Unlike in the Eastern Conference where anarchy rules and the bottom two seeds were the last teams standing, the Western Conference's best survived the first two rounds of the NHL playoffs and will face off for the right to play for the Stanley Cup.
It's the team that snuck into the playoffs with a shootout win in Game No. 82 vs. the team that snuck into the playoffs with an overtime loss in Game No. 82. Or, if you prefer, the team that rallied from a 3-0 series deficit in the conference semifinal vs. the team that knocked off the regular-season champions and then the defending Stanley Cup champions.
It's the Flyers vs. the Canadiens in an Eastern Conference final that nobody saw coming.
The Habs, of course, did it with the netminding heroics of Jaroslav Halak(notes) and suffocating team defense on Alex Ovechkin(notes) and Sidney Crosby(notes), but don't forget about Mike Cammalleri's playoff-leading 12 goals and the offensive contributions of Brian Gionta(notes) and Tomas Plekanec(notes).
Or the timely scoring of grinders Maxim Lapierre(notes), Dominic Moore(notes) and Travis Moen(notes). Or Hal Gill(notes) playing through a 50-stitch cut in Game 7 against Pittsburgh. Or raw rookie defenseman P.K. Subban(notes) being called up from the minors, having never skated a second in the NHL, and suddenly leading the blue line in ice time. Or the fact the Habs are winning without their best player this side of Halak, defenseman Andrei Markov(notes) (who, by the way, is skating again). Scott Gomez(notes) isn't scoring, but his playmaking acumen has returned in the form of 10 assists in 14 games. And of course, Josh Gorges(notes), Gill's partner in shutting down opposing superstars. Everyone's doing their part in Montreal and that makes the Canadiens very dangerous indeed. Just ask Crosby's Penguins, who had no answer in Games 6 and 7 as the Habs outplayed the defending Cup champs by a large degree.
Then there's the Flyers, enjoying a miracle run of their own. Philadelphia entered the postseason with its backup goalie and No. 4 netminder as its only healthy masked men. But Brian Boucher(notes) outplayed New Jersey's Martin Brodeur(notes) in the first round in a series that cost the Flyers key forwards Simon Gagne(notes), Jeff Carter(notes) and Ian Laperriere(notes). Boucher, naturally, twisted a knee midway through Round 2 and limped aside for the Flyers' No. 3 stopper, Michael Leighton(notes), fresh off a two-month injury layoff. Curtains, right? Not in Philly, bub. The Flyers fed Gagne a cheesesteak sandwich and threw him back in the lineup, and then pulled off the impossible by beating the Bruins four consectuive times, rallying from a 3-0 first-period deficit in Game 7. Gagne scored four times in those four clutch victories, including the series winner late in the third.
So, which team will continue its wild playoff ride into the Stanley Cup final? Logic says to go with the hot goalie, Halak, and the team that has improved in every outing, the Canadiens. The Flyers, though, have Chris Pronger(notes) and Mike Richards(notes) and the knowledge they pulled off the unlikeliest of comebacks.
We're going with the Flyers in seven.
The Sharks captured the conference title in the regular season with 113 points while the 'Hawks led the West with 52 wins. The Blackhawks had the edge in the regular-season series, winning three of four games including a 7-2 blowout, but Chicago's two other wins came in overtime.
Both teams boast a balanced scoring attack that runs at least two lines deep and a star-studded defense corps.
The first and most obvious difference is in goal, where San Jose has a veteran stopper in Evgeni Nabokov(notes) – who's enjoying perhaps his finest postseason to date¬ – while Chicago is putting its faith in first-year NHLer Antti Niemi(notes). The 26-year-old Niemi doesn't qualify as a rookie, but with just 141 minutes of NHL action to his credit before this season, he's effectively a Calder kid. He started the season as the backup to Cristobal Huet(notes), but displaced the 34-year-old in mid-March and hasn't looked back. In the playoffs, Niemi hasn't been great and he hasn't been awful, but he's been good enough. Most encouraging has been his ability to bounce back after a bad performance, while the fact he's leading the NHL in playoff shutouts (two) is a credit as well.
At the scoring end of things, San Jose trots out its Olympic line of Joe Thornton(notes), Patrick Marleau(notes) and Dany Heatley(notes) – which got rolling in Round 2 against archrival Detroit after an eerily quiet opening series vs. Colorado – and a second unit of Joe Pavelski(notes), Devin Setoguchi(notes) and Ryane Clowe(notes). Pavelski, with nine goals, including three game-winners, in San Jose 's first eight playoff games carried the offense when the top line struggled and is in the early mix for Conn Smythe consideration. San Jose has depth, too, in the likes of Manny Malhotra(notes), Scott Nichol(notes), Jed Ortmeyer(notes), Torrey Mitchell(notes) and rookie Logan Couture(notes).
Chicago, meanwhile, replies with captain Jonathan Toews(notes), the playoffs' leading scorer through two rounds with 20 points in 12 games, and dynamic winger Patrick Kane(notes), who's the most electrifying offensive player on either team and boasts game-breaking potential. Plus, there's dependable Patrick Sharp(notes), a two-way talent, and hulking winger Dustin Byfuglien(notes) showed signs of waking up in the series against Vancouver , including a hat trick in pivotal Game 3. Marian Hossa(notes) has been oddly silent in these playoffs, perhaps a foreboding sign for San Jose, while Dave Bolland(notes), Kris Versteeg(notes) and Tomas Kopecky(notes) are capable of stepping up and contributing clutch scoring. Veteran defensive forward John Madden(notes) provides a calming influence.
With true top-line talent and depth on both sides up front, it's a saw-off offensively. The Sharks might have an edge given their veteran presence, but the Toews- and Kane-led 'Hawks have proven they won't be intimidated and that they're able to overcome adversity.
On the blue line, Chicago has one of the best tandems in the game in Duncan Keith(notes) and Brent Seabrook(notes), supported capably by back-from-injury Brian Campbell(notes), a puck-moving D-man, and underrated Niklas Hjalmarsson(notes). It drops off after Chicago's top four, but those guys will play a ton of minutes – especially Keith and Seabrook, who approach 30 minutes on any given night and will likely be handed the task of frustrating the Thornton line.
The Sharks have a different defensive look, led by blue line stalwarts Dan Boyle(notes) (33) and captain Rob Blake(notes) (40). The leadership of Boyle and Blake has received a lot of credit for San Jose finally getting over the playoff hump and advancing to the conference final. Hard-rock Douglas Murray(notes) and smooth-skating Marc-Edouard Vlasic(notes) also will eat up ice time, with Kent Huskins(notes) and Niclas Wallin(notes) – who played in Game 5 against Detroit after missing the previous nine games with a lower-body injury – providing depth.
You've got to love Chicago's kids, but there's something different about the Sharks in these playoffs – and that's a good thing. San Jose has gotten stronger as the postseason has progressed, and they know the winner in the West will be a heavy favorite in the Cup final. San Jose in six.
- Eastern Conference