MVPs, matchups and mascots
Now that the Stanley Cup playoffs are down to the final four, our experts took some time to ponder what lies ahead. Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun answer these 10 burning questions:
1. Which player is your Conn Smythe front-runner at this point? Why?
Burnside: The sexy pick is Ryan Kesler, and with good reason, given his dominating performance against Nashville and given that the Sedin brothers have yet to truly make their presence felt this postseason. But keep your eye on Vincent Lecavalier, who has six goals and six assists and leads the postseason in game-winning goals with three.
LeBrun: Because I know everyone will pick Kesler, I will go against the grain. Give me some Joe Thornton. The reborn center is shedding his poor playoff reputation with a terrific spring, doing exemplary work against Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg in the series I just covered. Jumbo Joe is my MVP pick right now.
Ryan Kesler has five goals and 10 assists in the playoffs so far. Is that enough to make him the postseason MVP?
2. Is there a player you think needs to step up in the conference finals?
Burnside: Milan Lucic has just two goals this spring -- and both came in Game 4 against Philadelphia. So after scoring 30 times during the regular season, he'll need to find his scoring touch against Tampa, or the Bruins will be in trouble.
LeBrun: Patrick Marleau. OK, he scored the series-winning goal Thursday night, but that's one goal in seven games in the second round. The Sharks can't beat Vancouver unless their first-line left winger is more involved offensively.
3. Which player will be most effective in trying to shut down Kesler? How/why?
Burnside: Thornton. Go figure. The big, oft-maligned center has been terrific this spring and should garner some Conn Smythe discussion for his play thus far. If he draws the Kesler assignment and can control the big, talented Canucks center, he might start to hear even more MVP talk. Go figure. Did we say that already?
LeBrun: Well, that's going to be very interesting. Thornton has been given the most important defensive assignment in these playoffs for the Sharks, but if you're coach Todd McLellan, do you want him to line up against the Sedins or Kesler? That's what makes the Canucks so lethal. Then again, the Sharks run Thornton, Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski down their middle. Try stopping that. My guess is that McLellan will want Thornton on the twins and Couture on Kesler. But we'll see.
4. Which team has the goaltending edge in the conference finals?
Burnside: The San Jose Sharks and Antti Niemi appear to be the hottest team. Tim Thomas and Dwayne Roloson, though, have been exceptional. They just haven't played in a month, so we've forgotten what they look like.
LeBrun: None. Seriously, I see goaltending as an even proposition for all four teams.
Vezina Trophy finalist Tim Thomas led the league with a 2.00 goals-against average during the regular season, but does he have the edge in the playoffs?
5. Which trend will end: the Canucks taking too many penalties or the Bruins getting too few power-play goals? Why?
Burnside: Look for the Canucks to smarten up and stay, relatively speaking, out of the box. The Bruins' power play might be beyond fixing with Patrice Bergeron out, while the Lightning's penalty kill is stellar.
LeBrun: I think the Canucks will clean up their act. They must, because the Sharks' power play can bury you.
6. How will the Sedin twins perform against the Sharks?
Burnside: Like champions. We're expecting big, big things from the red-headed stars. Big things. Did we mention we picked the Canucks in six?
LeBrun: I expect the twins to have their best series of the playoffs. Daniel scored the clinching goal in Game 6 against Nashville to ease some of the pressure. They're ready for big things now.
7. Which East team will be able to overcome its injuries? Why?
Burnside: The Lightning already have shown they can win without Simon Gagne and Pavel Kubina, both of whom were injured in Game 1 against Washington and did not play in the final three games of the second round. Gagne is expected back, and Kubina might return before the end of the conference finals. If he doesn't, don't expect the Lightning to miss a beat. Not sure the Bruins can say the same about Bergeron, who will miss at least the start of the series.
LeBrun: Well, I picked Tampa in six, so I guess I have to say the Lightning. Why? Because the Eastern Conference is so mediocre that you don't need all your players to win.
8. Which of the two series do you think will go to seven games? Why?
Burnside: Neither. I have both ending in six games. Bring on the Cup finals.
LeBrun: Neither. I've got both ending in six.
9. Which coach has the toughest matchup to solve?
Burnside: San Jose's McLellan has to figure out what to do about Kesler. The problem is that by addressing that problem -- let's assume it's Thornton's line with Dan Boyle and Douglas Murray on the blue line -- it may create other problems. Assuming the Sedins get the wake-up call for this series, it's going to stretch the Sharks' average blue line to keep both forward units under control.
LeBrun: Canucks coach Alain Vigneault will need to figure out how to line up with San Jose's third line centered by Joe Pavelski. Having a U.S. Olympian centering the Sharks' third line shows just how ridiculous their depth is. The loss of third-line center Manny Malhotra for the Canucks might finally be felt here.
10. Take your pick: S.J. Sharkie or the Green Men?
Burnside: Both freak me out a bit, but the Green Men are scarier. Give me Sharkie.
LeBrun: Well, given that S.J. Sharkie assaulted me in an elevator recently, I'll go with the spandex boys.
The Green Men have become famous for their antics, but are they better than S.J. Sharkie?