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The fab four

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Whether it's the teams that were expected to advance this far or not, there's no question the four that remain have played the best hockey and for that reason are still alive for the Stanley Cup.

While it seems the Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins have barely broken a sweat in the first two rounds, the Dallas Stars and Philadelphia Flyers have done nothing short of tremendous work to reach the conference finals.

The defending champion Anaheim Ducks, the East's top-seeded Montreal Canadiens, the trendy favorite San Jose Sharks and the star-laden New York Rangers have all fallen by the wayside.

Long departed are last year's finalists, the Ottawa Senators, Martin Brodeur and the New Jersey Devils, Alexander Ovechkin and his upstart Washington Capitals, the gutsy Boston Bruins, the resilient Colorado Avalanche, a hardnosed pack of Calgary Flames, the well-coached Minnesota Wild and surprising Nashville Predators.

Clearly the Red Wings and Penguins, respective Nos. 1 and 2 seeds in the West and East, will be cast in the role of favorites to advance to the Cup Finals, but somehow you figure that's just the way both the Stars and Flyers, originally seeded Nos. 5 and 6, in the West and East, respectively, would like this.

West finals: Dallas Stars-Detroit Red Wings

While Detroit cruised to a four-game sweep of Colorado in the conference semifinals that was capped by an 8-2 rollover in Game 4 on Thursday, Dallas had to endure two mentally and physically draining series against Pacific Division rivals Anaheim and San Jose.

The key in both earlier-round triumphs was the Stars' ability to win the first two games of each series on the road. They went one better against San Jose, rolling up a 3-0 lead before finding out that getting that fourth win truly was the most difficult. It didn't come until 69:03 of overtime during a Game 6 that started Sunday night in Dallas but didn't end until the wee hours of Monday morning.

Fatigue could certainly be a factor for Dallas as the series against Detroit opens on Thursday. The Red Wings are notorious for defending home ice, and Dallas would appear to have its hands full to even hope for a split of the first two games.

Dallas came out of the San Jose series in better health than when it started the six-game showdown. If there was any question about Sergei Zubov, who returned for Game 3 after being out since mid-January, the veteran defenseman answered that with his 53:50 of ice time in Game 6.

The Stars are still missing another veteran defenseman, Philippe Boucher, but youngsters such as Nicklas Grossman and Mark Fistric are filling in admirably. Matt Niskanen is another rookie on the backline, but after 11 playoff games and 78 in the regular season, the mid-season "Young Star" has to be considered a young veteran at this stage.

Where the Stars will have their hands full is the Red Wings' ability to possess the puck. Detroit seems to have it 65-70 percent of the time. The Red Wings are patient, they're quick on transition and they just never seem to stop coming at you.

San Jose coach Ron Wilson complimented the Stars as being one of the best shutdown teams in the league once they have a lead. The key for Dallas will be scoring that first goal, or taking a mid-game lead and keeping the Red Wings at bay. Oddly, the team that scored first in the San Jose-Dallas series lost every time except for Game 6.

Key individuals for the Stars figure to be goalie Marty Turco, captain Brenden Morrow, defenseman Mattias Norstrom and clever center Mike Ribeiro.

Turco doesn't mind a heavy workload, and the University of Michigan product figures to see it from a Red Wings team that always seems to be outshooting their opponent 2-to-1. Norstrom has been up and down in Dallas since coming over from Los Angeles two years ago. He'll need to keep the front of Turco's net clear, especially when Tomas Holmstrom appears on the Detroit power play.

Morrow is emerging as one of the game's top leaders. Much like Jarome Iginla in Calgary, Morrow just does whatever it takes to win. He can be physical, he can score, he can be abrasive, he can be smart. As odd as it was at the time when Morrow was selected captain over Mike Modano, people are now seeing why the move was made.

Ribeiro has been one of the biggest surprises of the postseason because as good as he was in the regular season, he's been even better in the playoffs. Along with linemates Jere Lehtinen and Morrow, Ribeiro is heading up the best line of the postseason that nobody is talking about.

It's almost been too easy for the Presidents' Trophy winners, but maybe Detroit just makes it appear that way. The Wings zipped out to a 2-0 lead on Nashville, watched as the Predators surprisingly went home to tie it and chase Dominik Hasek in the process, but lose it when they got totally outplayed in Games 5 and 6 even if the scores were close.

The Wings faced an injury-depleted Avalanche team in the second round and it was no contest. Questions abound surrounding the Wings. What would happen if an opponent actually tests Chris Osgood? What would happen if Detroit actually loses a home game? What would happen if Johan Franzen stops acting like Wayne Gretzky?

Something suggests there's yet another Detroit hero about to emerge. Both Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg have already been good in these playoffs, and there's so much depth on this team. Detroit is not banged up like it was by the time it reached the third round against Anaheim last spring. And coach Mike Babcock, along with Dallas' Dave Tippett, remains one of the most underrated coaches in the league.

Prediction: Red Wings in five.

East finals: Philadelphia Flyers-Pittsburgh Penguins

It's the U.S. Airways, or I-76 Series, if you will. It's also the first time the two Pennsylvania teams have met in a conference finals, and this should spark an already testy rivalry.

It's a classic speed and finesse vs. size and strength match-up with Pittsburgh's young group of stars, who appear destined for years of greatness if the salary cap allows, trying to advance past a Philadelphia franchise that has rebounded nicely after posting the worst record by far in the league last year.

To suggest the Penguins are not ready to take the next step is flat out wrong. They may have needed to learn what sacrifice was needed when they qualified for the postseason last year, but clearly those lessons have been learned. Pittsburgh has dictated play through this playoff season by first sweeping Ottawa and dispatching New York in five games.

Talk all you want about Sidney Crosby and the amazingly strong and skilled Evgeni Malkin, but you have to like Pittsburgh's makeup, when Gary Roberts is healthy enough to be in the lineup and when Jarkko Ruutu is toeing the line or just barely crossing over it.

And don't overlook the important contributions being made by Pascal Dupuis, Robert Scuderi and even Georges Laraque.

Young goalie Marc-Andre Fleury is fulfilling those expectations a high first-round draft pick can never shed. His numbers in nine games: 1.76 goals-against average and .938 save percentage.

What's not to like about the Pens? They have depth with four lines, led by two of the most dynamic centers in the league. They have a potent power play, physical play on defense from Brooks Orpik and Hal Gill, finesse on the backline from Sergei Gonchar and Kris Letang and dependability in goal.

The Philadelphia Story is one of inspiration. The Flyers survived a near total late-season collapse that was marked by a rash of injuries just to get into the tourney field. Once in, Philadelphia blew a chance to sew up a first-round series victory in Game 6 at home, then tested fate by surrendering the first goal and coughing up a second-period lead during a Game 7 on the road. Lo and behold, the Flyers won in overtime and then frustrated top-seed Montreal to no end during a quick turnaround, five-game thumping of a Canadiens team they turned from fabled to feeble.

The Penguins pose a very similar challenge, a team based on speed and offensive prowess with a young goalie. Don't expect the Flyers to change their game plan. They'll do what they have to against Pittsburgh, dump the puck in and out of zones, test the Penguins' physical limits and look to be opportunistic.

Daniel Briere was the hero of the first series and R.J. Umberger was the star of Round 2 while goalie Martin Biron was solid to spectacular throughout. Who should we expect to emerge against the Pens?

Could it be Mike Richards, solid at both ends of the ice and a future captain of this team? Could it be Jeff Carter, whose speed on the wing caused Montreal problems? Could it be gritty Mike Knuble, who appears to have regained his health? Or could it come from a group of fairly recent additions that includes Scottie Upshall, Scott Hartnell, Kimmo Timonen, Vinny Prospal or Joffrey Lupul?

Philadelphia may have the psychological advantage in the series. There's no pressure on the Flyers, who are your basic lunch pail team playing an opponent that is expected to entertain. The onus will be on the Penguins to execute and not get sucked into Philadelphia's game like Montreal experienced.

Prediction: Penguins in six.

While everything points on paper to a Detroit-Pittsburgh showdown, we've learned what happens on the ice can be much different. Let the drama continue.

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