We're wrapping it up with our roundtable of blogxperts, after starting with Part I yesterday, and just to familiarize, the lineup is comprised of Tom Benjamin, Paul Kukla, Chris McMurtry, Eric McErlain (follow that link and take the Off Wing Stanley Cup Challenge) and James Mirtle. Picking it up where we left off:
JABS: The turnover this time amounts to five teams from the last playoff tournament, including the No. 2 seed in the east (Carolina) and two others (Rangers, Buffalo) that didn’t make the playoffs last time around. How did these teams manage to turn it around so spectacularly, and do they look like major players to you?
MIRTLE: I said it at the beginning of the season, and I still think it holds true: The East is a crapshoot. (Which is part of the reason I said the Hurricanes would make the playoffs.) In the West, you've got teams that everyone knew would be strong and would battle for the division titles: Calgary, Detroit, Dallas and to a lesser extent San Jose and Nashville. In the East? Ottawa is the only team people knew would be up there, with Philadelphia coming in a distant second.
Much moreso than in the Western Conference, I think the No. 8 seed in the East has a great shot at dethroning the No. 1 team. Teams like Montreal, New Jersey and Tampa Bay at the bottom of the Conference really aren't all that much weaker than anyone at the top. I wouldn't be surprised to see both Carolina and Ottawa out after the first round.
BENJAMIN: Buffalo doesn't surprise me at all. I (wrongly) picked them to make the playoffs in 2003-04 and I don't think they could help but take a leap forward. I think everyone has been surprised by Carolina and New York.
|Weight: His experience essential now in pointing the way, says Chris McMurtry.|
McMURTRY: The remarkable thing about the success of the Sabres, 'Canes, and Rangers this season is that they've all gone about building a contender a different way. The only thing they have in common (besides the fact that I didn't pick any of them to make the playoffs back in September, showing how valuable my predictions were) is that they put a tremendous amount of faith in a goalie who had not proven himself to be a capable #1 NHL netminder. Lucky for them, all three have responded wonderfully.
The Rangers built around a superstar, the Sabres assembled a strong team from 1 to 20 for dirt cheap, and the 'Canes mixed young players with wily veterans suited for the new rules. For me, Jim Rutherford is executive of the year in the NHL. He signed Cory Stillman and Ray Whitney to bargain basement deals and laughed all the way to the bank when they thrived, stole an all-star goalie from the Ducks, and brought in an excellent defenceman in Kaberle for next to nothing. And even though neither have had huge impact, adding Mark Recchi and Doug Weight in the second half will really help down the stretch drive.
KUKLA: Carolina is all about chemistry. Rutherford did a great job adding the finishing touches and some players are having career years - note Aaron Ward and Rod Brind'Amour. But I do think their goaltending is not playoff-tested and the injury to Cole will be felt when the playoffs start.
Karmanos has a lot of pride riding on his team, he has watched from afar but is taking the winning to heart. I hope he isn't too disappointed if they lose early and reverts back to "Well, no one picked us this year so overall, I consider the season a success."
The Rangers are hard to figure. The start of the season they were an entertaining group to watch, now they look tired and rundown. If Lundqvist comes back at full strength, he may carry them through a round, but I don't see them going far.
I see teams catching up with the Rangers next year, unless they can add some size to the defence. They need to get physically stronger in order to avoid another fade-out in the future.
The Sabres were built for and are one of the new NHL prototype teams. Speed, scoring from three lines, and a bit of depth helped them to avoid prolonged losing streaks and therefore should be one of the favorites in the East.
|Lundqvist: Might carry Rangers a round, says Paul Kukla.|
McERLAIN: While I might have some questions about Martin Gerber and his ability to bring a team all the way through the playoffs, I don't think you're giving Carolina nearly enough respect. Sure, Tampa Bay and Montreal are stronger than the low seeds out West, but Carolina is just so stacked down the middle, while both the Bolts and the Habs have been prone to protracted brain farts for significant stretches of the season -- just the sort of play that could return at any moment without warning.
I'll be happy to admit to some bias here, as I just like the way Carolina plays the game. Peter Laviolette did the same thing on Long Island, and the folly of Mike Milbury was on full display this season as the strength of Laviolette's system proved to be well suited for the changes we've seen thus far. Know this: They're more fun to watch than any team run by Ken Hitchcock or Pat Quinn, that's for sure. . .
Out West, Dallas is the team that's ripe for an upset. Marty Turco posted a save percentage this year (.898) almost 20 points lower than his career average (.915) -- never a good sign heading into the playoffs. And don't forget all those points Dallas piled up courtesy of the shootout, something that inflated their point total. As much as I like the shootout, there's a huge element of luck involved, and it isn't the kind of luck Jussi Jokinen is going to be able to import into a playoff OT.
Elsewhere out West, I did think Anaheim could do some damage, but not with Calgary and Kipper standing in the way -- he really is that much better than anyone else in goal. In a way, Ducks luck is as bad as Nashville's.
McMURTRY: Of the three, I think the Rangers are the only one who I would not say are legitimate threats to go all the way to the finals, just because I'm not sold on their defence. But even they have to be looked at as a dangerous opponent just because they have the most dominant player in the world on their team.
|Turco: Ripe to be upset, says Eric McErlain.|
BENJAMIN: Hockey has always seen the league divided into about five groups - call them Elite, Above Average, Average, Below Average and Bottom Feeders. The new CBA is designed to eliminate the top group and the bottom group. If that happens - and I think it will - teams will be able to go from one group to the next in a single bound (or slide). A few above average teams will catch the breaks and look like they are elite for a season. A few below average teams will see everything go wrong and they will be bottom feeders for a season. If that is the case, spectacular turnarounds (and spectacular flameouts) will be the norm.
To me the question is whether spectacular turnarounds are a good thing for either the business of hockey or the game. Gary Bettman certainly thinks it is good for the business and he might be right. It's always been too hard to get good in this sport. I've had more than 35 years of experience watching a team trying to get good without real success. Since I was a Red Wing fan before the Canucks came into the league I've been waiting for a Cup for a decade longer than any Leaf fan. My team has never won. In a 30-team league, that experience could turn out to be normal. The sports entertainment business is about selling hope, and hope has always been a tough sell in hockey.
Still, Bettman might be miscalculating again. Hockey is a zero-sum game. Every spectacular turnaround requires a corresponding spectacular crash and nothing kills revenues like failed expectations. The new system may end up giving more teams more hope to sell, but will also surely create more disappointment and disillusionment. The business might be best served in the long run if they figured out how to sell hockey and let the hope take care of itself.
JABS: Maybe you’ve been unfortunate in the teams you root for. I always hear about the NFL’s “anyone-can-win” system, but as a Browns fan, I can tell you it’s kind of hard to swallow. And badly run teams with poor management are always going to be up against it. Yet, I persist, just as you do. The distance between disillusionment and hope is just an Ovechkin, or a Romeo Crennel away.
KUKLA: Talk about losing football teams, I don't think the Cleveland Browns had their greatest player retire by FAX! A sorry state for my Detroit Lions.
JABS: Let’s turn to some of these matchups. James, in your blog (will insert link here), you’ve got the east going according to the seedings except for Philly, who you call over Buffalo. And I’m with Eric on this – I really don’t like the Flyers' style from where I sit on the couch, especially against these quick and exciting Sabres.
MIRTLE: As I said on my site, I think the deciding factor here is the Flyers' playoff experience. At the beginning of the year, I said they'd be one of the top teams in the East (I can't recall if I said No. 1 or not), and I think that, minus the ridiculous number of injuries they had, that was the case. If Forsberg does miss a lot of games, I'd side with a younger Sabres club, but the Flyers have young guys like Richards, Carter and Pitkanen that can skate with anyone Buffalo puts out there.
How about this for a final thought on the series: Who shuts down Forsberg? He is, after all, one of the most dominant playoff performers of the past decade, and I think he could come up with a 11-12 point performance just in the first round. What Buffalo really needs is a Brind'Amour type who can ride him into the ground, but I don't see anything like that on the Sabres. (Buffalo may be able to run around the Leafs, but it's not going to happen here.)
What can I say? I like Philadelphia a lot, and I think they're an improved team from when they took Tampa Bay to Game 7 of the Eastern final in 2004. I think, if they get sound goaltending, they could win the Cup. (Then again, it's still a crapshoot out East.)
|Clarke: Here's hoping he gets swept, says Tom Benjamin.|
McERLAIN: All that team speed in Buffalo has added up to some of the best special teams play in the NHL this season. The Sabres were near the bottom of the league when it came to shorthanded situations (26th) and their penalty kill was the second best in the league, and is the best left in the playoff pool. It was much the same story on the power play, where Buffalo was in the lower half of the league in terms of opportunities (18th), but still had the third-best power play in the league in terms of conversion percentage.
In a way, it's just like football. It simply isn't the number of fumbles you force, it's the ratio between the number of times you cough up the ball and the number of times you cause turnovers. Keep the ratio positive, and you can start to think about other things. And in the NHL this season, few teams did that better than the Sabres. If they keep it up, they'll beat the Flyers in 6.
KUKLA: Here it goes folks, Tampa over Ottawa in seven. The Bryan Murray jinx and the "ups and downs" of Hasek will be too much to take.
I see the other three series going with Carolina winning in a tight seven game series. Rangers continue with their slump and only pull out one win, with Weeks ending up in net because Lundqvist is not 100%. Buffalo will be too fast for the Flyers, and the Flyers will be playing who's in goal by the end of the series and Foppa will be a game time decision for about three games. He is not close to his standard of play and I don't see him being the Forsberg of old in 2006.
McMURTRY: I see all of the Eastern Conference favorites advancing, with perhaps the Rangers over the Devils as the one upset possible. But if I'm placing bets, I'd go with Ottawa in 5 (too much speed up front for a weak Bolts D), the 'Canes in 7 (the best series of the four East matchups, but again, too much firepower), the Devils in 7 (despite the rabid fans, I expect it to be very boring on the ice), and the Sabres in 7 (should also be very good).
BENJAMIN: The only Eastern team I know halfway well is Toronto and a fat lot of good that does me now. I'm ashamed to admit I can't even make an informed guess about any of the Eastern series. I can make an informed guess about the Western teams, but I'm ashamed to admit it probably won't be any better than an uninformed guess.
I like the Sabres because Tim Connolly is a nifty player who is lots of fun to watch. I think it's great that he's put his health problems behind him. He's a dandy. I hope they kick Flyer butt because Bobby Clarke is still the heart and soul of the Flyer butt. A sweep would be sweet.
Does that help?
JABS: Everything helps, Tom. I’m in something of the same boat, watching the Leafs most of the time. So I end up cheering for styles, as in the Sabres vs. the Flyers – put it this way, this morning I filled out an office pool sheet and it was an exercise in guesswork. But let’s look west now. Among the lower seeds in the conference, who’s got the best chance and who’s just going to end up happy to have been there (or not)?
|Forsberg: Tips the balance in Philly's favour, says James Mirtle.|
KUKLA: My sure bet would be the Sharks over Nashville. Too much chemistry going on right now in San Jose and Nashville will be hurt with the injuries to Sullivan, Zidlicky and of course the loss of Vokoun. Next would be Dallas over Colorado- The Stars will take advantage of the weak defence of the Avs.
The other two series are too tough to pick. The play of Zetterberg and Datsyuk (game time decision for Friday's game) is the key. Their previous playoff performance has not been up to par with their regular season play. It all depends on those two and for those who question the play of Legace, how about the play of Roloson, he has to be the man for the Oilers to take this series.
Ducks and Flames will be an all-out battle, may the strongest survive!
McMURTRY: I'm the opposite of Tom in that I'm far less knowledgeable on that conference. But based on what I've seen, I think the Ducks have the best shot of all the lower seeds, just because they have a lot of guys who've been in the dance and are coming in on a roll. I expect that series to be terrific though, and it's probably a toss up. For the others, I can't see the Wings losing to the Oilers, so I'm putting them in 5. Dallas, who I'm taking as my Cup winner, over the Avs in 5 (Colorado's gonna be exposed big time, I think).
BENJAMIN: I can imagine a way that Edmonton could beat Detroit. They've got strengths and I think it's a good matchup for them. The Wings probably have too much for them and it will probably go wrong for the Oilers in the end, but I would not be shocked if that is the upset of the year. If that doesn't happen, I don't thnk there really can be an upset in any real sense of the word. I think Paul's right to strike Nashville on the injuries and Eric is probably right to favour the Flames over the Ducks because of Kiprusoff. But Anaheim is as good as their record and if I was Daryl Sutter, I figure I've drawn the worst possible opponent for my team.
There really isn't anything to choose among most of these teams. That's reflected in the standings and I think it will show up head to head in the best of sevens, too. The first round of the playoffs is always so great. Hockey fever peaks with 16 markets buzzing. Two or three of the series are sure to be barnburners. I'm ready to be surprised. Bring it on.
JABS: All well and good. But let's wrap this up with this final round: A Stanley Cup prediction, and a wish. Who've you got winning this whole thing? And who do you wish to win it? I'm sitting here really wishing that Buffalo can win the Cup, for a number of reasons -- and I think they a shot, but it's so small. It's the old head vs. heart thing.
McERLAIN: Picking the champ this year is as tough as its ever been. The real problem I see is that all of the top seeds have obvious weaknesses that could prove fatal over the course of the next 6-8 weeks. Over at my blog, I'm asking my readers the same thing, and Detroit is easily the most popular pick.
But tell me how Manny Legace is going to hold up in the playoffs when he only has five career starts lifetime? I've already said that as good as Dallas is, Turco is the weak link in the chain. Ottawa? Is Hasek going to come back at all? Can Ray Emery handle the load, even only for one round?
Still, my head says Detroit. But my heart wants Carolina to win it all. I always felt the Islanders did Peter Laviolette a bad turn when they fired him, and his methods have proven their worth with a team that wasn't even projected to make the playoffs. Carolina is fun to watch, and I think it would be great to see a second straight team from the Southeast Division -- the red-headed step child of the NHL -- win the Cup.
Like a lot of other hardcore fans, I thought the latest round of expansion was rushed, haphazard and ill-advised. But those teams in the Sunbelt are there now and they're not going away. Winning a Cup will cement the future of the franchise in Raleigh, and that's nothing but a good thing for the sport and the league.
BTW -- did you know that four of the last nine Cups winners (Colorado (2), Dallas, Tampa Bay) and eight (Colorado (2), Dallas (2), Tampa Bay, Florida, Carolina, Anaheim) of the last 18 finalists have come from markets that were part of the 1990s expansion/relocation movement?
Happened pretty quietly, didn't it?
KUKLA: All year I have been saying Detroit and San Jose meet in the WCF, which means the Ducks will have to beat the Flames in Round #1 for this scenario to take place. I see the Wings advancing to meet New Jersey, who will beat the Sabres in a tough seven-game ECF matchup. Wings win in six against the Devils - remember, "He who controls the puck wins."
My one wish for the SCF would be Wings/Canadiens, for the simple reason I would like to hop on a train in Windsor, travel to Montreal like they did in the old days, stroll by the old Forum, put on my best suit and take in the series like they did in the old days of the NHL.
McMURTRY: Heart with Ottawa, for obvious reasons. Living here, I know how passionate the fanbase is, and I can't imagine what it would be like if we were to get a Cup. Would be bananas.
Head with Dallas. I think they're too strong at every position, and I see the West as the weaker conference, so their ride to the finals will be a bit easier than whoever comes out of the East. By the time Ottawa or Carolina gets there, they'll be so beat up I'm not sure how much gas will be left in the tank. If it can't be Ottawa, Buffalo's probably my next preference, so I'm with you on that one Chris. Small market team, no real superstar, afterthought by most at the start of the year, in nearly fatal financial trouble as recently as a few years ago. I saw a lot of them this season against the Sens, and to see their growth from the team that got slapped 10-4 to a 100-point team has been quite impressive. It would be a wonderful story to be sure if they took it.
BENJAMIN: The only think that I'm sure about is that a hockey team will win. If somebody did not have to win, I'd figure nobody could do it. It truly is the hardest trophy in sports. I'm still picking Calgary to win it all because that's the team I would not want to play no matter which team I coached.
I'm hoping for the Ducks.