Thursday, May 28, 2009

2009 Stanley Cup Finals Preview

Detroit Red Wings (2) vs Pittsburgh Penguins (4)

Here we go again! The 2008 Stanley Cup Finals were so exciting we figured we'd do it all over again. Why not? Its good for ratings, good for the NHL, good for the fans... not so good for people like me that like BOTH teams, but whatever. I can endure a knotted up stomach and a painful headache for a couple weeks for the good of the game. With the way the NHL scheduled the games, the players will have to endure a lot more than what I'm going through. Despite both teams finishing off their conference finals opponents in quick fashion, both teams will be thrown right back into action this weekend with back to back games to boot. This bizarre scheduling could also affect the outcome of the series. Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar is playing with a bad knee and playing 3 games in 4 days at this stage in the season won't help. As for Detroit, they are currently without team captain and Norris Trophy candidate Nick Lidstrom as well as MVP and Selke candidate, Pavel Datsyuk. Both teams, Detroit especially, wouldn't mind having a few extra days to heal up, especially since both had a short offseason and are now here again.

Forwards: The Penguins have two of the best offensive forwards in the game today and they are both currently on fire. Their talent has sparked others and made them legitimate scoring threats as well. On the other side, Detroit has entire roster full of two way forwards led by the two best in the league, Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk. Under no circumstances can I see the Penguins having the edge in this category. While Pittsburgh's forwards mirror that of the 1980's Oilers, the Wings are built and play just like the 1970's Canadiens with the defensive forwards that can also score goals. Defense wins championships.

Defensemen: People will make the argument that Detroit's defense isn't as good as it was last year and that's true, its not, but that doesn't make it bad. As long as Nick Lidstrom is wearing the winged wheel, Detroit will have one of the top defenses in the league. The Wings second pairing of Kronwall and Stuart is better than most teams first pairings. The Penguins have a solid defense themselves, however each defenseman serves a specific role whereas Detroit's defensemen are more well rounded. Assuming Lidstrom comes back off his injury and isn't limited, the Wings win out here.

Goalies: Statistically, Chris Osgood has been the better goalie in these playoffs, however, I don't know if you'll find many people out there that would rather have Ozzie over Marc Andre Fleury. Fleury, all by himself, can steal a game which is one of the reasons why the Pens are so tough to beat. He does have his occasional lapse here and there and will give up a softie, but for the most part, Fleury is on his game and a tough playoff goalie to beat. Meanwhile, Chris Osgood has 3 Stanley Cups and still no respect. He's not the type of goalie to steal a game, but he is the type of goalie that won't cost your team a lot of money and does what is necessary to win games, year in, year out. He's not as flashy as Fleury, but he's just as effective. Still, I'm giving the advantage here to the Penguins.

For the Penguins to win this series: They need to harness all that emotion and hunger they have and use it in this series. The Pens are the younger, hungrier, healthier team and will want it badly. Guys like Talbot, Fedotenko, Satan, Kennedy, Staal, Kunitz, Guerin will all need to play at a higher level to overcome Detroit's depth advantage. If they can do that and Crosby and Malkin can continue to play at the high level they're at now, the Pens will win the series.

For the Red Wings to win this series: They need to be healthy. They won't beat the Penguins with 47 year old Chris Chelios playing defense. They need Lidstrom and Datsyuk. With these two in the lineup, Detroit will be able to nullify Crosby and Malkin, which would seriously cripple the Penguins ability to score goals. At that point, Detroit can use their superior depth to overwhelm Pittsburgh and win the series.

Prediction: With so many unknown factors going into this, its tough to say either way. If the Wings are healthy and Osgood doesn't have a meltdown, they'll take this series in 5 games. If they're not healthy, this will be a 6 or 7 games series and I think if it gets to that point, the Pens may have more in the tank to win it in the end, but really its a toss up. My official prediction is the Wings will get healthy and win back to back Cups.

The eliminated teams

Chicago Blackhawks - Ohhhhh those young Blackhawks. They came in ready to light the world on fire and instead got lit on fire by the defending champs. This Blackhawks team has a lot of good, young talent and will be in the playoff picture for years to come, but as far as the Western Conference Finals were concerned, they were taken to school. They didn't seem as desperate to win as the Wings. They didn't seem to go the extra mile. I read a quote from Patrick Kane saying that he's "here to score goals, not block shots". Its the playoffs, you do whatever is necessary to win. If it means sticking your face in front of a shot, you do it. This year's Hawks were compared to last year's Penguins by many, but this Chicago team is no where near as mature as the Pens.

While they have a bright distant future, they have a rocky near future. Chicago has over $12 mil tied up in two goalies, neither of which played well in the playoffs and $7 mil wrapped up in Brian Campbell who had a let down season and a forgettable playoffs. The Hawks have a lot of money invested in players that really aren't worth what they're being paid and with guys like Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews approaching new contracts, one has to wonder what lengths Chicago will go in order to free up money to keep those two under the salary cap. They will have some interesting decisions to make in the next couple off seasons.

Carolina Hurricanes - Wow! What can you say about the Canes? They upset the Devils and Bruins in back to back series, then play probably the worst round of hockey I've ever seen against the Penguins. After two energy draining 7 games series, the Canes just simply didn't have it for this round and at no point in this series did it look like it was coming back. Crosby and Malkin just did whatever they wanted and Cam Ward played like he was "unconscious" in goal. Eric Staal, who had been a beast for the first two rounds, registered just two points and finished with a -7 rating. The Canes were lucky to be where they were, plain and simple. This is a two man team. Staal and Ward and that's it. Ward was off his game big time and Staal, with no one to pass to, was just swarmed by the Penguins defense. First up in the off season, sign Ward to a long term deal. He was amazing up until the Conference Finals and if Carolina ever wants to even think about returning to the Finals, they need to have him signed long term. Second, give Eric Staal someone to pass to. The poor guy is out there, basically by himself. Give him a legitimate scoring threat and it would do wonders for this club. If neither one of those are done, they may as well change their colors to dark blue, green and gray and move back to Hartford.

Friday, May 15, 2009

2009 Western Conference Finals

Detroit Red Wings (2) vs Chicago Blackhawks (4)

And then there were two. The two left in the West are two teams that met each other many times back in the day when there was only six teams total. I'll be honest, I didn't expect the Hawks to make it this far. They're a young team that had zero playoff experience coming into the postseason. Now they're in the Conference Finals where they'll face a team with tons of playoff experience and lots of bling to go along with it. The Red Wings will be playing in their third straight conference finals while Chicago will be playing in their first since 1995 since they played the Wings. I believe the Wings faced their toughest opponent in Anaheim and should have an easier time against the inexperienced Blackhawks, but there is one wild card in this. The same wild card Detroit has in every round... Chris Osgood. Osgood played Chicago once this year and lost, while backup Ty Conklin owns a 4-1 record. If Ozzie struggles at all in this round, I wouldn't be surprised to see a switch. Prediction: The Wings have better depth in their forwards and on their defense plus they have the experience which is invaluable when you make it this far into the playoffs. It'll be a tough scrappy series, but the Wings will take it in 6 games.

The eliminated teams

Vancouver Canucks - Canucks goalie and team captain, Roberto Luongo made $7 million this year. Any chance they could get a refund? The Canucks most expensive player couldn't have played worse. In Game 1 he blew a 3-1 lead, only to be bailed out by his offense late in the third period. In Game 2, he was lit up for 5 goals and he was shaky the rest of the way. Nobody expected the Canucks to do anything this year, but nobody expected them to go out like this. If anything they were expected to lose because they couldn't score goals, not prevent them.

Where does Vancouver go from here? Well Sundin should retire. Both Sedin twins are UFA's this summer and Luongo is in the final year of his deal and will become a UFA next summer. This team is at an interesting crossroads and could re-invent themselves over the next couple years. They're a good team, but they're not exactly one player away from a championship. They're kind of in the middle of the road right now and don't appear to be moving forward and if you're not moving forward in the NHL, you're moving backwards.

Anaheim Ducks - You have to give credit where credit is due. I don't like the Ducks at all. They play a physical goon style brand of hockey which I think it absolute garbage. They have annoying players that make me want to jump over the glass and cross check them into oblivion. But, they beat the Presidents Trophy winning San Jose Sharks and pushed the defending Stanley Cup champion Red Wings to the brink in Game 7. No other team had a tougher task than the Ducks in this postseason and they stood up to the challenge, met it and fell just short. I can't stand the Ducks, but you have to respect them for how well they played in these playoffs.

Unfortunately for them, this may be the end of the road for this particular version of the Anaheim Ducks. Teemu Selanne and Scott Niederymayer may both retire and Chris Pronger is entering the final year of his contract. The good news though is that they shouldn't have a problem bouncing back. Ryan Getzlaf is one of the top 5 forwards in the NHL right now. Corey Perry just keeps getting better and better and will be a 40 goal scorer in this league soon. Bobby Ryan showed why he would've been the number one overall pick if Crosby wasn't in the same draft class as him. He has the potential to be the next big 50 goal scorer. Plus, let's not forget rookie goalie Jonas Hiller coming out of nowhere and stealing the number one job from JS Giguere. All of these players mentioned are 26 or younger. So while this version of the Ducks that won a Stanley Cup two years ago will fade away, Anaheim Ducks 2.0 looks to be just as good as the original.

2009 Eastern Conference Finals

Pittsburgh Penguins (4) vs Carolina Hurricanes (6)

So the only thing standing between the Penguins and their second consecutive trip to the Finals are the Cinderella Carolina Hurricanes. Wow, did things break in the Penguins favor or what? Instead of having to deal with New Jersey or Boston, they get to play the team that knocked both of those teams out. No disrespect to the Canes, but I'll take the old Hartford Whalers over the Bruins and Devils any day of the week. On paper, this should easily fall in favor of Pittsburgh, but everyone thought that in the first two rounds too and the Canes are still here. The play of goaltender Cam Ward is the key to this series. He was a major factor in each of the upset wins. If he can continue his strong play, we're in for another long series. If not, the Pens will roll over them and roll fast. Prediction: I picked against the Canes twice and was wrong both times obviously. Well, third times, a charm... Pens in 6.

The eliminated teams

Boston Bruins - This one is a head scratcher. How do you go from being so dominant one minute to losing Game 7 in your own building after making a HUGE comeback? This Bruins team was strong, it was playoff ready, it had a strong defense, a top notch goalie, forward depth and yet still snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. The B's can take away one thing from this though, a lot of their young players got some valuable playoff experience and you can never underestimate how important that is. Keep your heads up Bruin fans, you have a very bright future ahead of you.

Washington Capitals - While people are still debating on who's better, Ovechkin or Crosby, one thing is for sure, the Penguins still own the Caps in the playoffs. Their really wasn't a doubt in my mind as to how this was going to turn out. The Caps have Ovechkin, the Pens had Crosby. The Pens had Malkin, the Caps had... umm.. uhh.. you know that guy that looked like he was trying to break the plexiglass with the puck... Semin. The Penguins just simply had too many superstars, while the Caps have a bunch of guys that like to run their mouths (Semin), complain about their sticks (Mike Green) and whine about the pressure of having to play Game 7 at home (Bruce Boudreau).

After watching this series, I think Alexander Ovechkin is, without a doubt, the best player in the NHL. How could I possibly say that after he just lost to Crosby? This next sentence will clear everything up for you. Ovechkin scored 8 goals and picked up 6 assists against Marc Andre Fleury and the Penguins defense. Crosby scored 8 goals and picked up 5 assists against rookie goalie Simeon Varlamov and the Caps defense. Ovechkin, needless to say, had much tougher obstacles to overcome than Crosby. Not taking anything away from Crosby, but he had a much better team around him than Ovechkin who basically had no support from anyone but still managed to push this to a 7 game series. Without Ovechkin the Capitals are a lottery team. They have NOTHING beyond his line. They're basically just a bunch of warm bodies filling out uniforms. Varlamov may turn out to be a franchise goalie, then again he could be the next Jim Carey for them. Right now, they're a mess and really don't have a great team. They have one great player. If this franchise is able to give Ovechkin a supporting cast, they will be serious contenders for a Cup every year. Till then, its going to be Alexander the Great trying to cover up for all the Caps "great" gaping holes in their lineup.