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Final four is up for grabs

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Flash back a year ago to the conference semifinals and here's the kind of drama we were looking at: Dallas up on San Jose 3-0; Pittsburgh up on the New York Rangers 3-0; Detroit up on Colorado 3-0; and Philadelphia up on Montreal 3-1.

OK, so the second round of the 2008 Stanley Cup playoffs were more than a tad light on suspense. That, however, is not the case this time around.

Three of the four series are down to best-of-threes, and there's no lack of excitement despite Carolina's 3-1 lead on Boston because the Bruins are the East's top seeds and on the verge of bowing out earlier than most would have expected. And the Hurricanes continue to be a pretty darn good late-season story.

With that as a backdrop, here's a look at what should be a wild ride until the final four is decided by late Thursday, if not the wee hours of Friday morning.

Pittsburgh-Washington

The aftermath of the Penguins' clutch victory in Game 4 will be focused on the knee-to-knee hit by Alexander Ovechkin(notes) on Sergei Gonchar(notes) that put the Pittsburgh defense out of Friday night's game early.

First off, that kind of collision is just as risky for Ovechkin as it is for Gonchar, so I have a hard time believing it was intentional. Just the same, it's a terrible break for the Penguins if their best weapon on defense misses any time.

The fact the two teams play again Saturday night doesn't help Gonchar one bit. And it's reasonable to believe he's the one loss that Pittsburgh could least afford, and that includes Sidney Crosby(notes), Evgeni Malkin(notes) and Marc-Andre Fleury(notes).

The series has been as fast and exciting as forecast. There's just no way that much firepower can be contained for even one game. However, the team that figures out how to hit more and establish a physical edge will advance. The Capitals have the perceived advantage of having two of the final three on their ice, but I wouldn't count on that fact meaning the series is theirs.

Rookie goalie Simeon Varlamov(notes) started to look a bit rattled Friday night. It'll be interesting to watch him early on Saturday. Fleury hasn't been perfect, but he has experience in big games that he can draw on.

An interesting stat thus far is Pittsburgh's edge in power plays (23-13). Washington is going to whine about the inequity, but the Capitals are having to take more penalties to prevent scoring chances than the Penguins are. And Pittsburgh came closer to winning on the road in the first two games than Washington did in the last two.

Edge to Penguins.

Carolina-Boston

The Hurricanes are a confident group, and the Bruins had the look at the end of Friday's game like they're starting to doubt themselves.

Carolina didn't simply win two games at home after splitting the first two in Boston; it completely ran the Bruins out of the building at the end of Game 4. It was a dominating performance in the final 20 minutes for the Hurricanes.

Boston goes home knowing nothing short of a three-game winning streak extends its season. But the Bruins can only look at it one game at a time.

Tim Thomas(notes) looked out of sorts, especially on the final goal Friday, but he wasn't getting much help in front of him. The Bruins need to be more physical, but they have to catch the Hurricanes first before they can lay out a few good hits.

It's going to be work ethic that gets the Bruins off the deck, and the Hurricanes basically go into Boston for Monday night's possible clincher feeling absolutely no pressure at all.

The Stanley Cup playoffs produce unlikely heroes, and it's been Jussi Jokinen(notes) the last two games for the Hurricanes. He scored the game-winner in overtime of Game 3 before scoring a goal and assisting on two others Friday. His speed and offensive creativity is epitomizing Carolina's edge on Boston. How much do you think Sergei Samsonov(notes), given up by the Bruins several years ago, is enjoying this?

Edge to Hurricanes.

Anaheim-Detroit

This might be the best series of the four. The Ducks couldn't be happy about allowing six goals in Game 4 on Thursday, but you just knew the Red Wings had that game in them somewhere along the line.

Detroit coach Mike Babcock reunited Pavel Datsyuk(notes) and Henrik Zetterberg(notes) in Game 4, hoping to get his top players going, but it instead created a difficult matchup for Anaheim, which couldn't stop the Red Wings' second line of Johan Franzen(notes), Valtteri Filppula(notes) and Marian Hossa(notes). You can be sure the Wings will start that way again on Sunday.

The biggest problem for the Ducks is the loss of defenseman James Wisniewski(notes), who suffered a lung contusion after blocking a shot in Game 3. Wisniewski has not been ruled out of Game 5, and the two days of idle time might help, but it's hard to imagine he'd be nearly as effective if he does play. Wisniewski has been crushing players against both San Jose and Detroit.

Ryan Getzlaf(notes) received little ice time in the third period of Game 4, but that was more because the team's top-line center is battling illness as opposed to subpar play. Getzlaf has been arguably the best player in the Stanley Cup playoffs to date.

Detroit has its injury issues as well. The Red Wings have been playing without steady defenseman Brian Rafalski(notes), and that's a big loss. Checker Kris Draper(notes) also has been out, and both are not expected to play Sunday. Tomas Kopecky(notes), whom the team said sustained facial cuts in a fight he asked for with Anaheim defenseman Francois Beauchemin(notes), also probably won't play. It's hard to imagine facial cuts would keep a player out, unless he had symptoms of a concussion no one is admitting.

Anaheim goalie Jonas Hiller(notes) was exposed in Game 4 for the first time, but the Ducks' defense didn't do a lot to help him. Jean-Sebastien Giguere(notes) relieved Hiller, more to give the young netminder additional rest before Sunday than to signal that coach Randy Carlyle is considering a change in goal.

Too close to call.

Chicago-Vancouver

The Canucks are kicking themselves for failing to close out a 1-0 lead late in Game 4 that eventually turned into a series-tying overtime win for the youthfully enthusiastic Blackhawks.

Chicago shouldn't be intimidated playing Game 5 in Vancouver, considering the 'Hawks put five goals up in that building during their last visit in Game 2.

The Blackhawks have had the maddening habit of getting off to slow starts and allowing playoff opponents to build early leads. They have to realize you only come back so often, and the 'Hawks probably have exhausted their luck in that respect.

The Canucks have two injuries that are significant blows to the lineup. Top-six forward Pavol Demitra(notes) is not expected to return before Tuesday's Game 6 in Chicago. His injury is undisclosed, but it's putting pressure on Vancouver's secondary scoring.

The bigger loss may be defenseman Sami Salo(notes), the hero of Game 1. Salo missed Games 3 and 4 but has not been ruled out for Saturday night. The key for Vancouver is its big and talented defense against the Chicago attack. Any missing Canucks could tilt the balance toward the Blackhawks.

The wild card in this series remains Luongo, who overall has been very good. He single-handedly can win this series, and don't be surprised if he throws up a wall from here on out. It won't be as easy to do, however, if the Canucks are missing a key piece on defense.

Edge to Canucks.

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