Sunday, May 17, 2009

NHL 2009 conference finals preview

By Rick Morris

The supersonic 7-1 first-round record faded into a more pedestrian 2-2 second-round mark, although I wasn’t fooled by Pittsburgh twice and picked them for the Eastern Finals.

A few interesting thoughts come to mind before examining the individual matchups:

^ The young Blackhawks are the clear outlier in this field in terms of experience, not having made any deep playoff runs for over a decade. Meanwhile, the Red Wings won it all in 2002 and 2008 (with a 2007 Western Conference Finals berth also in the mix, rendering them the first team since the 1998-2000 Stars to reach the conference finals three straight years), Pittsburgh made it to the Finals in 2008 and Carolina won it all in 2006 with an Eastern Conference Title also to their credit in 2002. For that matter, should Detroit make it to the Finals, they’re assured to play a team that they’ve faced on the game’s biggest stage this decade and a Pittsburgh-Chicago series would be a rematch of the 1992 Finals.

^ Notwithstanding Chicago’s overall lack of experience at this level, they are one of the three teams left with a Cup-winning goalie. Nikolai Khabibulin won his Cup with Tampa in ’04, while Cam Ward hoisted the trophy in ’06 and Chris Osgood won his two as a starter in ’98 and ’08 (with additional status as a playoff backup on the ’97 team that also won the big prize). However, even Pittsburgh, the lone team left with a goalie yet to win it all, has a goalie with Finals experience, as Marc-Andre Fleury backstopped last year’s Pens team and put in one of the greatest performances this decade in the mega-overtime Game Five classic.

^ Detroit is the only one of the four teams not to change their coach this season.

Chicago vs. Detroit: As charter Original Six members, these two squads have faced each other more times than any other teams in the history of the NHL. It’s also the 4th most common playoff matchup in the annals of the league, with the Hawks having taken eight of the 14 previous series – albeit they came up on the losing end of the most recent postseason meeting, the 1995 Western Conference Finals.

In a strange twist for two teams that are presently in the same division, they have actually met twice in the Stanley Cup Finals, in 1934 and 1961 (the most recent Chicago Cup win) and both were won by the Blackhawks. In the days of the Original Six, Finals matchups were possible that are not available in today’s highly regimented division and conference formats.

In yet another strange twist, each organization presently has a Hall of Fame caliber face much more associated with the other one. Chris Chelios will always be best known for his time in Chi-Town, yet he’s pocketed two Cup rings with Detroit and now seeks a third. Scotty Bowman coached the Wings to three Cup championships and was in the front office for a fourth last year but has now moved on to Chicago to work with his son Stan in the Hawk organization.

The teams itself provide a classic mix of contrasts. Detroit is the veteran team that stays on top without ever rebuilding thanks to an ever-replenishing pipeline of young talent and a front office willing to stop at nothing to procure highly-skilled remaining pieces. Chicago has made a precipitous recovery after an interminable – and until very recently, highly unsuccessful – rebuilding project. The Wings expected to be here and the year would have been a colossal failure had they not. The quick and skilled young Blackhawks have exceeded public expectations to this point, and probably their own as well.

Chicago is quicker overall, and that element has caused the Wings trouble in past springs, but more so when they were an older team. Plus, the Hawks certainly don’t have anyone faster than Darren Helm! Detroit is deeper offensively and defensively, but in Chicago’s defense that could be said of any of the other 29 teams in the league on paper. And for what it is worth, Chicago coach Joel Quennville has spent most of his career with an “Owned by the Winged Wheel” tattoo on his forehead, albeit with many of his lumps having been inflicted by his new organizational mate Bowman. Speaking of psychology, it was noted here at the beginning of the playoffs that Chris Osgood was the single biggest “X factor” of the 2009 postseason and much to everyone’s surprise – including me as a longtime Red Wings fan yet highly objective prognosticator – he has resembled the stout Ozzie of last spring.

Essentially, the series will come down to how big of a factor Chicago’s rawness at this level happens to be. If the team is able to successfully embrace it, playing with the loose confidence of a team that doesn’t know that it’s a year or two ahead of schedule, it could cause major problems for a Detroit team that could still look wobbly if they drop one of the first two home games in ugly fashion. Certainly, the Wings could come in a bit dazed after a bruising seven-game battle with Anaheim. In the end, though, the guess is that the series plays out in the end pretty much as it looks on paper. Detroit in six.

Carolina vs. Pittsburgh: While Chicago and Detroit have been known commodities to each other for decades, these two organizations never clashed in the playoffs, not even for the Canes’ first two decades of existence as the Hartford Whalers.

Certainly, the Pens have high-end firepower that nobody else in the league can match with the Crosby/Malkin pairing and the Hurricanes bear the burden of being a distant fourth among the remaining teams if one merely examines them on paper. Their best player, with the possible exception of goalie Cam Ward, is sensational young center Eric Staal. If you believe as I do that the Staal family is essentially the NHL’s version of the Mannings at this point with a couple of awesome young stars coming into their own, then Eric equates to Peyton by having been the first to win a title. Younger brother Jordan would love to become the league’s version of Eli by becoming the second to win it all – and he just happens to skate for Pittsburgh. Subplot alert! And oh by the way, Jordan will probably be matched up a great amount with Eric and as such he’ll be critical to the Pens’ chances of neutralizing the Carolina franchise player. Kind of puts one-on-one matchups in other sports to shame, does it not?

Pittsburgh is simply more explosive with their forwards than Carolina and they are deeper to boot. They must be careful, however, since the Canes arguably were worse on paper than New Jersey in the first round and certainly were worse on paper than Boston in the second round. Right now, the Devils and Bruins are shorn of their playoff beards and solely concerned with their golf games. If Carolina gets a split in the Igloo to start the series, they could well be poised for a third consecutive upset.

Essentially, though, just like in the West, the smart pick has to be the team that looks better and more complete overall. This series looks extremely unlikely to be decided quickly and it will surely extract a price from the winner, but it has to be considered Pittsburgh’s to lose. Unlike in the West, though, as a lifelong resident of the Cleveland area, I take no pleasure whatsoever in this prediction. Pittsburgh in seven.

Here’s hoping for the Stanley Cup Finals ending exactly as they did a year ago, but this time with Marian Hossa hoisting the Conn Smythe Trophy on Pittsburgh ice!

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