While I certainly understand if you're not watching any more hockey this season given the Devils' first round loss to Carolina. However, I personally make a point of it to watch the rest of the playoffs. OK, maybe I miss a few games here and there; but I try to watch the later rounds as much as I can. The excitement on the ice is simply on another level and I have yet to disappointed as a hockey fan from what I've been seeing.
This Sunday begins the Eastern and Western Conference Finals and like in previous years, it'll likely be worth your time to watch them both. None of the teams in the Finals have had an easy second round, with Chicago being the lone team to avoid going to a Game 7 - they finished up in 6. You have all kinds of story lines: Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins asserting their way back to the ECFs; the Carolina Hurricanes clawing their way in long series to shock the upper seeds to get this far; the Detroit Red Wings proving once again why they are the class of the NHL; and the Chicago Blackhawks continuing their turnaround as a franchise with a deep playoff run.
So as essentially a neutral fan, I figure with the Conference Finals right around the corner, a preview may be in order. Only, this isn't going to focus on how each team can win their series. It's about how I think each team will lose in the third round. I could very well be wrong about these, but they are definite issues that can trip up a team and ruin their postseason.
EASTERN CONFERENCE FINALS
#4 Seed: Pittsburgh Penguins. SBN Blog: Pensburgh
Key to Defeat: Not Taking or Keeping Control of the Series When Possible
Canes fans, as evidenced at Canes Country, are taking a liking to the nickname "Cardiac Canes" due to the fact that the team has been shocking their opponents by taking advantage at the last possible opportunity. Recent examples include the last 80 seconds of Game 7 against the Devils and overtime in Game 7 against the Bruins. I would like to dispute this and offer a new term: the Zombiecanes.
Like a proper zombie, you really have to keep whacking at them to keep them at bay. And if you provide the opportunity to let them bite you, the next thing you know, you'll get overrun and likely bitten or mauled to death. OK, the Canes haven't killed anyone; but my point is that they were able to win against the Devils and Bruins because both teams made the ultimately fatal mistake of not putting them away when they had chances to do so.
Therefore, the Zombiecanes hung around all series, they didn't deter from their goal, they didn't get depressed on the ice and become doormats even when they coughed up 3-1 series lead against Boston. They eventually got chances and used them to, well, bury their opponents.
If the Penguins do the same and let Carolina hang around in a long series, I think it will be the cause of their undoing.
#6 Seed: Carolina Hurricanes. SBN Blog: Canes Country
Key to Defeat: Defending as if Cam Ward's Name was Cam Wall
This is a bit of an odd one for a "key to defeat." Cam Ward has played fantastic for the Carolina Hurricanes. A big reason why they were able to keep pace with New Jersey and stand up to Boston was that Ward was on fire. He has made big save after big save, bailing out his team's defensive shortcomings both at even strength and while shorthanded. Anything less and we're talking about how the New Jersey-Washington series went (all other results being equal). Ward has been great, so why shouldn't the Canes just keep banking on him?
In two words: Simeon Varlamov. The Capitals goaltender was on fire through the first round comeback against the Rangers and for most of the series against Pittsburgh. However, the Penguins eventually broke him down with rebounds, deflections, and a constant stream of shots. Their forwards figured out his tendencies while Varlamov's defense didn't have a true answer for Pittsburgh's attack. Oh, and did I mention that Pittsburgh features this player by the name of Sidney Crosby? He's been doing quite well as of late. If Evgeni Malkin catches fire along with Crosby, then the situation multiplies.
Essentially, I think the Canes will lose against Pittsburgh if their overall play is so reliant on Ward being successful. The Penguins broke one hot goalie, there's no reason they can't do it again.
WESTERN CONFERENCE FINALS
#2 Detroit Red Wings. SBN Blog: Winging it in Motown
Key to Defeat: Going to the Box, Feeling Shame Over and Over
It won't be the shame that will do in the Wings, but the simple fact of going to the penalty box over and over will. You know what their success rate on the penalty kill is so far in the 2009 NHL Playoffs? 72.5%! I am not kidding you! Out of 40 shorthanded chances, they have conceded 11 power play goals. OK, it's not the worst, only Columbus and Calgary have the dubious distinction of being worse than this. And Chicago can't boast either with the Hawks sitting at a 79.5% rate right now. No matter how you cut it though, that's just plain bad.
Detroit's opponents, the Chicago Blackhawks, are the only team with a higher success rate on the power play in this postseason at 29.6%. That's absolutely remarkable and this is a case where the equation on paper seems simple. Awful penalty kill plus opponent's excellent power play equals a whole lot of goals for the opponent.
If Detroit wants to react with retaliatory penalties and perform stupid decisions like lunging after a player has been burnt or clearing the puck over the glass or what have you, then I think Chicago will most likely make them pay - the price could very well be the series.
#4 Chicago Blackhawks SBN Blog: Second City Hockey
Key to Defeat: Relying on Nikolai Khabibulin in a Goalie's Duel
This is a sort of a turn on Carolina's key to defeat. For the Canes, if they continue to play as if Ward will continue be a superhero in net, they're playing a fool's game. For the Blackhawks, they can't play as if Khabibulin has to be a superhero period. Chicago cannot afford to have the series focus on being a goaltender's duel.
When you think of great goalies, Chris Osgood's name doesn't really come to mind. But he has 3 Stanley Cups for a reason and he's been good for Detroit in the 2009 NHL Playoffs. He currently has a 92.1 save percentage and a goals against average of 2.06. Khabibulin, on the other hand, has a goals against average of 2.73 and an ugly save percentage of 89.6%. Yes, Khabibulin also has a ring from when he was doing great in 2004 for Tampa Bay's Cup. But the Bulin Wall hasn't played anything like that so far this playoffs. Seriously, he's the only goaltender who has saved less than 90% of the shots he's faced! And he's going up against a team that has been averaging 40.3 shots per game. While Osgood may not be the "name," he has proven himself to be superior in this postseason.
If Chicago can't force the issue themselves and prevent this from coming down to Osgood vs. Khabibulin, then I think they will lose to Detroit.
Feel free to agree or disagree with these Keys to Defeat, or perhaps offer one of your own. The action all starts on Sunday afternoon with Chicago at Detroit on NBC, with Carolina at Pittsburgh later that night. Please follow along with both playoff series and keep these in the back of your mind as you see the play develops.