First-round breakdown: Oilers vs. Red Wings
The Red Wings defied many observers who thought they would struggle in the New NHL by doing what they've been doing for most of the last decade -- winning by playing solid, balanced hockey. New head coach Mike Babcock evolved seamlessly from coaching the defensive-minded Mighty Ducks to the high-powered Red Wings, who finished with their third Presidents' Trophy in the last four seasons.
The Oilers, meanwhile, backed into the playoffs, playing well only in spurts down the stretch. The jury remains out on new No. 1 netminder Dwayne Roloson, whom the Oilers acquired from Minnesota for a No. 1 draft pick at the trade deadline. The Oilers have the sixth-ranked road team, while the Red Wings are far and away the best road team in the league.
In some ways, this is a good matchup for the speedy, hard-working Oilers. There are still question marks about the netminding tandem of Manny Legace and Chris Osgood in Detroit and whether it's Stanley Cup worthy. There's also the matter of the Wings' gaudy record, which was bolstered by hammering weak divisional sisters Columbus, St. Louis and Chicago 24 times during the regular season and the long-term effect of having 10 players who took part in the Olympics. Still, the Wings did not lose in regulation in 20 of their last 22 games (17-2-3), and this would be a monumental upset if the Oilers were able to pull off their first playoff series victory since 1998.
Why the Red Wings will win: Quite simply, the Red Wings are the vastly superior team. No. 1 on the power play, third overall on the penalty kill, tops on the road. "They can hurt you in so many ways," one top pro scout told ESPN.com this week. "Do I think the Red Wings are legitimate? No question about it."
Even if Legace and Osgood don't put you in mind of Patrick Roy, Johnny Bower or Ken Dryden, it shouldn't matter. All they have to do is keep the Wings close and the team's depth and talent should do the rest. The late-season resurgence of captain Steve Yzerman (he had an 11-game point streak down the stretch) and the return from injury of top rookie defenseman Niklas Kronwall are key elements to what should be a long postseason run. "He's a star," added another scout, who has him as the second-rated defenseman on a club loaded with good young defensemen.
After saving the game during the lockout, Brendan Shanahan has returned to form as an elite scorer with his first 40-goal, 40-assist season since 1996-97, his first in Detroit. He is the all-time active leader in game-winning goals. As for Legace and Osgood, their primary challenge is in not costing the Wings games as they try to get back to the Cup final for the first time since winning in 2002.
Why the Oilers will lose: Even though the Oilers are a good road team, have decent special teams (eighth on the penalty kill, 12th on the power play) and played the Red Wings tough this season going 2-2, they are not disciplined enough to stay with the Red Wings.
Defenseman Chris Pronger has a history of melting down in the playoffs and veteran Michael Peca seems to be in entirely the wrong headspace to provide the kind of performance the Oilers need from him to stay close to Detroit.
Roloson, 8-7 with 2.42 goals-against average since coming over to the Oilers, is simply not good enough to enact what would be the upset of the first round. At best, Roloson can saw off Legace and Osgood and that's not good enough. One top NHL scout said he thought the Oilers were one of the most inconsistent teams in the playoffs. The Oilers hope to tire the Wings out over a long series. Sadly, the Oilers aren't playing a best-of-19.
Prediction: Red Wings in six.
Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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The matchups are set and the puck drops Friday. We're ready for the NHL playoffs, and Scott Burnside takes a look at each first-round series.
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