GO BIG OR GO HOME

2006 NHL PLAYOFF PREVIEW - ROUND 2

 

For those of you who missed NHL Hockey as much as I did last season, the first round of the 2006 Stanley Cup Playoffs certainly wasn’t without its share of long lasting memorable moments.  The Brian Campbell hit on R.J. Umberger.  Tim Taylor stating he threw out the puck the Ottawa Senators wanted to give to Ray Emery for his first playoff victory, only to give it back during the ceremonial handshake.  Martin Havlat’s seemingly uncanny ability to score at will.  Ditto for Patrick Elias.  Joe Sakic’s return from what seemed a disappearing act.  Jarome Iginla going toe to toe with Francois Beauchemin, twice.  Scott Niedermayer pulling a Bobby Orr trick out his helmet and scoring the winning goal in game 6 to force a 7th game, and then helping the Ducks win it too.  The image of Brendan Witt leaking blood from his nostrils due to a high sticking infraction the referees missed.  More seriously, the missed Justin Williams high stick which sent Saku Koivu to the hospital.  The New York Rangers raising their sticks to salute the crowd after being swept aside in 4 straight courtesy of their close rivals from New Jersey.  Cam Ward winning four straight playoff games and Cristobal Huet uncharacteristically letting in a 50 foot goal to end the Habs season.  Ales Hemsky’s highlight series winning goal, and Steve Yzerman’s possible final skate off the ice.

Stanley Cup Playoff hockey – it doesn’t get much better than this folks, and we’re just getting started!!

Of all the first round opening series, I didn’t do too badly in my predictions.  I called two of the series exactly, with the rest either getting the right team or the right number of games.  Had Calgary co-operated I would have had three out of eight right, not to mention a Western 3rd vs 8th Showdown.  Unfortunately we’ll have to wait at least until October for the Battle of Alberta to reconvene.

What happened to Dallas?  What happened to Philadelphia?  What happened to the New York Rangers?  Are the Nashville Predators really that small?  As good as he’s been statistically, can Calgary ever win a Game 7 with Miika Kiprusoff in goal?  Anyone? 

OK enough - on to bigger and better things.

So the top four seeds in the East advance, while the bottom four seeds in the West advance.  If you would have told me the division winners in the West would all go down in the first round, I never would have believed it, yet here we are. 

It all makes for a very interesting second round.  Let’s go!

WESTERN CONFERENCE

#5 San Jose Sharks (44-27-11) vs # 8 Edmonton Oilers (41-28-13)

Season Series: Advantage Edmonton 3-1

Unless you’re an Edmonton Oilers fan and/or have watched all 88 of their games so far this year, you were probably wondering how they could even win a game against Detroit, let alone win the series.  Make no mistake, the Oilers fought tooth and nail to oust the President’s Trophy winners, and they did it with a lot of heart, guts, determination and a lucky bounce here and there.  Timely goaltending from Dwayne Roloson also can’t be overlooked.  Then Ales Hemsky put the icing on the cake with his 3rd highlight reel goal since the beginning of the playoff stretch run.  If he keeps this up he should seriously consider changing his name to Martin Gelinas.

As expected, the Sharks quickly dispatched the Nashville Predators and have been waiting patiently to find out who they’d play in the second round.  Well, the wait is over, and it’s one of the teams who’ve given them more fits than most this year.  All of the games these two played were close, two of them requiring shootouts to decide, and one of them decided in the final minute.  The only blemish for Edmonton was a 5-2 win for San Jose as they were getting together their amazing push to the playoffs, and just as Roloson was getting his feet wet after having been traded from Minnesota.  Needless to say, at least one overtime game is expected in this series, and it could be a long one.

Chris Pronger was by far the best defenseman in the playoffs throughout Round 1 (or at the very least he shares the honor with Wade Redden).  The victory against Detroit had to be especially sweet for him, as he’s not only been part of past St. Louis teams who have had to face them in the playoffs only to fail miserably, but he was also part of the President’s Trophy winning team in 2000 which went down in a first round seventh game against – you guessed it – San Jose.  The one noticeable difference between then and now is in that series he was assessed 32 penalty minutes versus only 4 in this year’s playoffs so far.  Up until Game 6 he was poised to go penalty-less for the entire first round!  Remarkable!  While it won’t win him any Lady Byng nominations, it had to be gratifying to be able to dominate the ice the way he did.  He will need this to continue if the Oilers hope to keep their Stanley Cup dreams alive.

Fernando Pisani and the aforementioned Hemsky saved their best games for the end of the last series, at a time when the team needed it the most.  Going into the 3rd period down 2-0 facing a seventh game on the road, what happened can only be described in one word – karma.  At the risk of sounding cheesy you can maybe say there was a little bit of magic there too, but given what this team has been able to do historically, to me karma is a better word.  Up until now nobody was giving this team a fighting chance, so how else could you possibly explain it?

For the San Jose Sharks, Joe Thornton and Jonathan Cheechoo weren’t nearly as dominating as they were throughout the bottom 2/3 of the regular season, but Patrick Marleau was able to pick up the slack with 7 goals, 4 of them on the power play.  If they’re going to get out of the second round, these two are going to have to step it up a notch.  Tom Preissing and Scott Hannan are going to have to be every bit equal to Pronger and are going to have a real grinder in Ryan Smyth to contend with down low, not to mention Michael Peca.  Recent AHL callup Brad Winchester scored his first NHL goal in what I think ended up a turning point game for the Oilers.  They never seemed to look back from there.  Jarrett Stoll was every bit as impressive as he was during the regular season.

Edmonton shocked the entire hockey watching community when they employed a strategy similar to what made New Jersey and Minnesota successful prior to the lockout, but to set the record straight, it wasn’t a neutral zone trap.  It was as Craig MacTavish likes to put it “a press” strategy.  Whatever it is, it worked, and wasn’t anywhere near as boring to watch.  I’ve always maintained you can’t win in the playoffs by playing run and gun, you have to be sound defensively and capitalize on mistakes.  The Oilers’ forte has always been speed, and just as the Red Wings were adapting to this new defensive style,  Edmonton took it to another level and before anybody knew what had happened the series was over.  Outsmart and outplay your opponent.  Works for me!

When teams play against the Sharks, when they’re able to neutralize Thornton and Cheechoo and get a cycle going, something the Oilers are masters at, the Sharks aren’t very effective and seem to get caught running around.  Nashville was able to execute this to perfection in the early going but weren’t able to sustain it due to their lack of size and strength.  Edmonton has two strong checking lines they can throw out at all times, so expect to see big Georges Laraque and nifty forward Todd Harvey get more ice time in this series than they did against Detroit. One of the most dominant energy lines I’ve seen all year have been Laraque-Harvey and Pisani.

I think it goes without saying, but Roloson has to duplicate his performance from round one, which shouldn’t be too hard considering Detroit had much more firepower and stick handling ability than San Jose.  For the Sharks, the goaltending job is Vesa Toskala’s to lose.

I just get the feeling the Oilers are not done.

Do you know the way to San Jose?  Me neither.

Prediction: Oilers in 6

#6 Anaheim Mighty Ducks (43-27-12) vs # 7 Colorado Avalanche (43-30-9)

Season Series: Advantage Colorado 3-1

I’m sure the Ducks were fully expecting to win their first round playoff series, but I doubt very much they would have expected to have home ice advantage in the second round.  Thanks to the top four seeds going down, it’s a reality – a rare 6th vs 7th second round match up.  Then again, we saw it in the Conference Final in 2003 when Anaheim played Minnesota.  The only difference then was the Ducks were the 7th seed.

They never seem to do things the easy way in Southern California, but here’s Anaheim again, making some noise in the playoffs.  Now they go up against a team I never expected to even qualify, let alone all but sweep the Dallas Stars, again.

I’ll talk more about New Jersey later, because it really is amazing how well they’ve been doing given they lost one of the best defensemen in the game, if not the best in Scott Niedermayer, and their loss has been every bit Anaheim’s gain.  The man they call “Nieds” has been lighting it up again this postseason, and does it with the same poise as the best of them.  Facing elimination in Game 6 against Calgary, he single handedly answered the bell and helped lift the Ducks off the mat to force a game 7, and, on the road, was every bit as effective in helping Anaheim take down yet another team who was expected to go deep.  If Pronger was the best defenseman of the first round, Niedermayer was a very close second.  He was complemented very well by young Francoise Beauchemin, at one point considered a prospect at best after the Sergei Fedorov trade.  Beauchemin has emerged as nothing short of a pleasant surprise, and isn’t afraid to get physical with the best of them.

Throughout the regular season, all I would ever hear about Colorado was “where’s Joe Sakic”?  Well, the disappearing act ended the minute the puck dropped on the first round series against Dallas.  I used to always think it was the chemistry between Sakic and Peter Forsberg which was this team’s bread and butter, not to mention the heroics of a since retired Patrick Roy, but all along Sakic is and continues to be the man in Denver.  He could win a game all by himself, and has done so on more than one occasion, most recently Game 2 in overtime.  Anybody out there still remember the Salt Lake City Olympics?

Rob Blake logged an average of 28 minutes a game in the first round, and will be instrumental to helping shut down Anaheim’s top offensive threats.

So while Forsberg sits on a golf course somewhere in Philadelphia or Atlantic City, the Avalanche are still alive, again.  Since leaving Quebec they’ve never missed the playoffs and have only once failed to win a playoff round.

Like the San Jose-Edmonton match up, these two also played a very close season series, all four games decided by one goal, the only Anaheim victory in overtime (on a penalty shot no less).  Both teams were separated by only three points overall.

Teemu Selanne continues to get it done for the Ducks with his offensive talent.  He scored the only goal they would need in Game 7, and led the team with 3 goals 3 assists.  His speed was a tough assignment for even young Dion Phaneuf, and you can be sure the Avalanche are today watching video footage from the Calgary series.

Most surprising to me for Anaheim has been their choice of net minder.  Jean-Sebastien Giguere was awful compared to his performance in 2003, even though he did win two of the three games he played in.  Pulled after letting in three goals in Game 5, backup Ilya Bryzgalov was handed the torch the rest of the way and didn’t disappoint.  In all probability this team wouldn’t be here without him.

Equally as surprising has been Jose Theodore’s ability to win games without actually playing well.  And yes, if you didn’t see it, Dallas really was that bad.  If the Avalanche continue with Theodore going forward (and what choice do they really have?), he will have to be much better positionally otherwise this series will be over quickly.

I expect this series to be very tight and one can only imagine there will be a few trips to overtime in this one.  I’m surprised Avalanche fans haven’t boycotted my column and website by now, but I honestly can’t see Colorado going much farther than this, especially if they can’t get Sakic to continue his heroics.  They may have proven me wrong so far, but expect the roller coaster ride to end soon.

Prediction: Ducks in 7

 

EASTERN CONFERENCE

#1 Ottawa Senators (52-21-9) vs #4 Buffalo Sabres (52-24-6)

Season Series: Advantage Ottawa 5-3

What a great second round match up this is.  At stake – the right to represent the Northeast Division in the Conference Finals.

While Ottawa obviously won the regular season series, Buffalo wasn’t too far behind.  At times it looked like the season series would be similar to what we witnessed six times between Ottawa and Toronto – a blowout.  In fact, the Sabres never really seemed to get on track until a 10-4 drubbing at home against this same Senators team they will face now.  But even towards the end stretch of the season when the Senators were missing four of their top six defensemen and three of their top forwards, the games were still close, needing either overtime or a shootout to decide.

Something tells me this series will be very tight, if the first round series between Buffalo and Philadelphia is any indication.  They say home ice is over rated in the playoffs, but the further along a team goes, the more they appreciate the home crowd.  They are literally the seventh man and can help will a team to victory.  And both of these teams have two of the loudest barns in the league when filled to capacity.

When you eliminate the defending champions in five games, nothing much needs to change.  The Senators will continue to ride Ray Emery, who continues to prove he can get the job done.  Clearly this team will benefit by ending their first round series early, as they’ll be able to get a few key guys back.  Chris Phillips aggravated the same knee he missed 11 games with towards the end of the season and will most likely miss game one.  Dominik Hasek is no closer to returning now than he was in March.  Chris Kelly played hurt for most of the Tampa series, so the extra rest will do him good.

What more can you say about Martin Havlat?  He was outstanding in the first round, racking up 10 points by himself.  His line with Peter Schaefer and Selke trophy candidate Mike Fisher contributed a total of 19 points against Tampa Bay.

Buffalo has a balanced lineup of players who match up well with Ottawa’s top lines.  Daniel Briere, Chris Drury and Tim Connolly shadowed Peter Forsberg and what little offense Philadelphia was able to manufacture.  They weren’t intimidated by the larger physical players on the Flyers’ roster and they will need this to continue.  Outside of J.P. Dumont and Teppo Numminen, the defensive depth of this team is questionable, but it has been all season long, yet the Sabres keep moving right along.  Ottawa will have to be well aware of where Brian Campbell is at all times, as they won’t want to lose any of their top forwards to a concussion.

The key to this series won’t necessarily be which team can put more pucks in the net, it will be which team can play for a full sixty minutes.  The Sabres never seemed to have a problem doing so, but the Senators were criticized at times for not bringing their A game.  This must change.  The physicality Ottawa has been able to demonstrate so far will go a long way to help getting Buffalo off their game.

The Sabres beat up on the Senators quite a bit back in their early days.  They played a memorable seven game series the first time Ottawa made it to the dance, winning it in seven games on a Derek Plante overtime marker, and then swept them two years later on their way to the finals (only to become victims of the crease courtesy of Brett Hull).  You can be sure the Senators will have this in the back of their minds, but they won’t be intimidated by it.  They didn’t have to deal with Toronto this time around, but a win against Buffalo will be a welcome consolation and will go a long way to determining how far this team can go.  This time, although he won’t play, Hasek is on their side.  Sure, Ryan Miller is no slouch, but he wasn't severely tested during the Philadelphia series.  Something will have to give somewhere.

As can be said for any playoff series, special teams and goaltending are important, but I think the determining factor in this series will be Ottawa’s depth, especially on defense.  I know it sounds like a cliché, but the Senators have been in this situation before, where Buffalo is still very much in a rebuilding mode.  While they may have exceeded everybody’s expectations, in my opinion they had it easy in round one – now it’s time we separate the men from the boys.

Prediction: Senators in 6

#2 Carolina Hurricanes (52-22-8) vs #3 New Jersey Devils (46-27-9)

Season Series: Even 2-2

It’s the rubber match to end all rubber matches.  These two met in back to back first round series in 2001 and 2002, and both teams have a victory under their belt and a trip to the Finals to show for it.  Ironically enough, in both instances the victorious team had the direct misfortune of watching their Stanley Cup final opponent celebrate.  While it’s still too early to tell if the winner of this series goes all the way, it should certainly be one for the ages.

Both of these teams are eerily similar on paper.  They both have built their team from the goaltender out, they both have a defense first ask questions later philosophy, both have two good scoring lines and a capable checking line, both are lethal on the power play, and both are well coached.  In two weeks or less, one of these teams will move on to the Conference Finals and the other will watch them on television.

I don’t think anybody can ever question New Jersey’s dominance in goal – Martin Brodeur continues to rewrite the history books as he only allowed four goals in the four game Rangers sweep.  As Brodeur goes, so does New Jersey.

Patrick Elias continues to anchor the Devils’ E.G.G. line (Elias, Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta), and continues to be a force to be reckoned with in these playoffs.  For Carolina to have any hope whatsoever, they will have to shut down this line.  Easier said than done.  Elias’ five goals and six assists set a franchise record for points in a playoff series, which is remarkable when you consider this team has three Stanley Cups.  Even if the Hurricanes are able to accomplish this near impossible task of shutting these three down, they still have John Madden and Jamie Langenbrunner to contend with, not to mention a punishing defense led by Brian Rafalski and Colin White, who was able to get some much needed rest after the short first round series.

Carolina figured they had nothing to lose by putting rookie Cam Ward in net after losing their first two games against Montreal, and the gamble paid off.  Ward went on to help the team win their next four and move on.  As good as he’s been, don’t expect him to outwork or out duel Brodeur.

The Hurricanes were able to shut down the Canadiens by scoring timely goals, and they will need more of this in Round 2.  Eric Staal scored a key overtime goal but was virtually silent the rest of the way.  Most noticeable was Rod Brind’Amour – at both ends of the ice.  He continues to log more ice time than any of the defensemen on the team and is maintaining a 55 percent success rate in faceoffs.  Brett Hedican will most likely be the defenseman assigned to go up against the E.G.G. line, but can he contain all three of them?

Watch out for Ray Whitney in this series, he managed to work his way back to health and was huge in Game 6 logging almost 14 minutes of ice time.  He will add a dimension to the power play the Hurricanes will need.

The Devils probably wish they had started this series a week ago, as they are riding a 15 game winning streak dating back to the regular season.  Don’t wait too long for them to shake off any potential cobwebs, as they are clearly on a mission.  Are the Hurricanes equal to the task?  They were against the Habs, but only time will tell if they can duplicate their first round efforts.  I say it’s not going to happen, but only the players will know for sure. 

Prediction: Devils in 6

So, with both of my dark horse picks still alive and my Eastern Conference pick still alive (what was I thinking with Dallas?), the second round proves to be full of action.  Enjoy and I'll talk to you in two weeks to set up the final four.

 

More Puckin' Around...