching it.  In case you happen to be one of the unfortunate souls who missed it, Vancouver jumped out to an early 4-0 lead, which Calgary reduced to 4-2 by the end of the second period.  Another goal early in the third along with the tying goal halfway through and the Pengrowth Saddledome almost lost its roof.  Youíve heard of the Miracle on Manchester (LA Kings erase a 5-0 deficit to win in OT vs Edmonton)?  Well the Flames almost wrote their own miracle into the books.  The game itself was capped off by a terrific overtime, and then a second overtime.  It was a real shame Calgary ended up losing the game in the third overtime, but based on the effort in Game 7 are truly deserving of being here today after a hard fought series.

Now the fun begins.

Detroit must have felt a sense of dťjŗ vu after the second period of Game 1 versus Nashville, and no doubt heard mention of Anaheim.  Well, they snapped out of it in a hurry and took a 2-0 series lead into the Music City four days later, only to watch it evaporate.  Enter Curtis Joseph and two solid wins to clinch the series in six games.  Yes, you did hear a sigh of relief all the way across Lake Michigan, and the whimper you heard?  It was a bunch of octopi.  Nothing comes easy in Motown.

The Wings have a few explosive forwards who really brought it to the forefront in the first round.  This savvy group of veterans just seems to have even a psychological advantage over most of their opponents.  This comes with experience, which the Flames simply donít have, yet youíd never say it after the first round against Vancouver.  If Calgary is nervous about going up against Hockey Town, they arenít showing it.

For Detroit, Brendan Shanahan along with Brett Hull and game breaker Robert Lang led the way with double digit shots on goal, and was the difference against the pesky Predators.  The defense was good, but not outstanding, as they shot blanks on the power play for the most part.  It just seemed like another day at the office for the Wings, in a series they were expected to win and did.  The biggest question mark going forward will be goaltending, Legace or Joseph?  Both have been shaky but at the end of the day have done the job, which is all you can ask for.  Unfortunately experience just canít be taught.

The Flames are a confident bunch and are playing with a lot of grit and heart, exactly what you need this time of year.  Jarome Iginla has never played better, and is finally getting the chance to prove heís an elite player.  The Gold Medal he won in Salt Lake City with a few players on the opposing team canít hurt his confidence either.  The defensive pairing of Jordan Leopold and Robyn Regehr held the fort in front of Miikka Kiprusoff.  The timely veteran Martin Gelinas scored yet another series OT clincher.

Before you Calgary fans get on me again, you really had to wonder from the outset of the playoffs if Iginla could solely lead this team past the mighty Wings.  Well, heís answered the bell in a big way.  If Kipper can continue to put forth an effort of J.S. Giguere proportions you never know.  You know Calgary will give it their all.  For Detroit, this will be the last chance for many on the team to go all the way one last time, but they have to step it up another level if they expect to advance.  May the best team win.

Prediction: Red Wings in 7

 

#2 San Jose (43-21-12-6) vs #4 Colorado (40-22-13-7)

Season Series: Advantage Colorado (2-1-1-0)

The most intriguing story coming out of the first round is not the Sharks advancing to the second round, but the whole story surrounding Mike Danton of the St. Louis Blues.  Weíre talking a plot of O.J. Simpson proportions here, so weíll save it for another day.  Right now we have a series to talk about.

Colorado eliminated Dallas fairly easily in the first round, winning all of their home games to send the Stars to the country club.  If they have a problem with goaltending, it certainly didnít show in round one.  As for Dallas, Iím sure they watched Ed Belfour with great interest and are now wondering how they ever let him sign in Toronto.  Then again, Dallas didnít really have much of an attack, they played right into the Avalancheís system, and of course, Marty Turco didnít get it done, in fact was downright brutal.

The Sharks are a much different team than Dallas.  Thereís a reason why they finished first in their division and second in the conference, they can score almost at will.  They get into the areas of the zone you need to be and are relentless on the fore check.  If any team can exploit the vulnerabilities of Colorado goaltender David Aebischer, itís San Jose.  They shoot from everywhere, and have players who can put the puck in the net, starting with the top line of Jonathan Cheechoo, Scott Thornton and Mike Ricci.  Patrick Marleau continued where he left off in the regular season, scoring a hat trick in Game 2.  Vincent Damphousse seems to be having more fun than heís ever had, which is big trouble for the Avs. 

The defensive corps for San Jose can also jump into the attack, not only on the power play, but even strength.  All six defensemen scored at least a point in the first round, and had the St. Louis Blues skating around in circles rather than back and forth.  Evgeni Nabokov is the main reason San Jose was able to let Miikka Kiprusoff get away to Calgary, he is in the zone more often than not.

Fairly evenly matched, the Avalanche have many great scorers as well.  Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Teemu Selanne, Milan Hejduk and Alex Tanguay all figured in the scoring against Dallas.  Rob Blake and Adam Foote continued to stand tall.  This will need to continue.

Colorado holds the edge all time against the Sharks in the playoffs, but thereís a big difference between past series and now.  His name is Patrick Roy, and he no longer plays for the Avalanche.  While Iím expecting a long series, this time the tables are turned as San Jose has the home ice this time, where theyíve dominated all season long and all through round one.  The Sharks just donít seem content to win a round; theyíre looking for a spot in the final four, and just might get it.

Prediction: Sharks in 7

As we approach the halfway mark of the playoffs, donít forget to keep on top of the scores and stats from our playoff hockey pool.  All the essential links are to your left.  See you next round.

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