by Trevor Whenham - 05/04/2006
The second round of the NHL Playoffs are about to begin. The Eastern Conference went exactly as expected in the first round as the top-ranked team beat the lower seeded team in each series, and rarely had to waste much effort in doing so. The Western Conference, on the other hand, is a complete mess. Every single series was lost by the favorite, and only one underdog, Anaheim, needed seven games to win. If experts didn't pick Detroit to win the conference, then most of them picked Dallas. Certainly no one expected that Dallas would get steamrolled by Colorado, or that an unremarkable Edmonton team that struggled to even make the playoffs would outwork and outclass the President's Trophy winning Red Wings.
That means most of us have to start all over again in our handicapping. The only team I expected to see in the second round was San Jose, so there are three teams that come as a surprise and two matchups that are almost unbelievable. With that in mind, here's the second round:
No. 5 San Jose vs. No. 8 Edmonton - San Jose beat Nashville in five games, while Edmonton beat Detroit in six. Both teams come into the series relatively healthy. They met four times during the season, with Edmonton winning both of the games at home and one on the road. The series looks to be a battle between one of the hottest teams in the league since Christmas in San Jose and a giant-killing Cinderella in Edmonton. The series starts Friday.
Forwards - San Jose has a major advantage up front. Jonathan Cheechoo led the league in goals and linemate Joe Thornton, not coincidentally, was the top assist-getter during the regular season. Patrick Marleau scored seven goals in the five playoff games of the first round. He carried the team offensively. If he stays in form, and Thornton and Cheechoo contribute more, then the Sharks can provide more offense than most teams can handle. The Oilers, on the other hand, don't have offensive flash, but they do have depth. Eight different forwards scored in the series. Sergei Samsonov was a trading deadline pickup for the team from Boston. At the time he seemed overpriced, but he showed his value in the first round. The chance to play against former teammate and linemate Thornton may spark him even more. Edge: San Jose.
Defense - The Sharks have a solid if not spectacular defensive unit. Tom Preissing and Christian Erhoff contribute a lot of assists, while Scott Hannan and Kyle McLaren are classic, lockdown defensemen. The Oilers have their biggest weapon, Chris Pronger, patrolling the blueline. He's among the handful of best defensemen in the league and he was at his best during the Detroit series. He averages more than 33 minutes a game and controls the ice. With a solid veteran corps behind him, Edmonton is well served in their own zone. Edge: Edmonton.
Goalie - Neither team, on paper is in a position of strength. San Jose has alternated all year between supposed starter Evgeni Nabokov and Vesa Toskala. Neither have been great, but the team scores enough that they don't have to be. Toskala played in the first round and was very solid, recording a shutout among his four wins. Dwayne Roloson is a 36-year-old picked up at the trade deadline. During the regular season in Edmonton he was, frankly, awful. He was reborn against Detroit, however, maintaining a .929 save percentage despite facing nearly 40 shots per game. Edge: Both teams are riding hot goalies.
Key stat: San Jose won 75 percent of their games when scoring first. Edmonton lost 76.2 percent of their games when scored on first. The first goal will be crucial.
No. 6 Anaheim vs. No. 7 Colorado - (Let me, as a diehard Calgary Flames fan, say that this is terrible to write because Anaheim wouldn't be here if my bunch of heartless, whining bums had decided to show up for game 6 or game 7 instead of disgusting everyone in this city with their pathetic display) Colorado got here by beating Dallas in five and Anaheim got here by beating Calgary in seven. The Avalanche won three of four against Anaheim in the regular season. Marek Svatos remains out for Colorado with a shoulder injury while Corey Perry is day-to-day for Anaheim with a leg injury from game 7 in Calgary.
Forwards - Teemu Selanne is one of the purest offensive talents in the league, but it was easy to write him off after several unimpressive seasons. He rediscovered himself this year, and that has continued into the playoffs. He has lifted the play of Andy McDonald offensively, as well. Beyond that the Ducks are very balanced. All but two forwards scored against Calgary. Colorado has the great Joe Sakic. He is as consistently good in the playoffs as any player has ever been. He got a point for more than half of Colorado's goals in the first round. Milan Hejduk is very strong beside Sakic. Unfortunately, the rest of the lines haven't been carrying their weight. Edge: Colorado for top line, Anaheim for depth.
Defense - Scott Neidermayer is the best defenseman in the league. You can disagree, but I won't listen to you. He is an incredible skater, an offensive threat and he is unbelievable defensively. He has three Stanley Cups, and his skill and leadership are the main reasons Anaheim is still playing in May. Francois Beauchemin was in the minors to start the season, but playing with Niedermayer has turned him into a potent force all over the ice. The Avs counter with Rob Blake, another great defenseman who may be inching past his prime, and a solid if unspectacular corps. Edge: Anaheim.
Goalie - Both teams are a toss-up. J.S. Giguere is the high paid starter for Anaheim, but he seems to have lost his spot to Ilya Bryzgalov after he had a couple of poor outings in Calgary. Bryzgalov played very well, including a shutout, but he wasn't challenged very much by a Calgary team that had quit by the time he was playing. The Avs are relying on Jose Theodore, the goalie they got from Montreal at the trade deadline. He has been a great goalie in the past, but is coming back from injuries and personal problems, so who knows if he can be trusted. Edge: Whichever goalie can get and stay hot.
Key stat: Colorado has 5 players with Stanley Cup rings. Anaheim has one. If you believe that playoff experience is important, Colorado has a clear edge.
The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of Doc's NHL picks service.