Big matchups (and a crush?) in the conference finals
Editor's note: In our "Friday Faceoff," ESPN.com NHL writer Scott Burnside (based in Atlanta) and Toronto Star columnist and frequent ESPN.com contributor Damien Cox (based in Toronto) duke it out over any given hockey topic. Let the games begin!
This week's topic: The start of the conference finals. What else?
Scott Burnside: Hello, Damien. It's been a long time. I see the Leafs are still making news, now without a proper general manager, no coach and no hope. It's nice to see some things never change. But, in the real hockey world, we're getting ready for what looks like two titanic conference finals (not one to go in for hyperbole, usually). What do you think?
Damien Cox: Don't know about titanic. But I would say the league has to be thrilled to get four of the top 22 U.S. television markets into the final four, with none of those annoying little Canadian markets to get in the way. It looks like any combination of the four possible Stanley Cup finals would make the league happy, although Pittsburgh-Detroit, I think you'd agree, would be everyone's first choice. Well, everyone outside of Philly and Dallas.
Burnside: Yes, in some ways, it's kind of sad not to have a Canadian representative in the final four. It'll be the first time since 2003 that there hasn't been a Canadian representative in the Cup finals. Having the Canadian buzz as part of the mix has always been a nice addition to the proceedings. But, given the way the Flyers and Penguins appear ready to wage war across the state of Pennsylvania, maybe it won't matter. I agree that a Pittsburgh-Detroit final would be compelling, and I figure that's how it's going to shake out.
Cox: Well, I'm sorely tempted to go with the Flyers because I picked them to beat the Caps, and they did. But I then picked them to lose to Montreal and they hammered the Habs in five games. There's something slightly helter-skelter about the Flyers to really like. They are driven by youth and exuberance, mainly, plus a little bloodlust. It's an amazing story, going from dead last to the final four in a year, but something tells me this Pittsburgh team is on the kind of roll that is going to be too much for Philly to stop.
Burnside: I didn't think the Flyers would get past Washington and if Sergei Fedorov had looked up for an Alexander Ovechkin pass in the third period of Game 7, they would have. But I digress. Like you, I didn't think the Flyers had a chance against the Habs because of their defense, yet they refused to wilt. And they can bring it offensively. I think the Penguins defense, as underappreciated as it is, will be a key. Also, I think the Flyers' inability to stay out of the penalty box will cost them in a way such transgressions never seemed to cost the Anaheim Ducks in 2007.
Cox: I think you'll probably be right. Here are two matchups worth watching. First, the goalies. As in any series, previous experience at this position is important, but neither Marc-Andre Fleury or Martin Biron has extensively proven their chops in postseason play. Both have been very good in the playoffs, but if Fleury wilts, the Flyers have a chance. Especially after they sure made Cristobal Huet and Carey Price look ordinary in the opening rounds.
Second, I want to see Mike Richards match up against Sidney Crosby. The Flyers will yak at Crosby and accuse him of diving, etc., and Richards will lead that assault. Whether that slows Crosby or opens up more room for Evgeni Malkin will be intriguing.
Cox: Maybe. But he's a little older and a little more experienced than Fleury, and the Flyers have a lot more offense to throw at the Penguins than did the Senators or Rangers.
Burnside: Well, I'm not sure you wouldn't consider Jaromir Jagr, Chris Drury, Scott Gomez, Brendan Shanahan, Sean Avery, et al., chopped liver, but I'll give you that. Still, Fleury has looked completely calm in whatever situation he's been placed. Don't expect that to change. As for taunting Crosby, that didn't work out so well for the Rangers, did it? And I think Crosby has managed to score at a pretty regular clip against the rough and tough Flyers. Frankly, I just think it makes Crosby more determined when you poke him. There's something about a sleeping bear.
Cox: My, oh my! My pal Scotty has a crush on the Penguins! Should we just skip the formalities and award them the Cup now?
Burnside: You see, you're trying to bait me now, and I'm going to just ignore you, which is surprisingly easy to do. Should be a great series and I don't think it will be decided by someone whispering sweet nothings in Crosby's ear. So, what do you make of the Western Conference, Mr. Taunter?
Cox: Oh, I think the Penguins will probably win the West, as well OK, OK, I'll stop. My quick reaction is Detroit looks unstoppable, with the Wings having had to work much less so far compared to the Stars, who pounded out hard victories over Anaheim and San Jose. The challenge for the Stars, I think, will be to create enough offense, because they're not going to get all those power-play chances from Detroit. That said, Marty Turco looks great in the Dallas net, and there's still a bit of uncertainty at the other end, wouldn't you say?
Burnside: I picked the Stars to upset Anaheim, but didn't have courage to pick them against San Jose. Still, I am impressed with how Dallas debunked all of the things everyone thought they knew about the Stars and how they play in the playoffs. But I think you're right; a lot of energy was expended to get here. You look at the Red Wings' blue line with Brian Rafalski, Nicklas Lidstrom and Niklas Kronwall, and that's a tall order. The issue will be if the Stars can get to Chris Osgood and force coach Mike Babcock into going back to the wobbly Dominik Hasek. It could happen.
Cox: The two postseason revelations for Dallas, I think, have been winger Brenden Morrow, a force every night, and defenseman Stephane Robidas, who did a great job filling in for Sergei Zubov until Zubov returned from abdominal surgery partway through the second round. The other guy worth watching is "Avery of the West," Stars winger Steve Ott, who has been more than just a pest, playing some good hockey. The Stars, like every team that plays Detroit, will have to try to be physical, and guys like Ott and Morrow will have to be prominent.
Burnside: I think the player to watch will be one of those rare deadline acquisitions who could have a powerful influence on a conference final, and that's Brad Richards. He's had a strong playoff so far and he's a guy who has shown a penchant for timely scoring too. With Richards, Mike Ribeiro and Mike Modano down the middle, that might be a key area where the Stars hold at least a slight edge over the Red Wings.
Cox: So, we're giving Dallas the edge down the middle and in goal. So why aren't they going to win this series?
Burnside: Because the Red Wings have a pretty significant edge along the blue line and the Dallas edges are baby ones. Unless, of course, Osgood starts re-reading all those stories from 1998 about how he was the worst goalie to win a Stanley Cup. Didn't you write them?
Cox: Believe I did. Of course, he was letting a few in from the blue line in those days. I think Dallas can make this series close, probably closer than Philly can make the Eastern finals. If the Stars can control The Mule, they'll be there right to the bitter end. So, who stops scoring first, Johan Franzen or R.J. Umberger?
Burnside: Hmm. Good question. Got to figure it's Umberger, given my Pens crush and all. Who fights first, Georges Laraque or Ott?
Cox: Well, I'm imagining the Red Wings, as a group, will be incensed after Detroit lost out on Fabian Brunnstrom to the Stars. Fabian, who? Probably a topic for another day, yes?
Burnside: Well, you could write a book on Fabian-what's-his-name, so you're probably right. Until next time.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Brodeur: Beyond The Crease" and "'67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire."
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