2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Conference Final Preview

While the top two seeds in the West have survived in one way or another, the East features a pair of teams who have advanced thanks to an explosive offense and strong goaltending, each a bit surprising depending on which team you’re referring to.

Western Conference
1) Vancouver Canucks vs. 2) San Jose Sharks (San Jose in 6)
Both teams have survived situations where they were up 3 games to none against an opponent, went on to lose Games 4, 5 and 6 against that team, only to win Game 7 at home anyway, something which had only happened three times before this year.

Yet, both teams are here, and both are perhaps a bit relieved to get here. There are a lot of stakes involved. Vancouver, the Presidents Trophy winner for having the best regular season record in the league, are trying to win its first Stanley Cup in its history and has the parts of Canada which don’t hate the Canucks on its back. San Jose, considered playoff choke artists before its series victories over Detroit both last year and this year, are trying to reach the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in its 20 year history.

Both teams are very talented offensively, with Vancouver having the Sedin twins in its tow (granted neither has played very well in this postseason), and Ryan Kesler who put on a show in the latter end of the Nashville series. Joe Thornton had played very well for San Jose in this postseason, as has Joe Pavelski and Devin Setoguchi. Patrick Marleau also showed up for that pivotal Game 7 against Detroit, look for him to be a factor one way or another in this series.

The difference, however, will come from the goaltending. Statistically, Roberto Luongo has the edge on San Jose’s Antti Niemi. However, Niemi won a Stanley Cup last year with Chicago. Luongo has been known to have his bad games, and while those bad games usually come against Chicago, with a team as offensively potent as San Jose waiting to try their luck against him, I don’t quite trust Luongo will be able to keep it together long enough for Vancouver to win. Look for San Jose to finally break through and reach the Finals.

Eastern Conference
3) Boston Bruins vs. 5) Tampa Bay Lightning (Tampa Bay in 7)
Lets start this preview by looking at both team’s strengths. For Boston, they’ve done very well behind the strong play of goalie Tim Thomas. He has played better the further into the postseason he and the Bruins get. However, he hasn’t faced an offense as talented as Tampa Bay’s. Their strongest asset, the Lightning boast an attack the features Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos, who are, in a way, their own Big Three in Florida. Both Stamkos and Lecavalier were key components of Tampa Bay’s sweep of the Capitals, and St. Louis is always a constant threat as well. They also aren’t the only threats Tampa possesses on offense. Ryan Malone, Simon Gagne, and Steve Downie could all make a big difference for the Lightning in this series.

However, the keys for this series may come from Boston’s offense and Tampa Bay’s goaltending. Boston’s power play, completely inactive for most of these playoffs, has finally started to wake up. David Krejci and Milan Lucic are big threats for Boston, though they will be without the services of Patrice Bergeron for the first couple of games in this series. Tampa Bay has been a much better team since acquiring Dwayne Roloson from the Islanders earlier this year. Roloson, who reached the Stanley Cup Finals in 2006 with Edmonton before getting hurt in said Finals, is back in form and while Tampa Bay’s defense isn’t the best in the world, Roloson has done well to keep the Lightning in games, allowing its offense to get the key goals needed to win games.

I think this will be an exciting series, even more so than the West Finals. I do think Roloson will be the difference in this series, even though Thomas is the better goaltender I don’t think Thomas will be able to fend off the Lightning attack for four games. The Lightning will reach the Finals for the second time in its history.