Preview of the 2006 Stanley Cup Final

Although the weather outside doesn’t make you think of hockey, the Stanley Cup Finals start tonight. The matchup must be a complete nightmare for Gary Bettman, the commissioner of the NHL. Edmonton hasn’t been a standout team since Wayne Gretzky was traded to Los Angeles, and people don’t exactly think hockey when they hear North Carolina. TV ratings will be dismal, though that’s nothing new for the league. However, it will be a good series. Both teams have absolutely crazy fans that will be insane, and both play an exciting type of hockey.

I’ve lived in Calgary most of my life, so writing about Edmonton is like a New Yorker praising the Red Sox, or a Michigan fan raving about the Buckeyes. A win in Edmonton would kill me (My Canada doesn’t include Edmonton), but at least, according to the punters, they’ll have to come from behind to do it. The Hurricanes are tepid -140 favorites to win the series, but you can make a strong case for a win by either team. The series is eerily reminiscent of the last final: a high-achieving, high-energy Alberta team mounting a hot goalie in a matchup against a solid, offensively gifted Southern team. Last time, my Flames put in a great effort, but were eventually outclassed. It remains to be seen if history repeats itself.

Here are eight factors to consider when making your plays in this series:

1) Rested or rusty? – Edmonton beat Anaheim in five games, giving them nine days rest before the finals began. That time allowed them to heal from injuries and get over the flu, which had hit the team badly in the last series. It also allowed them to get caught up in the chaos that is sweeping Edmonton and the media spotlight in Canada (and elsewhere to a lesser extent). We will quickly know which factor will impact the team the most. They’ve ridden a wave of momentum this far, but can that momentum survive such a long break? New Jersey swept the Rangers in the first round, took a bye, then lost to Carolina in five. They seemed like a completely different team. Anaheim crushed Colorado in four straight games, but then the Ducks went down with barely a squawk against Edmonton. They had eight days off. The above is not good.

2) Best defenseman: Chris Pronger is hands down the best defenseman on the ice in this series. Although he had an inconsistent first season in Edmonton and a terrible performance for Canada in the Olympics, Pronger is playing like the beast he is in the playoffs. He has pinned the opposing offensive threats in all three series thus far: Pavel Datsyuk, Joe Thornton and Teemu Selanne. He’s been averaging an incredible 31 minutes per game, and is Conn Smythe’s clear favorite for playoff MVP if he wins Edmonton. He is impressive in his own zone, but he also controls incredibly well, and he has 17 points in 17 games. Carolina will have to find a way to contain Pronger, or avoid him, if she wants to win.

3) Best forward: Eric Staal is not only the best forward in this series, but he is the leading scorer in the playoffs and is fast becoming one of the best players in the league. He is an offensive machine and creates a tough matchup for any team. Pronger will be on him like a glove, and Staal has yet to face a defender of his caliber this postseason, so it will be telling — and key to Carolina’s fate — how he responds to that. He’s only 21, so his response to that attention and the pressure of the series will be key, but he’s passed every test up to this point. An interesting side note: Both Pronger and Staal were taken by the Carolina/Hartford franchise second overall in the draft: Staal in 2003 and Pronger 10 years earlier.

4) Veteran presence: Both teams added veterans this year to stabilize the team and add the reassuring presence they needed to get to where they are. New players complemented longtime team members in both cases. In Edmonton, Michael Peca and Pronger were joined by team captain Jason Smith and gritty fan favorite Ryan Smyth. Carolina added former Oiler Doug Weight and Mark Recchi to help Rob Brind’amour, who is having a great postseason run, keep the locker room in line. So neither party will have an advantage when it comes to staying positive if things start to go wrong.

5) Goaltending – The goaltending situation couldn’t be more different for the two teams. The Oilers picked up Dwayne Roloson from Minnesota at the trade deadline. He was horrible for the rest of the season, but he’s been amazing in the playoffs. He’s 36, so he was already shaving when 22-year-old Cam Ward was born to Carolina. Martin Gerber was the starter going into the playoffs, but Ward got the opportunity from him and made the most of it. He was Carolina’s goalie of the future, and the future is apparently here. No team has a real advantage unless the starters struggle or get hurt. Gerber can easily replace Ward and the team won’t suffer much, if any, while Edmonton’s backup situation is a mess.

6) Special Teams: There’s a battle of the titans when Edmonton takes a penalty, which they’re much more likely to do than Carolina. The Hurricanes have the best power play in the playoffs, while Edmonton has outperformed every other team when it comes to penalties. Obviously, both teams will not be able to get away with it. Whichever side comes out and sets the tone early is going to have an impact on the series. Edmonton can avoid the situation by showing more discipline than they have so far, but that’s unlikely given their aggressive style of play.

7) Home Ice Advantage: Both arenas are as loud as any in the league, so the home team should have an advantage. Carolina has relished home cooking, going 6-1 since losing its first two home games against Montreal. To make things interesting, Edmonton has been strong on the road. They have gone 6-3, including three wins in Anaheim. The ice in Carolina will be horrible, soft and unpredictable, so Carolina could have an advantage there, like Tampa Bay did in 2004. Carolina has home field advantage to start the series, if they can capitalize on that they should be able to get ahead.

8) Underrated Players – Both teams have players who don’t get the ink to even their game. Cory Stillman has 19 points in 18 games for Carolina. His presence has meant teams can’t focus on Staal. His experience and presence are also just as valuable as his offense. Stillman is defending his Cup win with Tampa Bay in 2004. For Edmonton, the pleasant surprise has been Shawn Horcoff, their No. 1 center who has 17 points in 17 games. He continues to play the game that he discovered this season. Both players will be key to their team’s success, and whoever plays better could make the difference in the series.

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of Doc’s NHL picks service.

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