And by the title, I don’t just mean our Round 2 prediction record (when you’re right 0% of the time, you’re wrong 100% of the time! Although that’s a little misleading, because Michael himself went 1 for 4; our division of labor made things look worse.) The playoffs themselves have largely been a bust; three close series, one Game 7, and in two cases the favored team failed to show up for the elimination game. Even worse, the NBA playoffs appear to have been so good that I can imagine flipping over to a game during Yankees/Mets and/or Oilers/Ducks commercials, minimizing my chance for pointless intrafandom snark. [Wait–it’s Friday night; shouldn’t you have a date rather than watching a bunch of sporting events?–ed. Quiet you!] These two series look both great and evenly matched on paper, which means that you can safely bet on whatever team I pick being swept. Anyway, here’s our take, with One Of The 101–er, we mean 100–Most Dangerous Professors In America Michael first and then me:
Michael: OK, it’s time for Conference Finals picks! Scott and I went a combined 0-4 in the second round after posting a respectable 6-2 in the conference quarterfinals, so you Charles Barkley types out there know what to do: read everything we say and then put your money on whoever’s playing against whomever we pick.
Eastern Finals: (2)Carolina vs. (4) Buffalo Here we have two likeable, hardworking, underrated, deserving teams. Awww! Can’t they both win? Well, no, actually, they can’t. And so we will have to award the Stanley Cup Final berth to The City That Wants It More. A frenzied check of the websites of the Buffalo Sabres and Carolina Hurricanes reveals that the Sabres’ three home games are sold out, whereas Carolina has plenty of good seats available in all available price ranges. In a goddamn conference final! And they even have a segment on how “personal faith” guides some of their players to victory. Such, evidently, are the perils of moving a hockey team out of New England and sticking them in a part of the country that spends much of its time reading the Left Behind series and watching cars go round and round. (Though I won’t indulge any faux-nostalgia for the Whalers’ glory days in the hideous little burg of Hartford, a.k.a. The Town That Fun Forgot.) Whereas Buffalo . . . oh, let’s not revisit Buffalo’s many woes, shall we? Except to say yet again that Scott Norwood’s missed field goal was not a frigging chip shot, people, and that even if Brett Hull’s no-goal had properly been ruled “no goal” back in 1999, you Buffaloes still would have had to beat Dallas in Dallas for game seven. So let’s not hear any whingeing and mewling from the good people of the City of Lights.
Besides, Buffalo will win this one in six. Their first-round victory gave me pause, because those first two losses in Philly suggested that they didn’t know how to hold onto a lead– in a game, or in a series. And I didn’t think very much of their defensive corps, either. I thought their matchup against Ottawa would amount to a series of frenetic games in which the last team to score wins, and game one bore me out to the letter. But over the rest of the series, Buffalo demonstrated two things that made a believer out of me: they bounced back in OT of game three after having been tied in the closing minutes (by contrast, say, with the Sharks, who never recovered from Torres’ goal in the third period of game three), and they clamped down defensively, contained Ottawa’s fearsome first line, and won yet another OT game – their third consecutive win on Ottawa ice – to take the series. Four one-goal wins over the Senators, two of them in OT? That’s not a fluke, that’s the Sabres’ forechecking speed and nine different scoring threats at work. And would the Senators have pulled it out if Dominic Hasek were in goal? Yes, possibly, and maybe the Rangers would have beaten the Bruins in 1972 if Jean Ratelle hadn’t broken his ankle late in the season and if the parameters of spacetime were tweaked just slightly so that the plane of the ecliptic didn’t run right through Madison Square Garden. Which brings me to . . .
Carolina: will Cory Stillman play? If not, then they’re facing a deep Sabres team without two of their best forwards – Stillman and Cole. Granted, a team that features playmaker extraordinaire Doug Weight on the “third” line has its own claim to depth (check out the game five highlights for Weight’s brilliant behind-the-back pass to set up the clinching third goal). In net, rookie phenom Cam Ward is every bit as phenomenal as rookie phenom Ryan Miller, so that’s a push. Last but not least, we know that the Canes can pick themselves up off a canvas. This probably won’t be one of those series in which the team who scores first wins every game. About that much, at least, we can be sure. Sabres in 6.
Scott: Indeed, considering playoff hockey in Carolina makes me think of Jim Carr solemnly intoning that “good seats are still available at the War Memorial” and interviewing Dennis Lemieux to give the fans some of the finer points. (“Then da play stop then start up.”) This really is a tough one to pick. Both teams have great speed up front, and Buffalo’s depth competes with Carolina’s greater front-line talent (Staal is certainly the best forward remaining in the playoffs, even if he wasn’t good enough for the Canadian Olympic team. Seriously, even on NHL ice, anyone think that the Hurricanes would be better off with Bertuzzi or Doan? Anyone?) In addition, Carolina (whose regular season point total seemed misleading) have proven themselves in different but impressive ways: coming back from two backbreaking defeats in Game 1, and then just crushing the Devils in Round 2. Like Michael, though, despite Carolina’s marginal edge up front (which, as Michael says, is getting more marginal if not non-existent if Stillman is out), I have to go with Buffalo, for two reasons: goaltending and defense. I think you have to take Miller over Ward at this point, as well as the latter has played. And Buffalo’s defense is really underrated. Numminen has always been a quality defenseman. And Lydman was a terrific pickup–he’s as good as a defensman can be without being a good hitter or scoring many points. And if that seems like a backhanded compliment, it’s not: he plays tons of minutes, makes the first pass, rarely gets beat 1-on-1. (Compare the absurdly overrated Scott Hannan getting outpositioned by Mike Peca in Game 6.) Buffalo’s defense is very well-suited to the transition-game-emphasizing New NHL (TM). With Carolina, it’s just not impressive–Hedican’s got great speed but isn’t really a top-2 defenseman, Karberle and Wesley are spear-carriers, and Michael will remember how folk hero Mike Commodore’s severe limitations were relvealed against Tampa last year. I just don’t see that team in the finals: I think Buffalo will get a shot. (Although Michael’s right that it would help if they stopped making Norwood an unfair goat.) SABRES IN 5.
Western Finals: (6)Anaheim vs. (8) Edmonton
Michael: The remarkable six-seed Ducks and the remarkable eight-seed Oilers! Who needs the regular season? 82 games and they were all just a warmup to late April tee times for the Flames, Stars, and Red Wings. Though I hear that some courses will give you a free bucket of range balls if you win a Western division. . . .
The good news is that these Ducks are not the Ducks who faced the Minnesota Wild in the Western conference finals three years ago. You’ll remember that one: the wild-and-crazy . . . er . . . Wild had miraculously won their first two series against far better teams (Colorado and Vancouver) after trailing three games to one in both. In fact, they’d scored 19 goals in their last three wins over the Canucks. And then they lost to the Ducks 1-0, 2-0, 4-0, and 2-1, in a series that is still recommended by four out of five doctors who prefer to treat insomnia without drugs. The Ducks went on to face the Devils in a Cup final of trapping teams with great goaltenders– a series that allegedly led the ghost of Lord Stanley to say, “hmmm, I’m not sure this whole ‘North American hockey’ thing was a good idea, after all.” These Ducks can skate, they can score, they can play exciting hockey, they can blow opponents out of the building. “Who’s the best player left in the playoffs?” my son Nick asked me as the Oilers dispatched the Sharks. “Best individual player? Scott Niedermayer,” I replied. “Nope,” he said. “Teemu Selanne.” Perhaps both of us are right! We can both win!
The bad news, of course, is that these Ducks are still from Anaheim.
So it’s hard to pick them over a serious hockey city like Edmonton. Unfortunately, that’s just what I’m a-gonna do. The Oilers did a masterful job of showing the world what the Sharks look like when they melt down: they look abysmal. They blew a 3-1 lead in game three, giving up five unanswered goals, and then, in the pivotal game five, they began the third period down 2-1, promptly traded four goals with the Oilers in the first four minutes . . . and then decided to spend the rest of the game perfecting the “defensive lapses and boneheaded penalties” style of play (check out the box score if you don’t believe me! Five stupid penalties in the final ten minutes, leading to two power play goals by the Visitors). In game six, after Michael Peca’s brilliant individual effort gave them a one-goal lead, the Oilers played the rest of the game as if they were down a goal, hustling to every loose puck as if it were all that stood between them and a summer of oblivion, while the Sharks played as if they would be really disappointed to lose game six and have to return to San Jose for a deciding game. (As I remarked to Scott via email, I believe it was coach Ron Wilson’s job to inform his players that they were actually losing the series 3-2.) Their power play consisted chiefly of mishandled passes, and we got to see a lot of those, because the Oilers gave them as many power plays as they could have desired. Perhaps the Sharks’ big guns were hurt; I find it hard to understand why Thornton and Cheechoo couldn’t find the handle, and Michalek was clearly nursing something or other, too. And Hannan is overrated, just like Scott and I told you back in April. All of which is to say that while I recognize the world-historical significance of Roloson’s stunning glove save on Cheechoo in OT of game three, which prevented the Sharks from going up 3-0, I still think that the Sharks folded. Credit to the Oilers for making them fold, yes, but I don’t think the Oilers are all that good, and I know the Ducks won’t be nearly so accommodating. It’s a shame, really. I’ve always liked Michael Peca, and I’m glad that Darcy “Below the Belt” Tucker didn’t end his career four years ago with that full-body slam to his knee. Chris Pronger and Ryan Smyth are grade-A players, and I’ve been newly impressed by Samsonov, Stoll, Pisani, and especially Horcoff. But alas, the Disney team with the flying wedge and the silly name and the infantile jerseys will take this one in six, even though their home town is a parking lot and even though I actively dislike Getzlaf, Marchant, Pahlsson, and Lupul. Look for a matchup of rookie goalies in the Cup finals, as Bryzgalov squares off against Ward or Miller (but probably Miller, if you’re going by what you read here). And I’ll come back to do some final prognosticatin’ then. Ducks in 6.
Scott: Two teams that I haven’t fully believed in, been proven utterly wrong, and one of them has to win. The Carlyle/McTavish will be a matchup of two of the most impressive young coaches in the game, both of whom have tactically bested respected veteran counterparts so far. And it must be said that Michael makes a convincing case. The Ducks have been just devastating; you could brush off their smothering defense in round 1 by noting the Flames’ utter lack of playmakers, but you sure can’t say that about the team they humilated in round 2. I agree with Michael that Niedermayer and Selanne are the two best players in the series (although the former’s advantage over Pronger is marginal.) They also have speed, toughness, a good checking line that can also score some–it’s a good mix. The hateful gentlemen Michael mentions are also terrific penalty killers. Edmonton’s forwards have great speed but often not great hands; they can outplay the opposition for large stretches without scoring.
Still, I think there are some things to be said in Edmonton’s favor. I’ve said the first two rounds that Edmonton were an underrated team that wouldn’t win because of their goaltending, but Rolason has done the job; I don’t think Anaheim has any proven advantage in the nets this time. Which should remind us that Edmonton had almost as many points as Anaheim, in the league’s toughest division, despite playing most of the year without Samsanov and twelfth-rate goaltending. (Even if you’re not a fan of Rolason, and I’m not–Conklin? Morrison? Markkanen? Jesus Christ, even Rolason’s usual medicority replacing that parade of stiffs all year would have easily made this a 100 point team.) And looking carefully, you can see why. If you compare forwards 2-4 (and Selanne’s not that much better than Smyth), you have at worst a draw for Edmonton: Horcoff/Samsonov/Hemsky is, I think a slight edge over McDonald/Lupul/Kunitz. Both teams have a lot of depth after that, but I think again you have to give the slight edge to Edmonton–they have great speed and penalty killing up and down the lineup, too, and Peca is surely the best 4th-line center in the league. And on defense, it’s just a mismatch after the #1 slot: Spacek/Smith/Bergeron is considerably better than Beauchemin/Salei/O’Donnell. And impressive as Anaheim’s last six games have been, it’s worth remembering that they were a couple inches on a Huselius breakaway from losing in six to a team for whom 12 forwards and their #1 defense pair failed to show up. Sure, Rolason ain’t Kirpusoff, but they’re not going to hold Edomonton for periods at a time without scoring chances either. I see a similar dynamic as Edmonton’s first two series, with Edomonton looking like they might get blown out early, and getting better as the series goes on. That’s risky, obviously; a couple of bad breaks and Edmonton could be down 3-0 before they can get their feet fully planted. But I don’t see a short series, and I don’t see Anaheim beating this team in a long one. I think the two great hockey cities will meet in the finals. Oilers in 6.