A Preview of the 2011 NHL Conference Finals

After last night’s 3-2 victory over Detroit, the San Jose Sharks have made their way to the conference finals for the second year in a row. It was not easy for the Sharks, who blew a 3-0 series lead, but, then again, nothing is easy during this time of year in the NHL. With San Jose’s win, all four teams are now locked into the conference finals, which begin on Saturday night when the Boston Bruins take on the Tampa Bay Lightning. San Jose faces off against the Vancouver Canucks in the western conference finals and that series begins on Sunday night.

Over the last few years, the conference finals have actually been the worst round. A series has only gone seven games only one time since the lockout and that was the first year after the lockout, when Carolina defeated Buffalo. Over the last two years, there have been two sweeps (one in each postseason: Chicago over San Jose last year and Pittsburgh over Carolina the year before) and the other two series have only lasted five games (Philadelphia over Montreal last season and Detroit over Chicago in 2009). Both of these conference finals series are evenly matched, though, so hopefully each one lasts at least six games. In the east, the Bruins and Lightning each had to play seven games in the first round and then swept their opponents in the second round. In the west, Vancouver and San Jose were #1 and #2 in the conference, respectively.
Now, it is time for some predictions:

Eastern Conference Finals:

#3 Boston Bruins vs. #5 Tampa Bay Lightning

(Boston won the season series 3-1)

As noted, Boston won the season series between the two teams. The games were close, except for one blowout by the Bruins, who beat the Lightning 8-1 on December 2. Each team has had a long layoff: Boston last played on May 6 and Tampa Bay’s last game was on the 4th.

Patrice Bergeron leads the Bruins with twelve points and three players (Brad Marchand, Nathan Horton and David Krejci) tied for the team lead in goals with five. The bad news for the Bruins is that Bergeron is out for Boston with concussion like symptoms, as of now.

For Tampa Bay, Martin St. Louis leads the club with thirteen points and Sean Bergenheim has the most goals with seven. On the injury front, Pavel Kubina looks to be out for the series with concussion like symptoms. Simon Gagne practiced with the team and looks to be a go for the series.

All in all, these two teams are evenly matched. Both goaltenders are playing very well, with Tampa’s Dwayne Roloson playing the best out of the four remaining goalies (2.01 goals against allowed, .940 save percentage, 1 shutout). Each team is also getting key contributions from their role players (Marchand and Kelly for Boston; Bergenheim and Moore for Tampa Bay).

A few weeks ago, I picked a Boston/San Jose Stanley Cup Finals (http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/7953261/2011_nhl_stanley_cup_playoffs_predictions.html?cat=14). The Bergeron injury for Boston is worrisome as they have great depth when he is the lineup. Boston has the best defenceman in the series in Zdeno Chara, who will look to neutralize Tampa Bay’s big three (St. Louis, Lecavalier and Stamkos). I’m going to stick with Boston because of their slightly better overall better depth (moreso on the blueline) and the fact that they have a workhorse in Chara.

Prediction: Boston in six games

Western Conference Finals:

#1 Vancouver Canucks vs. #2 San Jose Sharks

(Vancouver won the season series 3-1)

Like Boston/Tampa Bay, the season series between Vancouver and San Jose was pretty evenly matched with the exception of one blowout (Vancouver defeated San Jose 8-1 on November 26).

Center Ryan Kesler came on strong in the Nashville series (five goals, six assists, +2) and leads Vancouver with fifteen points. Daniel Sedin has six goals to lead the team. Winger Mikael Samuelsson looks to be out with a lower body injury. Manny Malhotra, out with an eye injury, will not play but did practice with the team, which was surely inspirational.

Ryan Clowe, who has been battling an injury, leads San Jose with thirteen points. Rookie sensation Logan Couture has six goals, which is tops for the Sharks. Other than Clowe, the Sharks seem to be relatively healthy.

Vancouver has the edge in net with Roberto Luongo. However, Sharks goalie Antti Niemi did lead Chicago to the Stanley Cup last season.

While each team has plenty of depth, this series differs from the other one in that it will be decided by which team’s top players play better. Will it be Vancouver’s trio of the Sedin twins and Kesler or San Jose’s Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Danny Heatley? All six players have struggled at points during this postseason.

As mentioned earlier, I picked a Boston/San Jose final. If San Jose had taken care of business earlier against Detroit, I would obviously feel more confident in that prediction. With that said, I do like the fact that San Jose showed some gumption and withstood the Red Wings. I will stick with San Jose for the sake of it, but I do not feel good about it.

Prediction: San Jose in six games

Thanks for reading. Here’s hoping we get two very exciting series.

Until next time —