Tampa Bay (1) vs. Philadelphia (3) Lightning (46-22-8-6, 106 pts); Flyers (40-21-15-6; 101 pts) Season Series: 4-0-0 Tampa Bay
This is one series where we're going to find out if the regular season has any meaning at all, the Lightning owning Philadelphia from October to April.
Better yet, consider this confrontation a lab test for the trend overtaking the "new" NHL, speed versus brawn, darting agitation versus plain, old-fashioned mucking in the corners.
Is it just me or does seem like this could be a series where these two teams simply try to outscore each other, rather than patiently limiting chances and hoping for the one break that blows the thing open?
Keys for Tampa Bay: Tampa probably had the easiest route to the final four among all the teams still surviving, punching out the listless Islanders fairly easily then proving themselves a class above the Montreal Canadiens. In meeting Philadelphia, they're facing their first "A" team and one they dominated in the regular season. Tampa needs to establish its swift counterattack game in this series and put the Flyers on their heels. The last thing Tampa needs to do is get into a cycling game in their own zone against the huge Flyers so the best defence might be playing as far away from their end of the ice as possible, an old cliche but apt in this case. Vincent Lecavalier had a coming out party of sorts against Montreal and joins a forward cast that was already hot, led by MVP in waiting Martin St. Louis.
Keys for Philadelphia: On paper, this is a Flyers team as deep if not deeper than the Tampa lineup, in spite of missing Eric Desjardin on the blueline. The overpowering physical force of Keith Primeau has also been awakened in these playoffs. But ... they're just one step slower than the swift Lightning and that will be the equalizer, if not a full-blown advantage for Tampa. That and the fact that some of Philly's stars are only periodic performers this playoff year. Where are you Mark Recchi? The key for Philadelphia will be wearing down Tampa's rather average defence, using their physical advantage as a tool to sew confusion and pressure Nik Khabibulin who, in spite of his stats, hasn't been tested like he needs to be.
Prediction: Based on the season series, the Lightning might be prohibitive favourites in this series but the playoffs usually humble such assumptions. I said in the Calgarypuck preview the Lightning would be vulnerable to a team exactly like the Flyers. Now comes the test. I'd love to see Tampa in the final but this is the series where they'll finally be tested. And they'll fail. Flyers in 6. Flyers in 7.
San Jose (2) vs. Calgary (6) Sharks (43-21-12-6; 104 pts); Flames (42-30-7-3; 94 pts) Season Series: 2-2-0
Two teams that can sense a chance at destiny, both knowing how difficult it is to get to this point and how rare the opportunity might be. The ingredients for a great post-season series.
This won't be like a Colorado/Detroit western final, where both teams enjoy the moment but fully expect it and thus handle the situation professionally, with energy but an air of calm.
The Shark Tank is one of the loudest, most energized buildings in the NHL when the right situation is presented and now the Flames can legitimately say their fans are in that elite club as well.
Desperate. Young. Appreciative of the moment. And two of the fastest lineups in the NHL.
This could be a battle royale.
Keys for San Jose: The emergence of Johnathon Cheechoo into a premier threat in this post-season is a nice compliment to the coming out party for Patrick Marleau, now a de facto leader on this still youngish San Jose squad. Scott Hannan, late of tangling up Peter Forsberg, appears to be the guy elected to corral Jarome Iginla and, if you're a Flames fan, you have to like that matchup better than the first two rounds when Iginla was matched with Mattias Ohlund and Darian Hatcher. It'll be up to Hannan to prove that conclusion a lie. If he can't handle it, then Mike Rathje, a lanky and experienced octopus, might be the next in line. The next key element for San Jose would seem obvious, getting past Calgary forwards and on top of the Flames inexperienced defence corps with speed and purpose, pressuring Miikka Kiprusoff with shots he can't see. Lastly, Evgeny Nabakov has been every bit as good, maybe even better, than Kiprusoff in the Sharks net through the first two rounds.
Keys for Calgary: Calgary has survived two physically and emotionally draining series, with a number of key personnel now on the sidelines indefinitely and a persistent over-reliance on inexperienced youth. Yet some of Calgary's youth is of the right age and experience where it can be played to death without serious consequence, guys like Jarome Iginla and Robyn Regehr gaining incredible minutes and never seeming to tire. Calgary is now 8-1 in this post-season when surrendering two or fewer goals . . . . . and 0-4 when giving up three or more. The Flames will continue to win on the strength of their team defensive game and their quick transition to offence, anchored by arguably the best player in the game today, Iginla but also by the surprisingly timely contributions of the second line of Markus Nilson, Ville Nieminen and Shean Donovan. Lastly, Miikka Kiprusoff now has post-season numbers that mirror those which set records in the regular season. He'll need to continue to deliver a calm, cool mistake-free performance.
Prediction: There shouldn't be a lot of secrets here, more so than most series. Calgary coach Darryl Sutter knows everything there is to know about pretty much everyone in the San Jose lineup while the Sharks are decidedly familiar with Calgary's lynchpin, Kiprusoff. For San Jose, this might be all about containing Iginla - but that's what Detroit thought, only to find Calgary had secondary scoring from a number of sources. The Sharks are healthier than Calgary but, in a coin flip, we'll go with a team that seems to have a whirlwind of fortune pushing its fanny. Flames win in 7.