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Thursday, May 8, 2008

Conferece Finals Predictions

The conference finals are upon us and we're left with 2 teams everyone expected to see and 2 teams that are raising eyebrows.

Most people expected the Red Wings and Penguins to reach the conference finals, while the Stars and Flyers were question marks to get this far.

I didn't expect to see either the Stars or Flyers make it this far. Philly has completely surprised me after how poorly they played with all the injuries they had. They had to fight just to make it into the playoffs and would have been the 8-seed had they not beaten Pittsburgh on the final day of the regular season to jump up to 6th.

The Dallas Stars were my post-trade deadline favorites to come out of the West after landing Brad Richards. Then they were one of the worst teams down the stretch and turned it on against the Ducks and Sharks and now sit one step away from the Stanley Cup Finals.

Let's do this shall we?

Let's start in the East.

Eastern Conference Finals

#2 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. #6 Philadelphia Flyers

Well I said before the playoffs started that I was glad we didn't draw the Flyers in the first round because we finished the regular season with two games against them, which would have potentially set up for nine straight games against the same team. I don't care who you are, neither team would have made it out of the second round after playing nine straight games against each other in one of the most heated rivalries in all of hockey.

The Flyers do not get enough credit for how fast they are. When people think of the Flyers one of the first things that comes to mind is, dirty. Yes, they had a ton of suspensions this year and were even warned by the league office about it. Fine. That's never going to change while Bobby Clarke has anything to say about it.

They play a physical style that not many teams can compete with, but guys like Jeff Carter, Daniel Briere, Mike Richards and even R.J. Umberger can all skate pretty well. Umberger has been unbelievable during these playoffs and likes to play against his hometown Penguins.

Another big reason why the Flyers are in the conference finals is the play of goaltender Martin Biron. I can remember watching a couple games of the last series with Montreal and how Biron singlehandedly stole two games by standing on his head.

The big question mark for Philly is can they contain the big three from Pittsburgh in Marian Hossa, Evgeni Malkin and of course Sidney Crosby.

The Canadiens and Penguins are very similar. Both like to get out and skate and have exceptionally skilled players on offense. The biggest difference between the two teams is that the Penguins have Marc-Andre Fleury and not Carey Price.

I said before the playoffs even started that Price would be the reason the Habs would lose if they indeed did get knocked out. I'd like to see anyone try and argue with me that Price wasn't the reason the Habs lost in that series. Price got yanked twice, benched once and shelled in Game 5. He's going to be a great goalie in this league for many years to come and the lessons he learned from being abused in this series will go a long way. Have faith Montreal.

Now I'm not saying Fleury has a ton more experience than Price, but he's been in the league much longer and at least got a taste of playoff hockey last year so he knows what to expect. That experience alone and probably giving up his trademark yellow pads and gloves have carried the Penguins so far. With a 7-1 record with a 1.76 GAA and .936 save percentage are a big reason why the Flyers need to be concerned.

Montreal showed that Biron was capable of giving up goals and the Penguins have shown that they can win shootouts and tight games. Just look at the series against the Rangers as proof.

The Penguins defense has been unbelievable down the stretch and into the playoffs as well as the penalty kill. I hate to admit this, but the addition of Hal Gill has been a big (no pun intended) reason for this.

Two quick danger notes.

For the Penguins, watch out when Gill and Rob Scuderi are on the ice together. Both are great defensive defensemen who love to block shots. The problem is that they aren't exactly fast skaters. The Flyers could exploit this and force Michel Therrien to change it up a little.

For the Flyers, one of their best defensemen is most likely out for the playoffs after blood clots were discovered in his left foot. This is a HUGE loss for the Flyers. If there was one position besides in net that they could not afford to lose someone, it would be on defense.

Bottom Line This is going to get nasty and very quick. This could very well come down to who can keep their emotions in check. Special teams will be huge and the Penguins have the edge. Pittsburgh's PP is 4th in the playoffs clicking at 23.4%, while Philly is clicking at 24%.

The difference is that Philly is the most penalized team in the playoffs and has been shorthanded 57 times whereas Pittsburgh has only been shorthanded 38 and has killed off nearly 90% of them.

Penguins win in 6.

Western Conference

#1 Detroit Red Wings vs. #5 Dallas Stars

Can we say a classic battle of offense against defense? Let's throw another cliche out there. Defense wins championships.

I'm not saying that Detroit can't play defense, but their offense has been the story so far in these playoffs, especially Johan Franzen who has 15 goals in the playoffs including Game 1 against the Stars. (Yes, I'm aware this is a little late being posted, but if you knew the week I had, you'd understand.)

Marty Turco has been a big reason that one of the best defensive teams in the West has made it this far. They took out two of the most dominant teams in the conference in San Jose and Anaheim. I'm shocked really.

Brendan Morrow has been fantastic in these playoffs including ending the best game of the playoffs so far in Game 6 against San Jose to send the Stars into the finals. This team is coming together at just the right time and living up to the potential they have on paper to be one of the most suffocating teams in the entire league.

Detroit on the other hand, has cruised through the playoffs so far. The main reason for this is because they haven't played a team that has been able to force the issue and force them to skate.

Nashville did it for two games on home ice and won both. The problem was that their goaltending was suspect the rest of the time and Detroit pounced. The Stars might not have enough speed to be able to exploit this weakness, but if you look ahead to the Stanley Cup Finals, you can see where I'm going with this.

What the Stars should be able to do is clog up the ice and keep Detroit to the outsides and capitalize on turnovers. I still don't trust Chris Osgood and Dominik Hasek with their AARP card memberships in the mail. Yes, Ozzie has played well so far while filling in for Hasek. I just don't trust his body holding up.

Bottom Line: If Dallas can stay out of the box and play the way they have against a high powered Anaheim team, they can pull off the upset here. Seriously. Marty Turco is finally playing like a playoff goalie coming off last season's great seven game series with the Canucks. That was not his fault at all, but he seems to have learned how to win in the playoffs. If the Stars align, it could be onto the Stanley Cup Finals.

Stars win in 7.

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