by Trevor Whenham - 06/05/2006
Though the weather outside doesn't make you think about hockey, the Stanley Cup finals start tonight. The match-up must be a complete nightmare for Gary Bettman, the NHL's commissioner. Edmonton hasn't been a marquee team since Wayne Gretzky got traded to Los Angeles, and people don't exactly think of hockey when they hear North Carolina. The TV ratings will be dismal, though that's nothing new for the league. It will, however, be a good series. Both teams have absolutely insane fans that will be out of their minds, and they both play an exciting brand of hockey.
I have lived in Calgary for most of my life, so writing about Edmonton is like a New Yorker praising the Red Sox, or a Michigan fan talking nice about the Buckeyes. An Edmonton win will kill me (My Canada does not include Edmonton), but at least, according to the oddsmakers, they will have to come from behind to do it. The Hurricanes are lukewarm -140 favorites to win the series, but you can make a solid case for a win by either team. The series is eerily reminiscent of the last final - a feisty and overachieving team from Alberta riding a hot goaltender into a match-up against a solid and offensively gifted southern-based team. Last time my Flames gave it a valiant effort, but were ultimately outmatched. It remains to be seen if history repeats itself.
Here are eight factors to considering when making your plays on this series:
1) Rested or rusty? - Edmonton beat Anaheim in five games, giving them nine days off before the finals started. That time let them heal up injuries and get over the flu, which had badly impacted the team in the last series. It also let them get caught up in the mayhem that is sweeping Edmonton and the media attention in Canada (and elsewhere to a lesser extent). We will know quickly which factor will impact the team more. They have ridden a wave of momentum this far, but can that momentum survive a break this long? New Jersey swept the Rangers in the first round, took a week off, then lost to Carolina in five. They looked like a different team entirely. Anaheim crushed Colorado in four straight, but then the Ducks fell with barely a quack against Edmonton. They had eight days off. The precedent isn't good.
2) Best defenseman - Chris Pronger is, unquestionably, the best defenseman on the ice in this series. Though he had an inconsistent first season in Edmonton, and a terrible showing for Canada at the Olympics, Pronger is playing like the beast he is in the playoffs. He has immobilized the opposing offensive threats in all three series so far - Pavel Datsyuk, Joe Thornton and Teemu Selanne. He's been averaging an incredible 31 minutes per game, and is the clear favorite for the Conn Smythe for playoff MVP if Edmonton wins. He's impressive in his own zone, but he forechecks incredibly well, too, and he has 17 points in 17 games. Carolina will have to find a way to contain Pronger, or avoid him, if they want to win.
3) Best forward - Not only is Eric Staal the best forward in this series, he is the leading playoff scorer and is fast becoming one of the handful of top players in the league. He's an offensive machine, and he creates a tough match-up for any team. Pronger will be all over him like a glove, and Staal hasn't faced a defenseman of his caliber yet this postseason, so it will be telling, and key to Carolina's fate, how he responds to that. He's only 21, so his response to that attention and the pressure of the series will be key, but he's passed all tests up to this point. An interesting note - both Pronger and Staal were chosen by the Carolina/Hartford franchise second overall in the draft - Staal in 2003 and Pronger 10 years earlier.
4) Veteran presence - Both teams added veterans this year to stabilize the team and add the calming presence that they needed to get where they are. The new players complemented long time team members in both cases. In Edmonton, Michael Peca and Pronger joined team captain Jason Smith and gritty fan favorite Ryan Smyth. Carolina added former Oiler Doug Weight and Mark Recchi to help Rob Brind'amour, who is having a great postseason, keep the dressing room in line. Neither side will have an advantage, then, when it comes to staying positive if things start to go badly.
5) Goaltending - The goaltending situation couldn't be more different for the two teams. The Oilers picked up Dwayne Roloson from Minnesota at the trading deadline. He was awful during the rest of the season, but has been incredible in the playoffs. He's 36, so he was shaving by the time that Carolina's 22-year-old Cam Ward was born. Martin Gerber was the starter coming into the playoffs, but Ward got his shot and has made the most of it. He was the goalie of the future for Carolina, and the future is apparently here. Neither team has a real edge, unless the starters struggle or get hurt. Gerber can easily step in for Ward and the team won't suffer much if at all, while Edmonton's back-up situation is a disaster.
6) Special teams - There's a battle of the titans setting up when Edmonton gets a penalty, which they are far more likely to do than Carolina. The Hurricanes have the best power play in the playoffs, while Edmonton has outpaced every other team when it comes to penalty killing. Obviously, both squads won't be able to have their way. Whichever side comes out and sets the tone early will make an impact on the series. Edmonton can avoid the situation by showing more discipline than they have so far, but that is unlikely given their aggressive style of play.
7) Home ice advantage - Both arenas are as loud as any in the league, so the home team should have an edge. Carolina has taken advantage of home cooking, going 6-1 since dropping their first two games at home versus Montreal. To make things interesting, Edmonton has been strong on the road. They've gone 6-3, including three wins in Anaheim. The ice in Carolina will be awful - soft and unpredictable - so Carolina could have an advantage there, like Tampa Bay did in 2004. Carolina has the home-ice advantage to start the series, if they can capitalize on that, they should be able to come out ahead.
8) Underlooked players - Both teams have players who aren't getting the ink to match their play. Cory Stillman has 19 points in 18 games for Carolina. His presence has meant that teams can't focus on Staal. His experience and presence are as valuable as his offense, too. Stillman is defending his Cup win with Tampa Bay in 2004. For Edmonton, the pleasant surprise has been Shawn Horcoff, their No. 1 center who has 17 points in 17 games. He's continuing to play the game he discovered this season. Both players will be key to their team's success, and whichever plays better could make the difference in the series.
The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of Doc's NHL picks service.