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Michael Taylor 29th Apr 2009 - 10:49

Stanley Cup play-offs – Conference semi-finals

The Stanley Cup quarter-finals produced some breathtaking ice hockey and a couple of major shocks to go with it. Hardly surprising as the very best in the NHL fight it out for the greatest prize of them all, The Holy Grail, otherwise known as the Stanley Cup.

The biggest surprise was the San Jose Sharks exit at the hands of post-season veterans the Anaheim Ducks.

As the number one seed in the Western Conference big things had been expected of the Sharks but the perennial play-off flops were outplayed and outclassed by regular season also-rans Anaheim.

Elsewhere, the Washington Capitals and Carolina Hurricanes scraped through by the skin of their teeth while the Boston Bruins, Vancouver Canucks and Detroit Red Wings made it look easy with comprehensive series sweeps.

There is a lot to live up to in the second round after the extraordinary first round but who looks best placed to make the step up to the Conference Finals?

Eastern Conference

#1 Boston Bruins v #4 Carolina Hurricanes

Two goals in one and a half minutes was enough to see the Hurricanes past the New Jersey Devils in round one but the number four seeds will need to massively improve if they want to trouble the Boston Bruins.

The Bruins ignored their lack of play-off experience as they smashed Montreal in four; a first post-season series win since 1999. Michael Ryder and Phil Kessel tallied 13 points between them while Tim Thomas continued to perform at an unbelievable level, conceding a miserly average of 1.5 goals per game.

The Canes were far less impressive in their series against the Devils and the fact that they came within 80 seconds of elimination speaks volumes.

Eric Staal and Ray Whitney were both in great form throughout and they will need to produce again here if Carolina are to have any chance. Big performances will also be required from Sergei Samsonov, Erik Cole and Jussi Jokinen, all of whom never really got going in the quarter-finals.

However, Boston seem to have so many options with Daniel Krejci and Marc Savard providing exceptional attacking flair while the monstrous Zdeno Chara on defence is always good for a goal or two.

Prediction: Boston to keep on marching in five

#2 Washington Capitals v #3 Pittsburgh Penguins

The focus in this one is sure to be on Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby but there is plenty more to whet the appetite between two of the NHL's most exciting attacking units.

Alexander Semin and Evgeni Malkin both outscored in points and goals their respective team's superstar in the first round and the series could be balanced on which of these two contributes most in this round.

However, defence is the key to the series and the battle between Marc-Andre Fleury and Simeon Varlamov in particular will be intriguing.

Fleury undoubtedly has the better résumé but Varlamov is Washington's season saviour after replacing Jose Theodore during the Rangers series to great effect - whoever wins this match-up will win the series.

But while there are vital match-ups over all lines it would be rude not to look at the main one; Ovechkin v Crosby.

It's the publicist's dream. The two best players in hockey; Russia v North America and neither player is shy of the camera.

Ovechkin is a goalscoring machine and has been the better of the two this year but it won't be as clear cut as that. Crosby loves the play-offs, the limelight and he has Evgeni Malkin by his side. This is the NHL's version of Kobe Bryant v Lebron James and it will be great.

Prediction: Capitals to build on momentum and win in six

Western Conference

#1 Detroit Red Wings v #4 Anaheim Ducks

If there is one series that looks easy to predict it is this one.

The Red Wings are superior in just about every area of each line and they also have the play-off acumen that the San Jose Sharks so badly lacked.

The Blue Jackets had no answer to Lidstrom, Hossa, Henrik Zetterberg, Datsyuk etc. and the Ducks look equally unable to contain the Wings' big guns.

One encouraging thing for Anaheim was Ryan Getzlaf's showing in the first round as he ripped apart San Jose's fragile defence time and time again. He is however unlikely to get the same treatment from the highly polished Detroit defence.

Chris Osgood still has a few questions to answer in front of Detroit's goals despite a solid first round series and Randy Carlyle is sure to encourage his Ducks to test him on every possible occasion.

Realistically though Anaheim will be lucky to take the series to a fifth game if this one goes to the form book.

Prediction: Prepare your brushes for another Red Wings sweep

#2 Vancouver Canucks v #3 Chicago Blackhawks

Let's hope the Canucks have broad shoulders as they carry Canada's hopes of a first Stanley Cup since 1993 but progression is not guaranteed against the strong looking Chicago Blackhawks.

Vancouver completed a comfortable sweep over the Tampa Bay Lightening in the last round although it looked like Tampa Bay had run out of gas after their miracle regular-season.

Chicago on the other hand had a much tougher workout against the Calgary Flames and had it not been for Nicolai Khabibulin's excellence this could have been an all Canada affair.

The question is; which is better preparation, a nice four game stroll or a six game thriller? I guess we'll soon see.

On paper it is hard to see who holds the advantage. Both teams are strong on defence with good puck movers and a lot of physicality while offensively there is a lot of talent at both ends.

The Hawks' Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and first round hero Kris Versteeg have great pace and are more than a handful while Ryan Kessler and Pavol Demitra are always dangerous, especially when a well-rested Mats Sundin is around.

The only given in this series is that it will be brutal and you have to think the Red Wings and Ducks will be secretly smiling in the knowledge that this will take a lot out of both sides.

Prediction: Chicago to nick a hard-fought battle in seven

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