Conference Finals: Surprises in the East, chalk in the West
By Dan Di Sciullo NHL Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
There is something pleasantly symmetrical about the way the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs are shaping up.
In the West, we have a matchup up between the No. 1 and 2 seeds, while in the East it's just the opposite, with the bottom two seeds from that conference battling for a right to play in the Stanley Cup Finals.
As a result, this year's conference finals really leaves the hockey viewing public with the best of both worlds. If you like underdogs, the seventh-seeded Philadelphia Flyers against the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens is your series. If a star-studded battle between powerhouse clubs is more your speed, then one is free to concentrate on the matchup between top-seeded San Jose and No. 2 Chicago.
Whatever your tastes, the contrast between the storylines should make for an interesting conference final round.
EASTERN CONFERENCE FINALS
(7) Philadelphia Flyers vs. (8) Montreal Canadiens
The Flyers and Canadiens matchup is the more intriguing matchup from a historical standpoint. This is the first time since the NHL adopted the current playoff format in 1994 that the bottom two seeds from the East or the West are meeting in the conference finals.
It's not surprising that both the Flyers and Habs had plenty of obstacles in their path en route to reaching this stage. After all, both clubs didn't even know they were in the playoffs until the completion of their final games of the regular season.
The Canadiens and Flyers have already exceeded the low expectations set for them.
Montreal then had to beat top-seeded Washington, the Presidents' Trophy winners, in Round 1 and came back from a 3-1 series deficit to pull off the upset. The Canadiens followed with another seven-game series victory in the conference semifinals against Pittsburgh, last year's Stanley Cup champions and winner of the last two Eastern Conference titles.
Meanwhile, the Flyers had a relatively easy first round, beating second-seeded New Jersey in five games, but the second round was another story altogether. Philadelphia lost the first three games against Boston in Round 2, but then carved out a piece of history by becoming just the third NHL team to ever win a series after being down 3-0. And, mot only did the Flyers come back from down 3-0 in the series, but they also trailed 3-0 in the first period of Game 7 before charging back for a 4-3 victory in front of a stunned crowd at Boston's TD Garden.
All that makes this a difficult series to gauge, considering that for most of the 2009-10 season when thinking about the contenders for the Eastern Conference title it was unlikely that either the Flyers or Canadiens were to be included in that conversation. Ample time was spent this year discussing what was wrong with both of the Eastern Conference finalists, that at this point, it's become hard to see what the Flyers and Habs are doing right.
Both teams will be playing with nothing to lose in this series, having already exceeded the low expectations set for them. Expect to see a pair of teams leaving it all out on the ice in what should be a closely contested and entertaining series.
Montreal has the edge in goal with the red-hot Jaroslav Halak getting the nod over Philadelphia's Michael Leighton, who has reclaimed the starting job after Brian Boucher's injury in the Boston series. The Habs also boast a deeper defense, despite the presence of star rearguards Chris Pronger and Kimmo Timonen on the Flyers blueline.
On the other hand, Philly has a more-balanced offensive attack, while the Canadiens received nearly half their goals in this postseason from just two players, Michael Cammalleri and Brian Gionta.
Despite being the last seed in the East, the Habs have to be favored in this series after knocking off No. 1 Washington and the defending Stanley Cup champions in the first two rounds.
Canadiens in seven
WESTERN CONFERENCE FINALS
(1) San Jose Sharks vs. (2) Chicago Blackhawks
After collapsing under the pressure of lofty playoff expectations in recent years, the San Jose Sharks have finally turned in a postseason run that seems worthy of all their regular-season success.
Six years ago, the Sharks made it to the 2004 Western Conference finals before losing in six games to the Calgary Flames. Since then, San Jose has averaged nearly 109 points per season, only to bow out in the second round or earlier every postseason until the current playoff tournament.
After ousting Colorado in six games, San Jose made a huge statement by defeating the fifth-seeded Detroit Red Wings. Despite the Sharks' higher- seeding, the Red Wings, who came into the playoffs as the two-time defending conference champions, were understandably being picked by many to take that series.
Instead, the Sharks ousted the Wings in five games, with the lone hiccup coming in a 7-1 blowout loss in Detroit, but that was in Game 4, after San Jose had already grabbed a commanding 3-0 series lead.
The best sign for San Jose in Round 2 was the play of the team's top line of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley, who were able to dominate the Red Wings in the conference semifinals. This was especially true of the centerman Thornton, who had just three assists against the Avalanche, but rebounded with three goals and five assists in the Detroit series.
While the Sharks have exorcised some playoff demons in reaching this stage, the ever-improving Blackhawks are back in the conference finals for the second straight year.
Last spring, Chicago made its first playoff appearance in seven years and made it to the West finals before losing in five games to Detroit. This year, the young Blackhawks are a year older and figure to have a better shot at reaching the Cup Finals for the first time since 1992.
Chicago enters the West finals after winning each of its series so far in six games, beating Nashville in Round 1 and ousting Vancouver in the conference semifinals.
One of the primary strengths of Chicago is the club's ability to get scoring from all over its roster. The Blackhawks have four players with double-digit point totals during the 12 games in this postseason and 14 different skaters have scored at least one goal for Joel Quenneville's club.
Chicago's top line may not be as heralded as San Jose's trio of Thornton, Heatley and Marleau, but Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Dustin Byfuglien still make up one of the league's most-feared units. In fact, Toews is leading all NHL players this postseason with 20 points.
While the Sharks boast considerable depth on offense and defense, the Blackhawks have an even sturdier roster that makes them extremely difficult to play against on both ends of the ice.
San Jose is more equipped at the back end to handle Chicago's forwards than Vancouver was, but the Blackhawks will still generate more than enough scoring chances.
The Sharks seem to have an edge in goal with Evgeni Nabokov, but as long as Blackhawks netminder Antti Niemi doesn't fall flat on his face, Chicago will be able to make up for that disparity.