1. San Jose v. 2. Chicago
Unlike the out-of-whack Eastern Conference, the Western Conference finals plays out true to form, and this matchup will be a terrific matchup for all fans to see. These two teams were the two best teams in the conference all season and fittingly, the winner will move on to play in the Stanley Cup Finals. Several factors play out when trying to dissect two teams pretty evenly matched up, so you try and search for those small intangibles that gives one team an edge over the other. For the Sharks, their best player has been Joe Pavelski. This guy has brought it to the table every game in these playoffs, and what really sticks out is his physical presence, an area I thought the Sharks lacked in heading into these playoffs. His teammates have followed his lead in that area. Playing physical will be a key element for the Sharks in this series, because the Blackhawks will most certainly carry around a physical element to their game from a number of people. We know San Jose will get production from Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley and Patrick Marleau. That trio came alive in beating the Red Wings. They will produce against the Hawks' D-corps and goalie Antti Niemi. For San Jose to have success, secondary scoring from Pavelski, Devin Setoguchi, Ryane Clowe and Co. will be crucial. For Chicago, this team is tough to face because they are as deep a team as there is in these playoffs and certainly they have the most balanced depth of the Final Four. I really like Joel Quenneville's ability to roll out four lines that consistently produce at both ends but. Jonathan Toews is leading the league in playoff points and Patrick Kane is among the league leaders, so they're getting it from their young stars but also from Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp and Kris Versteeg, who came up with some big points in the series win over Vancouver. And 'Big Buff' Dustin Byfuglien is using his size and strength wisely. Niemi is still somewhat skittish for me, and I'm still waiting for him to implode on a more consistent basis. But he's been able to bounce back from bad losses. The special teams will be pretty even, so not much of an edge there either way. I like Evgeni Nabokov in goal here. I've been skeptical of him in the past but he's played some big games over Chicago. I think he will be the difference in a tight series that can most certainly go either way. The Blackhawks are not afraid of going on the road, evidenced by their mastery of Vancouver. Each team will probably get a relatively easy win, but the games will be tight and one executed play and/or flaw will be the difference in many of these games, just like a No. 1 and No. 2 seeded series should play out. But I think this is the year that San Jose finally breaks into the finals and plays for the big prize.
SHARKS IN 7
7. Philadelphia v. 8. Montreal
OK, I'm going to get this out of the way now: am I really writing about the Philadelphia Flyers and Montreal Canadiens in the conference finals? As ESPN's Skip Bayless would say: Really? Really? Well, yes, and what a great story both of these teams carry with them into these conference finals. First off, how can I not mention right off the bat the Flyers making history, becoming only the third team in NHL history to come back from an 0-3 series deficit and win in seven, becoming the first team since the 1975 NY Islanders to do so? And not only that, but they were down 3-0 in Game 7 Friday at Boston. Once again, Skip Bayless on cue: Really? Really? And how about those Les Habitants de Montreal? Not only did Jaroslav Halak and Co. stun Alex Ovechkin and the Presidents' Trophy winning Washington Capitals, they then bounced Sid the Kid and the Pittsburgh Penguins out as well. The Canadiens disposed the two bets players in the game in back-to-back rounds. So great storylines by both of these teams. So what do they have left going against each other? Well, for starters, let's go with the goaltending, where Montreal has a big -- I mean big -- edge in. Halak is the best goalie in these playoffs and by far the best remaining of the four. The Flyers have been playing musical goalies since Ray Emery went down, and it was Michael Leighton -- did I just say that? -- that won Games 6 and 7 over the B's after Brian Boucher -- did I just say that too? -- hurt his knee early in Game 6. Both teams could get big boosts with the returns of two key players, forward Jeff Carter (broken foot) for Philly and defenseman Andrei Markov (knee) for the Canadiens. Think that Simon Gagne has infused some life into this Flyers team? How about two game-winners over the Bruins. Mike Richards is playing well, as is old friend Chris Pronger. And how about the Canadiens' Mike Cammalleri, who leads all players in goal-scoring in these playoffs with 12? He and Brian Gionta have paid off to be two huge acquisitions for the Habs. I really like Maxim Lapierre and Tomas Plekanec (are you listening, Blues?). Both these teams are really performing well on the power play, so special teams could go a long way in determining this series. Although I think the Flyers have the edge in momentum simply because of their rise to this round. And even though this playoff season has been far from this notion, I still say the best goaltender prevails in the postseason, and Halak is head and shoulders better than anyone the Flyers have, and Montreal has just as many, if not more, weapons than the Flyers have. Philly will try to throw those big, burly forwards in Halak's face, but he has yet to buckle in these pressure situations. And in the end, one Original Six squad -- and the greatest NHL franchise of all time -- will go for Stanley Cup No. 25.
CANADIENS IN 6