STANLEY CUP 2006 – CONFERENCE FINALS

**** EASTERN CONFERENCE FINALS ****
Carolina Hurricanes vs. Buffalo Sabres : Hmmm…. two teams with rookie goaltenders…in the Conference Finals. There has to be an edge somewhere, so let’s find it. Carolina did win the regular season series against Buffalo 3 games to 1. Buffalo beat a strong Philadelphia Flyers team, and the favored Ottawa Senators in their first two rounds of the playoffs, thanks to terrific team play which seems to only get better as the playoffs go on. The Hurricanes were strong all year, and have been a near unstoppable force in the playoffs after replacing ineffective goaltender Martin Gerber with rookie netminder Cam Ward after dropping the first two games of their first round series against Montreal; the result was a seven game win streak – four against Montreal, followed by three straight against the New Jersey Devils; the latter came in riding a 15 game win streak dating back to the last 11 games of the regular season. The ‘Canes eventually sent the Devils to the golf course in five games; outscoring the New Jersey team 17-10 in the process.
Buffalo outscored Ottawa 16-13 on the way to eliminating the favored Senators in five games. rookie goalie Ryan Miller was strong after a shaky start in game one, although Buffalo did ultimately prevail 7-6 in OT in that game. Four games later, rookie Jason Pominville scored the series clinching goal on a short-handed rush in overtime. It was a microchosm of the hustle and urgency with which the Sabres played the entire series. Ottawa Captain Daniel Alfredsson seemed to be wearing cement skates as the rookie forward went around him like a speeding car dodging road kill, on his way to beating rookie goaltender Ray Emery.
The Carolina Hurricanes and Buffalo are both 7-3 in this playoff season. This series will come down to the intangibles – leadership and drive. While Buffalo has proven to have as much grit as any team out there, I believe the Sabres will ultimately fall short due to the number of veteran leaders and game breakers on the roster of the Carolina Hurricanes. Doug Weight, Rod Brind’Amour, Mark Recchi, Ray Whitney and Cory Stillman, should be the difference makers, as well as splendid youngster Eric Staal. This is not to in any way sell short the drive and determination of the Sabres, they will be a very tough “out”, and we all know about Chris Drury and his history of clutch performances and big goals. This will be a hugely entertaining series.
**** WESTERN CONFERENCE FINALS****
The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, and the Edmonton Oilers continue to roll. The Anaheim team dismissed Joe Sakic and his vaunted Colorado squad in a four game sweep in which the Avalanche never did pose a serious threat. The Ducks outscored the Avs 16-4 in the series.
The surprising Edmonton Oilers dropped the first two games of their series against San Jose Sharks, and then proceeeded to sweep the next four games to take the series. The series clinching 2-0 win in game six was their most fundamentally sound game of the series, the Oilers killed offpower play after power play, and also generated 7 breakaway chances….yes, seven. Sharks Goaltender Vesa Toskala kept the game from becoming a truly embarrassing moment in team history.
The stage is now set for these two unlikely but very similar contenders to compete for the right to represent the Conference in the Stanley Cup Finals.
Both teams have Norris Trophy winning defensemen, Scott Niedermayer for the Mighty Ducks(2004), and Chris Pronger for Edmonton(2000), the latter was also League MVP in 2000.
Both teams rely on speed, quickness and strong forechecking. Both teams have received strong Goaltending throughout the playoffs; Ilya Bryzgalov for Anaheim, and Dwayne Roloson for Edmonton. The Oilers were 4-0 in the regular season series vs. Anaheim, outscoring the Ducks 18-11 overall, scoring 16 goals in the first three games. Also keep in mind the Ducks have not won a game on the Oilers’ home ice since 1999. Fortunately for the Anaheim squad, the Ducks will enjoy home ice advantage in this series.
The breakdown – Edmonton exposed San Jose’s previously unknown lack of overall depth & toughness in their Conference semi final victory, wearing the Sharks down further and further as the series went on. When the Oilers stopped Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, they stopped the Sharks. The Mighty Ducks are a solid four lines deep, it will take an even stronger effort from the Oilers than they had in the last round if they are to defeat this tough Anaheim squad, a squad which against Calgary proved they could not be bullied or outworked, and against Colorado proved they could shut down offensive minded teams without having to sacrifice their own offensive output. Dwayne Roloson is the key to this series. Edmonton does not have the personnel to check all four of the Ducks lines, thus Roloson will be called upon to make many huge saves at key moments. Speedy forwards Ryan Smyth, Shawn Horcoff and Sergei Samsonov will have to make huge contributions. The Toughness of Michael Peca and Raffi Torres will also need to play a big part if the Oilers are to continue this most unlikely run.
The most pleasant surprise for the Ducks, their fans, and first year Head Coach Randy Carlyle has been the emergence and continued strong and clutch play of the teams younger players, namely Dustin Penner, Ryan Getzlaf, Joffrey Lupol, Andy McDonald and defenseman Francois Beauchemin, and did I mention their rookie goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov enters the series leading the league in both Goal against average (0.87) and save percentage (.967) ? Edmonton did own the Ducks in the regular season, but that point is now moot. This series will be a spectators delight, and a series in which the Ducks will ultimately prevail due to their superior depth. See ya’.

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