Detroit, Pittsburgh face first real tests of postseason
As promised, here are my breakdowns and predictions for the conference finals:
When Bucci wanders the halls here at ESPN, people stop and shout, "Hey, it's the hockey guy!" But he's not exactly thrilled with the moniker. Our self-proclaimed "freak" explains why.
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• I'm not the hockey guy
Some teams are front-heavy, like Colorado, and some teams are back-heavy, like Anaheim. Dallas and Detroit have no such issue. Both are balanced, and that's why they are the final two teams standing in the West. It is hard to believe the last time these two teams met in the playoffs was 1998. Detroit won that series and the two other playoff series between the clubs.
I love Detroit because:
• It has the three best players in this series. If I ranked every player on these two teams, my top three would be: (1) Nicklas Lidstrom; (2) Henrik Zetterberg; (3) Pavel Datsyuk. That is a solid head start when trying to pick a winner between two very good teams.
• It has a red-hot player in Johan Franzen. This did not come out of nowhere. On March 2, the Red Wings were in Buffalo and had just one win in 11 games. One out of 11! "The Mule" scored a goal in Buffalo and the Wings won 4-2. Counting that game, Franzen scored 15 goals in the last 16 regular-season games, and Detroit won 12 of those final 15 games. Franzen hasn't been hot for a few weeks; he's been hot for two months. This changes the dynamic of the entire team because it knows it has added an All-Star caliber player through metamorphosis.
• Detroit scored more and gave up fewer goals than the Stars during the regular season. Those are powerful numbers.
I love Dallas because:
• The Stars might have the best goalie still standing in the postseason. All four goalies obviously are playing well; their teams wouldn't still be playing otherwise. But Marty Turco has some real juice to his game right now. It is sometimes hard to judge Turco because he seems impossible not to like. He is funny, perceptive and friendly. He also is quirky, which I appreciate. Detroit got good matchups in the first two rounds. Dallas and Turco will be a different story.
• The Stars seem to have a karma about them. In the past, I've often relied too much on that stuff. In the past, I probably would have picked the Flyers and Stars to meet in the Stanley Cup finals. I try to rely on data and gut now. But Dallas is 8-4 in its past 12 games, all of which were against Anaheim and San Jose. Those are two 100-point teams. Detroit hasn't played a 100-point team yet. The Stars' competition has been far more difficult than Detroit's. I'm now starting to question myself.
• Brenden Morrow is possessed by the spirit of Cam Neely. Good golly, gosh darn, now I feel like a hypocrite. I'm betting against the spirit of Cam! Bless me Father, for I have sinned!
The casual hockey public perception probably would surmise that the Penguins scored more goals than the Flyers during the regular season and the Flyers gave up fewer. Well, actually, it's the opposite. Understand two things about this series:
1. The Penguins are a very good defensive team. Why?
• Because every player in the NHL pretty much plays both ways in the 21st century NHL as opposed to during the Gretzky-Lemieux era.
• Because they are a tight unit whose members make plays and sacrifices for one another.
• Because they have players with height and reach. Malkin, Staal, Hal Gill, Whitney and Malone cover a lot of ice.
• Because they have a very talented goalie, Marc-Andre Fleury, who was a No. 1 overall draft pick and has an easygoing manner that appears to be similar to that of an effective baseball closer. He shrugs off goals and games because he has talent.
This is why the Penguins have been my Stanley Cup pick -- because they are a very good defensive team.
2. The Flyers are very good offensive team. Why?
• Because they have grit to sustain their offense in the postseason. Mike Knuble, Scottie Upshall and Scott Hartnell have combined for 18 points. They aren't the best playmakers, but they don't have to be because the Flyers have plenty of them. They have defined roles, which is the most important aspect of any organization or team. Play hard and play tough. That's what the Flyers do.
• They have two good skating defensemen. Kimmo Timonen has been a double-digit scorer from the back end and Braydon Coburn will be in the future. They don't have to carry the load and shouldn't be intimidated by the Penguins' defense. Their group is just as good. Sergei Gonchar's slap shot is a major weapon and he's among the NHL's elite, but the strange slippage in Whitney's confidence and play makes the defensive pairings of the Flyers and Penguins about a push. If Whitney can get some swagger back, this will give the Penguins a big jolt. Letang, meanwhile, continues to look composed and confident, and his improving game is another reason to be bullish on the Penguins. But let's get back to the Flyers.
• The Flyers have finishers. They have Briere, Carter, Joffrey Lupul, Knuble from the top of the crease, Umberger in the playoffs and Richards' will and savvy. With the dysfunctional and injured Senators and the offensively limited Rangers, the Penguins didn't have to worry about their opponents' offense. The Pens were much better than their opponents, as their 8-1 playoff record shows. The Flyers are a whole different story. They have multiple scoring lines and a very good power play. They will create more chances and have more chances. This puts a lot of pressure on the Pens' defense, especially Fleury.
This series is actually counterintuitive to what the casual or slightly out-of-touch hockey fan might see. Pittsburgh is the best defensive team the Flyers have faced so far this postseason. Philadelphia is the best offensive team the Penguins have played so far. That makes this a very interesting matchup. Since the Penguins have the defensive edge, I'll take them. Defense is more dependable than offense.
Penguins in seven.
John Buccigross is an anchorman for "SportsCenter" and ESPNEWS. For questions, comments or crosschecks, e-mail him at email@example.com. To check out his new book, "Jonesy: Put Your Head Down & Skate," click here.
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