The Calgary Flames are on to the conference finals, and that suits me just fine. I’m in Alberta now--in Banff, just an hour from Calgary--and the feeling is good. They are riding a hot rookie goaltender; their young, inexperienced defencemen are playing way beyond themselves; and they are getting scoring from all over the place (eight wins, seven different players with game-winning goals). Are the 1971 Montreal Canadiens in the house?
They beat the best team in the league in six games, and they will have some rest before they take on San Jose. They are a team of destiny, as I think I’ve said from the start. Plus, I’m going to be in Alberta for the next month. How can I not pick them to win again?
Here’s a good reason: I’ve underestimated the San Jose Sharks twice now, and to do it again would seem, well, uncalled for. Have they not yet earned my respect? Granted, the St. Louis Blues didn’t put up much of a fight, but the Colorado Avalanche, despite falling behind early, made a valiant effort to look like the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs or 1975 New York Islanders (the only teams to come back from 3-0 series deficits in the Stanley Cup playoffs). Joe Sakic scored two overtime goals to bring the series to 3-2, but in the end, Patrick Marleau and Vinnie Damphousse made Sakic and Forsberg look like Henry Clay and Stephen Harper (i.e., big losers), and Evgeni Nabokov made the entire Avalanche team look like a bunch of fourteen-year-old girls. Scott Hannan outplayed Rob Blake on defence (before Blake’s injury in Game Three), and if you are asking “Who?” you aren’t alone. He will draw Jarome Iginla in this series, and though Jarome has managed to escape his shadows so far, Hannan, who handled Peter Forsberg, is no Aki Berg.
So when two hot goaltenders meet, who wins? I’ve got to go with Calgary’s status as my “team of destiny.” Kiprusoff is looking ridiculous while Nabokov is maybe relying more on his team’s offence, so it’s not so much goalie versus goalie in my mind, but goalie versus offence. In that case, hardworking Calgary in 6.
The Tampa Bay Lightning have been sitting around for a week, while the Philadelphia Flyers have been playing every other night, working hard, keeping their minds and bodies engaged with this now four-headed monster called the Stanley Cup playoffs. Some might think of that as an advantage, but I think Tampa Bay will bow out this time. It won’t be easy, though.
On the plus side, the Lightning have won eight of nine games; their goaltender is solid, if not hot (it’s tough to stay hot when you take a week off); their star players (Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier) are scoring; and their wily veterans (Dave Andreychuk) are chipping in.
The main obstacle is that they have not yet faced a good team in these playoffs. Beating the number eight and number seven seeds is what the first-place team is supposed to do. In the Eastern Conference, the big guns were Philly, Toronto, New Jersey and Ottawa. (Boston was on the cusp of this elite group, but we know what happened to them; besides, they really didn’t deserve the second seed: they won four fewer games than Toronto, the fourth seed.) Those four teams played in much harder series than did the Lightning, and that experience, especially when you win, is worth something as spring turns to summer.
Tampa Bay just might be the next NHL dynasty, in which case they will beat whoever they play; however, usually you have to lose first to learn how to win. Tampa has lost in the playoffs before, obviously, but not when there was anything at stake. The expectations are higher now. If this young team meets those expectations, they will have success; if they don’t, however, that youth will build on the experience of loss, and they may be a threat in seasons to come (if there are seasons to come).
The Philadelphia Flyers haven’t beat Tampa Bay all year, but in disposing of Toronto and New Jersey, they have gained momentum and confidence. Though the Flyers were probably lucky to win the last game against Toronto (Roenick’s goal was deserved, but they didn’t play very well and Toronto had numerous chances to win), they won the series because they were good, especially at home. Their goaltender is solid, though I wouldn’t characterise Robert Esche as hot, and they are getting balanced scoring. They are bigger than Tampa, certainly, but not as fast. If the Flyers can crunch the Lightning defence with aggressive forechecking, that will neutralize Tampa’s transition game and allow Philly to spend more time in the offensive zone.
The Flyers’ experience dwarfs that of the Lightning. Roenick, LeClair, Recchi, Primeau, Amonte and Handzus are not just veterans, they are big veterans. Andreychuk may be cunning, but he doesn’t have the skills or size of these Flyers. St. Louis, Richards and Lecavalier are skilled and, with the exception of Martin St. Louis, big (not to mention tough). But not only do they lack career experience, they lack the hardening experience of recent playoff challenges.
So, the refrain is experience, experience, experience: Flyers in 7.
Postscript: Yes, I am sad, sad, sad that my Leafs are gone. Though they did get blown away in game 5, at least they mounted a comeback and almost won in overtime in the last match. I suppose it is my job to reflect on the Leafs season, but I need a little break for mourning. In the meantime: Go Flames Go!