by Kevin Moore
For the first time since 1945 the NHL conference finals features the past four Stanley Cup winners: Pittsburgh (2009), Chicago (2010), Boston (2011), and Los Angeles (2012). So for the most part you can throw experience out the window since all four teams have key players with clutch experience, at least at the scoring positions. If you look in net only one team currently boasts a starting goalie who was in net when they clinched the Cup – last year’s Conn Smythe winner Jonathan Quick, with apologies to Marc-Andre Fleury who is on the bench for the Penguins after a horrid first round. Regardless of who emerges out of this fearsome foursome it should be wildly entertaining as the Cup could go to any of the four teams.
1. Pittsburgh vs 4. Boston
Forwards: Pittsburgh is averaging a very 1980’s Oiler-like 4.27 goals per game through the playoffs. That’s 1.1 more goals per game than the next best team, their Conference Finals opponent Bruins. All eyes will be on the Penguins’ trade deadline acquisition Jarome Iginla. You may recall the long time Calgary Flame had a choice of where he wanted to go. Many in the twittersphere thought Boston had acquired the missing link, only to wake up the following morning with Pittsburgh welcoming the veteran with open arms. Iginla has paid dividends this postseason racking up 12 points (4 G, 8 A), good for fourth on the Penguins through two rounds. Pascal Dupuis (10 pts) has also stepped up, potting 7 goals to tie for the NHL lead with superstar teammate Sidney Crosby (15 pts).
Boston does not have the scoring depth of the Penguins but that does not mean they are not deep. They tout the top playoff scorer to date in David Krejci (17 pts) and they are built to bang bodies with players such as Milan Lucic (10 points) and Nathan Horton (12 points). If the Bruins are to win this series they are going to use this physicality to slow down the speed and skill of the Penguins. Brad Marchand (2 G, 7 A) has also looked incredibly dangerous and has the speed to catch almost any D-man in the league flatfooted if he has the puck with speed. They also need to continue to get contributions from the third and fourth liners who aren’t normally lauded for their scoring touch despite coming up huge in the second round versus New York.
Defense: Pittsburgh’s D core steadied a bit after a shaky first round and Paul Martin (+7) and Brooks Orpik (+6) have been pleasant surprises, tormenting Ottawa’s forwards in Round 2. They have also continued to get Norris Trophy-like performances from their top D-man Kris Letang (3 G, 13 A), who leads all NHL D-men with 16 points this postseason.
Boston’s young defensemen have stepped up and because of their steady play the back line seems to no longer be a question mark for the Bruins. Torey Krug has been the breakout star of the playoffs, potting 4 goals in 5 games played, and has added another power play weapon on the point to go along with captain Zdeno Chara (2 G, 9 A). If the young trio of Krug, Dougie Hamilton (0 G, 3 A), and Matt Bartkowski (1 G, 1 A) continue playing like veterans, the Bruins will be just fine in this series.
Goaltending: Tomas Vokoun has been nothing but steady for the Penguins since relieving Marc-Andre Fleury late in the first round. Despite being second in the playoffs with a .941 save percentage, many think if he has one bad game that Pittsburgh could turn back to the 2009 Cup starter, Fleury. Look for the 36-year-old Czech veteran to continue his consistent play. When you play behind a team with as much firepower as the Penguins, the team looks to you to make a few big saves per games – and Vokoun has done just that. Just don’t look for him to steal a game for you at this stage in his career.
Twenty-six year old Tuukka Rask is one of the best young netminders in the NHL. Many pundits have said that Tuukka is not a big-game goaltender, citing his subpar record in clinching games as well as the B’s 2009 collapse against Philly. What I saw was a goalie that is resilient and mentally tough. He had a nightmare of a Game 4 against the Rangers and then bounced back and had a great Game 5 to send Boston to this final four. In Rask’s last five games he is sporting a 1.86 GAA and a .936 save percentage. He gives the Bruins a major edge in this position this series.
FINAL VERDICT: I think this series will be a lot of fun. The Bruins have the depth to skate with the Penguins but are going to need to stay out of the penalty box with the Penguins power play humming at 28.3%. Look for each game in this series to be wildly different. One night you may see a barnburner where each team is scoring at will and the next you might see a defensive battle. Through all of that I don’t see the Bruins being able to consistently stop the Penguins, who will take it in an entertaining six.
1. Chicago vs 5. Los Angeles
Forwards: On paper the Blackhawks have the edge up front. The only problem is Stanley Cups are not won on paper, they’re won on production. The Hawks forwards have been inconsistent and very easily could have been sent golfing by Detroit in the last series that went seven games. Marian Hossa (5 G, 6 A) and Patrick Sharp (7 G, 4 A) lead the team with 11 points each and should continue to chip in on the scoreboard. The X-factor for the Hawk attack is their 25-year-old captain Jonathan Toews who hasn’t been great this playoff year, with a -2 rating and only 6 points thus far. Something encouraging for Hawks fans is he has 3 points in his last three games.
The Kings forwards do not have eye-popping numbers but what they do have is the ability to raise their game in the biggest moments. Mike Richards (2 G, 8 A) leads the club with 10 points this postseason, while Jeff Carter (8 pts) leads the team with 5 goals scored. The Kings forwards have once again bought into Coach Daryl Sutter’s defensive style and are completely comfortable playing with a one-goal lead. The tighter defensively the games are, the more they edge in LA’s favor.
Defense: This might be the most even aspect of the series. Chicago’s D-men play a positional transitional style led by Duncan Keith (1 G, 8 A). Normally steady Brent Seabrook (-5) was having a tough playoffs until Coach Joel Quenneville paired him back up with his longtime partner Keith. Niklas Hjalmarsson (+6) has been very consistent this postseason and will need to continue to be strong in the corners against the gritty Kings.
The Kings D-men are a bit more physical than the Hawks, led by young stud Drew Doughty (2 G, 3 A) and emerging force Slava Voynov (4 G, 3 A). Two-time Cup winner Rob Scuderi (+6) continues to be a solid playoff performer on the defensive end. He may not contribute a ton offensively with 13 points in 94 career playoff games, but at times he can be a physical shutdown force for LA.
Goaltending: Corey Crawford has been stellar this postseason and the 28-year-old has played his best hockey of late, going 3-1 with a 1.48 GAA and .949 save percentage in his last four games. With that said, Crawford plays a robotic butterfly blocking style which at times leaves him susceptible to shots upstairs because his eyes won’t always follow the puck on shots around the ears. Because the Kings are comfortable playing in low-scoring games Crawford’s numbers should continue to sparkle, but as a viewer you will come away from the series knowing who the better goalie was.
That better goalie is Jonathan Quick who is carving out a niche as a NHL money goaltender. He leads the league in GAA (1.50), save percentage (.948), and shutouts (3) and he was the difference in Game 7 against San Jose last series. His aggressive athletic style is much different than Crawford’s and because of this he will make more eye-popping saves than his more calculated counterpart. It seems impossible because he has played so well but look for Quick to raise his game one more notch this series, leaving Chicago’s big guns to look to the stars with each larceny by Quick.
FINAL VERDICT: To me Jonathan Quick is the difference. He gives the Kings confidence to play to their system without having the fear of not scoring enough. They know that on most nights two goals will be enough to secure a win. This series will be a low-scoring nail-biter with the Kings prevailing in seven on the back of their goaltender.