Saturday, May 28, 2011

2011 Stanley Cup Finals

The Stanley Cup Finals are finally set to be underway this Wednesday, June 1st. The Vancouver Canucks will represent the Western Conference, while the Boston Bruins will represent the East. Vancouver is making their third Finals appearance since their inception in 1970, while the Boston Bruins, who are making their eighteenth Finals appearance since 1924, are hoping for their sixth Cup overall and their first since 1972.

Either way, an approximately-40-year drought is about to end. Who will win?

I'm picking Vancouver with my head (in 6), but Boston with my heart (in 7).

I also don't think Manny Malhotra will quite make it back to play, as much as I'd love to see him return. It would ALMOST be enough for me to pull for Vancouver... but there's no way I'm doing that.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

What shouldn't be lost on anyone

If you said in January that the San Jose Sharks would make it to the Western Conference Finals to face the Vancouver Canucks, after making it through the Detroit Red Wings for the second straight year, you'd have been called insane. How could this team of four confused lines, three questionable defensive pairs and mind-numbingly schizophrenic goaltending ever reach its full potential?

Perhaps their full potential wasn't quite good enough, since they were after all eliminated tonight in 5 games by the Vancouver Canucks, a team that even the Chicago Blackhawks (the 2011 Hawks, mind you, not the 2010 ones) took to 7 games.

But the road through those admittedly balmy winter months was long, drawn out, and seemingly without a light at the end of the regular season tunnel. The fact that the Sharks ended up taking 1st in the Pacific Division (easily the most competitive of the NHL's six) and rallied to strip the second seed from the Red Wings shouldn't be lost on anyone, despite the common San Jose refrain that the regular season doesn't matter.

The fact that the Sharks, a team noted for being anything but clutch, went 5 for 6 in overtime playoff games shouldn't be lost on anyone.

The fact that Antti Niemi, initially viewed by many (myself included) as overrated, made us all forget the name Evgeni Nabokov shouldn't be lost on anyone.

The fact that Joe Thornton played Game 5 tonight with a separated shoulder and still earned an honorary third star of the night from the Vancouver media for his outstanding 2-way game shouldn't be lost on anyone.

The fact that Patrick Marleau responded to Jeremy Roenick's cat calls with 6 goals in 6 games shouldn't be lost on anyone.

But of course, the fact that San Jose has gone another year without a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals won't be lost on anyone.

Congratulations to the fans of Vancouver, who have waited over twice as long as we have for a Stanley Cup banner floating in the rafters.

Friday, May 13, 2011

2011 NHL Conference Final predictions

PHEW... my beloved team survived a true-to-stereotype meltdown of historic proportions and is poised to play the role of "underdog" against Canada's last hope. Meanwhile, an Original Six team with a 39-year Cup drought is looking to undo the incredible play (and goaltending) of this year's sleeper pick.

Who will be engraved on the chalice? Will the Cup return to Canada after 18 long years, or will it remain in America, perhaps in a "non-traditional market?"

Well, considering my awful, awful predictions about the Semifinals (although I hit the nail on the head for the Sharks... just not in the way I thought), I probably should quit while I'm ahead. But since I correctly guessed the victor (if not always the length) of 7 of the 8 quarterfinal series, I'm going to test my prophecy skills yet again.

EASTERN CONFERENCE = Boston Bruins over the Tampa Bay Lightning in 6 games.

WESTERN CONFERENCE = San Jose Sharks over the Vancouver Canucks in 6 games.

I know I've picked six quite a bit in the past few rounds, but these teams are too balanced for sweeps, and yet I don't think we're going to see any game sevens this time around. Goaltending will be a big factor in this, as Tim Thomas, Dwayne Roloson, Antti Niemi, and Roberto Luongo have been lights out for their teams. The weight of the world is going to fall on Luongo's shoulders, since the Vancouver Canucks rise and fall with his every save (or lack thereof). What's interesting to note is that the only goaltender to play a complete game in the Finals is Antti Niemi, who obviously won the Cup last year with Chicago. Roloson's only experience came in Game 1 of the 2006 Finals, when he went out of the game (and series) with an injury, never to return.

So yes, I'm playing the homer in picking San Jose in 6. It's more heart vs. head, but I've invested so much of my heart that my head is spinning, and can't be trusted anyhow.

Aside from my predictions above, I thought I'd rate the four possible matchups, from most compelling to least compelling:

1. Boston Bruins vs. San Jose Sharks (see below)
2. Boston Bruins vs. Vancouver Canucks (Original Six vs. post-expansion Canada)
3. Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Vancouver Canucks (veterans of southern hockey vs. upstarts of the Great White North)
4. Tampa Bay Lightning vs. San Jose Sharks (two non-traditional markets that will probably not interest many outside of the fanbases... although I'd be ecstatic to have this matchup)

The prime storyline of Boston / San Jose would of course be the Joe Thornton subplot, since he would be playing his old team. Furthermore, Boston hasn't won since 1972, almost 20 years before the Sharks even came into existence, so one Cup drought would be ended.

In fact, provided the Bolts (winners in 2004) don't make the Cup Final, one lucky / worthy team is going to finally shed the weight of its Cup drought. The representative of the Western Conference will by vying for its very first Stanley Cup. Vancouver is 0 for 2... is the third time a charm? Will they even get there?

San Jose is unique amongst the final four teams: it's the sole team left that has NEVER been to the Cup Finals. Boston last went in 1990 (and lost to Edmonton), Vancouver last went in 1994 (and lost to the Rangers), and Tampa's only appearance was a win in '04.

The drama begins this Saturday as the Bolts visit the Garden in Boston. The Sharks play the Canuckleheads the following day.

Go hockey.