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NHL: All Quiet in Beantown

By Andrew C. Thomas

OPINION COLUMNIST

My heart goes out to those Bruins fans out there still reeling from their collapse and loss of a 3-1 series edge to Montreal. Shame, I was kind of looking forward to seeing Boston and Philly tear each other to bits.

Eastern Semifinals:

Lightning (1) vs. Canadiens (7)

Tampa Bay is no fluke. They’re firing on all cylinders, getting strong goaltending from Nikolai “The Bulin Wall” Khabibulin, who tied a playoff record with three shutouts in the previous round, scoring from several lines, making line matching an ineffective weapon, have a highly competent defensive corps doing all the right things.

Montreal is also no fluke. Jose Theodore has silenced his critics with impressive performances in every game of the Boston series but the first, but he couldn’t have done it without a resurgent Alexei Kovalev, suddenly awoken from his New York slumber. Though in the process, young hotshot Mike Ribeiro earned the wrath of the city of Boston for his terribly immature behaviour, and if they hadn’t kept pummeling him late in the series, I’d have taken the T to North Station and done it myself.

Tampa’s the better team on average, but Montreal has the momentum. Tampa’s defense, far stronger than Boston’s, should be able to neutralize the Koivu-Kovalev-Zednik line for Montreal. The X-factor in this series will be the goaltending of Jose Theodore once again. Still, Tampa in six.

Flyers (3) vs. Maple Leafs (4)

The match I didn’t want to see. Philly’s firing on all cylinders right now -- consistent scoring from all lines and support from the defense is helping them out. But what carried them over New Jersey was, amazingly, a decisive advantage in goaltending. Robert Esche completely outplayed perennial Vezina candidate and personal hero Martin Brodeur and is riding an incredible wave of confidence.

But Eddie Belfour had an even better series for the Leafs against the Ottawa Senators, with a save percentage (er, per thousand) on the happier side of .950 and sharing that shutout record with Khabibulin. And they’re getting way more than they could expect from their fourth line of Hab-rejected Chad Kilger, the often-overlooked Robert Reichel, and the pugnacious fan favorite Tie Domi, who have exemplified grit from the beginning of the series. Their nightmare has been the lackluster performance of Alex Mogilny, playing ineffectively on a sore hip, who needs to be demoted to a lower line. If Owen Nolan manages to come back soon, look for him to take a place on the top line in this series with Mats Sundin and Gary Roberts.

I don’t feel the slightest bit partisan in making Toronto my upset pick for this round. Look for them to take it in six on home ice, because I don’t think they can steal a Game 7 on the road.

Western Semifinal:

Red Wings (1) vs. Flames (6)

Detroit has shaken itself of the miseries of last season but nearly had an aneurysm at the prospect of Nashville goalie Tomas Vokoun being this year’s J.S. Giguere. The Nashville netminder did, however, have two fantastic starts at home to even the series. Shame no one outside the building noticed. But Curtis Joseph is back in net for the Wings, replacing the capable but untested Manny Legace. The Wings’ offense is intact but has had trouble scoring in periods other than the third.

Then again, with the emergence of Miikka Kiprusoff in the Calgary net and the ascension of Jarome Iginla as one of the league’s greatest young leaders, this Calgary team will be hard to extinguish. Their real problem might be depth; Captain Iggy can only do so much to motivate his team up front, so the Flames’ success will come from gritty players like Chris Simon, injury notwithstanding, continuing to step up.

But it’s hard not to like the Wings’ chances here, especially with the extra two days of rest they earned. And they’ve got consistent overtime hero Steve Thomas on the third line, who must have rabbit’s feet in those skates. Wings in six.

Sharks (2) vs. Avalanche (4)

San Jose and Colorado are both well rested after disposing of their opponents in five games each in the first round. Both teams are hurting; San Jose’s lost the services of forwards Alyn McCauley and Scott Thornton in the short term, though they may be ready for the next round. Colorado’s been without the talented Paul Kariya for the entire playoffs but don’t appear to have missed him. The real fear is that young winger Alex Tanguay might not return in full form to appear at Peter Forsberg’s side.

I only get one upset pick this round, and this ain’t gonna be it. Few teams have played so well, so quietly this year. Sharks in five.

First round pick record: 7-1.