THE FOUR ACES

2006 NHL PLAYOFF PREVIEW - ROUND 3

 

As the playoffs push on, we’re continuously reminded of why this game is so great and wonder what did we ever do without it?  Ryan Smyth, minus 3 teeth, setting up a winning triple overtime goal; Dwayne Roloson robbing Jonathan Cheechoo in the slot in the second overtime to allow for Smyth’s heroics; Joffrey Lupul potting 3, and then a fourth one, again in overtime; Colorado getting swept for the first time since leaving Quebec; Buffalo and Ottawa putting on a scoring clinic and driving their goalies and coaches nuts in the process; The calm before a 6-0 Hurricanes storm; the veteran Martin Brodeur shaking hands with rookie Cam Ward and sharing words of wisdom “go all the way”; The San Jose Sharks setting the tone and proving they weren’t going down without a fight; Jason Spezza putting forth one final Senators gasp before the inevitable; Jason Pominville scoring shorthanded – in overtime; Cory Stillman rushing to the net, and scoring; Roloson putting the icing on the 2nd round cake with his first ever playoff shutout.  It doesn’t get much better – until now!

WESTERN CONFERENCE FINAL

#6 Anaheim Mighty Ducks (43-27-12) vs # 8 Edmonton Oilers (41-28-13)

Season Series: Advantage Edmonton 4-0

The Edmonton Oilers must have been paying close attention when every second round playoff series ended up with 2-0 scores, including their own match up against the San Jose Sharks.  When the other three ended up 3-0, they were determined not to suffer a similar fate.  After starting off the first 3 games with a decided 2-1 advantage for San Jose, late in Game 3 Edmonton was able to finally break down a solid San Jose defense and then sustain it going well into the morning.  Raffi Torres scored late in the 3rd period and then it continued until 2:39 AM Eastern time and comfortably into the 3rd overtime period when Ryan Smyth set up Shawn Horcoff for the game winner.  Momentum instantly shifted and the Sharks were never able to recover.  The Oilers defense were relentless, the top players were the top players, and they got the goaltending they needed from Dwayne Roloson, capped up nicely by a 2-0 shutout in Game 6 and a totally dominating effort which continues to be the team’s trademark.

It seems ironic the first two players to be signed after the floodgates opened on the new NHL are playing in this series.  Scott Niedermayer, unable to come to terms in New Jersey, was scooped up by the Ducks, and Chris Pronger, a stalwart in St. Louis for so many years, was picked up by the Oilers.  Pronger has by far had his most memorable playoff run, and it’s far from over, while for Niedermayer, it’s just another day at the rink (or ballpark – he threw out a ceremonial first pitch with his brother Rob at a recent Anaheim Angels game).  Whichever defenseman can shut down the other team’s top guns will come out on top with a chance at hockey’s ultimate prize awaiting them in the next round.

Even more irony can be found in this very series.  The team Edmonton had to beat late in the regular season to even make the playoffs has ended up being the team they’ll have to beat if they want a shot at the Stanley Cup.  Certainly every player plays for the chance, but I’m not sure you could have even predicted this to be the Western Conference final match even as far back as a month ago.  Being my sentimental favorite, I of course had hopes of Edmonton at the very least making it out of the first round for a change, but to just have a shot now is beyond my wildest dreams, and I for one am simply loving it.  If it’s to be, however, it’s not going to be easy.

The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, who will next season drop the “Mighty” from their name, is but a mere fraction of the team who made the magical Disney run in 2003, yet some key players from both sides of that finals match will prove to play prominent roles in the next couple of weeks.  We already mentioned Scott Niedermayer.  Rob Niedermayer, who played against his brother in 2003, has him on his team this time around.  Jeff Friesen seems to thrive on this time of year and has come up big before, so he will be a player to watch, especially late in the series.  Francois Beauchemin must talk daily to Scott Stevens, given some of the punishing hits he’s laid out over the first two rounds.  Joffrey Lupul broke out big time in the Colorado series, scoring four goals en route to a 4-3 Anaheim win in overtime.  Andy McDonald, while he’s been outshone by Lupul and his wingers Teemu Selanne and Chris Kunitz, has been a solid center.  J.S. who?  Certainly Giguere has had better years, but Ilya Bryzgalov has been able to pick up the slack.  Can Ryan Smyth get him out of his crease and off his rocker just like Gigure back in January?

The Oilers have managed to make it through two playoff rounds by sticking to what has always been their game plan, use their speed, fore check hard, and score the timely goal.  It’s a cliché but it’s true, your best players have to be your best players.  Edmonton has managed to spread the scoring around, with a different hero every night.  Shawn Horcoff, while I’ve hardly mentioned him until now, has had a breakout year and has led the charge.  Michael Peca continues to prove he’s a playoff performer, the type of player who you hardly notice until it matters most.  Are there three better centers in the entire NHL?  Jarret Stoll along with Peca and Horcoff must be batting .750 in the face off circle (if not better).  The question which will be answered in due time is, does Anaheim even come close to matching up?  And even if they do, can they score on Roloson, who seems to get better and better as we go along?

Both teams took out two very capable teams to make it here, and the winner of this one will just have to withstand what the other throws at them.  The Oilers never seemed to flinch whenever Joe Thornton and Jonathan Cheechoo were on the ice, and the Ducks made quick work of the Avalanche.  Given the Oilers just finished off the Sharks, give the momentum and adrenaline edge to them.  Something is going to give, and even though they match up well, I’m not sure if the Ducks have even come close to being severely challenged, and will have to shake off a week of rust in a hurry.  The message in both dressing rooms will be simple, win this round and the Stanley Cup is within reach.  Who wants it more?  We're about to find out. 

Prediction: Oilers in 6

 

EASTERN CONFERENCE FINAL

#2 Carolina Hurricanes (52-22-8) vs #4 Buffalo Sabres (52-24-6)

Season Series: Advantage Carolina 3-1

Wow!  Are you ready for this one?  This semi-final series epitomizes everything the new NHL is trying to showcase.  Here we have two teams who can skate, hit, and capitalize on mistakes.  Both teams combined have a near perfect record in overtime (Carolina lost one of their first games of the playoffs in OT, and Buffalo is flawless).

I’ve often said placing fourth in your conference has to be the toughest position of any to finish.  It means the team was probably good enough to have clinched either their division or even the entire conference, yet fell short of their goal.  It also means starting the playoffs on the road for at least the first round, but usually throughout.  The first round 4th vs 5th match up more often than not is the most evenly matched.  Ask the Buffalo Sabres if they care at this point and they’ll be sure to answer with a resounding no.

When you’re able to steal games on the road, you’re doing something right.  Everyone in Ottawa, fans and media alike, are completely dumbfounded and frustrated at the same time over yet another Senators spring collapse.  Five straight one goal games, three of them decided in overtime, the icing on the cake a short handed giveaway.  Game, set and match.  How confident do you think the Sabres are now, having taken down the top seed and the team everyone expected to be the one left standing at the end?  Jay McKee I think said it best: “We believe we can beat any team in a seven-game series. It's not cockiness, it's just humble confidence”.  Whatever it is, it’s helped catapult this team into the final four for the first time since 1999.

I said after Carolina bowed out to Detroit in the 2002 Finals they’d be back, and here they are.  Having watched Martin Gerber steal games all year, I’m not sure if anybody would have thought it would have taken rookie Cam Ward in goal to carry this team throughout the post season.  I’m not sure if I would have believed he would out duel Martin Brodeur either.  It’s probably helped the Hurricanes to have the most lethal power play I’ve seen in a long time.  The New Jersey Devils couldn’t contain them in their own zone and all it took was one penalty to trigger a storm.  It only took five games for the dust to settle.

The Buffalo Sabres capitalized on just about every mistake Ottawa made in the second round, and likewise against Philadelphia when this whole thing began.  Whenever the other team tried to get some pressure going, there was Ryan Miller to save the day.  Although he’s remained nothing but modest about it, you have to wonder just how well Team U.S.A. would have done in Torino with him in net.  Unless Mike Richter or Jim Craig come out of retirement you can all but pencil his name into their roster in 2010.

The Hurricanes send out a balanced attack as good as any of the other three teams left in the hunt.  The veteran presence of Mark Recchi, Doug Weight and Rod BrindAmour has had a calming effect on an otherwise young team.  Eric Staal has matured in leaps and bounds.  Mike Commodore, Aaron Ward and Glen Wesley give the team stability in their own end.  The scoring prowess of Cory Stillman also can’t be discounted.  How much is the Tampa Bay Lightning missing him right about now?

The Sabres have received production from many sources, the most unlikely has been Jason Pominville, who wasn’t even wanted by the Rochester Americans’ ECHL affiliate when the season began.  Daniel Alfredsson and Wade Redden are still scratching their heads and wondering “who was that?” on the Game 5 overtime goal.  Even though Ottawa’s Mike Fisher is a Selke trophy candidate, J.P. Dumont put on both an offensive and defensive clinic during the second round.  Key for the Sabres will be Dumont’s power play production.  Daniel Briere has fed off of the leadership of co-captain Chris Drury.  Henrik Tallinder has been Buffalo’s ace in the hole, particularly when Tim Connolly went down with a concussion.  Veteran defenseman Teppo Numminen has never made it out of the second round before, so he must be relishing this opportunity more than anybody.

This series will be won (or lost) on special teams and along the boards.  Carolina made quick work of a New Jersey team who flat out wasn’t ready for their relentless fore check, but Buffalo hasn’t been and won’t be intimidated by it.  While they miss Connolly, they’ve refrained from using injuries as an excuse and still continue to get it done.

Buffalo is my sleeper dark horse pick, but this is a coin toss if ever I saw one, and I literally had to flip one to decide.  May the best team win.

Prediction: Sabres in 7

 

I have two requests for you fans out there – let’s show some respect for the national anthems, and for the authorities.  I’m appalled by the lack of responsibility shown by those in Edmonton who feel it’s necessary to start a riot over an Oilers victory.  I know it’s an exciting time (especially for me), but like the players, you have to keep your emotions in check.  I don’t think I have to rant again about booing the anthems as I believe I’ve had my say on this in the past.  In case you’ve never read it – "A Look In The Mirror" - check it out here or in the archives.  I wrote this piece a couple of years ago shortly after fans in Montreal had their dog day and the message I put forth is every bit as relevant today as it was then.  Riots and booing aside, I commend Edmonton for the class the fans in the stands showed before Game 6.

This is by far the best Stanley Cup Playoff run I’ve witnessed in more than a decade, and the fun’s just getting started.  Enjoy the final four everyone and I’ll be back in two weeks for one more round!  Bring it on!

 

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