"THEM'S FIGHTING WORDS!"

2007 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF PREVIEW

ROUND 2

 

Well, what can I say?  Being a spectator isn’t so bad after all.  After all, at least until next season, I don’t have to live and die with every faceoff, every puck chiming off the post, and every goal scored (or not), every player who gets creamed into the boards or the ice.  Yes, I must say, the first round of the playoffs was a lot of fun, and it’s only going to get better.

I must say this – the first round was a ramblin’ roarin’ good time – I don’t remember a first round being as physical than what we just witnessed.  Nashville, for starters, well known as not being tough enough in the past, let their emotions get the better of them as Alex Radulov took things a little too far against one of San Jose’s best players.  Pittsburgh’s Colby Armstrong almost decapitated Ottawa’s Patrick Eaves.  Calgary tried to impose their will as opposed to their skill (or lack thereof), not to mention fists, on Detroit – bad move.  And of course, we have the New York Rangers’ Sean Avery, who not only got into it with Atlanta’s Ilya Kovalchuk, but also elevated his offensive game.  Where last year was the year of blocked shots and delayed shots over the glass, this playoff season is quickly becoming Fight Club on Ice.

As far as my predictions go, I got 3 series completely right – Buffalo in 5, Red Wings in 6 and Canucks in 7.  In the rest of the other series I picked the right team in all but one, Nashville actually got beat in 5 games by San Jose instead of winning in 7.  What do I know, I call them as I see them on paper, only the players themselves truly know what they can do.

Move out, don’t mess around – the second round is here!

 

2006-2007 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

Eastern Conference

#1 Buffalo Sabres (Season: 53-22-7; Playoffs: 4-1) vs #6 New York Rangers (Season: 42-30-10; Playoffs: 4-0) – Season Series: Advantage Buffalo 4-0

The biggest surprise of round one was the first round sweep the Rangers handed to Atlanta.  Even though I picked the Rangers to win the series, I never expected to see a team in their first ever playoff series get tossed aside so easily.  There wasn’t even an overtime game, and one of the Ranger wins in Game 3 was downright embarrassing – a 7-0 drubbing.  It was the type of score you would have expected from the Buffalo-Islanders series.  I guess if history has any say, it’s par for the course – Atlanta teams have only managed to win 2 out of 19 playoff games if you go back to the days of the Atlanta Flames – they too were swept in their first ever playoff series against Philadelphia back in 1974.

For Buffalo, on the other hand, it wasn’t so surprising to see them dispatch the eighth seeded NY Islanders in five games.  It was one of only 3 total predictions I actually got completely right the entire first round.  Now they go up against a much more dangerous team.  As I mentioned in the first round, don’t let the 6th place finish fool you.

Michael Nylander has heated up at the right time, and Jaromir Jagr seems to have regained his form which has made him such a dominant player throughout his career.  It’s no secret he was hurting during last year’s four game sweep at the hands of New Jersey, and this year he’s put his money where his mouth is.  Emotions are in motion, to say the least.

One player putting his mouth where perhaps it doesn’t belong, as usual, is Sean Avery.  While he’s backed up his words with some encouraging play so far, some of the trash talk I’m hearing leading into this series is just wrong. “I’m going to hurt them, I’m going to hit them, I’m going to be in their face as much as I can,” were his words when asked about how he views the challenge of playing the President’s Trophy winners.  I know it’s Avery’s job to antagonize the opposition, but the sad part is he even has coach Tom Renney in on the act.  “I don’t know if they’re the cream of the crop right now”.  Excuse me?  Seems to me somebody didn’t see the first round of the playoffs outside of the Rangers-Thrashers series.

The Sabres on the other hand, chose to take the high road.

Lindy Ruff: “They’re allowed to think whatever they want.  They feel good about themselves, they’ve had a tremendous record.  They swept Atlanta, a very good team.  They’ve got a lot of aspects of their game that are going well.  We know this will be a tremendous challenge.”  About Avery: “They’re agitators, their goal is to try and get people off their game.  My goal is to keep our players on their game.  I have to succeed in that.”

Daniel Briere: “I’m not going to comment on him (Avery).  He’s just a player on their team.  We’re not trying to get the focus on him.”

Chris Drury: “I think he’s an extremely talented player beside all the other stuff.  The Rangers, they’ve been on a tear” (since the trade) “Our focus is more on how good a player he is rather than the other stuff.”

Clearly, it’s a story of a team showing respect for their opponent, while the Rangers seem to be exhibiting the New York stereotypical attitude.

There will be a much better goaltending exhibit in this series than what we saw in the lopsided Rangers-Atlanta series – Ryan Miller at one end, and Henrik Lundqvist at the other, and two backups with a little bit of experience – Ty Conklin and Kevin Weekes.  Lundqvist is no Rick DiPietro, and Miller is no Kari Lehtonen.

The Rangers have only managed to sweep a series four times in franchise history if you include this year.  The three previous times they pulled it off, they managed to advance to the finals.  Don’t expect them to go 4 for 4, as the Sabres are nothing but a huge brick wall blocking the Rangers’ path.  They can attempt to go around it, over it, or through it, but unless somebody can somehow sneak some dynamite into the building, it will be a lost cause.  The Sabres are clearly on a mission, and have yet to break a sweat.

Prediction: Sabres in 6

 

#2 New Jersey Devils (Season: 49-24-9; Playoffs: 4-2) vs #4 Ottawa Senators (Season: 48-25-9; Playoffs: 4-1) – Season Series: Advantage New Jersey 3-1

It’s the rematch everybody in Canada’s Capital has been waiting for – and do you know what?  It’s payback time – or so everybody in Ottawa seems to think, anyway.

Who could forget the classic 2003 Conference Final series which saw New Jersey face the supposed high flying top seeded Ottawa.  Senators fans remember all too well, a late goal from Jeff Freisen in game 7 ended a long cup run cut short.

That was then, this is now.

The similarities between this year’s teams versus the 2003 editions start and end with Martin Brodeur in net for New Jersey, and players Sergei Brylin, Jamie Langenbrunner, John Madden, Mike Rupp, Brian Gionta, Jay Pandolfo, Colin White and Scott Gomez are still on the roster.  For Ottawa, Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza, Wade Redden, Chris Phillips, Anton Volchenkov, Peter Schaefer, Mike Fisher and Chris Neil remain from the team which got a small taste of what it takes to go all the way, and quite frankly have been trying ever since to get back there.  How fitting is it, then, to have to once again go through Jersey for a shot at glory?

The Devils were lucky in round one, and they know it – and they also know something else – even after 3 Stanley Cups they may not yet garner the respect they deserve outside of the Continental Airlines Arena, but they still have the resources and the philosophy of play that wins.  In round one, although the Tampa Bay Lightning relied heavily on one scoring line, often times the dynamic presence of Martin St. Louis, Brad Richards and Vincent Lecavalier gave Brodeur and the Devils’ defense fits, all too many times catching them out of position and capitalizing on their chances.  It didn’t take long, however, for New Jersey to figure out Tampa’s strategy and before the series was 4 games old, they were finally able to make their shots count.  On the road, in an overtime thriller, the turning point of the series came.  Down 2 games to 1, the “EGG” line with Patrick Elias and Gionta set up Gomez for the winning goal – and all of a sudden the best of 7 became a best of 3.  In the end, the Lightning didn’t have enough gas left in the tank and the Devils prevailed in 6 games, a series too close for comfort, but a hard fought victory they can be very proud of.

The Ottawa Senators more than had their way with the upstart Pittsburgh Penguins, with their slick moves, tough as nails defense, and gritty forwards.  In the end, their superior playoff experience and hard checking game was no match for Sid the Kid and company.  It’s been reported now Sidney Crosby played on a bad ankle, but in fairness, he wasn’t given a lot of room to strut his stuff, and when he did manage to get free, it was often too late for it to count.  It was a rough, five game series.

As much of a cliché as it is, the team who can get the timely saves from their goaltender and whichever team can get the most production from not just their best players but also their 2nd and even 3rd line, should move on.  On paper, it goes without saying Martin Brodeur has the most experience of the two goaltenders, or just about every other goaltender left in the playoffs for that matter.  Outside of the EGG line, New Jersey must continue to get secondary scoring from Jamie Langenbrunner, Zach Parise and Travis Zajac, and will require all hands on deck.  This isn’t even mentioning the impact of players like John Madden, Brian Rafalski and even Jay Pandolfo.

Ottawa, as well, can roll four lines and can emulate any style the other team wants to play.  Mike Comrie is proving his stock to this team, as short as he is, he’s been able to bring not only soft hands and quick moves but a little bit of sandpaper – something everybody has said the team lacked in previous playoff runs.  Whatever he’s doing, it’s caught on like wildfire.  Spezza and Heatley have 4 points apiece, but so does Joe Corvo, Chris Kelly and Anton Volchenkov.  When you can get secondary scoring from Comrie, Tom Preissing, Chris Neil and Dean McAmmond, it has to help.  Alfredsson has led by example, as every good captain should, but will it enough to get beyond the second round?

The biggest question this series begs an answer to – can Ottawa execute their game plan or will they be intimidated by New Jersey’s patient attack?  It’s unfair to call the style of hockey both teams play “boring”, as both can open it up when they need to, but both are sound defensively as well.  To those fans and media types who act as though both of these teams are still playing like it’s 2003, I say watch a couple of games of this series and call me in the morning.

If Ottawa can’t get it done, it will just be another thorn in the side of this team’s less than illustrious playoff history, and if they can, maybe finally they can start shedding the choker label.  Until they do, they can’t ever be considered a contender.  This is probably the best shot they’ve had in a long time – theirs for the taking.  Quite frankly – even though I live in Ottawa and laugh out loud at some of the things I hear on the radio – they've been saying "better the Devil you know", but I’ll simply believe it when I see it because they’ve proven nothing thus far.

Prediction: Devils in 7

 

Western Conference

#1 Detroit Red Wings (Season: 50-19-13, Playoffs: 4-2) vs #5 San Jose Sharks (Season: 51-26-5, Playoffs: 4-1) – Season Series: Advantage San Jose 3-1

Here we have the two victors of the two most violent series of the first round.  I mentioned at the very beginning the hit Nashville’s Radulov put on San Jose’s Steve Bernier.  In the Detroit-Calgary series, Johan Franzen was slashed by backup goalie Jamie McLennan.  How ironic, then, was it for Franzen to get the last laugh with the series clinching overtime goal in Game 6?  Radulov should be so lucky.

Who was it who said Pavel Datsyuk can’t score in the playoffs?  In what was a low scoring Calgary series, he led Detroit with 3 goals and averaged 20 minutes per game.  The critics have been silenced – for now.

A huge loss on the Red Wings roster is Tomas Holmstrom, as he took a stick in the eye in Game 6 and could be lost for the entire series.  It will be up to Robert Lang, the aforementioned Datsyuk and Nicklas Lidstrom to remain hot.  A little contribution on the score sheet from Todd Bertuzzi won’t hurt either.  Johan Franzen is a name everybody better start getting used to, as his big overtime goal can only lead to more from the youngster.

As always, Detroit will look to Chris Chelios and Lidstrom for leadership, but keep an eye on Brett Lebda and rookie call up Kyle Quincey.  Henrik Zetterberg is the go to guy on the power play, but Lebda has a cannon from the point and should use it more often. 

As for San Jose – they certainly hold the size advantage and will be looking to build on what was a disappointing end to their season last year.  Detroit will have to be wary of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Jonathan Cheechoo and Milan Michalek, and when they do go on the offensive, will have to contend with the likes of Craig Rivet and Curtis Brown, two instrumental shut down guys in the Nashville series.  Both went up against the likes of Paul Kariya and Peter Forsberg, and obviously got the better angle on both.

The goaltending is legendary to say the least.  What haven’t we already heard  about Dominik Hasek and Evgeni Nabokov.  Before you answer, just remember, this is a family game.  The big concern would be can Hasek continue to keep his cool?  He’s still got the snow angel move down pat, as witnessed many times before.

If the Sharks take anything away from the scouting report on the Red Wings, they’ll want to crash, bang and grind at every opportunity.  Neither team was intimidated by the rumble and tumble tactics of their first round opponents, and both would be wise to just open it up and go for it – after all, this is the second round and the Cup is up for grabs!  It’s a coin toss series, with both teams worthy of moving on to the Conference Finals.  For my money, I say Detroit has learned their lessons of years past and aren’t about to go down without a fight.  I of course say that tongue-in-cheek, because in fairness, when you’ve won three Stanley Cups in 10 years, how can you call minor setbacks like losing in the first or second round failures?  The biggest question – how much longer can the old codgers carry the torch before it’s time to hang them up, and are they destined for what would probably be one last hurrah?  We’re about to find out.

Prediction: Red Wings in 7

 

#2 Anaheim Ducks (Season: 48-20-14, Playoffs: 4-1) vs #3 Vancouver Canucks (Season: 49-26-7, Playoffs 4-3) – Season Series: Advantage Anaheim 3-1

Just as I was about to say something cheeky about Henrik’s twin getting the winning goal in the Dallas-Vancouver series in what I think was Game 7, Henrik Lundqvist’s twin Joel that is, Henrik Sedin himself went and tied the score and from there it was all Canucks.  It was essentially the Roberto Luongo show, as he stole a little thunder right out from underneath Marty Turco.  The critics who’ve all labeled Turco a non playoff performer can stop criticizing.  Even though the Stars lost in 7 games, you can’t hang it all on him.  It’s a shame how just about every Western Conference first round series would have all been great substitutes for the Western Conference final and every bit as entertaining, but you can’t pick your opponents.

One would have to think Brian Burke is thrilled to high heaven with this matchup, even if he's not admitting it.  When faced with the questions about facing his old team - a team he was single-handedly responsible for building into what they are, the response was "to me it's a non-issue.  It's another team we have to play."  Further downplaying the physical aspect Anaheim's game strategy, the answer was "that's how we play."  Walt Disney must be turning over in his grave.

If any team is lucky to get out of the first round, it’s the Canucks.  After having been down 3-1 in playoff series and after coming back to win those series, one would think the Canucks of all teams would have had the wherewithal and experience to be able to put away a team when they’re down.  It didn’t happen.  Not only did the Stars battle back to send the series to a 7th and deciding game, they were well on their way to winning it until the sleeping giants of Vancouver finally woke up and realized there was no tomorrow for the loser.

Two observations – 1) Vancouver better stay out of the penalty box – we’re talking discipline, 2) Vancouver better be able to score on the power play.  2 for 34 will not get it done against this team.  Do you sense a bit of a theme here?  The power play was Anaheim’s bread and butter all season long – and little wonder with twin towers Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer on defense who can both blast the puck, not to mention the rarely mentioned Francois Beauchemin.  The potent attack of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Teemu Selanne, and Scott’s brother Rob often is enough.

For Vancouver to advance past the second round for the first time since 1994, Roberto Luongo has to continue to play lights out every night, and the Sedin twins need to produce, not just in a quadruple overtime game.  Trevor Linden needs to get on a roll after leading by example in Game 7.  Taylor Pyatt needs to stop being Taylor “Quiet” – I know he had the overtime winner in Game 3 of the Dallas series, but ever since then he’s just been #9 wearing a powder blue jersey.   And for crying out loud, can Jeff Cowan actually try and hit the net and stop looking for women’s panties to hit the ice?  Thank you.

Put simply, the Canuckleheads can’t dilly dally around like they did against Dallas – they won’t be given the opportunity to.  The first round lasted for what seemed like 9 games, and this will play right into the well rested wings of the Ducks.  I say it’ll be a fowl Western Conference final with Anaheim and Detroit.  One way or another, Southern California will be represented.  How do you like them apples?

Prediction: Ducks in 5

So there you have it - the second round broken down.  Before I close this edition, just want to send a shout out, a good night and good luck to Scott Mellanby, who has announced his retirement after 21 NHL seasons.  Forever remembered as the pioneer of "rat fever" in Florida in 1996, chances are we'll be seeing him on Hockey Night In Canada someday.  He's the son of former executive producer Ralph Mellanby.

Well, we’ve had but a day’s rest between rounds, and now it’s time to crank up the air conditioning, light the BBQ and get ready for more insanity on ice.  Make sure you don’t miss a minute of the action, and meet me back here for Round 3, when things will really start heating up.  And don’t forget, if you can’t get near a TV set, my daily (sometimes hourly) blog will keep you abreast of what’s happening, with barn burner alerts as they happen.  The link is where it always is on the left side.

Booyah, here we go!

 

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