The picks for the Stanley Cup conference finals

Chris Freud

Well, most local fans think the hockey season is over because the Colorado Avalanche is out – at the hands of the San Jose Sharks, no less. (If you think I’m letting this one go, you’re sorely mistaken. I still am sipping from the keg of glory.)

But we are down to four. The Lightning and the Flyers start their battle for the Whales Trophy today, while the Sharks and Flames begin to dance for Campbell Trophy Sunday. (That’s old-school for the Eastern and Western Conference titles.) And, if you’re a hockey fan – even an Avs fan – these two matchups are definitely worth watching. The alternative is the NBA Playoffs and who would want to watch that?

San Jose (2) vs. Calgary (6)

Welcome to Family Feud, NHL-style. The Flames are led by none other than Darryl Sutter, who led the Sharks to the playoffs for five straight years before being unceremoniously and unjustly dumped by the Sharks last season. Sutter was fired because the Sharks management didn’t attend to holdouts by Brad Stuart and Evgeni Nabaokov – and the team stunk as a result. Thankfully, then-Sharks GM Dean Lombardi finally got the axe and Sutter happily landed in Calgary.

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Speaking of happy landings, that brings us to Mikka Kiprusoff, a product of San Jose’s goaltending factory. He got dealt to Calgary early this season and has been nothing but sensational as Vancouver and Detroit fans, in particular, have discovered.

And then, you have Shean Donovan, now with Calgary, who was a wide-eyed rookie the last time these two teams met in the playoffs in 1995. For those in need of a history lesson that first-round series was a classic. The Sharks went up, 2-0, in Calgary and frustrated Theo Fleury so much that he said about a penalty he took, “If that was a penalty, I’ll eat my shorts.” In Game 3, back in San Jose, Sharks fans were waving boxers all over the place.

The series in 1995 went seven with Igor Larionov and Sergei Makarov feeding Ray Whitney in double OT for a memorable Sharks’ win.

This series should be just as close. Goaltending is a toss-up in this series with Nabokov and Kiprusoff both being pupils of Warren Strelow. To add to the defensive motif of the series, ABC’s/ESPN’s Steve Levy is calling the series, so we are guaranteed a bunch of OT.

The Sharks need to smother Jarome Iginla, truly a great player, along with Craig Conroy and Martin Gelinas. The Sharks did it to Peter Forsberg in Round 2, and they can do it again with their stellar defense.

Both squads have the grit and have been playoff-tested. But, the Sharks get the nod on depth and home ice.

Sharks in seven brutal games.

Tampa Bay (1) vs. Philadelphia (3)

OK, do people finally believe in the Lightning? What do they need to do to get on the hockey radar screen? Tampa has only won the President’s Cup and breezed through its first two rounds. Beating the Flyers certainly would do the trick.

Tampa’s Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier, Fredrik Modin and Brad Richards constitute more firepower than Philly’s Alexei Zhamnov, Jeremy Roenick, Keith Primeau and Tony Amonte. Look for Lightning veteran Dave Adreychuk to be a sleeper in this series.

But, it comes down the to the “Bulin Wall.” Tampa goalie Nikolai Khabibulin gets the nod over the surprising Robert Esche of the Flyers. It’s a Sunshine Belt Stanley Cup Final.

Tampa Bay in six.

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