All 30 NHL teams began the season with one goal: to hoist Lord Stanley's Cup. Now, just four teams still have a shot at the greatest trophy in all of sports. The Lightning and the Bruins will meet in Boston on Saturday for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals (8 p.m., Versus); the Sharks and the Canucks play the opener of their Western Conference finals series Sunday night in Vancouver (8 p.m., Versus). Here are five things to watch for in the conference finals.
The East finals will feature two vets between the pipes: Boston's Tim Thomas and Tampa Bay's Dwayne Roloson. The duo's stats this postseason are nearly identical. Thomas is 8-3 with a 2.03 goals-against average and a .937 save percentage, Roloson 8-3 with a 2.01 GAA and a .943 save percentage. No nerves for these two, they've played in a combined 73 postseason games.
In the West, last year's Cup-winning goalie, Antti Niemi, minds the crease for the team he helped eliminate last year. Niemi and Vancouver netminder Roberto Luongo spent plenty of time staring each other down in the 2010 conference semifinals. They'll face off again on Sunday, this time with Niemi in the teal and white, and a trip to the finals on the line.
The Canucks punched their ticket to the Western Conference finals with a win over the Predators on Monday night. They've been relaxing and recharging ever since, watching the Red Wings and Sharks tire each other out in a hard-fought seven-game series. That series was so close, it was the first playoff ever to have six games decided by a one-goal margin. No doubt the Sharks will be fighting fatigue when their series opens in Vancouver on Sunday.
Worth the wait
The Canucks haven't been to the Stanley Cup finals since 1994; the Sharks have never been there at all. Both teams have been dominant in the regular season for several years running, but never could put it together in the postseason. This year, one of the two will finally live up to its potential, moving one step closer to Lord Stanley.
The Lightning tasted victory just seven years ago, defeating the Flames in the finals, but this is just the team's third postseason appearance since. Meanwhile, the Bruins haven't seen a finals series since 1992, when they managed to win just one game against the champion Oilers.
The Lightning has been outstanding on special teams, allowing just three power play goals in 54 opportunities this postseason (94.4 percent), while scoring 12 times in 45 power play chances (26.7 percent). The Bruins have been iffy. Boston allowed opponents eight power play tallies in 41 chances (80.5 percent), and scored just two power play goals in 37 opportunities (5.4 percent). If the series gets sloppy or chippy, the Lightning should have the edge.
In the West, the Sharks could take advantage of an undisciplined Canucks team that tends to commit penalties when frustrated. Vancouver has given opponents four or more power plays in seven of its 13 postseason games. It will need to play smarter against a potent San Jose team. The Sharks have only killed off 82.7 percent of power plays this postseason, but they enter the conference finals after shutting out the Wings on 15 straight power plays.
The NHL playoffs never disappoint. Unbelievable shots, impossible saves and overtime thrillers are the norm when the best of the best meet in the postseason. Come Saturday, when the puck drops on the first conference final game, you can expect May Madness that will give March a run for its money.