2011 Conference Semifinals Preview
With my beloved Pittsburgh Penguins now eliminated from Stanley Cup contention (and free to rest their healing stars without outsiders clamouring for a Sidney Crosby return to make a full-fledged Cup run at the risk of his long-term career and health), the time has come to analyze the upcoming second round of playoff hockey. If it's even half as entertaining as the first round was, hockey fans worldwide are in for a treat, full of pulse-pounding, heart-stopping action that only the Stanley Cup Playoffs can provide.
----- EASTERN CONFERENCE -----
#1 Washington Capitals vs. #5 Tampa Bay Lightning
Washington's offensive firepower will be too much for the Lightning to handle, who will enter the series drained after escaping with the win in a long clash with the injury-decimated Pittsburgh Penguins. After performing to a relatively unimpressive degree thus far, scoring phenom Steven Stamkos will need to step his game up a notch if the Bolts are to have any chance at coming out on top, because as we all know, ageless-wonder Dwayne Roloson can only continue pulling rabbits out of the proverbial hat for so long.
PREDICTION: Capitals in 6.
#2 Philadelphia Flyers vs. #3 Boston Bruins
The Bruins caught fire at just the right time after a disappointing 0-2 start against the Montreal Canadiens, going 4-1 in their next five games to knock off Les Habitants. Expect that momentum to continue against a familiar foe in Philadelphia, who are in the playoffs without a clear starting goaltender for the 900th consecutive year. Alas, what the "Broad Street Bullies" lack in net, they make up for everywhere else, with a staggering amount of depth up front and on the back end. Boston will ultimately get their revenge after their infamous collapse against these same Flyers last year, but by no means will it come easily.
PREDICTION: Bruins in 7.
----- WESTERN CONFERENCE -----
#1 Vancouver Canucks vs. #5 Nashville Predators
What do you get when you throw Vezina nominee Pekka Rinne, Norris candidate Shea Weber and an abundant collection of second-line forwards on an NHL roster? You get the Western Conference's fifth-seeded Nashville Predators, a team which is quickly gaining a reputation for being a consistent winner (in the regular season, at least) year after year. After taking a notable leap forward by finally recording their first-ever playoff series victory in round 1 over the Jonas Hiller-less Anaheim Ducks, the Preds will still not have enough to oust the Presidents' Trophy winning Canucks, flying high after a monumental 7-game victory over the arch-nemesis Chicago Blackhawks. At this point, I think I can summarize the thoughts of all Canuck supporters with this quote: anybody, any team, anything but Chicago.
PREDICTION: Canucks in 6.
#2 San Jose Sharks vs. #3 Detroit Red Wings
This series is every bit as good as it looks on paper. Yet another rematch from 2010's Conference Semifinals like the aforementioned Bruins/Flyers battle, this clash of the titans will arguably be the most thrilling series of all in round 2. Saying these elite squads are well-matched is a gross understatement, and in my mind they are all but assured of a gruelling duel that will go the full 7-game distance. With a spot in the Western Conference Finals on the line, don't expect either club to give an inch easily. Going with my gut on this one, since it's essentially a toss-up, but I see the "Winged Wheel" making yet another premature playoff exit at the hands of the Sharks.
PREDICTION: Sharks in 7.