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Neutral Zone Wrap: Stanley Cup Preview

Evan Berofsky

Evan Berofsky

Evan Berofsky enjoys writing. Seriously. When he’s not trying to shove hockey miscellany down your throat, he gets his kicks playing tournament Scrabble(TM). If you have anything to say about Evan’s work (or need any hot word tips), feel free to contact him at eberofsky@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter (@evanberofsky).

Even though the conference championships featured some thrills, it was definitely a letdown to see them end so quickly. Montreal predictably ran out of energy and offense, while claiming no response to Philadelphia's physicality. San Jose were overmatched by a superior squad, although the final tally says Chicago only scored six more goals in the sweep. Guess we were spoiled by the first two rounds, which contained no fewer than 15 overtime battles, 39 road wins, and, I believe, a million blocked shots (an estimated 990,000 of them by Les Canadiens).

Welcome back, Marian Hossa. Let's hope this version of late-season hockey doesn't turn into scenes omitted from the Groundhog Day DVD set. While the Slovak has been maligned for donning the wrong finalist jersey the last two years, there's no denying his success during those postseasons (41 points in 43 games). A reckless penalty in Game 5 vs. Nashville spurred Hossa to produce (six in his next five). Even during a recent downturn (one in six), he still has managed to contribute with leadership (hey, I've been close twice), smart skills (17 takeaways), and an underrated use of his body (22 hits, 10 blocked shots).

Does anyone else think Brian Campbell is the only Blackhawk who doesn't fit into the system? While the team has excelled in recent weeks, you couldn't help but wonder if Campbell has been distracted after returning from a collarbone injury. But for someone who was invested in heavily (to the tune of eight years, $57M) to be a point producer, his current playoff totals are underwhelming (three in 13). And it's not as if the veteran blueliner isn't giving an effort, with several rushes into the offensive zone. The problem lies in him trying to do this when it doesn't match what his teammates are doing or the score in the game. An aggressive push works when you need the tying goal and others are aware to cover effectively if needed. The good news for Chicago is that Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson (and to a lesser extent, Brent Sopel) are clicking at both ends. There's no problem with Campbell as an effective role player, albeit one who should be making less mistakes.

Stanley Cup Finals Preview

(W2) Chicago vs. (E7) Philadelphia (Season series: Philadelphia 1-0)

One cannot draw conclusions based on a single result, but the way that 3-2 March contest finished (all five tallies in the third period, including Chris Pronger's winner with two seconds left) should provide a preview of the excitement to follow. The Blackhawks will no doubt come out flying from the start, but revenge isn't their only incentive. Yes, the 49-year drought is also a source of motivation. And so is that little concept called 'winning'. But Chicago would love nothing better than to beat up a feisty and bruising outfit cleverly disguised as the 'underdog'.

So what needs to happen for Philly to win? No more injuries! That's easier said than done, but at least try and stay away from the bigger bumps and bruises. Jeff Carter's miraculous comeback from a broken foot and…the other broken foot cannot be overemphasized, as his offensive talent (led the team with 33 goals, two more in the clincher against Montreal) will be required if Philly wants to hang with the Western juggernauts. Simon Gagne also missed a significant chunk of the regular season and parts of the series with New Jersey and Boston, but then transformed back into a scoring machine (seven goals in seven). If both Daniel Briere (18 in 17, including 4 game-winners) and Claude Giroux (17 in 17) can maintain their hot pace while Ville Leino (six in six) and Daniel Carcillo (six, 30 PIM, overall pest) can contribute in the clutch, then the Flyers will provide a tough test.

And on the flipside, what should Chicago do to ensure success? I said a few weeks back that if Chicago took the Cup, Antti Niemi (2.33 GAA, .921 SV%) wouldn't be the reason why. I may have to eat those words, although the rookie Finnish keeper has never been the lone hero – and more importantly, doesn't have to be. Keep relying on a balanced attack mixed in with solid positional matchups against the opposition's top forwards. Continue using speed from all angles and counterattack when the opportunity becomes available. Get that Dustin Byfuglien fellow (eight goals, including three on the power-play and four GWGs) in front of the net and park him there. The big guns will keep on scoring, but further efforts from Dave Bolland (10 points, best defensive center), Kris Versteeg (nine, lightning on ice), and Troy Brouwer (all five in last five) would be of service.

Prediction: There's no substitute for depth, a commodity Chicago abundantly owns. That's not to say Philly lacks numbers, as they can roll out three decent lines and at least four serviceable defensemen. By now, we know all about the Hawks' success on the road. Expect this to continue, although the Flyers will salvage at least one home date and will steal a game at the United Center. Since I picked them from the start, no one will be surprised if I say: Chicago in six.

(NOTE: If you'll recall my original prediction, I claimed Chicago over Washington in seven. I should receive partial credit for calling the other finalist, as Philadelphia is only a three-hour drive from DC.)

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Here's the latest Conn Smythe evaluation: 1. Jonathan Toews; 2. Mike Richards; 3. Antti Niemi; 4. Dustin Byfuglien 5. Daniel Briere. You might be asking why Michael Leighton isn't on this list. I'm basing my criteria on what's happened and who's left. Even with his flashy stats (1.45 GAA, .948 SV%, three shutouts in eight appearances), the fact remains Leighton has only been between the pipes for less than half the playoffs. Consider that out of the last 15 winners of this award, only four have been goaltenders. However, if the former Chicago castoff stands on his head – and not either on the bench or training room – then there's a chance he will receive serious consideration.

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After the party has subsided and all the champagne/beer/sweat/dollar bills have been sufficiently cleared from the winning locker room, we'll be back with a playoff recap and a look ahead to the summer activities and beyond. Cherish these final games as if they were the last…before October. Comments, questions, and predictions (including guessing how many beers I will consume during the Finals) are welcome.
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