By Matt Popchock
Certain circumstances prevented me from getting these up in a more timely fashion, so I will compensate first by sharing my thoughts on the first game in each series, then offering my prediction for how each of them will play out:
WESTERN CONFERENCE FINALS:
(1) Vancouver vs. (2) San Jose - Although the Sharks flaunted conventional wisdom by not blowing their semifinal series against the Red Wings, they returned to their stereotypical playoff form in Game 1 at Vancouver. To win a tight-checking game on the road against a top-tier goalie like Roberto Luongo, and to leave Canada with no worse than a split could have been huge for the Sharks, but the hosts continued to show resiliency in these playoffs with two third-period strikes from Kevin Bieksa and Henrik Sedin. Both San Jose goals came on what seem to be preventable plays, including Thornton's partially-empty-netter that came directly off a Luongo turnover, so if Vancouver cleans those up and continues to support their franchise netminder well as the series continues to unfold, it could be a short one.
HOW WILL IT END? I think it will be a short one. The Sharks had to give everything they had and more to prevent Detroit from completing its ultra-rare comeback (though this year's playoffs make me wonder how "rare" such comebacks will be in future seasons), so I really have to wonder if they have anything left. Antii Niemi has come to life as of late, but so has the Sedin line for Vancouver, and if the Sharks can't get more out of their power play, and continue to get more out of guys like Patrick Marleau and red-hot rookie Logan Couture, they may not be able to keep up. Canucks in five.
EASTERN CONFERENCE FINALS:
(3) Boston vs. (5) Tampa Bay - One of my favorite sports quotes of all time comes from former Steeler coach Bill Cowher (though I've heard it attributed to Chuck Noll as well): you're never as good as you think you are, but you're also never as bad as people say you are. For Penguin fans, I think it's time to get off the mat and resign yourselves to the fact that this team, despite its postseason inexperience throughout much of the lineup, has been underestimated, and is getting great veteran leadership on its top unit and in net. The Lightning are indeed "that good," and we shouldn't be surprised that their dynamic offense scored three times in 85 seconds to take Game 1. But the Bruins aren't "that bad." This is one of the top defensive teams in the league, aided by Tim Thomas, who's having a world-class season in net, and though the numbers bear out that Tampa has drastically improved its own game on the back end, the numbers also bear out that Boston can play even more responsibly in its own zone. I look for a bounce-back game from the B's Tuesday night, and will be surprised if I don't see one.
HOW WILL IT END? The Bruins can't win with its power play so anemic, nor can they win without getting more pucks to Rolosson (sound familiar?). But they can win by sticking to their game and using their size and team toughness to physically overwhelm the Bolts. On the whole, Boston has played good "survivalist" hockey in these Stanley Cup Playoffs, bouncing back from poor starts and doing what they had to do to advance, and it advanced past an equally tough Philadelphia offense to get here. Role players Sean Bergenheim and Dominic Moore have been completely different players in the postseason, and they will keep Tampa in the hunt, but as dangerous as that power play is, they have their work cut out trying to break Thomas and the Bruins' PK. Bruins in six.
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