It's down to four teams after the Sharks held off the Wings last night. Say what you will about the guts of San Jose, but after losing two forwards in the game and starting Game 7 without Johan Franzen, the Wings impressed me even more than the Sharks did.
On to the conference final previews:
EASTERN CONFERENCE FINAL
Bruins vs. Lightning
When this regular season began, Dwayne Roloson was toiling for the struggling Islanders and Tim Thomas was slated to back up Tuukka Rask. Both veterans seemed as though their best play was behind them. Now, one from the 41-year-old Roloson and the 37-year-old Thomas will play for a Stanley Cup.
With Nashville's Pekka Rinne eliminated, Thomas and Roloson are the two goaltenders playing the best in the postseason. Hard to say there's much difference between them, as both Boston's and Tampa's defenses have relied heavily on the acrobatics of their goaltenders.
If one of these teams can shore up its blue line, the Lightning is the likelier squad. Tampa's forwards are too fast for Boston's defense; Andrew Ference and Tomas Kaberle will have to be much tougher than they were the first two rounds.
The Bruins' forwards have been excellent so far, especially emerging rookie Brad Marchand and the top line of David Krejci, Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton. Patrice Bergeron (concussion) may not play at all this series, which is a big blow; he's their best defensive forward and would match up against Marty St. Louis well.
The Bruins rallied past the Canadiens and swept the Flyers with dominating five-on-five play; the Lightning, which has also won seven straight after rallying from 3-1 down to beat the Penguins before sweeping the Caps, have had exceptional special teams play and contributions from the Sean Bergenheim-Dominic Moore-Steve Downie trio beyond all expectations.
This may end up being the best series of an already great postseason. BRUINS IN 7
WESTERN CONFERENCE FINAL
Canucks vs. Sharks
This will be a breakthrough series for one of these two perennially underachieving franchises. Vancouver's return to prominence from the days of Pavel Bure has been steady and the Canucks haven't closed out teams well the first two rounds, but Ryan Kesler is simply the best all-around player in the NHL right now. Whether the Sharks have anyone to slow down Kesler is a big question mark.
The Sedin twins have looked worn out this postseason; they have a lot to prove in this series. Same for the Sharks' longtime leaders, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. Thornton was a beast in Game 7 last night and perhaps he's finally found the right level he needs to succeed in the playoffs.
But the Sharks, who are in their third conference final in 21 seasons, still haven't reached their potential. Antti Niemi has been very, very good in goal, and San Jose's defense has an edge in puck-moving in this series.
The Canucks, though, seem to have a little something extra going in. Can't put my finger on what it is, but this team will win by being just slightly better when it counts. CANUCKS IN 6