It would be easy, acceptable and only a little unethical to attribute the mediocrity of playoff predictions this spring to parity overtaking the NHL.
But we won't.
Instead, we will take the road less travelled, remind that we were half right in the previous round, that the likes of Dallas and Detroit played to the form we expected and that, shamefully, Montreal and New York did not. We take great relief in knowing the Canadiens and Rangers are feeling a whole lot worse than we are right now.
Again, with blindfold on ... to the conference finals with the disclaimer that the predictions were made before Thursday night but were delayed in print because the Maple Leafs decided the time was suddenly right to fire their coach.
PHILADELPHIA (6) VS. PITTSBURGH (2)
For all the obvious reasons, beginning with the intense dislike these two teams have for each other, this will be a tough, nasty and thoroughly entertaining series.
The teams match up evenly in goal, with Marc-Andre Fleury solid for the Penguins and Martin Biron excellent for the Flyers. While the Flyers have had success with Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn shutting down big gunners the first two rounds, the dynamic has changed. First, there is no Timonen. He is lost for at least the series because of a blood clot. That is huge. Second, whom to cover with those who remain? Focus on the Sidney Crosby line? Or how about the Evgeni Malkin line? Then there is Jordan Staal and friends. The Penguins have more weapons than the Canadiens and Capitals, the Flyers' earlier victims. So the order just got taller.
Having said that, the Flyers haven't had much trouble generating offence and from several sources, but it's still not the same arsenal. If the Flyers, whose speed is underestimated, can use some disciplined physical play to bother the Penguins, then they could find success. The Rangers managed to get Malkin and Crosby distracted for most of one game and, not surprisingly, won it.
But discipline will be a key for the Flyers. The Canadiens power play never really made them pay, the Penguins power play likely will. And just as several leads weren't safe against Montreal, the same should apply here. Of the four teams still standing, the Flyers have the worst defensive record and now are playing the best offensive team.
Just because the Penguins don't mind the heavy slogging and have some grit, and because they proved against the Rangers they could win in different ways, we give them the edge but still have this nagging feeling the Flyers could get the job done again.
Prediction: Penguins in six games.
DALLAS (5) VS. DETROIT (1)
There is no denying which team has had the more difficult road to the conference final and perhaps it showed in Game 1. The Stars have had to deal with the defending champion Anaheim Ducks and everyone's pick, every year to be the next champions, the San Jose Sharks. So were they out of gas in the 4-1 loss to Detroit Thursday?
Goalie Marty Turco, who firmly established his credentials last spring, has been brilliant in both rounds for the Stars, though he has never won in Detroit and Thursday saw traffic he hasn't seen all spring. The defence, including several youngsters, has been good. The Stars are arguably the best defensive team left, but they have to find a way to reduce turnovers and clear the net.
The Stars have been led up front by Brenden Morrow, who has done a little bit of everything include rattle teeth and score big goals.
The scoring was limited over the final games against the Sharks, but Turco made sure they didn't need a lot of offence. The same will have to hold true against the Red Wings, who are well rested, healthy, deep and playing tremendously well.
Red Wings goaltender Chris Osgood hasn't lost a game and has terrific numbers, so the edge in goal the Stars seemingly have hasn't materialized.
If there was one area of concern for the Red Wings, coach Mike Babcock thought his penalty killing had to be better and it was in the opener.
Another tough call, but as good as Dallas has played, Detroit will be slightly better.
Prediction: Red Wings in six games.
2008 Playoff record: 7-5