Saturday, May 15, 2010

NHL Conference Finals Picks

After the first period last night, I figured I was finally right on one of my picks. Then, of course, in a series in which the Flyers rallied back from a 3-0 series deficit, they charged back from down 3-0 in game seven to win 4-3 and head to the conference finals. Unsurprisingly, my prediction was wrong again.

Anyways, without any further delay, here are my NHL conference finals selections.

Eastern Conference Finals
#7 Philadelphia Flyers vs. #8 Montreal Canadiens

Not many (any?) people would have projected a matchup of the bottom two seeds in the Eastern Conference competing for the chance to go to the Stanley Cup Finals. I know I looked at both of these teams as "also-rans," so I have a hard time imagining either as the Eastern Conference champion. But in a couple weeks, I won't have to imagine it, because it'll be true.

The Flyers' win over the New Jersey Devils may have actually been more shocking than Montreal's upset, because it was so decisive. After splitting the first two games in New Jersey, the Flyers won three straight, including the final two games by 3 goal margins. After that, it should have hardly been shocking to see them come back from 3-0 to beat the Bruins.

Montreal, meanwhile, went through arguably the two strongest teams in the Eastern Conference. They beat the Capitals and Penguins, both in hard-fought seven game series. At this point, it's obvious that Mike Cammalleri is every bit the star that Montreal thought he was when they nabbed him from the Flames last offseason. However, they were also fortunate to play against two teams who were susceptible to their style of play. The Caps and Pens were high octane, weak defense, streaky goaltending teams, and the Habs are built to weather those kinds of teams. It'll be interesting to see how the Canadiens handle a team that plays a more similar style.

In the end, I'm going to go with the goaltender who looks like he could steal games, and that's Jaroslav Halak of the Canadiens. I'm still not 100% sold on him being elite from watching him against the Caps, but people who know more about hockey than I do say he's been phenomenal, so I'll trust their judgment.

Pick: Canadiens in seven

Western Conference Finals
#1 San Jose Sharks vs. #2 Chicago Blackhawks

The polar opposite of the Eastern Conference, the West features its top two seeds, both prolific offensive teams. The Blackhawks and Sharks ranked 3rd and 4th in the NHL in goals scored, respectively.

Chicago was the sexiest pick in the West at the outset of the playoffs (yes, even sexier than Detroit), and they've played exactly the way we all expected them to play. They play an all-or-nothing game that resulted in five of their six second-round games against Vancouver being won by 3 or more goals. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane represent two of the most explosive offensive forces in hockey, and having them on the same team means you're going to score a lot of goals. Kane is very aggressive, though, and his play sometimes allows opponents the occasional odd-man rush.

The Sharks (or as I like to call them, my new second-favorite Western Conference team) don't have quite the offensive firepower of the Blackhawks, but they've got a considerable advantage in net. Evgeni Nabokov had a fantastic season, leading the West in wins, and finishing second in saves and save percentage. The Sharks also may have an advantage in depth, with Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Dany Heatley, Joe Pavelski, and Devin Setoguchi all playing at a very high level.

My pick, though is Chicago. I'll acknowledge that part of it is my instinct to pick against every team I root for, but there's another piece. The Blackhawks allowed the fewest shots on goal in hockey, over 170 fewer shots than the next-lowest team (New Jersey). This is a team that simply owns the puck. They spend the entire game in the other team's offensive zone, which prevents the opposing offense from setting up plays. I think the Sharks are going to give the Blackhawks a run for their money, but in the end, they're too similar, and the Blackhawks do what they do better.

Pick: Blackhawks in seven

We should see a lot of entertaining hockey in these conference finals, both of which start tomorrow. I really do recommend you take some time out of your day, crack open a beer, pop some popcorn, and watch some hockey.

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