Blue lines, clutch Crosby and 'Rain Man'
With the conference finals set to start Sunday, our experts ponder what lies ahead. ESPN.com's Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun and ESPN The Magazine's E.J. Hradek answer these 10 burning questions:
1. A few players have been dormant so far in the playoffs. Which one will finally turn it around in the conference finals?Burnside: Pavel Datsyuk is too good to be so quiet for so long. Sadly, the Hawks may find out just how big the little Russian bear's bite can be when he comes out of hibernation.
Hradek: No question, it will be Datsyuk. The Hart Trophy finalist has struggled to find the score sheet during the first two rounds. When scorers don't score, that's usually a big problem. In Datsyuk's case, he still contributes in so many ways. He's among the most complete players in the game. The Ducks really limited Datsyuk's time and space. They had some players (Scott Niedermayer, Chris Pronger and Todd Marchant) who were uniquely able to stop him. I don't think the Blackhawks will be able to restrain him in the same way.
LeBrun: Datsyuk. It just shows you how much depth the defending champs have; their Hart Trophy nominee was able to fall asleep offensively with only five points in 11 games in the first two rounds of the playoffs, yet the Red Wings didn't miss a beat. But I think this is the round when he gets going in a series that should suit him well, skill on skill.
2. There have been a few controversial calls/noncalls in the first two rounds. How would you rate the officiating in the playoffs so far?Burnside: I think there always will be complaints about officiating, given the personalities of the teams and the officials involved, so I'm not troubled by what I see in terms of in-game calls. What still boggles the mind is how often the NHL makes itself look cartoonish by failing to enforce its rules, as was the case when league officials decided not to suspend Game 7 overtime hero Scott Walker for sucker-punching Aaron Ward earlier in the Boston-Carolina series. Unbelievable.
Hradek: I'm not big on beating up on the refs. I think they have an incredibly tough job. On the ice, things happen so fast, and the officials usually don't get a second look. On the whole, they have done a very good job. Do they get every call correct? No. But I think they officiate their sport better than what we see in the NFL, NBA and MLB.
LeBrun: I think it's been decent. People get upset because there's so much on the line and they believe their team is getting slighted, but obviously there's no such thing. The eager whistle that nullified Marian Hossa's tying goal late in Game 3 between Detroit and Anaheim would be a low point, but at least it didn't cost the Wings the series.
3. Eric and Jordan Staal will play against each other in the Pens-Canes series. Which weakness will each brother try to bring out of the other?Burnside: Well, Eric has proved to be pretty streaky; he was not a factor on the score sheet, at least in the Hurricanes' past three games. So, I think the Penguins will try to frustrate him, perhaps by using Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi, who played well against Washington's Alex Ovechkin in the second round.
As for Jordan, he has great skill but has had a very quiet postseason. Maybe playing against his brother will raise his game; his line will be important for the Pens in terms of putting pressure on the Carolina defense. Hard to imagine we won't see a few brother versus brother battles in the faceoff circle and in tough spots on the ice. It will be a hard series for Mr. and Mrs. Staal back in Thunder Bay, Ontario, no doubt. Good thing for the family? One Staal brother will play in the Stanley Cup finals.
Hradek: Eric and Jordan have very different roles on their respective teams. On the occasions they line up against each other, Jordan will look to stay in his older brother's path. No team wants to see Eric Staal moving into the attacking zone with speed. The Penguins will focus on trying to shut down Eric, who is used to such treatment. I think Jordan is very capable of being a major factor for the Pens in this series. At times, he can really dominate his shifts. If he can be more consistent from shift to shift, game to game, the Canes will have a big matchup problem.
LeBrun: The reality is, I doubt the two brothers will see much of each other. It was a more interesting matchup when Jordan and Marc (playing with the New York Rangers) hooked up last season in the second round because forwards and defensemen hook up a lot more in the corner and in front of the net, and that was fascinating to watch. Jordan does play on the penalty kill, and Eric picks up minutes on the power play, so look for Jordan to try to anticipate his older brother's plays there.
4. Will the Hurricanes be able to pull off a third straight upset?Burnside: Sorry, Caniacs, this is where the Cane Train ends. Two seven-game series, although memorable, will take a lot out of a team, and now it plays a club that believes a Cup is its destiny.
Hradek: Why not? And who says it would be an upset? On April 4, the clubs met in Raleigh, N.C. The Canes grabbed a 3-2 overtime win. Carolina brings a lot of positive playoff experience into this series, and it has a goaltender (Cam Ward) who has never lost a playoff series. When I go to the racetrack, I like horses that haven't lost. I expect this to be another hard-fought series. I'm picking the Penguins, but I won't be surprised if the Hurricanes take it.
LeBrun: Well, I hate to bring up the fact that I picked Carolina to shock Boston in the second round. But what the heck, I will. Still, I think the run will end here. Back-to-back seven-game series are a grueling grind, and I think the Canes will run out of steam against the high-flying Pens.
5. Game 7. A Stanley Cup finals berth on the line. Of the four remaining goalies, whom do you want in net?Burnside: Right now, I'd have to say Cam Ward. He's been in exactly that situation before. In fact, he has won four straight Game 7s. Does anyone think he wouldn't be the starting goalie for Canada's 2010 Olympic squad if you were to pick the team right now?
Hradek: Well, Chris Osgood, Ward and Nikolai Khabibulin already have won championships. Marc-Andre Fleury, meanwhile, is coming off a Game 7 win and has a Cup finals appearance on his résumé. In this case, as much as I like Osgood's experience, I probably would tab Ward. The guy has never lost a playoff series and is a perfect 4-0 in Game 7s. I think it's kind of hard to go against that kind of record.
LeBrun: Cam Ward. Guess I'm contradicting myself from earlier, but the Hurricanes netminder is now 4-0 in Game 7s. The 2006 Conn Smythe Trophy winner is developing quite the reputation as a big-game goalie, and his teammates are feeding off that confidence.
6. Who is your Conn Smythe Trophy pick after two rounds?Burnside: Sidney Crosby. That was easy.
Hradek: After two rounds, I would vote for Crosby. He has been terrific in leading his team to series wins over the Flyers and Capitals. In his personal showdown against Ovechkin, he was under pressure to produce -- and he really produced. His competition level has been terrific. He just gets better and better. I would throw a second-place vote to last season's winner, Henrik Zetterberg. He was great in a real battle against the Ducks.
LeBrun: Crosby. I can't imagine how anyone could pick anybody else. He's been the most explosive and consistent performer through two rounds, adding to his already sparkling reputation as a clutch playoff performer.
7. Which individual matchup will you be watching in the conference finals?Burnside: I am looking forward to seeing how Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith fare against Zetterberg, Datsyuk, et al.
Hradek: I guess I'll be most curious about how Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville uses his top defensive pair of Seabrook and Keith. That probably will be determined by how Wings bench boss Mike Babcock sets his line combinations. With his roster of forwards, he has many choices. If I were Coach Q, I think I would deploy Seabrook and Keith against Zetterberg's line.
LeBrun: Johan Franzen versus Seabrook. The Mule was a load to handle for Chris Pronger & Co. in the second round, and I'm curious to see how Seabrook and the Hawks try to limit the damage from Franzen in the conference finals. He's been a one-man wrecking crew so far in these playoffs.
8. Which defensive corps will win out, Wings or Hawks?Burnside: The Wings, and not just because Mr. Norris, Nicklas Lidstrom, is there. Jonathan Ericsson is a player, and Niklas Kronwall is as big a hitter as there is.
Hradek: I'd still have to say the Wings. Lidstrom remains the gold standard. Brian Rafalski is back after missing the first five games of the second round, Brad Stuart and Kronwall are a hard-hitting second pair and oversized rookie Ericsson has looked like a veteran. The Hawks' top pair of Seabrook and Keith has been great in the first two rounds, and as a group, Chicago's D really moves the puck well. The Hawks have closed the gap, but for now, I'll stick with the champs.
LeBrun: Both are deeply talented, which is a big reason both teams are in the conference finals, but the Wings are just a tad deeper when you consider how a stud like Ericsson can be your No. 5 blueliner. That's just unfair.
9. Motown or Chi-Town?Burnside: Well, I have a soft spot for Motown, given its proximity to Windsor, Ontario. But Chicago? Hard to beat in the spring.
Hradek: Marvin Gaye ... Stevie Wonder ... The Four Tops. C'mon, I gotta go Motown! Still, it's hard to beat a long weekend in Chicago.
LeBrun: A Penguins-Hawks Cup finals would be dynamite for the NHL, but I suspect we'll get a repeat of last year's finals.
10. The age gap will come up in the Wings-Hawks series. Lidstrom was born in 1970. Patrick Kane was born in 1988. Which was the better movie from those respective years: "Patton" (1970) or "Rain Man" (1988)?Burnside: It's like having to pick between Rossi's and The Detroiter. Tough. Got to go with George C. Scott and Karl Malden in "Patton." Where'd they get a flag that big, anyway?
Hradek: Those are two great movies. The late George C. Scott was terrific as Patton. In a dramatically different role, Dustin Hoffman was equally brilliant. It's a close call. If I had to watch one, I'd probably pick "Patton." I heard he was an excellent driver an excellent driver.
LeBrun: C'mon, it's got to be "Rain Man." One of my good buddies, Geoff Schmidt, is nicknamed after the Dustin Hoffman character because of his crazy mathematical skills.
2009 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS
The conference finals are here. Scott Burnside, Pierre LeBrun and the rest of our NHL team preview the action: