The final four is all set. Four high-quality, incredible skating teams. Four 100-point teams.
It's the first time we've had four 100-point teams in the conference finals since 1977, when Montreal, Boston, Philadelphia and the New York Islanders were in action. The NHL had 18 teams that season and 12 made the playoffs (67 percent) in a true tournament-style format.
The first, second and third seeds received first-round byes. In the second round, there was a Boston-Los Angeles matchup. How about that travel?! The Bruins would reach the Cup finals only to get swept by the Canadiens. This after the Bruins swept the Flyers and Montreal beat New York in six.
Now, with an 82-game schedule, the introduction of overtime in 1983-84 and the shootout in 2005-06, I understand 100-point seasons don't mean as much as in the past, but they do give us an indication of a team's success. This season's final four had plenty.
(For the record, the final four's shootout records: Buffalo, 10-4; Ottawa, 2-6; Detroit, 2-8; and Anaheim, 4-10. So, if you take away the extra shootout points, these teams still would have had 100 points.)
Hence, there is no underdog factor left in these playoffs. No team can justifiably use that tactic. The rest of these playoffs are about smarts, toughness, courage, luck and goaltending. After a 7-1 prediction record in the first round, we went 2-2 in the conference semis. A 9-3 mark so far.
On to the conference finals.
No. 1 Buffalo vs. No. 4 Ottawa
Ottawa has 14 different goal scorers in these playoffs; Buffalo has 13. Ottawa is 8-2 in the postseason; the Sabres, 8-3. Ottawa played an inexperienced team (Pittsburgh) and another much slower club (New Jersey). Buffalo played two teams with good jam, but less overall depth and team speed (Islanders and Rangers).
Buffalo will have to adjust to Ottawa's pace. Ottawa will have to deal with an experienced, fast Sabres team. The Sabres will face a level of defense they have yet to face in the postseason. Ottawa also has seen two defensive corps with little depth and overall skill.
The series will come down to Buffalo controlling the Dany Heatley-Jason Spezza-Daniel Alfredsson line, the best line of the four remaining teams. If the Sabres do that, they should control the series, and Ryan Miller will probably be the biggest factor in that plan.
My head tells me the Senators will win this series. Their forwards are fast, their defense is tough and their goalie is fearless. That is a tough combination for Buffalo to crack. Ottawa looked very comfortable against the Sabres this season.
Ottawa is probably the wise pick here, but I'm going with Buffalo, the city, its fans and the home-ice advantage. Sabres in seven.
No. 1 Detroit vs. No. 2 Anaheim
Detroit steamrolled through talented San Jose with ease. Even if the Sharks went up 3-1, the Red Wings still may have come back. Detroit has a Hall of Fame goalie in Dominik Hasek and defenseman in Nicklas Lidstrom, whose legend continues to grow. If the Wings win the Cup, he will win the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.
Anaheim has seen two very stingy defensive teams in Minnesota and Vancouver, which should prepare the Ducks for a Mike Babcock-coached team. But Detroit is obviously in a different stratosphere than the Wild or Canucks. The Red Wings just played a team (the Sharks) that has zero presence on the blue line. (San Jose's No. 1 offseason priority should be signing Sheldon Souray. They badly need a player with attitude and a 100-mph slap shot on the back end.)
With Chris Pronger, Anaheim has plenty of attitude. The more leeway officials give Pronger, the better Anaheim's chances are. Last season, Todd Marchant was second on the Ducks with 13 points in 16 playoff games, and he should be back for the Detroit series. That is key for the Ducks, who aren't getting enough scoring.
I wish you were wrong about "Entourage," but you are not. I hope you are wrong about the Ducks' chances, but I fear that you are not. You have said the Kings will be much better next year, after five seasons of no playoffs. I can only hope you are right.
Huntington Beach, Calif.
The Kings have only about $30 million committed to salaries next season. They have plenty of money to land a big-time free agent or two. They could offer Jean-Sebastien Giguere a big six-year deal and sign a couple of economical defensemen and instantly be a playoff contender. I'm wondering how the Kings' brass feels about Dan Cloutier, his health and his contract -- it may affect the goaltender budget.
With Cloutier's injury-prone history and $3.1 million annual salary, it will be just about impossible to trade him. I've always liked Cloutier, but Giguere would clearly be an upgrade. I imagine GM Brian Burke would do what he could to make a trade and clear cap room, but Burke doesn't really have unreasonable salaries to deal.
Giguere certainly has leverage to garner a lucrative long-term deal this summer. The Kings are drafting fourth in next month's draft and will probably pick either Patrick Kane, Jakub Voracek, Alexei Cherapanov or Kyle Turris. I am very bullish on the Kings for next season and in the future. Kings fans should buy season tickets and be hopeful.
I am hurt by the comments I have heard from reporters, including yourself, about the empty seats at Joe Louis Arena. The empty seats are not a sign that Detroiters are any less passionate about the Red Wings. The empty seats are not a reflection of a shift in feeling for the team. It is a reflection of the tough economic situation in Metro Detroit.
Many people have lost benefits or been laid off. Many more know that they are at risk at any moment for their company scaling back. This is an immense stress and forces people to try and save money for what seems to be the inevitable. Three members of my family work for the automotive industry and we have faced tough times. I know it is hard for people outside the state to understand the situation in Michigan, but the tension is palpable if one spends time in the community.
We love the Red Wings and feel that as they win, we do, as well. But we cannot afford to attend the playoff games. While reporters may look at the empty seats with confusion, Detroiters look at the empty seats with an aching heart because we want to be in that seat cheering our team on.
Julia Helene Delekta
That's a fair point, Julia. Another factor may be that the Pistons and Tigers are both good and there is only so far the sports fan's dollar can be stretched. Gas is again over $3 a gallon. All the games are on TV. But, damn -- it's the Red Wings in the Stanley Cup playoffs. You would think every red seat would be filled.
I've been a hockey fan for a long time and I've never seen the game move this fast. The game has gone to "ludicrous speed." I know you're going to hate this comparison, but the NHL reminds me of the NBA in that the players have outgrown the confines of the playing surface. I think Olympic ice on every NHL rink would greatly help this situation. Give all of these extremely quick defenders an extra 10 feet to cover and see what happens. I watched the Ducks-Wild series, and no one on either team had any room. Ever. So why not make the ice surface bigger? That would give the Gaboriks and St. Louises of the world more room to squirt through the trap at the blue line. Why doesn't anyone ever mention this? Am I crazy or is everyone else?
I have often written that I am in favor of smaller ice. It promotes more collisions and a more intense battle of wills. I have often written that we cannot base any "rule" on the Swedish Elite League or any other league that isn't the NHL. We often hear players, coaches or administrator say this rule or that rule won't work in the NHL because it doesn't work in Europe or Venus or Prague. Like I've said, you can't compare the NHL to any other league. Maybe the ice needs to be a little bigger. Maybe it will allow for a split second more in time and less stick-on-stick hockey that sometimes dominates a game and pollutes flow. But what these players are able to do in small spaces with little time is exhilarating to me. The level of hockey is mesmerizing. The overall talent in the NHL, the way it has been coached and trained (on land and on ice) and the natural evolution of the sport has resulted in the highest skill level in NHL history.
I have what would seem to be a very simple solution to all of these video replays and controversial calls that have been a big part of these playoffs.
I don't know if you follow tennis at all, but CBS has been using something nicknamed the "Mac-Cam" since 1996 (named after John McEnroe). It's a super slo-mo camera that focuses on the baseline. Since then, there have been other versions like the "Hawk-Eye," which is used by ESPN and USA Network. It's a computer-generated technology that uses elementary data to track the tennis ball wherever it lands on the court.
These technologies are high tech and much more definitive. Do you know if the NHL has looked into any such technology or does the ice surface make this sort of thing impossible?
I received a few of these e-mails. I must admit, at first I dismissed them as emotionally based. But, as I thought about it, we should dream up and talk about ways where we can see the puck through goalies pads and bodies. Like an airport security camera or an X-ray of sorts. I understand cost is always a factor, but I think the NHL should, and probably is, thinking of how it can continue its very successful video review system.
How can you say that Chris Drury is not a bona fide future Hall of Famer? He might not put up the highest regular-season point totals, but his leadership, winning teams and playoff performance should lead to the sacred Hall by the end of his career.
As I write this, Chris Drury has played in 628 games and has 193 goals, 271 assists and 464 points. Drury turns 31 on Aug. 20. Let's say he averages 30 goals and 35 assists over the next six seasons while playing an average of 75 games a season. That's 450 games. Then, Drury's career numbers would look like 1,078 games, 373 goals, 481 assists and 854 points. Those are not Hall of Fame numbers if you take only numbers into account.
But we must remember, Drury plays in a defensive era. Obviously, there is more to take into account with Drury. What if he captains the United States to a gold medal in 2010? What if the Sabres win the Stanley Cup this season? And while, on the surface, those numbers don't look like Hall numbers, they are better numbers than Jacques Lemaire, who played in a much more offensive era. Lemaire also would have played in about 200 fewer games than our theoretical Drury number. If Lemaire played his entire career with the St. Louis Blues or Pittsburgh Penguins, would be a Hall of Famer?
Drury has also been blessed by playing on good teams. I think we can all agree I have been touting Drury's game since the 2000 season. No one has dissected or celebrated the subtleties of his game and the magnitude of his contribution. But, at this time, he is not a Hall of Fame lock. Is he on the right track? Absolutely. What we do know, if he wants to be a Hall of Famer, he will.
I have often said the Hall should celebrate all of the game's greatness, not just goal scoring and kick saves. All-around effort and commitment; exhibiting the values of the game; playoff scoring; the "clutch" factor; the relentless drive to do what's right every second of every game; to keep improving and lead by example. All of the above should be Hall of Fame criteria.
With Scott Gomez entering free agency, what are the chances that my favorite Alaskan will: (A) actually leave New Jersey; or (B) be pursued by the Blues (my favorite team)? Would he be a good fit? I think yes, but I'm basically choosing by emotion -- favorite team needs offense, favorite player is a playmaker. Your thoughts?
Very good. Scott Gomez would be good for any team in the league.
Scott Mellanby is a good man. I'm sad to see him retire. And all of us Thrashers faithful wish him the best.
Hopefully, Scott will be an analyst on a future "NHL 2Night" show.
My daughter's friend is such a fan of yours, she named her golden retriever "Buccigross." I would love to surprise her with an autographed picture. Any chance?
I don't think dogs can write, Tim.
Have you ever heard of the "Slingbox"? It allows you to watch cable TV, sent from the local signal at your house, to a computer via the Internet anywhere in the world. As a hopelessly optimistic Buffalo Sabres fan studying in Dublin, Ireland, it's the perfect solution to the "I'm-afraid-I-won't-be-able-to-watch-my-team-and-this-is-our-year" blues. It's a little pricey at $200, but a great idea for displaced hockey fans around the world. And besides, can you put a price on fan loyalty? My playoff beard is starting to itch.
My name is John Buccigross and I endorse Pete Yorn's new CD "Nightcrawler," peanuts and the Slingbox.
I started watching hockey when I was 19 and used to visit my future husband at Clarkson. I got hooked sitting behind the net in the first row, seeing Craig Conroy and having his whole family cheer him on. I progressed into a die-hard Sabres fan during the 1999 cup run. I have had my share of heartbreak. This year is different though.
We had our first child on Feb. 2. She was due on Jan. 27. We called her Teppo, not knowing the sex, but having her due on Jan. 27, which was also my birthday, and it being Teppo's number, it just felt right. Teppo scored on Feb. 3, we say in honor of Natalie, since it is not a frequent occurrence. On Friday, April 20, we had the privilege of a semiprivate meeting with the Stanley Cup. They let us place Natalie in the Cup, again a rare occurrence.
That night, the Sabres beat the Islanders at home for the first home series clincher in many years. It's all falling into place and we like to think it's in part for Natalie. The year she was born has to be the year the Sabres win the Cup. Here is a picture of Natalie in the Cup. It's a memory we will keep forever and can't wait to share it with her.
Grand Island, N.Y.
John Buccigross' e-mail address -- for questions, comments or cross-checks -- is firstname.lastname@example.org.