A quick look at Final Four

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:58 AM ET

The message seems to have been delivered forcefully.

In the new National Hockey League, speed is the key to success.

The importance of goaltending still is there and, as is invariably the case, the teams that have stayed alive have done so on the strength of great performances between the pipes.

But the problem that arises for those who are trying to predict the winners in the next round is that all four surviving teams also used blazing speed to get this far. What, then, will be the determining factors in the two conference finals?

- Edmonton Oilers-Anaheim Mighty Ducks: For much of the season, those connected with the Oilers insisted that if they could get any decent goaltending, they'd be the best team in the West. Now, they're one series away from being proved right.

Dwayne Roloson has performed admirably in the post-season and the Oilers are on a roll.

But there is one worrisome aspect. Half the Oilers have been playing over their heads. That's not just a random assessment. It's an evaluation made by Edmonton coach Craig MacTavish, who says that roughly 10 of his charges never have played as well in their lives.

But, on the other hand, there are quite a few Anaheim players who could be characterized in the same fashion.

The problem for the Ducks, though, will be getting more offensive leadership from Teemu Selanne, who has performed at such a high level for such a long time that it's almost impossible for him to play over his head.

He'll be in for a rough time against the Oilers. Chris Pronger will make his life miserable near the net and if he gets away from Pronger, Selanne will have to confront Michael Peca.

Hockey historians will remember that the first time Peca achieved any real notoriety in the NHL, it was a thundering mid-ice check on Selanne that did the deed.

There's plenty of offence here and plenty of speed. There should be some great goaltending and serious physical play.

The two teams are so evenly matched that the determining factor will be desire. It will be a matter of which team wants it more. If that's the case, look to the team with Peca, Pronger and Ryan Smyth.

Edmonton in five.

- Buffalo Sabres-Carolina Hurricanes: The RBC Arena in Raleigh is one of the league's coldest rinks. Down there, they have to keep it that way so that the ice will be playable.

Hockey fans will be thankful that they do so. Here again, we have two teams that can set a blistering pace, poster boys for the way the game could have been played for the past decade had anybody in the New York office understood hockey.

It would be easy to underestimate the Sabres on the basis that they got this far by pulling off an upset. It also would be a mistake.

There are no glaring weaknesses on the Buffalo team and the Sabres play such a solid pressure defence that Carolina will have to be at its best to mount an attack.

But in many ways, the Hurricanes find themselves in a situation similar to the one that existed prior to their series against the New Jersey Devils.

Both teams have solid goaltending, so that should be a wash. Both have capable but unspectacular defences. But the Carolina forwards have a slight edge.

That's partly because Eric Staal is the best player on the ice. And it's partly because Staal not only gets double-shifted, he plays different positions, thereby making him difficult to cover. Sometimes he's at centre; sometimes he's on the wing.

And when the Hurricanes have the man advantage, he's on the point.

The Sabres have plenty of firepower up front with the likes of Maxim Afinogenov and Daniel Briere. But they're still a touch below Carolina, and they'll miss Tim Connolly, who was having an excellent season. Carolina may even get Erik Cole back.

Carolina in six.


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