1. Vancouver Canucks vs. 2. San Jose Sharks
Well, as the seeds have picked out for us, the west's top two will battle it out for right to represent in the Stanley Cup finals. Both squads needed to dispose of a pair of pesky Central Division foes -- Vancouver knocked out Nashville in six games, San Jose over Detroit in seven -- to get to where they are today. There are a number of factors that can play out that could very well determine who wins and who goes home between these two teams. Both are loaded up front, both have a solid d-core and the goaltending has been as good as advertised even though both Roberto Luongo and Antti Niemi have had their moments. However, both were very good in the conference semifinals. What can the Canucks do to get the Sedins going? Neither have been effective in some time and it will be hard for the Canucks to succeed too much longer without some contribution from Daniel or Henrik. Alex Burrows has held up his end of the bargain and Vancouver has seen some better-than-expected play from third- and fourth-line members. As for the Sharks, they finally got some clutch play from Patrick Marleau, who was thrown under the bus from former teammate-turned-commentator Jeremy Roenick, as the Sharks nearly saw a 3-0 series lead turn into disaster if they would have went down in a seventh game. Devin Setoguchi was money against the Wings, Ryane Clowe was a welcomed sight in Game 7 and Joe Pavelski was the clutch player in the first round against the Kings. I'll cut to the chase because this series is so close, cutting it with a knife may not decide it. The two players that will decide this series are: Ryan Kesler of the Canucks and Joe Thornton of the Sharks. Forget Luongo, forget Niemi ... OK, they'll have to be clutch for their respective teams, but I believe this comes down to Kesler and Thornton. They better get used to one another, cause they'll be seeing each other a ton throughout this series. I'll tell you this, the Nashville Predators are one of the most -- if not the most -- structured and disciplined defensive teams in the NHL. And look what Kesler did to them. This guy is one of the best two-way players in the game and is only getting better. I'm just having a hard time believing the Sharks can hold him back. They may slow him at times, but hold him down ... not a chance. But I think the Canucks' underrated defense can slow Thornton, Marleau and Dany Heatley in check. They haven't been to the finals since falling to the Rangers in 1994 but they get back there with a hard-fought series win in what will be a great series. ...
CANUCKS IN 7
3. Boston Bruins vs. 5. Tampa Bay Lightning
Who are these teams anyway? When did they last play? Unlike the west combatants, the Bruins and Lightning easily made quick work of their conference semifinal opponents with sweeps of the Flyers (Boston) and Capitals (Tampa Bay). When I look at the Bruins, I see blue collar. I see talent but guys working their tails off for every inch they get. I see Tim Thomas unwavering and unflappable. I see Zdeno Chara imposing his will at both ends of the ice. I see David Krejci finally unleashing his full offensive throttle and slowly bringing Milan Lucic along with him. You get the picture here. When I see the Lightning, I see star-studded players. Marty St. Louis, Vinny Lecavalier, Steven Stamkos and ... Sean Bergenheim? Really? They have quick-striking ability. Just ask the Penguins and Capitals. And now they have former Blue Eric Brewer anchoring what coach Guy Boucher likes to call a tough-minded, hard-nosed defense to play against now. And they have the ageless Dwayne Roloson, who can steal games as has been witnessed in these playoffs and in playoffs past. I'm also going to say this series will come down to two players. Both have been instrumental to their respective teams and both will need to come up huge if they want their team to represent the east in the Stanley Cup final. This series, I believe, comes down to Thomas and Roloson. Both have been stellar, both have shown some creaks in their respective games but overall, they've taken on a heavy burden ... and thrived in the process. I give the nod to Thomas simply because this has been his calling for an entire season, not just in the postseason. I believe the Bruins' D gets a slight nod over Tampa's revamped unit and helps Thomas outduel Roloson here. Thomas may be all over the place, but the guy has been on a mission this season, and that mission leads the B's to the finals for the first time since 1990. ...
BRUINS IN 6