We're down to the final four teams in the 2010-2011 NHL hockey season. After the most entertaining first round of playoff hockey in decades, the semifinals were a bit of a letdown (all apologies to Detroit Red Wings fans). With Stanley Cup Finals berths on the line, here is a preview of both Conference Finals matchups.
(1) Vancouver Canucks vs (2) San Jose Sharks
Vancouver defeated the Nashville Predators in six games.
San Jose defeated the Detroit Red Wings in seven games.
Offense: This is a battle of the top two elite groups of forwards in hockey today. Ryan Kesler was the best player in the semifinals and almost singlehandedly led Vancouver into the Conference Finals. He is joined by Henrik Sedin and Daniel Sedin, both who were the focus of Nashville's press defense. The Sharks counter with an unfair amount of talent, including Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Devin Setoguchi, Ryane Clowe, and Logan Couture. They can match the Canucks' top line and send two more potent lines afterwards.
Defense: Ian White and Dan Boyle have been two of the strongest San Jose players all postseason. Their ability to shorten the ice and join the offensive play while still maintaining their defensive responsibilities against top-tier forwards made the difference against Detroit, and will play well against Vancouver. Both teams can play a strangling defensive game and lock down the blue line, but it's the San Jose defensemens' offensive ability that gives them the advantage in this series.
Goaltending: Roberto Luongo has been silencing his critics all playoffs long. Ever since his benching in Game Six against Chicago, the high-priced goalie has been as big in net as his paycheck. Yes, Nashville is far from an offensive juggernaut (lacking a true number one scorer), but that doesn't take away from Luongo's performance. Antti Niemi won the Stanley Cup last year, and the Sharks have determined him to be their long-term solution in net. He's been merely adequate these playoffs, and will face his greatest test against Kesler and the Sedin twins.
Whose forwards will show up? Vancouver has dearly missed the Sedin brothers so far in these playoffs, and yet they have advanced. San Jose needs Patrick Marleau to be one of the best players on the ice; that has yet to be the case. The Canucks have proven themselves to be an extremely flexible team; the ability to play a physical, defensive game with the personnel to play uptempo, offensive hockey. This will help them in this series. Unfortunately, San Jose is the type of team that gives Vancouver fits -- a top offensive team with elite talent on the first line that passes extremely well and superb shooting defensemen. Chicago defenseman Duncan Keith almost singlehandedly took down the Canucks in the first round, and San Jose is an overall better team than the Blackhawks. Vancouver is the stronger mental team, but San Jose is built to beat the Canucks this year.
San Jose Sharks in seven games.
(3) Boston Bruins vs (5) Tampa Bay Lightning
Boston swept the Philadelphia Flyers in four games.
Tampa Bay swept the Washington Capitals in four games.
Offense: This is a heavy, heavy advantage for the Lightning, despite the playoff breakouts of young Boston forwards Nathan Horton (5G, 5A), Patrice Bergeron (2G, 10A), and Brad Marchand (5G, 6A). This trio of under-25 forwards has given an okay Bruins offense some newfound legs. Much of that scoring can be attributed to the disaster that is the Philadelphia Flyers goaltending situation, but these players (along with David Krejci) are the real deal. Unfortunately, they'll be spending quite a bit of energy chasing Martin St. Louis, Steven Stamkos, and Vincent Lecavalier around the ice. The Lightning live and die by their offense, and it is far superior to what the Bruins can throw in a game. Tampa Bay is much deeper, and has more elite talent than the boys from Boston.
Defense: The Bruins pride themselves on defensive effort, led by captain Zdeno Chara. They were able to stifle a quick Montreal Canadiens team in the quarterfinals, and they completely stymied an excellent Flyers group of forwards in the semifinals. This will be their biggest challenge yet: stopping a resurgent St. Louis and keeping Stamkos away from the crease in front of goalie Tim Thomas. The Lightning have decent defensemen, including the young Victor Hedman, but they are not on Boston's level yet.
Goaltending: One of the goaltenders in this series has posted the following line in this year's playoffs: 8-2, .941 SV%, 2.01 GAA. Hint -- it's not Boston's Tim Thomas. Lightning netminder Dwayne Roloson (acquired last fall via trade from the New York Islanders) has been playing out of his mind this postseason. Granted, Pittsburgh and Washington are shells of their past offensive capability. But the 41 year old goalie's numbers are otherworldly. Boston has depended on a massive goalie advantage all season with the lay of Vezina Trophy favorite Tim Thomas; in this series, the netminders are on the same level.
Special Teams: It's very simple.
Tampa Bay is 12 of 45 on the power play this postseason for a very healthy 26.7% conversion rate. They have killed off 94.4% of penalties.
Boston has scored two total power play goals in the playoffs. Two.
Special teams will be the determining factor in this series. The Lightning have defeated two straight teams with defensive mindsets by blitzing through the schemes with sheer firepower. They'll face their toughest goalie and defense of the playoffs, but they have too many weapons to be completely shut down. Tim Thomas has to be otherworldly, and Dwayne Roloson has to be incredibly average for Boston to win this series and advance to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Tampa Bay Lightning in six games.