Final four eye Stanley

NHL Conference Finals Preview

The impenetrable “Bulin Wall” shows no signs of crumbling.
The impenetrable “Bulin Wall” shows no signs of crumbling.
Credit: 
Photo courtesy of the Canadian Press

After weeks of brilliant play-making, heavy hitting, and goaltenders duelling, four teams remain skating in the quest for the Stanley Cup. There is a curious lack of big name teams amongst the final four contingent, as Detroit, Colorado, Toronto and Montreal, to name but a few, have already been dispatched to the golf courses. This outcome, however, is less surprising if you look at the results of the regular season; the Calgary Flames, this year’s brilliant underdogs, are a notable exception to that caveat.

A young and fast Tampa Bay Lightning squad swept the resurgent but defensively weak Montreal Canadiens in the Conference Semifinals, and they have “recharged their mental batteries,” in the words of Lightning head coach John Tortorella, during their eight-day layoff in preparation for taking on the Philadelphia Flyers in the Eastern Conference Final. The Flyers made Toronto Maple Leafs fans cry for the 37th time in as many years by absorbing punishing play and dealing out much of their own to down the Leafs in six.

The gritty and surprising Calgary Flames rode their all-for-one mentality to a stunning defeat of the powerhouse Detroit Red Wings in six intense games. This brings them to face head coach Darryl Sutter’s previous team, the San Jose Sharks. The Sharks, another young and ‘team-first’ squad, overcame a late surge by the star-studded Colorado Avalanche to dispatch the latter 4-2 and set up an interesting Western Conference final.

Eastern Conference Final: Lightning vs. Flyers

The outcome of this series will indicate the importance of previous playoff experience. Tampa Bay seems, at the moment, to have everything going for them. They are healthy and confident after their quick defeat of the Habs. Goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin is hot. They easily finished the regular season first in the conference while the Flyers were mired in the tight battle for third, and they are young and fast enough to evade the lumbering Philly checkers.

This youth, however, may prove to be detrimental. The Lightning franchise has only been through four playoff series in their short history, and head coach Tortorella admits that experience is essential in the turbulent time of playoffs. The key for this young team will be whether or not they can implement the lessons they learned over this season—their first 100-point finish.

Philadelphia is a team stacked with veterans, but even battle-hardened ones such as Keith Primeau and Jeremy Roenick will be hurting after the punishing series against the Leafs. Will experience or fresh legs win the day?

Edge: Let’s say Tampa, but keep in mind, I’m a bitter spurned Leafs fan.

Western Conference Final: Sharks vs. Flames

This match-up could almost be termed a battle of the no-names. The teams are both comprised of hardworking, unknown players who have bought into their coach’s system and selflessly work with each other.

The Sharks have been a surprisingly popular team since their inception in 1991. Attendance has never dipped below 96%, even in the dreadful early ‘90s where the team won only 28 games during their first two seasons.

This year, they rebounded from a 14th-place finish last year—the fifth and final year of Darryl Sutter’s stint as head coach—to finish second in the Western Conference and knock off St. Louis and Colorado in the playoffs, losing only three games along the way. The Sharks have bought into new head coach Ron Wilson’s speed-based system, and they depend upon the stellar goaltending of Evgeni Nabokov, who has not failed them yet this year.

Since moving to Calgary, Sutter has guided an underdog team to playoff victories over Vancouver and Detroit. His squad is riding high after their surprising and hard-won conquests. They rely on the defensive accountability and tough play of the entire team, along with the excellent goaltending of Miikka Kiprusoff. Watch for the Flames’ first line of Jarome Iginla, Craig Conroy, and Martin Gelinas to continue to shine both offensively and defensively.

Edge: Calgary, because I have a thing for the underdog.

—With files from nhl.com

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