WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

2009 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF PREVIEW

ROUND 3 - CONFERENCE FINALS

 

Well, how do you like hockey now?  At one point I was predicting all of the series perfectly fine, then real life got in the way.  I almost had Pittsburgh in 6, then David Steckel had other ideas.  It’s just too bad the rest of his Washington team didn’t.  I almost had Boston in 7 – then the most ironic thing happened – Scott Walker, a player much maligned in Boston because of a particular incident with Aaron Ward, ended up adding insult to injury late in the first overtime period.  Thankfully, the other two series ended the way I predicted, or else my credibility may have been seriously in question.  As it worked out, I got 3 of the 4 winners correct, and the right number of games, also in 3 out of 4.  Not bad at all.

They said it would take a few years for the new parity and rule changes (or the enforcing of them) to make for some close games and ultimately, close playoff series.  Can you honestly at this point argue against any of the four teams and their chances to win it all?

Well, since my job is to pick the winners, here we go.  I make absolutely no guarantees, though, and don’t say I didn’t warn you.  All I know is if the rest of the playoffs are as good as they’ve been so far, we’re in for a real treat.

 

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Pittsburgh Penguins vs Carolina Hurricanes

Last round we had Crosby vs Ovechkin.  Now we have Kane vs Abel – or in hockey terms, Jordan vs Eric – Staal, that is.  Both have been to the finals before.  Only one has won it all.  Now it’s a fight to decide who gets the right to challenge again for the silver hardware.  So what do you do if you’re the parents?  Easy - Stay home.

Yes, it’s true, the Staal parents are staying put in Thunder Bay while this series unfolds, and depending on what happens, maybe a good idea.  I just hope they are able to watch the games on their big ranch they showcased in the NHL.com TV ad earlier this year, rather than, as we saw, make their own highlights.

Certainly, older Eric has had the lion’s share of highlights during the playoffs.  The Carolina Hurricanes have had such a great playoff record since moving from Hartford, it’s almost uncanny nobody saw them coming.  Certainly New Jersey didn’t.  Boston definitely didn’t.  Most importantly, neither did I.  But now, the stats are just ridiculous – if Eric scores, the Hurricanes win.  If Scott Walker instigates a fight and his partner doesn’t reciprocate, he will burn you in OT?  Apparently.  Let’s be quite frank here – there are legions of Boston Bruins fans who will feel ripped off over what happened in Game 7, but the fact of the matter remains, both teams played their hearts out.  Boston laid it all on the line, and so did Carolina.  Good old time hockey.  Now, we have another series which should follow suit.

Why I’m picking Carolina to win: Notice something – I’m refraining from saying “Why (insert team here) should win”.  It’s a lot more complicated – I really don’t know who “should” win at this point.  If you look at the matchups on paper, Carolina should not win.  The reason the “Cardiac Canes” are here is because they’ve managed to execute their game to perfection, probably better than any team still skating.  It got them to the Cup final in 2002, it won them the Stanley Cup in 2006 (which has haunted my dreams ever since), and could very well win them another in 2009, or at least, as far as I can tell, should get them back to the finals.  Cam Ward – is there another goalie with a better chance of being the starter in Vancouver at the 2010 Winter Olympics?  Even if the puck stops here for Carolina, he has to be strongly considered given the way he has played.  I already mentioned the ridiculous stat when Eric Staal gets on the scoreboard – the team wins. And has there been a more clutch player in the playoffs than Jussi Jokinen?  It seems Calgary got the wrong Jokinen at the deadline, because Jussi has been outstanding.  They no longer have Aaron Ward on defense, but they still have a pretty good blue line.  Joni Pitkanen has put up a lot of minutes.  Dennis Seidenberg has not only produced, he has thrown his body around.  Joe Corvo continues to be a calming presence.  Rod Brind’Amour continues to be one of the best face off men in the game.  Two more X factors for you – Chad LaRose and Sergei Samsonov.  While, it’s going to take more than puck in the face to keep Rod from playing at this time of year, if you don’t have guys to actually move the puck once you win the face off, you’re going nowhere.  Luckily, Samsonov and LaRose both know what to do when the puck is on their stick.  This Carolina team right now just has that karma about them, they can do no wrong.  I see no reason why this can’t continue, even against an explosive and experienced Pittsburgh team.  Both teams are pretty even on the experience front as far as I’m concerned.

How can Pittsburgh get back in the finals?: Continue to execute their game to perfection, but get everybody on board.  So far, Eric is leading brother Jordan in every category.  While Jordan has started to pick it up of late, he will need to produce as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin will be the center of attention.  I have to wonder just how healthy Sergei Gonchar really is after taking the hit from Ovechkin in the last series.  This series is going to concentrate more on who is up front – for the most part, both teams have no name defenses – Kris Letang, Brooks Orpik and Rob Scuderi are hardly household names.  Toronto and Boston fans know Hal Gill, and Dallas fans will remember Phillipe Boucher, but they are not in the same caliber as some of the names we’ll talk about in the West.  In net, Marc Andre Fleury has to be better, period.  Cam Ward and the rest of the Hurricanes will rip him apart if he keeps letting in the soft goals from the bad angles.  If you look at some of the timely and weird goals the Hurricanes have scored, and how well their goaltender has been when under attack, you have to wonder why this series won’t be done in 4 (they almost had the Bruins in 5 with Tim Thomas in goal).  And quite frankly, if the Penguins don’t tighten up on defense and if Fleury doesn’t play the series of his life, it may very well be.  Most importantly, stay disciplined.  Carolina has been very good on the power play.  Of course, one has to think if Pittsburgh can use their home ice to their advantage it will pay dividends.

I like the fact Pittsburgh was there last year, but I just have this feeling Carolina is hungrier to get back there.  Given how they’ve gone about business so far, is anybody but them going to prove me wrong?

Prediction: Hurricanes in 7 

 

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Detroit Red Wings vs Chicago Blackhawks

The Outdoor Classic moves indoors.  They thought it was ridiculous for me to suggest on January 1st these two might meet for the Conference title.  Well, how do you like me now?  No two teams in the West played more consistently all season, except maybe for San Jose and Anaheim, and we all know what happened to them in the end.

Is anybody getting the feeling Detroit is just running out of gas?  Sure, they grinded out the last series and last game to the dying minutes, like I thought they would, but don’t forget, one of the games went to triple overtime!  While it’s true experience wins championships, has any team played more hockey than the Detroit Red Wings over the last five years?  Yet, they still keep getting it done in a Salary Cap marketplace.  The experience may speak for itself, but I just wonder what will happen if and when they face a little adversity, like being down more than a game in the series.

Why I’m picking Chicago to win: I like their youth, I like their speed, and I like the veteran leadership they have.  Nikolai Khabibulin has been a much better and more consistent goalie than Chris Osgood in my opinion, if we perhaps take away Game 7 of the Detroit-Anaheim series.  I just get the sense Osgood has not been truly tested.  I mean, the Blackhawks just beat Roberto Luongo for heaven’s sakes!  Roberto freaking Luongo, who up until this season was probably up there for Team Canada consideration.  Now everybody’s talking about Cam Ward.  Here’s the scary part for me – Patrick Kane is the only player to score a hat trick in this year’s playoffs, and it was during a clinching game.  Jonathan Toews has been consistent, but he hasn’t had a game like Kane’s Game 6 versus Vancouver where he just explodes.  But Chicago has secondary scoring too, in Dustin Byfuglien and Kris Versteeg, not to mention Martin Havlat.  Speaking of Team Canada – after the performance of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook so far, how do you not name them to the team?  And as if they haven’t been good enough, how good has Brian Campbell been, not to mention Cam Barker?  Keith and Seabrook have been up against their opponent’s top players – Iginla and Jokinen during the Calgary series, and the Sedin twins during the Vancouver series.  I know I said I wasn't betting against the defending champs until they get knocked off - well, I lied.  I actually think Chicago could be the team to do it.  It's been a great run for Detroit, but I feel the younger team will prevail here.  Plus, I can't get that damn Fratellis "Chelsea Dagger" song out of my head.  Really, haven't Chicago fans suffered long enough?  What can I tell you, it gives me goose bumps to see them having a good time again.  It certainly has been a long time coming.

So how on earth does Detroit overcome Chicago and get back the finals?: First of all, shake off the fatigue factor of Game 7.  Get Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg on the score sheet.  Neither one of these two have been close to their production of last year’s Stanley Cup run.  To use an old cliché, your best players have to be your best players.  While it’s been true for Chicago, for Detroit it’s been overshadowed by the heroics of Johan Franzen and Marian Hossa.  Chris Osgood has silenced the critics so far, but he needs more performances like his Game 7 against Anaheim if the Red Wings are going to keep Chicago at bay.  At some point, I just wonder how the older and more tired legs of Detroit are going to compete against the young and determined legs of Chicago.  We saw during the Outdoor Classic how the Red Wings were able to neutralize the speed and force the issue, which caused the Blackhawks to take penalties.  How many times do you think Joel Quenneville has used footage from that game in coaching sessions?

All I know is, no matter who wins, this series is going to be a blast.  I know Detroit is putting on their brave game faces, but I really think they are going to have their hands full here.

Prediction: Blackhawks in 6

And this is how I see it – it’s why they’re called predictions – so may the best team win, and let there be hockey!

 

WHO IS THIS GUY? – PLAYOFF EDITION

By now, we all know Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, but who is the guy with the funny name – Dustin Byfuglien (pronounced BUHF-lihn), native of Minneapolis, Minnesota, Chicago’s 8th round draft pick in 2003, 245th overall.  Who is this big guy who parks himself in front of the net every chance he gets, since when do big guys score in the NHL?  Who does he think he is, Ryan Smyth?

Believe it or not, he started out his hockey career and was drafted as a defenseman, but has quickly graduated to right wing, and for good reason – he can get into the dirty areas of the ice and cause problems for the opposition, but still look after his own end as well.  A veteran of the WHL’s Brandon Wheat Kings and Prince George Cougars, as a member of the Norfolk Admirals, he was named to the AHL’s second all star team in 2007.  He was called up to the Blackhawks on November 3, 2007, after scoring 7 points in 8 games with the Rockford Icehogs.  He has called Chicago home ever since thanks to his big body presence and soft hands around the net.  Of course, it didn’t hurt to get a goal his first shift against the St. Louis Blues, and his first career hat trick versus the Phoenix Coyotes on November 30, 2007.

The longer the Chicago Blackhawks remain in the playoffs, the more of a household name Dustin is becoming.  I mean, if the goalie can’t see the puck, he can’t very well be expected to stop it, can he?

Dustin Byfuglien – another gem from the lower doldrums of the draft.

 

ALONG THE BOARDS

One of our local sportscasters on Sportsnet in Ottawa, Ian Mendes, has just written his own blog about how he doesn’t want a Chicago-Carolina final – he goes so far as to pray to the hockey Gods, begging them to not let it happen – but then he goes on to talk about how Scott Walker has joined an exclusive Game 7 overtime winning goal club with the likes of Russ Courtnall, Stephane Matteau, and, David Volek?  With all due respect to Mr. Mendes, and I do enjoy reading his blog, I really do, but am I to consider this a good enough reason why we shouldn’t have two rosters Team Canada will be doing a lot of scouting of over the coming months showcased on the biggest hockey stage there is?  Myself – I say bring it on!  Everybody loves an underdog, don’t they?  Everybody loves to see the proverbial best get beaten, don’t they?  I mean, isn’t this why Mendes covers the Senators in the first place?  It’s been twenty five years since two teams faced each other in the final two years in a row, why on earth should Pittsburgh play Detroit again?

 

Now, if you thought Sean Avery taking a summer job at Vogue was a great story, I think this one may have topped it.  As most who follow hockey know, our old friend Patrick Roy has a son, Jonathan Roy, who has also pursued a hockey career of his own.  Well, evidently things haven’t gone as well as they did for his father (I mean, who knew the Habs don’t draft French players anymore?).  Roy has released a Pop album, and has been more or less dubbed “The King Of Pop” by the Quebec Scope, a free Francophone entertainment publication.  On a recent cover of the magazine, a nice play on words “Le Nouveau Roy De La Pop”.  OK, first of all – you can’t be the self proclaimed king of pop when there is already one (Michael Jackson has held the title for years, even after all of the adversity he faced).  You definitely can’t call yourself a king when nobody outside of your province has even heard you – unless of course, you’ve been on You Tube lately and happened to come across this clip:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eXjdWX8NI-o&feature=related

I don’t know, I didn’t think Jonathan was too bad of a player, when he wasn’t beating up goalies.  Don’t look for a Juno nomination anytime soon, this much I know for sure.  Puckin’ Around, where you never know what I’m going to uncover in the hockey world, do you? (or my co-webmaster for that matter, who actually translated the story for me).

 

If you looked up the phrase “won’t take no for an answer” in your favorite English textbook, you’re bound to see a picture of Jim Balsillie in future editions.  The Blackberry mogul who previously tried to aggressively go after the Pittsburgh Penguins and Nashville Predators is now looking to buy the Phoenix Coyotes out of bankruptcy, or whatever they are, and move them to Southern Ontario.  And he has the money, sponsorship and desire to back it up.  Of course, the very fact the Coyotes are in bankruptcy court to begin with has sent shockwaves through the NHL, and for all intents and purposes, league brass is not amused.  Well, this whole situation will get its day in court next week, merely to decide who actually controls the team, the NHL or majority owner Jerry Moyes.  Now, should the courts rule Moyes is in control of the team and not the NHL, then obviously he’d be free to sell the team to Balsillie, who would then have to be approved by the 29 other NHL owners and the NHL board of directors before the team goes anywhere.  While he hasn’t come right out and said it, Gary Bettman has made it more than evident of his distaste for Balsillie’s aggressive behavior, testifying on court documents he’d rather see the team move back to Winnipeg before Hamilton.  This, of course, has done everything to bring excitement to one of my favorite hockey sites out there:

http://www.jetsowner.com

I worry about the precedent something like this will set, and I’m certainly not the first to bring this up, and I won’t be the last.  If the courts rule Moyes is still the legal owner of the team and not the NHL, as they are arguing, then with such a ruling would have every right to file for Chapter 11, and subsequently sell/relocate the team.  If this precedent gets set, what is going to stop owners in Nashville, Atlanta, Florida, or anywhere else a team falls on tough financial times?  Even NY Islanders majority owner Charles Wang was recently quoted as saying he regrets buying the team (that damn Alexei Yashin, eh?).  As Gary Bettman has stated repeatedly, relocation of a team should be a last resort, even though four teams have relocated during his tenure.  I will say this, though, if Bettman is to have his way, and he claims he doesn’t have a vote, but last time I checked he is still the commissioner of the league – if Bettman has his way, Balsillie will never be involved in the NHL in any way shape or form, no matter how much money he throws on the ice.  Furthermore, if this is allowed to happen on Bettman's watch, then what?  What about all he has worked so hard to build?  A team failed in the salary cap era?  No way, can't be!  In any event, I know in a short period of time, Balsillie has managed to generate a lot of excitement in Canada.  Probably it will turn out to be unwarranted, because what the folks in Hamilton and Winnipeg and even our own Prime Minister doesn’t seem to realize is the NHL is an exclusive club.  You do not and cannot buy your way into it.  But here’s the flipside of this argument, and what my deepest fear is over this whole thing – if Balsillie does get his way and if the precedent is set for team owners to throw in the towel at will, what is going to stop a mass flea market of teams for sale? – and will it become the beginning of the end of the NHL, and do we end up with a new league altogether in 5-10 years?  And I’m not only talking about the Nashvilles, Atlantas and Floridas of the world.  What about storied teams like Montreal, who are currently for sale, Toronto, who for years have been trying to get a second team?  And, ultimately, what would such a move mean for teams who just a few short years ago were also on the verge of bankruptcy?  Will we finally get a team in Las Vegas?  No matter what happens, you can be sure you have not heard the end of this story.  I will give you an update next round.

 

Also next round, we’ll go over the nominations for the NHL Awards and look at some of the players eligible for the draft near the end of June, not to mention the end all be all, the final playoff series of this hockey season.

For now, enjoy the games (and don’t forget, I blog during or after all of them)!  I know I will.

 

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