Friday, May 13, 2011

2011 NHL Conference Finals Preview

By Andrew Jones

The conference semifinals of the NHL playoffs were not nearly as exciting as the opening round as a whole. Why? The second round contained two sweeps, as compared to none in the first round, making half of the four series rather boring.

The Tampa Bay Lightning rode their momentum from defeating the Pittsburgh Penguins, as they swept the Washington Capitals, who continually fail to deal with their playoff demons.

The Boston Bruins are riding the exact same momentum after sweeping the Philadelphia Flyers. In doing so, the Bruins hoped they have silenced the 2010 playoff demons.

Despite the Capitals' and Flyers' ability to erode away, the other half of the second round was pretty solid. The San Jose Sharks grabbed a three games to none lead on the Detroit Red Wings, only to let the Wings win three games for themselves, forcing Game 7. I guess the fourth time is the charm for the Sharks, as in their fourth opportunity they finally beat the Wings to advance to the conference finals.

The Vancouver Canucks continued their journey toward Lord Stanley's Cup with a win over the Nashville Predators in six games. This was a series that saw five games decided by 1 goal, one game that went into overtime, and one game that went into double-overtime. The only game decided by two goals was due to an empty net goal. Even though they have advanced, the Canucks haven't seemed to assert control in any game or series in the playoffs. They seem as if they are just holding on, trying not to lose.

My predictions from the second round weren't quite as good as my first round predictions, but I only got one series winner false and nailed two series in the correct number of games. Thus far, I only have two series winners wrong and have hit half of the playoff series with the correct winner and the correct number of games, so let the madness continue.

Vancouver Canucks vs. San Jose Sharks

Can you tell that Daniel and Henrik Sedin are two of the most productive players in the NHL? I can't. Henrik scored 1 goal on an empty net and Daniel scored 1 in Game 6 on the power play. I'm honestly confused by their lack of production and involvement. Yet the Canucks keep finding a way to win, mainly through Ryan Kesler, who recorded 5 goals and 6 assists in the series against the Predators.

Canucks goaltender Robert Luongo statistically looked very good in the second round, allowing only 11 goals in six games. His mental game has been called into question by some. I think the best way to describe Luongo's game is that when it rains, it pours. If things start to go wrong, they will go very wrong, very quickly. The Sharks need to make things go very wrong with Luongo if they want to advance.

The Sharks have their own mental inconsistencies to handle. This team has been one of the best regular season teams and one of the worst playoff teams for far too long. They have finished in the top two in the West for the past four seasons. They've been in the top five in the West for the past seven seasons. Where they are now is the closest they have been to the Stanley Cup.

As they fell apart against the Red Wings, they simply proved this basic fact: they still aren't ready to be a dominant playoff team.

If Kesler keeps up the rampage and the Sedins do anything to help him out, the Sharks will have a hard time making it to their first-ever Stanley Cup Final appearance. Help them, Robert Luongo ... you're they're only hope.

Canucks in 6

Boston Bruins vs. Tampa Bay Lightning

Who saw this final coming out of the East? Not me. I really thought the Caps were ready for the big time. Alas, I must wait another year.

Both of these teams are coming off of sweeps, which means they have huge amounts of momentum and received plenty of rest as they waited for the Western teams to finish their more exciting series. Both have cause to believe in their own infallibility at this point. The Bruins did away with the Flyers who ruined their dreams last season while the Lightning sent home the mighty Capitals and their eccentric superstar Alex Ovechkin.

In the Lightning vs. Capital series, Capitals goaltender Michal Neuvirth didn't play terribly (except in Game 4). He allowed a few goals in each game and just wasn't the shutdown type. But what really happened in the series was that the NHL's most exciting and talented team were shutdown by a 41-year old Dwayne Roloson. Roloson had 123 saves in four games, allowing 10 goals. He brought his game to the ice and the Caps had no answer.

The Capitals should have had an answer. How much talent do they need to have on the ice before somebody steps up and puts a few goals past a goalie that was born in the 1960s? The Lightning beat the Capitals. The Capitals didn't beat themselves, but they allowed themselves to be defeated. They did not fight back. They gave up.

The Flyers on the other hand just got thrashed. They made an effort in Game 2, but lost Games 1, 3, and 4 by 4 goals apiece. In the end, the Flyers just didn't have the pieces in place defensively to compete in the playoffs. This was most obvious at goalie. After playing three different goalies in the opening round, the Flyers stuck with two goalies for the second round and it didn't pay off as they allowed 20 goals in four games.

On the other hand, Boston's Tim Thomas was brilliant. In Game 2, he had 52 saves on the road. His performance solidified Boston's stance in the series as they went to Boston up two games to none.

So the question for Bruins vs. Lightning is essentially Tim Thomas vs. Dwayne Roloson. Thomas has been one of the NHL's best goalies for a number of seasons and his performance in the playoffs has been masterful. Roloson is a bit more unpredictable, but he asserted his dominance over the shot-happy Capitals, so one can only speculate as to which goalie will give.

My money is on the Lightning and Dwayne Roloson to win this matchup and win it at home in game six. I think that the Bruins victory was dealing with the Flyers. The smallest portion of them is happy with that and it will affect their determination.

I see the Lightning with more fire in their bellies, tempted by dreams of spending a day with Lord Stanley's Cup. I think the Lightning have more focus at this point and that will allow them to pass by the Bruins on momentum, determination, and adrenaline.

Lightning in 6

Stanley Cup Finals

If I am correct, then the Stanley Cup matchup will be:

Vancouver Canucks vs. Tampa Bay Lightning

I think this series will prove too much for Luongo. The grit and determination of the Lightning is a bad thing for a goalie with difficulties quelling goals once they begin. The Lightning have the capacity to score quickly and Luongo has the capacity to fall apart when that happens. If the Lightning can manage such a feat in the first two games, the series is theirs for the taking.

Kesler likely won't stay hot through the San Jose series. He'll still be a force to be reckoned with, but I don't think he'll get 5 goals past Roloson.

The only hope for the Canucks is if the Sedins come out of their playoff shells a bit and stop letting Kesler have all the fun. If all three stars are firing on all cylinders, the Canucks are perhaps unstoppable, but if they're only running on one right now, I can't see three happening by the time this series rolls around.

Lightning in 6

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