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Sizing up the Conference Finals

Jaroslav Halak will try to keep the dream alive in Montreal (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)
Jaroslav Halak will try to keep the dream alive in Montreal (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)
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Tomorrow at 3 pm on NBC we will get our first taste of the Conference Finals when the Chicago Blackhawks and San Jose Sharks kick things off at HP Pavilion.  While the Red Wings are out hitting the links, here's a quick WCF/ECF rundown for your hockey starved souls.

THE EAST: (8)MONTREAL CANADIENS vs. (7)PHILADELPHIA FLYERS
Game 1: 7pm Sunday on Versus

The Canadiens have been the David of this year's NHL playoffs, knocking off Goliaths in the regular season champion Washington Capitals, and the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins in consecutive series. University of Michigan whiz kid Mike Cammalleri leads all goal scores in the playoffs with 12, and if the Conn Smythe were to be awarded today he'd probably win it.  Of course we all know about the goaltending of Jarsolav Halak, who has stood on his head to eliminate the top two threats in the East.

Philly made history the other night when they toppled the Boston Bruins in Game 7, just the third team in NHL history to win a series after trailing 3-0.  They did so with a backup goalie in Michael Leighton, who replaced an injured Brian Boucher mid-series.  The Flyers have hit and smashed their way to wins, using the grit of guys like Scott Hartnell and Dan Carcillo to pummel opponents into submission.

What the Canadiens have to do to win

First and foremost, Halak has to be a dominating presence as he was in the first two rounds.  The Canadiens don't put up a lot of shots on goal, and that usually means the other team is.  The reason teams have had trouble beating the Habs is the play of Halak, and the play of his defensemen in front of him.  Led by Hal Gill and P.K. Subban, the Canadiens defense has blocked a ton of shots this post season, preventing many good chances from ever getting to Halak.  Also, Cammalleri will have to continue to lead the charge up front, as the Canadiens don't have many pure goal scorers.

What the Flyers have to do to win

Leighton was solid in replacing Boucher in net, but he wasn't spectacular.  While Montreal is a lower seed than Boston, they will put up an equal, if not more, of a fight offensively with guys like Cammaleri and Brian Gionta up front and Gill and Subban on the back.  Chris Pronger will need to continue his solid play in the playoffs, and grind it out guys like Hartnell and Carcillo will need to keep up the offensive production.  

Prediction: The Flyers try to pound Montreal like they did Boston, but les Habitants will not be intimidated and continue the dream season.  Canadiens in six.

Western Conference after the jump

THE WEST: (2)CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS vs. SAN JOSE SHARKS
3 pm Sunday on NBC

The West, in the words of Dennis Green: "They are who they thought they were!"  The top two seeds are right where they are supposed to be, as the Sharks and Hawks fight for the other spot in the Stanley Cup Finals.  The top-seeded Sharks had a little trouble with Colorado in round one, and then dispatched of the Red Wings in round two in the closest five game series you'll ever see.  The Blackhawks downed the Nashville Predators in round one, then toyed with Vancouver before finally blowing them out in Game 6 in round two.  

What the Sharks have to do to win

The top bunch of goal scorers (Dany Heatley, Joe Thornton, and Patrick Marleau) have to produce for the Sharks if they are to win the series.  Secondary scorers like Joe Pavelski and Ryane Clowe also will need to get in on the action, as the Blackhawks are loaded up front with scoring talent of their own.  Evgeni Nabakov has had an up and down playoff career, but was solid in the Detroit series, with they exception of the 7-1 debacle in Game 4.  The Sharks will need "good" Nabokov to show up in every game if they want to down the Hawks.  Guys like Nabokov, Thornton and Marleau aren't getting any younger and this may be their best opportunity to win the Cup in San Jose. They'll need to play like it.

What the Blackhawks have to do to win

Two words: Marian Hossa.  Hossa disappeared last season in the Finals for Detroit, and it cost him a Cup for the second straight year.  Hossa needs to play like the superstar he is, not some second or third line guy like he did with the Red Wings and Penguins.  Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews are two young, great players, but they'll need help from Hossa to overcome the high-powered Sharks.  

Much was made about the Hawks' lack of experience in goal entering the playoffs, but the play of Antti Niemi has silenced those concerns for now.  The Hawks dumped Cristobal Huet after a humiliating 5-4 loss to Detroit late in the season and haven't looked back, and Chicago is reaping the rewards.  If Niemi continues his play, the Sharks will be in for a long series.

Prediction:  The Sharks win an epic seven game series as the Hawks can't solve Nabokov or stop Thornton/Heatley/Marleau.