My trip to Maryland and the things happening around it has been something that has kept me from this post until now. However, with no games to go final, I think I should be good to keep doing this. Again-- went a perfect 2-for-2 in the West and took the collar at 0-for-2 in the East. Maybe I'll pick the East better now that I'm back there. But, we start with the first game of Sunday.
(1) SAN JOSE SHARKS vs. (2) CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS
We're finally at the point where the choke label is off the Sharks. They made it to their first conference Final since 2004 and most importantly, got past the second round. It was a little dicey, but with Joe Thornton and Dany Heatley realizing it's the playoffs and actually contributing; the Sharks look a lot better. Sure, it's a bit of an issue with Patrick Marleau still not getting onto the scoring sheet as often as he would like, but at the same time-- Joe Pavelski keeps stepping in up with Marleau slacking. Which Evgeni Nabokov shows up will be a story, too. Can he be clutch in a spot that he hasn't been in for six years?? He has done enough to get them to this point, but can he keep it up against a rested, strong offensive team like Chicago.
The Hawks are back for a second year in a row and should be able to feed off of last year's falter to move onto this year. Jonathan Toews has been leading by example in the scoring department, while Patrick Sharp has played well in a secondary role. The playoff curse is effecting Marian Hossa again, as he hasn't been able to step up as much as the Hawks were hoping, with only two goals and 10 points in the 12 games. Luckily, the shutdown defense of Brent Seabrook and Brent Sopel have helped out in the own end, but the minus on Duncan Keith's stats are a bit concerning, but should shut down in the finals. The shakiness of Antti Niemi continues to be something that could hold the Hawks back, but if he gets support from up front; he should be fine.
PREDICTION: Blackhawks in Six. While the Sharks have made it far, the Hawks look like the team to beat. The road record at 5-1 should help them, as they don't have home ice advantage. With the Hawks knowing what it takes, it should help them not lose focus, like the Sharks could.
(7) PHILADELPHIA FLYERS vs. (8) MONTREAL CANADIENS
How much is left in the tank, that's going to be the real question. Coming back from three games down, then coming back from three goals down in Game Seven can take a lot out of a team and could be a factor if this series becomes a long one. The one good point is Michael Leighton is back, healthy, and most importantly-- fresh. He will be the X-factor for the Flyers as he has got them to this point from the regular season, but wants to finish what he started. Danny Briere is finally earning his money this playoffs, which should be a great confidence boost to him moving forward. The Flyers have had a lot of issues, but this should somehow validate their bi-polar season.
The Montreal Canadiens may face trouble in the fact that the Flyers aren't a juggernaut like the Capitals and Penguins are. Even so, the Habs have been world builder, taking out the two faces of the NHL in Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, making them very invisible throughout their respective series. Most of that has to do with the amazing play of Jaroslav Halak, who will command a healthy raise in the off-season; but plenty should be given to the likes of Hal Gill, who blocks everything coming at him. With PK Subban being called up, it has given the Habs another dynamic, especially with Andrei Markov out for this series, as well. You also can't say enough about the off-season acquisitions of Mike Cammalleri, Scott Gomez, and Brian Gionta, who have been the top dogs for the Habs and really brought them to this point with their scoring.
PREDICTION: Canadiens in Six. While the Flyers have a great story coming into it all, I don't think that they'll have enough left in the tank after their series against the Bruins. Especially considering how the Habs have had some time off and are on the high of shutting down most offenses; the only thing that can beat them is not scoring in the clutch-- which they seem to do just fine.
That's that-- enjoy the series and here's some decent action; even if it's a four-game sweep in each one.