FOUR'S A CROWD?

2004 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS - ROUND 3 PREVIEW

How did the playoffs go by so fast?  We’re now down to the final four, the crème de la crème, the pick of the litter…well you get the point!  Forget about Survivor or The Apprentice.  This, my friends, is Reality T.V. at its finest, and you can rest assured absolutely nobody will be selling lemonade or doing handstands, although we’re not certain as yet if there’s actually water in those water bottles!  You have to really wonder, as we said goodbye to Detroit, Colorado, Toronto and Montreal, all considered contenders going in.

I’ve always wanted to see an NHL playoff run where the finalists are not the usual suspects for a change.  I almost got it last year, but New Jersey factored into the equation and won it all for the third time.  This time around, we have two teams making their first ever appearance in the semi-finals, a team who hasn’t been this far since they last went all the way fifteen years ago, and a team looking for redemption after several years of playoff futility.  In any event, for the first time in nine years we won’t see the Stanley Cup raised in New Jersey, Colorado, Detroit or Dallas.  We will crown a new champion in 2004, a guarantee Daniel Alfredsson can safely make.

EASTERN CONFERENCE Final

#1 Tampa Bay (46-22-8-6) vs #3 Philadelphia (40-21-15-6)

Season Series:  Advantage Tampa Bay (4-0-0-0)

So much for the strongest division in this year’s playoffs, as now all representatives of the Northeast Division can now be found for the most part on the golf course or over in Prague of the Czech Republic playing for their respective countries at the World Championships.  As if we needed any further proof the best players in the entire world play in the NHL, check this out: As soon as word got out Mats Sundin, Nicklas Lidstrom and Peter Forsberg were no longer playing, the Swedish national team put forth a hasty invite for both and they will both play this weekend.  The price tag on organizing such a feat was rumored upwards of $60,000, a fee the Swedes will gladly pay if it means winning a medal.  I know he’s just getting back from an injury, but the very thought of Sundin playing on a line with Daniel Alfredsson after they both faced each other is simply eerie, just like the season has been.  Canada better be wary of them or they could find themselves coming home empty handed.

Anyhow, we’re here to talk about the rest of the NHL Playoffs, and the best team in the Eastern Conference all year long is still alive.  They will face off against the best team in the Atlantic Division.

Of all four teams still around, Philadelphia is the one with the most playoff experience.  You can argue Jarome Iginla has the experience of Olympic Gold and a ton of NHL hardware to prove he has clout in the West, but the fact remains, no team out of the four remaining has played more playoff hockey than the Flyers.  It’s the old cliché of having to lose before you can win all over again, and this time Philly plans to make it count.  The Leafs can only wonder what might have been, and the fans can breathe a sigh and say 37, and counting.  As I heard a well known hockey announcer say, there just aren’t enough silver cups to go around.

Jeremy Roenick described his overtime goal in Game 6 of the Toronto series as something he envisioned, if he ended up in a two on one situation he wasn’t going to pass, he was going to shoot glove side.  Perhaps when he finishes his NHL career he could run a psychic convention, as it happened exactly how he planned, a two on one, a perfect shot on net beating Ed Belfour glove side top shelf.  Ironically enough, it was his first goal of the series.  Playing on the restructured “Blackhawk Down” line with Tony Amonte and Alexei Zhamnov, Roenick seems to have regained his nose for the net just in the nick of time.  It should be noted Zhamnov plays the centre position, while Jeremy has assumed right wing.  Whatever, it works.

Philadelphia will need to bring the same kind of game they brought in Game 5 against the Leafs.  Keith Primeau will need more of the scoring touch he displayed in the game, Roenick will need to continue roofing pucks, and the defense will need to continue guarding the blue line.  If they don’t, they’ll have any one of Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards, Cory Stillman, Ruslan Fedotenko, or even Fredrik Modin to deal with.  Veteran Dave Andreychuk has been fairly quiet so far, but could explode at any time.  Dan Boyle has even chipped in as the only offensive defenseman for Tampa so far.  This isn’t to say the defense hasn’t done the job, they have, and most importantly, goalie Nikolai Khabibulin has retained his title as the “Bulin Wall”, and now has a chance to prove to Phoenix they were wrong to get rid of him.

During the season the Bolts were perfect against Philly, using their speed and finesse to outwit and outscore the supposed veterans.  Robert Esche has been outstanding so far, but can he vault the Flyers into the finals for the first time since 1997?  He’s proven he can get it done so far, but has also shown he’s only human in the two losses to Toronto.

It’s been the same old story all year long for Tampa, they have just got it going, period.  Everybody thought Jose Theodore would be good enough for Montreal to advance, but even though he literally stood on his head, the Lightning still managed to strike not once, but four times as they pulled off the sweep.  Luckily, they still haven’t really had to contend with injuries, while Philadelphia is battered and bruised, especially on defense, where Sami Kapanen, usually a forward, was playing defense until getting injured.  Kim Johnsson has played at less than 100%, and Eric Desjardins hasn’t played at all.  It will be up to Danny Markov and Vladimir Malakhov to keep the puck out of their own zone.  The extra day rest will help, but Tampa Bay has had over a week to reflect on the fact they’ve only lost once this postseason.  Look for the swagger they’ve shown to continue, and don’t expect them to take their feet off the pedals for one second.

Philadelphia can be described as an old car, it’s been around the block a few times and Tampa Bay is the brand spanking new trade in.  Both can go fast and both are reliable, but which one can make it to the finish line first?  We’re about to find out.  Fasten your seatbelts and hold on tight, because it’s going to be one hell of a ride.

Prediction: Lightning in 5

WESTERN CONFERENCE Final

#2 San Jose (43-21-12-6) vs #6 Calgary (42-30-7-3)

Season Series: Tie (2-2-0-0)

How fitting is this, a goalie (Kiprusoff), coach (Sutter) and a handful of players (Donovan, Lowry) all playing against their former team?

First of all, I owe an apology to all Calgary fans everywhere.  I honestly didn’t see this one coming.  You’d think I would have, given what Anaheim and Minnesota were able to do last year, but with what the Flames had to go up against, I just didn’t see it happening.  Perhaps I’m still reeling over Edmonton falling short of making the playoffs and like the team wonder what if?  It could be the empty feeling left behind by the home team in Ottawa losing yet another Battle of Ontario.  Maybe I’m still in shock over the fact New Jersey, Colorado, or Detroit won’t be lifting the Cup for a change.  At the end of the day, I guess I simply underestimated the hardest working team in the league.  If it makes you feel any better, I won’t be winning my playoff hockey pool either.

If anyone thinks Jarome Iginla is the only reason Calgary is in this position, they haven’t been watching any of the games.  Craig Conroy has been an offensive juggernaut.  Mike Commodore along with Robyn Regehr have been the most impressive defensive pairing of the playoffs.  The man they’ve dubbed “The Eliminator”, Martin Gelinas, is responsible for key goals at key times, and should be an obvious candidate for the Conn Smythe trophy if Calgary makes it to the finals.  The Sharks must still be reeling over letting him get away, but Miikka Kiprusoff has provided the Flames with the goaltending they’ve needed badly.  Roman who?  In all honesty I can’t remember the last time I saw Turek play.

At the other end, Kiprusoff will face his former teammate Evgeni Nabokov.  Be honest, how many of you picked him in your playoff pool (who picked Robert Esche for that matter)?  Another name I’ll bet nobody picked, Nicholas Dimitrakos, one goal (in overtime) and eight assists.  This Sharks team has played like Calgary with the hard working, not going to go down without a fight attitude.  Of course they have some offensive weapons themselves, led by Vincent Damphousse, Patrick Marleau, Dimitrakos, and Jonathan Cheechoo.

Both teams play a never quit speedy game, and never seem to get tired.  The so called experts out there like Calgary over San Jose if the series goes beyond five games due to their younger legs, but let’s be realistic, at this stage the players are running on pure adrenaline.  Whoever can show the most endurance and desire will win this series, period.

I want to stress under no circumstances does this mean I’m jumping on the bandwagon, but I like most Canadian hockey fans want to see a Canadian team make it to the finals for the first time since 1994.  So far the Flames have passed the test with flying colors, with every win getting bigger and bigger.  If you thought the Pengrowth Saddledome went nuts after the overtime goal in Game 6, just let them get to the finals.  We’ll be able to hear them all the way in Tampa Bay or Philly, where the winner of this series will be going.

Prediction: Flames in 6

Another round ends, another begins, and we have more retirement news.  Joe Juneau of the Montreal Canadiens has decided to hang them up after 13 NHL seasons.  He’s made stops in Montreal, Ottawa, Washington, Boston and Buffalo.  Even though he was never able to equal his rookie output in Boston in the 1992-93 season (32 goals, 70 assists), he was always a dominant player on the ice night in and night out, and was a proven playoff performer, especially in 1998 during Washington’s run to the finals.  Educated as an engineer, Juneau has apparently accepted a job at a company in his hometown of Pont-Rouge, Quebec, about 35 kilometres west of Quebec City.  Hats off and thanks for the memories Joe!

And before I forget, I'd like to wish my father a very happy birthday.  Unfortunately for him, his favorite team is no longer playing (Toronto), but we're far from done as there's lots of excitement yet to come!

This is always an exciting time, and we’ll know pretty soon who’s worthy of skating for the Stanley Cup.  As always, keep up with the scores and playoff pool standings right here (click the link to the left).  I’ll be back with my take on the championship series, along with a few other stories I’ve been following since the outset of the postseason, so stay tuned right here, and enjoy the final four.

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