Since there's nothing more fun than second guessing, we thought we'd continue our trend and put up some playoff predictions for the conference finals round.
Well, about the only series I was right on was that San Jose and Detroit were going to go seven games, and that you can't count Detroit out as dead until they're truly dead. I thought Tampa Bay would be game, but didn't see their sweep coming, and likewise I thought Boston would struggle much more than they did. Vancouver held up their end of the bargain, though I must tip my cap to Nashville for making it much tougher on them than I thought.
So, we're down to the Final Four. Who's going to be playing for Lord Stanley?
Boston vs. Tampa Bay
With the benefit of having already seen a game in this series, I continue to be impressed--and a little jealous, give the hiring circumstances--of Guy Boucher and the job he's done. Tampa is riding a hot goaltender, which you have to do to make a playoff run. But, beyond that, they're playing great defense, and their offensive stars are stepping up huge. I just don't see an end to their run, unless Tim Thomas goes completely into Beast Mode somehow for the Bruins, and/or Dwayne Roloson cools off. With the win in Game 1, the Bolts are well on their way.
Lightning in 6.
Vancouver vs. San Jose
I said in the second round predictions that I thought the winner of the San Jose/Detroit series would also win the conference finals, and I'm sticking by that. Without a doubt, Vancouver is the team with all of the pressure on them. Beyond that, Roberto Luongo is the guy with ALL of the pressure on him. If I were a Canucks fan, I'd be terrified of having to count on him. I still maintain Canada won the Gold Medal last year in spite of Luongo, and he's shown at times in these playoffs that he's susceptible to getting torched. Yet, he still has this label of a big time goalie. I'll believe it when I see it.
On the other side, San Jose is the underdog. They can play the under dog card. Joe Thornton looked positively at peace the other night after beating Detroit. Antti Niemi won the Cup last year, and he knows what it takes. San Jose also showed in Game 7 against Detroit that they can weather the adversity. When Pavel Datsyuk scored that sick goal to make it 3-2, I was sure that signaled death for the Sharks. But, they didn't fold. And, since I think all the pressure is on Vancouver, I look for the Sharks to win this series and send the Canucks home disappointed.
Sharks in 6.
Boy, did I not expect this - you may recall I predicted a Caps / Flyers Eastern Conference final, though at least I did get Canucks / Sharks right. (Hey, I even picked the Sharks in 7! Go me!)
In the East, it all hinges on Patrice Bergeron. Should he return to the Bruins' lineup, I think they can come back to challenge Tampa, and re-impose their will on this series. Without him, I'm just not sure they have the checking and PK units needed to shut down the Lightning. (Oh, and it doesn't help that their power play continues to be AWOL). For now, with his return still up in the air, I'll call it Lightning in 6.
Meanwhile, the West - while I think San Jose manned up fantastically to take out Detroit, I have my doubts about them doing it again to eliminate the Canucks - especially since Vancouver has had their number repeatedly over the past few years during the regular season. On the other hand, does anyone outside of Ryan Kesler really, really seem to want to win for the Canucks? I see flashes, but I don't think we've seen a game in the postseason yet where Vancouver showed a true across the board effort.
I'll call it Canucks in 6, but like Dan, I can see things tipping in the Sharks' favor if Vancouver doesn't bring their A-game.
Before seeing both Game 1's, I was leaning toward a Tampa Bay vs. San Jose finals. I just wanted to get that out there, because now I've had the luxury of one game from each series to digest.
I've believed in the Lightning since about mid-season. I also saw them own the Rangers this season, taking all three contests with the Blueshirts. I still feel that the upside of Tampa Bay is a methodical scoring machine. Defensively, I give them a "not bad". And as long as the 41 year old Dwayne Roloson continues to play like a 31 year old, the Bolts pose a problem for any opposition. Boston features a "lunch box" crew that Claude Julien has had playing well all season long. Even when I didn't want to buy into the B's, they delivered. The Lightning will prevail, taking this series in five.
As with the Lightning, I'm a San Jose Sharks believer. Well, until last night. I went to a few games in Worcester this season to see what the Sharks had on their AHL farm club. Spotty at times, missing the playoffs like the Springfield Falcons, but talent that has delivered when called up to "The Show". Then a strange thing happened in the third period last night. Antti Niemi was human. Henrik Sedin stood tall. Then, with about one minute to play, the Versus cameras took a long look at both benches. Sedin and Alain Vigneault shared something uproarious, with Vigneault literally doubling over in laughter. The Sharks bench saw a tense looking, outplayed bunch that saw Game One slip through their hands. For me, that sequence spoke volumes. The 'Nucks don't look anything like the team that was ready to pack its gear in other seasons. They look hungry, they look like they're having fun. They look like they're going to the Finals. Vancouver in five.
I have to admit- the Lightning look good. Damned good. They have all-word forwards, a tight defensive system and a hot goaltender. The Bruins meanwhile, aren't playing to the level they should be. Sure, they have made it to the Conference finals, so they must have been doing something right- but I just don't think they can beat the Lightning this time around.
Tampa in 5.
This series will be physical, and the goaltenders will need to be playing at 120%. These teams are evenly matched, and I think it will be even right down to the wire. This is a true battle of attrition, but I see Vancouver coming out on top.
Canucks in 7.