After early stumbles that had some thinking the heavily favored Bruins and Red Wings were down for the count, the two top remaining teams in the playoffs will try and squash the upset bug and advance to the conference final in do-or-die fashion Thursday night.
Detroit, clearly the best team remaining in the post-season when they’re firing on all cylinders, looked like an unbeatable force in Game 5, but a vastly different – and much more susceptible to toppling – squad showed up in Game 6. But what Wings team will come to play Thursday? Will the momentum brought by a sure-to-be-raucous Joe Louis crowd surpass the energy the Ducks will carry over from fending off elimination Monday?
In the East, the question becomes can Boston’s very talented, but very playoff-inexperienced top players keep fresh in their collective memory what they did so right to get this series back on even terms after falling behind 3-1?
As the Capitals found out Wednesday, don’t concede victory to the home team.
Depending on how you want to skew the numbers, history may or may not be with the favorites:
The Bruins have never recovered from being down 3-1 (0-21) and have rarely come back from 3-2 (2-16). The B’s do, however, hold a slight edge in Game 7s over the Carolina/Hartford organization; Boston is 9-8 all time versus the Hurricanes’ 2-3 record.
The Wings and Ducks, meanwhile, are each on the positive side of historical one-game showdowns; Detroit is 11-7 and Anaheim 2-1.
But while numbers are fun to talk about, they all go out the window when the puck drops.
For the two underdogs, goaltending is the absolute key. Both Cam Ward and Jonas Hiller will need to be close to perfect for their clubs to come out on top. The two tenders, who have each shown in this post-season they have the capability to come up large in key games, can’t afford to give up a soft goal.
The Wings and Bruins have home ice in these Game 7s for a reason: If you give them an inch, they’ll take a mile.
At the other end, Tim Thomas and Chris Osgood will, of course, need to be good. But – and it’s a big but – they don’t need to be great. Boston and Detroit have the talent to overcome an early or even late deficit. They can afford to be patient; they don’t need to press the issue because each has the ability to exploit an opponent’s mistake without exposing any openings themselves. The Hurricanes and Ducks don’t have that luxury.
The individual focal points in Thursday’s contests each feature a superstar forward facing off against an all-world defenseman. In Beantown, as it has been all series long, the battle between Zdeno Chara and Eric Staal may very well determine the game’s outcome. Staal has the ability to take over a game by himself if given the opportunity, but if Chara is successful in shutting down the 24-year-old, the Hurricanes will go out as little more than a calm breeze.
In the Motor City, all eyes will be on Pavel Datsyuk to see what, if any, effect Scott Niedermayer’s post-game spinning elbow will have on the Russian star. Don’t expect any vigilante justice from the three-time defending Lady Byng winner, but if Niedermayer can throw Datsyuk off his game or if Datsyuk can somehow draw Niedermayer into taking a penalty during a scrum, the result will go a long way towards determining which club gets clipped.
To non-partisan fans, Thursday promises to provide a blissful evening of channel flipping. But for those rooting for one of the four teams in action, it’s bound to be a nerve-wracking endeavor. If every mistake is magnified in the playoffs, they’re turned up to 200X zoom in Game 7 when any turnover, misplay or failed opportunity can be the difference between moving on and booking a tee time.
ROUND 2 AWARDS
Yes, there are a couple of games remaining in the second round and an other-worldly performance could vault one of the participants ahead of one of the below winners, but by the time my weekly blog slot rolls around next week we’d be too deep into the conference finals to look back.
So let’s go ahead and prematurely – and briefly – continue my now annual tradition of handing-out awards by playoff round.
MVP – Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh
Eight goals and 13 points in seven second-round games. Honorable Mentions: Alex Ovechkin, Wsh.; Jonas Hiller, Ana.
Best Player – Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh
Only needs seven goals to tie the all-time playoff record. Honorable Mentions: Alex Ovechkin, Wsh; Ryan Getzlaf, Ana.
Top Goalie – Jonas Hiller, Anaheim
Hasn’t faced less than 33 shots and is the main reason the Ducks are in Game 7. Honorable Mentions: Cam Ward, Car.; Tim Thomas, Bos.
Top Defenseman – Nicklas Lidstrom, Detroit
Continues to amaze, even at age 39. Honorable Mentions: Zdeno Chara, Bos.; Brent Seabrook, Chi.
Top Rookie – Simeon Varlamov, Washington
Despite a couple blips, still played great. Honorable Mentions: Niklas Hjalmarsson, Chi.; Jonathan Ericsson, Det.
Top Coach – Joel Quenneville, Chicago
Has kept his young troops focused amidst high pressure. Honorable Mentions: Paul Maurice, Car.; Claude Julien, Bos.
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Edward Fraser is the editor of thehockeynews.com. His blog normally appears Thursdays.
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