Wednesday, May 18, 2011

NHL Eastern and Western Conference Catch-Up

The talk of the Eastern Conference Finals coming in was goaltending and how major its role would be in the series.  In two games already, there have been a combined 18 goals scored as the series is tied at one apiece heading to Tampa Bay.  Despite a 6-5 loss on Tuesday night, the Lightning have the Bruins right where they want them as they dominated Game 1 and now have the home-ice advantage working for them.  Tim Thomas, the likely Vezina Trophy winner, has allowed five goals in each of the first two games and has already allowed more than he did against Philadelphia in Round 2.  At age 37, Thomas is still capable of playing his very best hockey in hopes of leading the Bruins to their first Stanley Cup since 1971-72.  Dwayne Roloson had won eight straight games before faltering in Game 2, as he has the Lightning just three wins away from the Stanley Cup Finals.  Tampa Bay was a team that many people had forgotten about late in the season as they took a nosedive and lost the division lead, but they have made some noise in the post-season.

Offensively, the Lightning are still every bit as deep as they have been all season.  They have had 10 different players score their 10 goals in this series.  Their "spreading of the wealth" offensively has them in an enviable position heading home tied at one game apiece.  To their credit, the Lightning have rifled 74 shots at Thomas in just two games.  Possibly they took notes from both Philadelphia and Montreal and realize that getting the puck at Thomas, or any goalie for that matter, is half the battle. This young Tampa team tends to take on the tenacious personality of its coach Guy Boucher, and that is a good thing in terms of their grit and will.  Boucher, at age 39 and in his first NHL season has turned Tampa's fortunes back to pre-lockout.  Remember, they did win the Stanley Cup back in 2003-04, just before the lockout.  Perhaps no team was hurt more by the lockout as this is just the third time (post-lockout) that the Lightning have made the post-season.  The Lightning have shown in this series that they do not need success from Steven Stamkos, Vincent Lecavalier or Martin St. Louis alone to win hockey games.  Of their "big three," just St. Louis registered a point in their 5-2 victory in Game 1.

Boston finally was able to get something going in Game 2 as rookie Tyler Seguin took over with four points (2G, 2A).  Seguin, who had just 22 points this season, has already had six in two postseason games (both in this series).  He was nowhere to be found against Montreal or Philadelphia, but he has now stepped in for the injured Patrice Bergeron.  Although not glorified for offensive depth, Boston proves they have a bit of it with this replacement.  Keep in mind that Seguin himself is just 19-years-old.  Boston also boasts the ever-dangerous Milan Lucic (see above), Nathan Horton and Michael Ryder among others.  Defensively, Zdeno Chara, their captain, is their rock as usual.  Chara heads one of the game's best and deepest defenses.  In Tuesday night's game, the Bruins scored five goals on Roloson on just nine shots.  At long last, Boston's power play appears to be clicking as they have went 2-for-10 in the first two games.  At 20%, they are far better than in their first two series when they went an abysmal 2-for-37 with the man advantage.

Hit the jump to read about the Western Conference Finals:

The Western Conference Finals should play out a bit differently.  Through just one game, Vancouver leads 1-0 after a 3-2 comeback victory that preserved home ice.  After falling behind early on a late Joe Thornton goal, Vancouver fought back, scoring three of the next four goals to win the game. Ultimately, their two third-period goals from Kevin Bieksa and Henrik Sedin just 1:19 apart were the difference, as was goalie Roberto Luongo down the stretch.  Despite a valiant 35-save effort from reigning champion Antti Niemi, San Jose faltered and now needs to steal Wednesday's Game 2 in Vancouver to even the series.  One common theme that appears to have carried over from their four regular season meetings is the bitter hatred between the two teams.  Vancouver's Ryan Kesler and San Jose's Thornton already bickered and butted heads in Game 1 and will continue to do so.  These two square-off at the opening draw and it only gets more vile from there, as they will constantly be in each other's faces in hopes of a Western Conference crown.  There were a combined 64 hits in Game 1, which shows the hockey world that we are in for an intense, nasty series.

Both teams have offensive depth on three lines and even on defense.  The Sharks boast seven double-digit scorers (all with 20+ goals) while the Canucks had nine.  The Canucks show superior all-around depth, as they were #1 overall in both goals per game (3.1), goals allowed per game (2.2) and power play scoring (24.4%).  The oft-criticized "soft" Sedin Brothers paired up for another stellar season, combining for 198 points this season.  When there are nine other players adding 25+ points throughout the season, those stats are boosted up even more as the Sedins tend to make their teammates better. Additionally, Kesler has seen a spike in his scoring, as he hammered home 41 goals this season, up from last season's 25.  Those are the benefits that come with playing around two of the best players in the game: you tend to become one yourself.  That was not a misprint, Kesler has evolved into a force that will only continue to grow.  He is a complete player that is not afraid to take the body and the puck constantly follows him on offense.  Throw in their phenomenal defensive corps headed by Alexander Edler and Christian Ehroff and you have the game's most complete team.  Oh, and did I mention they have some all-world pro named Roberto Luongo in net?

San Jose got off to a fast start in Game 1 and even took a 2-1 lead into the 3rd period, but ultimately they did not have enough staying power to hang with Vancouver.  The Sharks will need to make fast adjustments and try to "steal" the ever-important, momentous Game 2 tonight.  This series could go a slew of different routes from here.  If Vancouver takes a 2-0 lead with Luongo (see left) in net, how could they lose the series, even if they are going on the road?  However, if San Jose wins Game 2, who's to say that clutch goalie Niemi can't "will" them the rest of the way?  Why not?!  He certainly did so last year when he backstopped Chicago to the Stanley Cup.  Keep in mind that this San Jose team is eerily similar to Chicago from a year ago as they have substantial depth.  If that were to happen, Joe Thornton must continue to play like "Big Joe" and deliver for the Sharks, proving his captaincy and value to the team.  Also, "Little Joe" Pavelski will look to step his game up, as he has just seven points in 14 playoff games.  Ditto Patrick Marleau and Danny Heatley, who have seven and eight points, respectively.  San Jose has more depth than they have shown so far, and now is the time to unleash it.

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