Tampa Bay (1) vs. Montreal (7) Lightning (46-22-8-6, 106 pts); Canadiens (41-30-7-4; 93 pts) Season Series: 2-2-0
Cinderfella number one, Tampa Bay, is still at the Ball, crushing the Islanders in the opening round and now seemingly poised to move onto the final four. Their position in a hockey outpost like Tampa makes them a nebulous analysis even if their President's Trophy points to their overall ability. The latest cannon fodder is Montreal, a better version of New York but only a slightly more difficult challenge.
Keys for Tampa Bay: Tampa will need to continue to rely on its strength, a dynamic offence, while trying to build on Nik Khabibulin's mind-boggling .972 save percentage from their opening round series against the Islanders. The Lightning dominated the third periods of all four games with the Canadiens this year, outshooting them 60-21 and outscoring them7-3. Those kinds of late game heroics could play a key role in this series.
Keys for Montreal: This should be fairly simple for Montreal. Keep Tampa's dynamic offence in check, stay out of the penalty box and attempt to get into low scoring games where bounces can go their way. They'll need to enhance their prospects by crowding the crease of Khabibulin who got too much of a free ride against New York.
Prediction: This is why you play hard all year to grab the President's Trophy, so you can have an opportunity for an easy run through the early rounds of the playoffs against lesser seeds. Montreal isn't the type of team that's going to take Tampa out. Lightning in 5.
Philadelphia (3) vs. Toronto (4) Flyers (40-21-15-6; 101 pts); Maple Leafs (45-24-10-3; 103 pts) Season Series: 3-1-0 Philadelphia
The enduring mystery in hockeydom is Philadelphia's Bobby Clarke deliberately putting himself in a position of vulnerability with second-tier goaltending, his theory being netminding is all about team defence rather than the big save. That theory will be tested yet again in this series.
Keys for Philadelphia: Without a doubt, the key to this series is the ability of near-rookie Robert Esche to match the netminding of future Hall of Famer Ed Belfour at the other end of the ice. The good news: Esche beat future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur fairly handily in the first round. Mark Recchi had a fairly quiet opening round and Kim Johnsson may not start this series after suffering a broken hand. With Eric Desjardins out, the absence of Johnsson could turn into an important factor if he's unable to go.
Keys for Toronto: Even Pat Quinn is conceding Toronto's first round win over Ottawa was all about Ed Belfour. The Leafs were anything but air tight against the swift and talented Senators who, fortunately for Toronto, basically shot themselves in their collective feet with their inability to convert the glorious opportunities repeatedly surrendered by the Leafs. But Toronto is a veteran club with a lot of winners on its roster. With Mats Sundin likely to return shortly into this series, the Leafs will nevertheless still have a reliance on Belfour to continue his magic and hope their rather porous defensive play will solidify.
Prediction: A tough series to call between two teams that look fairly identical in many ways. But we have to like the methodical way the Flyers dismantled the defending Stanley Cup Devils, a sign of a hockey team firing on all cylinders. Esche will beat Belfour and the string of futility in Toronto stretches to 37 years. Philadelphia in six.
Detroit (1) vs. Calgary (6) Red Wings (48-21-11-2, 109 pts); Flames (42-30-7-3; 94 pts) Season Series: 3-1-0 Detroit
Cinderfella Number Two is still at the ball but no one knows what time it is. Will the clock signal "midnight" during this series for the Flames? You have to know the plucky Flames want to signal they're not just happy to just be here but . . . . . some early success by Detroit in the first two games might be enough to put this one away early.
Keys for Detroit: During Detroit's opening round playoff series with Nashville, Chris Chelios was asked how the Wings were going to handle the speed of the Predators. His answer: "their speed is only good if you let them use it." Detroit is one of the premier clutch and grab teams in the NHL, possessing speed of their own in critical areas of their lineup but mission number one will be to slow the swift Flames forecheck to a crawl, allowing puck moving names like Lidstrom and Schneider to do what they do best.Rolling four lines and letting their natural depth advantage take control of this series would seem to be another obvious key. It might be an even series early on but it might not be too even later.
Keys for Calgary: The Flames are at their worst when they're sitting back waiting to see what the other side will do. They'll need to aggressively set the tone for this series by energetically getting in on Detroit's high profile but slow defence corps, creating cycle opportunities and sowing confusion in the Wings end of the ice. Miikka Kiprusoff is virtually unbeatable when Calgary limits the opposition to 25 or fewer shots but the talented Wings don't need much in the way of opportunities to pull wins out of their hat as Calgary found out several times this season. Calgary defencemen will have to bring the same tough, intimidating physical game that played a large part in upsetting Vancouver.
Prediction: With a healthier lineup, one could easily see a Calgary victory in this series but there may have been too much emotional capital expended against Vancouver and too many lingering hurts to overcome what is essentially a rested, elite team. Red Wings in 5.
San Jose (2) vs. Colorado (4) Sharks (43-21-12-6; 104 pts); Avalanche (40-22-13-7; 100 pts) Season Series: 2-1-1 Colorado
If defence wins championships, we're going to find out in this series, the high-powered Avs coming up against one of the ultimate smothering teams in the league, the San Jose Sharks.
Keys for San Jose: Evgeny Nabakov was horrible against the Avalanche this season (0-2, 4.94 GAA, .837 SA) and fairly terrible against them in the playoffs two seasons ago as well (3.49 GAA, .873 SA). A recurring theme? The Sharks had better hope not. For the Sharks to win this series they'll need to impose their physical will on a shift-by-shift basis over the smaller Avalanche, just as the Stars should have done in the first round. Through four lines we like the Sharks ability to shut down offensive teams like Colorado and we would give the edge on defence to the Sharks as well, even though Colorado as the uber-pairing of Blake and Foote.
Keys for Colorado: He may have beaten Marty Turco and Dallas but David Aebischer still let in enough eyebrow-raising goals that he has to be considered a key in this series. Still, Colorado has Peter Forsberg on its side, one of the ultimate power forwards in the game, as well as a host of other offensive talent. Colorado will also need a dominating series from Rob Blake and Adam Foote. In this end, where this series might be one or lost is through depth, the Avs desperately trying to shore up their sandpaper at the March trade deadline and maybe not coming close enough.
Prediction: I called for the Avalanche to get smoked by the large and aggressive Stars only to see Dallas implode under the weight of expectations. San Jose won't make the same mistakes the Stars did. Sharks in 6.