Not since the New York Rangers faced the Vancouver Canucks in the Stanley Cup final in 1993-94 will an Eastern Conference team be such a clear favourite over whichever candidate might eventually emerge from the West.
With the demise of the Canucks last night, leaving the remarkable seventh and eighth seed Minnesota Wild and Anaheim Mighty Ducks to fight over which will represent the West in the final round, the eastern candidates, New Jersey and Ottawa, were among a short list of logical candidates you might have wagered would still be standing at this point in the post-season.
The Rangers were 28 games over .500 and President Trophy champions when faced with the Canucks, only one game over .500 in the regular season, in the Stanley Cup finals of 1994.
The disparity won't be that large regardless of which of the Ducks and Wild advance, but it would also be fair to say its been a long time since the Eastern Conference had such a clear shot at taking home a Stanley Cup. The Sens were 31 games over .500 this year and the Devils 28 while the Ducks and Wild weren't pushovers, both 13 games over.
They play the games on the ice and not the stat sheets, however, and Anaheim's consecutive upsets of powerhouse Detroit and Dallas in recent weeks as well as Minnesota climbing back twice from consecutive 3-1 series deficits against Colorado and Vancouver, should serve notice the West will still be a challenge.
Just as Vancouver was a handful for the Rangers in 1994.
Ottawa (1) vs. New Jersey (2)
Senators (52-21-8-1, 113 pts); Devils (46-20-10-6; 108 pts);
Season Series: 3-1 Ottawa
Both of these teams know that if they win this round all that stands between them and a Stanley Cup is Anaheim or Minnesota. Certainly the pressure is on to try and advance. Experience lies on the Devils side while the Senators have a ton of speed and skill.
Ottawa is often overlooked as having one of the most dynamic offensive machines in the NHL and has a clear advantage over the Devils in that regard. In turn, that's bad news for New Jersey which now faces a team that is just as competent as they are defensively but generally far superior at the other end of the rink. The great equalizer for New Jersey is Martin Brodeur who may not be terribly better than Patrick Lalime statistically but few GM's in the league would realistically pass on the former in exchange for Ottawa's netminder. The other equalizer is fiery and emotional Pat Burns with a ton of playoff success under his belt and an innate sense of how to squeeze the last ounce out of his vastly experienced players. Contrast that with the still neurotic but rising Senators and this won't be a cakewalk. Both teams will try to grind this down to a game of occasional mistakes, the balance perhaps depending on Zdeno Chara being able to match the evil deeds of Scott Stevens. Unfortunately for the Devils, Ottawa has far more game-breakers than they do. Senators in six and a trip to the Stanley Cup final.
Minnesota (6) vs. Anaheim (7)
Wild (42-29-10-1; 95 pts); Mighty Ducks (40-27-9-6; 95 pts)
Season Series: 2-1-1-1 Anaheim
Its hard to write "Ducks/Wild in round three" without the mind blowing apart in denial. That both would take the rockiest of roads to get to this point speaks to their guts and their ability to play within their limitations. Both have been anchored by great goaltending, the Ducks relying on emerging star Jean-Sebastien Giguere more than the Wild with the latter more dependent on an overall team game. Wild coach Jacques Lemaire in post-game interviews in Vancouver last night seemed to be slack jawed in astonishment at the offensive production coming from his team, an offence that appears to be coming out of the woodwork and converging in one spot on this incredible run. In truth, there would seem to be little separating these two teams. Through the regular season Anaheim won twice, both by 1-0 scores, while the Wild also won twice, 4-1 and 2-1 in overtime. Anaheim has a bit more star power in Adam Oates, Paul Kariya and Sandis Ozolnish versus only Marian Gaborik on the side for the Wild. Anaheim probably has the better goalie in Giguere but the methodical Wild compensate with their stern attention to detail. Through four lines, Minnesota is deeper or deep enough to play their system mercilessly. We're going to call the Wild the Panther's of 2003, moving to the Stanley Cup finals in only their third season after beating the Ducks in seven.