The NHL Conference finals begin a little later today with the Western Conference kicking things off at 3pm EST. While I really thought this was Vancouver’s year to shine, I’m not entirely shocked that the Blackhawks were able to handle them, even after getting devastated in the opening game of the series. It’s that predictable One seed versus the number Two seed matchup. No odd defying here, the best two from the West’s regular season are going head to head to play for Lord Stanley’s cup. What is crazy, however, is the East. Almost every analyst had it either being Washington or Pittsburgh to represent the East when the playoffs started. The upstart Montreal Canadians came along and destroyed everyones predictions. Since the playoff format was change in 1994 no 8 seed in the East(and only one in the West) has ever made it to a conference final. The only thing crazier is that the team with home ice advantage in the East is the 7th seed! That’s right, two teams who made the playoffs in the very last couple of games of the season are now playing for the honor of representing the Eastern conference and a shot at winning it all. The Flyers had an easier road of it, but getting this far is still pretty impressive, especially since Boston had them on the ropes and the clawed their way back to get the winning goal with under 8 minutes remaining in Game 7 of the series. So here we are, the Conference picks.
Philadelphia Flyers vs. Montreal Canadians
Here is a matchup no one would have even dreamed up. It’s like the East slipped in to some parallel universe. The bottom seeds have defied all odds and are now lacing up to do battle tonight. Throw all common hockey sense right out the window because the normal rules have ceased to apply. Jaroslav Halak has kept Montreal in every game this playoff year. He has risen to the occasion and really has become quite the Cinderella story in his own right. Camalleri has also been big, becoming the most prolific scorer in these playoffs. While its not surprising that he’s been a solid player, it is shocking that he’s the best of the best in scoring in the 2010 playoffs. He has been huge for Montreal and has given them the spark that makes them believe night after night. For the Flyers Boucher has been the story right up until getting hurt in game 6. He had been playing larger than life, like Halak coming alive for the playoffs. Now an injury has sidelined him for the remainder of Philly’s cup run. Michael Leighton came in and played solid games 6 and 7, Philly never missed a beat. Chris Pronger has continued his superb veteran play, leading this team by example, finishing every check and clearing everyone out of the crease. Briere played a great series against the Bruins, having 10 points over the 7 games and is looking to keep his hot streak going against the Canadians. This is one of the toughest contests to call as the two teams both finished with 88 points, and split their regular season series. While the Canadians get the edge in goaltending, their defense is weakened by the loss of all-star Andrei Markov. The Flyers certainly have the better veteran defensive core, but when it comes to offense the two teams are fairly evenly matched. At the end of the day I say watch Halak to stand on his head, Cammaleri to get that big game winner in the closing moments, and Montreal moving on to have a chance to win their 25th Stanley Cup.
San Jose Sharks v. Chicago Blackhawks
Offense. Offense. And, well offense. Speed kills and both of these teams are loaded with fast playing forwards who can turn a bad pass in to a 3 on 1 break in the blink of an eye. Jonathan Toews almost single handedly dismantled the Vancouver blueliners. With 12 points in that series he comes in to this series red hot. Patrick Kane, still hasn’t had the big performance people have been waiting for, but if he is going to come out and show what he is capable of, this series is the time to do it. The Sharks look to Joe Pavelski to light the lamp and make Huet’s job a tough one. Add to that Joe Thorton finishing up the Vancouver series on a streak of his own and you have some dangerous players with wonderful scoring touches. San Jose is going to look for Dan Boyle to pick up his defensive play, and also his special teams scoring ability. He hasn’t been bad in the playoffs, but he hasn’t been himself. They are certainly going to expect him to elevate his game if they want to continue their post season run. Nabakov has shaken off the monkey that has continually plagued him in post-season play. He’s been there when the Sharks needed him, and he’s made very few of the mistakes that led to some early exits in previous playoffs. He has the experience in net and the Sharks will need him to be solid. For the Blackhawks their goaltending situation isn’t as solid. Niemi came in the playoffs as the guy in net, but after some rather sloppy play Huet found himself in the starting role and he has run with it. He was in net in all four meetings against the Sharks during the regular season, which the Blackhakws led 3-1. He certainly feels comfortable facing them in this series. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are going to have to continue their dominating blueline play. They did a good job keeping the Sedin twins quiet and now they are going to be tasked with shutting down the 3rd best regular season offense. In an offensive showdown it generally comes down to which goaltender has the gusto. I’ve, over the years, had little to no faith in Huet’s ability to carry a team, but after his performance against Vancouver its hard to say he doesn’t have the goods. This is going to be a high scoring series that’s not going to look good on a goaltenders stat sheet, and considering Nabakov’s past of losing his cool when they go down quick I’m going to lean slightly in favor of the Hawks and say that they will do the Original Six proud by marching on to the Stanley Cup finals.