A look into the East.
The Penguins are getting big-time contributions from all of their big-time players. Evegeni Malkin leads the team in scoring with 14 points, tied for third on the League scoring table. Sidney Crosby also has 14 points, including a tournament-best 12 assists. Marian Hossa, with five goals and five assists, is the third Penguin to be averaging more than a point per game.
In net, Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury has been a revelation. His .938 save percentage is the best of the tournament and his 1.76 goals-against average is third-best.
But the Flyers, like all giant-killers, have some serious mojo on their side.
RJ Umberger, an unheralded 23-year-old, has nine playoff goals. He had just 13 goals in 74 regular-season games. And, oh yeah, he hails from Pittsburgh. Daniel Briere, Philadelphia’s marquee free-agent acquisition, has a team-leading 14 points and Vaclav Prospal, a late-season acquisition, has a team-high nine assists.
But it is goalie Martin Biron who has been administering the knockout blows through the first two rounds. In his first playoff run, Biron has proven the wait was worthwhile. While the numbers are not eye-popping, his 2.72 GAA is eighth in the playoffs and his .914 save percentage is third among the four remaining starting goalies in the playoffs, Biron simply gets the job done.
The Pennsylvanian rivals have not met in the postseason since 2000, when the Flyers took a six-game Eastern semifinal against Jarormir Jagr and the Penguins. That series was best remembered for a five-overtime Flyers’ win in Game 4, with Keith Primeau scoring the winner. Pittsburgh last made the conference final in 2001, when they dropped a five-game series to the New Jersey Devils.
It also marks the first time that both teams are meeting in the postseason with the Prince of Wales Trophy on the line.
The Western Conference has the President’s Trophy-winning Detroit Red Wings facing the Dallas Stars for the first time in the playoffs since their 1998 matchup.
While the postseason is a tough marathon for every team, the Stars head into their final four matchup after arguably the most difficult run on paper. Dallas came out victorious after a six-game matchup with the defending Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks in the first round, and almost blew a 3-1 series lead against a San Jose Sharks team that many picked to be a Cup favourite in June.
By contrast, it’s easy to argue that the Red Wings didn’t face as many challenges as their Western Conference Final opponent. The Wings were expected to eliminate the eighth-seeded Nashville Predators and did just that, while the Colorado Avalanche, once considered to be an intense and hated postseason rival were swept cleanly – including a lopsided 8-2 victory in Game 4.
Detroit simply overmatched the Colorado Avalanche in Round 2, outscoring the latter by a 21-9 margin in a four-game sweep. Much of that had to do with the play of Johan Franzen, who has 11 goals in the playoffs and 26 over the past 25 games. He had two hat tricks against the Avalanche.
On the other side, gritty Stars captain Brendan Morrow had a tremendous series against the Sharks, and scored the clinching goal in quadruple overtime in Game 6. It was his second overtime goal of the series and his seventh goal of the postseason. Goaltender Marty Turco made a franchise-record 61 saves in the marathon and has long put his recent playoff woes behind him. He has won eight games while posting a 1.73 GAA this postseason.
The ‘final four’ matchups also have the potential to set up a couple of great rematches in the Stanley Cup Final.
A Dallas-Pittsburgh showdown would put both franchises against one another for the first time since 1991, when Mario Lemieux and the Penguins beat out Mike Modano and the Minnesota North Stars in six games. A Flyers-Red Wings matchup would be a rematch from 1997, when Detroit swept Philadelphia in four games to win their first Stanley Cup in 42 years.
In the East, I like the Penguins in 6. I’m not very confident of this pick, but I do feel Pitt’s big players will carry them once again, that being Malkin, Crosby, Hossa and Fleury. I do like Philly’s offensive depth better, but I see this series coming down to key goaltending, and I like Fleury better. Fatigue may play a factor here if we see the series go a long ways, and that favors Pitt as well.
I like the Stars taking care of Detroit in 7 games in the West. I think the Stars will get better goaltending, and I really like their forwards more than Detroit. Dallas is riding a big wave of confidence right now as well, while Detroit knows it was a cake walk against an injury filled Colorado team. Basically, I have had a hard time reading Detroit these playoffs because they have not really faced a quality opponent yet.