The Frozen Final Four

A wise man once said, "If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best."

Well, now that both number one seeds and one second-seeded team have been eliminated from the NHL playoffs, is this still the case?

The teams that do remain in the playoffs are the second-seeded Detroit Red Wing, the fourth-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins, the fourth-seeded Chicago Blackhawks, and the sixth-seeded Carolina Hurricanes. All of these teams rode different paths to get themselves into the playoffs.

The Carolina Hurricanes rode a series of upsets to get into the final four, knocking off two of the top three seeded teams in the east. Chicago used an "us against the world" mentality to sneak into the Western Conference Finals. Pittsburgh and Detroit both took care of business in their series, but Pittsburgh was challenged in both of their series wins, unlike the Red Wings, who weren't challenged until the second round.

Now that we are down to the Conference Finals, it is time once again to weed out the contenders from the pretenders. After the conclusion of these series, two teams will move on to fight for Lord Stanley, while the other two will be left scratching their heads. Will Carolina continued their Cinderella run to the Stanley Cup, or will they miss the ball? Can the young Chicago Blackhawks defy the odds once again? And will we see a rematch of last year's Stanley Cup matchup that pinned Pittsburgh against Detroit?

Let's look at the matchups:

#3 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. #6 Carolina Hurricanes

Sidney Crosby has already fought through a tough series against the Flyers and dethroned Alexander Ovechkin. Can he lead his team back to the Stanley Cup Finals?

After Carolina narrowly escaped with a victory in their round one series against the New Jersey Devils, it looked like the Hurricanes would run all over the number one seeded Bruins in their second round series. The Hurricanes lost game one 4-1, but won the next three games to take a 3-1 series lead. Just as it looked like Carolina would end the series, Boston woke up and won the next two games to force a Game 7. But to Carolina's credit, they didn't let the setback faze them and went on to beat the Bruins 3-2 in overtime in Game 7.

The Hurricanes have been the little team that could this postseason. Carolina didn't exactly breeze into the playoff,s but now thanks to solid goaltending and consistent scoring, they find themselves a series win away from making it back to the Stanley Cup Finals.

Pittsburgh's second round series against the Capitals may as well have been called the Sidney Crosby/Alexander Ovechkin series. Ovehckin finished with 14 points and Crosby finished with 13 as his team ousted the Capitals in seven. It was overall a solid series for Sidney Crosby, who also scored a hat trick in the series. Though it hasn't always been easy for the Penguins this postseason, they have battled their way to the final four.

Goaltending

Carolina — Cam Ward has a .927 save percentage in the playoffs with a goals against average of 2.22. He also has 2 shutouts. Ward's play has been one of the reasons the Hurricanes have been able to pull off consecutive upsets.

Pittsburgh — Marc-Andre Fleury hasn't been exceptional in the playoffs, but he has done enough to give his team a chance. In the playoffs, Fleury has a .901 save percentage and a 2.72 goal against average. He has no shutouts.

Advantage: Carolina

Defensemen

Carolina — Carolina's defense has helped generate two shutouts in the playoffs, and they held Boston's offense in check long enough to win the series. Joni Pitkanen has been impressive on defense, but has also made some clutch plays on offense, as well, with 7 points. Joseph Corvo, Tim Gleason, and Dennis Seidenberg have all been solid for Carolina.

Pittsburgh — Pittsburgh has no shutouts in the playoffs so far, but their defense has come up big when it matters, most recently the game seven victory against the Capitals. Pittsburgh did struggle in containing Washington's offense, but that is no easy feat for anyone.

Advantage: Carolina

Forwards

Carolina — Eric Staal has been the catalyst for the Hurricanes' offense. He has scored 9 goals and notched 9 assists so far. Another solid contributor for the Hurricanes has been Jussi Jokinen, who has notched 10 points and already made some clutch plays. Chad Larose has also been surprisingly good for Carolina.

Pittsburgh — While the Penguins may have lacked a little on the defensive side of things, the same can't be said on offense. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have been unbelievable scoring 21 and 19 points, respectively. Crosby, in particular, really emerged as a solid threat in the series against the Capitals as he helped lead the Penguins to a win. Besides Malkin and Crosby, Pittsburgh has used a consistent effort from other players.

Advantage: Pittsburgh

Overall

I really find this series hard to predict. Pittsburgh's struggles on defense could mean trouble for them in this series, but their offense has been equally impressive. While Carolina may be viewed as an underdog in this series, we have already learned it is foolish to count them out of any series. In order for Carolina to win, they will need Cam Ward to continue his dominant form and they will need to continue their aggressive play on offense. If Cam Ward is on his game, it could be hard for Pittsburgh to win. Where Pittsburgh may prosper in this series, unlike Boston and New Jersey, is the fact that they have recent experience. The team lost in the Stanley Cup Finals last year and they desperately want to get back. Pittsburgh won't take Carolina lightly, which should make for intense series.

Pick: Pittsburgh in 7

#2 Detroit Red Wings vs. #4 Chicago Blackhawks

In the Western Conference Finals, the student Chicago Blackhawks will face the teacher Detroit Red Wings. Can the young 'Hawks hope to tame the Red Wings in a situation they're all too familiar with?

Many thought the Blackhawks would lose to the Calgary Flames. An equal amount though they would perish at the hands of the Vancouver Canucks. So what did the Blackhawks do? They beat both. Chicago seemed to harness the doubts they faced into motivation that guided them to the final four of the playoffs.

Detroit got a wake-up call in the playoffs after crushing the Columbus Blue Jackets. The team was forced into a Game 7 against the Anaheim Ducks which they eventually won. Though the Red Wings showed some weaknesses against the Ducks, perhaps the close call is the wake-up call they really need.

Goaltending

Chicago — Nikolai Khabibulin has been shaky at times during the postseason. He only has a .896 save percentage and has allowed at least five goals three times already. Khabibulin has come up big at certain times, and did finally beat the Canucks after many attempts.

Detroit — Chris Osgood has once again proved how solid he is in the postseason. He has an impressive save percentage of .921 and he has a goal against average of 2.06. Osgood handled the Blue Jackets easily and had a bit of trouble with the Ducks.

Advantage: Detroit

Defensemen

Chicago — Brian Campbell and Brent Seabrook have been solid for Chicago as expected and Cameron Barker has also been good on defense. Chicago's young defenders have made some mistakes, but have been improving as the playoffs go on.

Detroit — Nicklas Lidstrom has been the solid as expected for the Red Wings in the playoffs who have had some struggles on defense. The team had no trouble with Columbus's offense but struggled a bit against Anaheim. What hurts Detroit's defense some times is the fact that they take chances on the offensive side and end up getting burned the other way.

Advantage: Tie

Forwards

Chicago — Chicago has been relentless on offense during the playoffs. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Martin Havlat and Kris Versteeg have been just a few of the Blackhawk players who have been producing. With their aggressive philosophy, the Blackhawks have been able to make up for their inexperience.

Detroit — The Red Wings have been hurting teams with a number of different players during the playoffs. Johan Franzen leads the way with 15 points with Henrik Zetterberg close behind with 14. But what has been most impressive about Detroit's offense is how explosive they can be at any time.

Advantage: Detroit

Overall

Detroit has been in this situation many times before, whereas the Blackhawks are highly inexperienced. The best way to beat Detroit is to attack them aggressively. This could bode well for Chicago, as they have one of the most aggressive attacks in the playoffs. Which goaltender handles the other team's explosive offense the best could dictate the winner of this series. While you can never count Chicago out of a series with the way they've been playing, Detroit has a lot of experience and a lot off offensive firepower. They might be too much for a young Chicago team in this series.

Pick: Detroit in 6

Jonathan Hamelin contributes articles on the NBA, NFL and NHL. Being an avid fan of the Canadian Football League, Jonathan writes two columns on the CFL, Rider Report Card and CFL Buzz.

Comments and Conversation

May 18, 2009

Kyle Jahner:

Well, like every ESPN analysts, going with a repeat. At least you are giving the Canes a chance here in Raleigh. Not that they have a problem with the underdog roll. Heck the only time they have played a really bad game (outside of Game 1s) was when they were up 3-1 in the series.

Heck, I even liked the way they looked tonight in game 1. Held Sid relatively in check, and generated some good pressure. Not guaranteeing anything but this is going to be another fun series to watch.

As for Chicago, I see the series going at least 6, but hard to see a young team in the playoffs for the first time reaching the finals over a team like the Wings. That youth leads to the kind of lapses like the ones that buried Boston in Games 2-4 vs Carolina.

May 19, 2009

Jonathan:

Thanks for the comment. I picked Pittsburgh to beat Carolina but I really didn’t want to pick a winner in that series as I too believe it will be close. Game one was just another indication. Though I picked Pittsburgh in seven, I believe it could go anyway. I also don’t see Chicago being able to beat the experienced Red Wings. So, while I ended up predicting a Stanley Cup rematch between Pittsburgh and Detroit, i did put serious consideration in picking Carolina over Pittsburgh.

May 31, 2009

Kyle Jahner:

So much for that….ouch.

I stand by my assessments but Pittsburgh was a buzz-saw and Carolina ran out of legs. Ruutu and Cole being hurt didn’t help but when Pittsburgh plays like that, not a lot of teams can match their firepower. And that’s where the Canes’ achilles proved to be; not enough top-of-the-line scorers.

Oh well, no complaints here about the effort. Eight deafening home playoff games, two great 7 game series with one late comeback and an OT win in the respective game 7s, several other OT games, and a game-winner with .2 left. Playoff hockey at its best.

June 1, 2009

Jonathan Hamelin:

Kyle…

No shame in picking Carolina to win, Pittsburgh just got hot at the right time and played their best series of the postseason against Carolina. Pittsburgh is down 2-0 in the finals to Detroit which just goes to show how good they were playing against Carolina.

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