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Friday, 20 April 2007

The Nails In The Coffins

Two more teams were laid to rest in the NHL playoffs last night. The Pittsburgh Penguins were sent home to Steeltown with their tails between their legs, and the Minnesota Wild were sent back to the Land of 10,000 Lakes after spending a careless day in California. Both of these teams played hard, but it appears that there was one telling issue in both teams' losses: they ran into a well-oiled machine. The Anaheim Ducks and Ottawa Senators played extremely well in their first-round series, and the results show just how well they played.

The final nail in the coffin for the Pittsburgh Penguins came in Game Four off the stick of Anton Volchenkov to give the Senators a 3-1 lead in the series. Despite Ottawa's record of 10-22 in one-goal games, they delivered a knockout blow to the Penguins with Volchenkov's goal at 9:12 of Tuesday night's game, winning that game by a score of 2-1. Pittsburgh played hard and worked hard all game, but ended up on the losing side of the ledger. They never recovered.

Perhaps the more telling story is the one of who didn't show up in this series. While 19 year-old Sidney Crosby had a good series, he wasn't the same force as he was in the regular season. His supporting cast wasn't all that helpful either. For the season, Evgeni Malkin, Mark Recchi, Jordan Staal, Michel Ouellet, Gary Roberts, Erik Christensen, and Ryan Malone netted a total of 159 goals. In the series against the Senators, these seven men totalled five goals. Of those five goals, Staal had three, and Roberts had two. Pittsburgh's top five scorers for the season were Crosby, Malkin, Recchi, Gonchar, and Whitney. In the playoffs, they scored a total of five goals and 14 assists while posting 20 PIMs and a dreadful -11 rating. There are two problems with this: (1) The other 15 players on the Penguins scored a combined five goals and six assists while posting 58 PIMs and a -18 rating, and (2) of the ten goals the Penguins scored in this five game series, only five players scored on Emery. Of the regular players, only Roberts and Crosby finished at an even plus-minus rating. Everyone else was a minus. As Sid the Kid said about the disappointing series loss, "Maybe it's something that needs to happen for us to win." Maybe it is, Sid. The Gretzky-led Oilers had to learn to lose before they won.

On the other side, Ottawa played like a team on a mission. From the drop of the puck in Game One, Ottawa captain Daniel Alfredsson showed Mark Messier-like qualities in willing his team to victories with timely goals and smart plays. He didn't shy away from accepting responsibility like he had in past series where he earned the name Afraid-sson. Along with Alfredsson's fearless play, Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley showed some of the moxie that they had going in the regular season. Mike Comrie came to play, and getting contributions from role players such as Patrick Eaves, Anton Volchenkov, Joe Corvo, and Tom Preissing only added to Pittsburgh's woes. Ray Emery looked stellar in between the pipes, helped by the great defensive play of Volchenkov, Phillips, Corvo, Preissing, Meszaros, and Redden. Ottawa appears to be a legitimate threat to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals, especially when they roll four lines as good as anyone in the NHL.

"Four lines played pretty much the whole series for us, we didn't have to really shorten the bench a lot, which pretty much kept everyone fresh," said Alfredsson, who was terrific in this series. "We could do that more than Pittsburgh. We got the lead in most of the games and that made life a lot easier."

My prediction was blown out of the water, thanks to a hungry and well-prepared Ottawa Senators team. Kudos to the Senators. They deserve it.

In the West, Minnesota ran into a hungry Anaheim Ducks team, and it showed. Three one-goal games in the first three games were all Anaheim wins. Minnesota played desperate hungry hockey in Game Four, and won 4-1. However, Anaheim's depth showed true last night as they defeated the Wild 4-1 on home ice. Anaheim's strength was their defensive unit, and that showed on the scoresheet. Anaheim's seven defensemen who played in the series scored a total of four goals and eight assists while posting 27 PIMs and an even rating. Their top three of Chris Pronger, Fran├žois Beauchmin, and Scott Niedermayer actually put up all their points while logging 14 PIMs and a +1 rating. Only Aaron Rome and Joe DiPenta had minus ratings, with Rome sporting a -2 and DiPenta sporting a -1 in the series.

Minnesota played well, but Backstrom's inexperience and Anaheim's depth ended this series in five games. I called six games, but five is close enough.

So far, I'm 1-for-3 in series predictions. Not good at all. One series has gone completely opposite to what I had thought (Atlanta-New York); one series had a team show up and play outstanding hockey to prove they are as good as they say (Ottawa-Pittsburgh); and one series went according to how I thought (Anaheim-Minnesota). I only hope I break even for the first round.

Until the next elimination, keep your stick on the ice!

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