by Kevin Moore
The conference finals were supposed to be dramatic knockout/drag-out affairs that were going to give us nonstop excitement, but it just didn’t happen consistently in either series. Tuukka Rask stymied the Penguins and allowed just two goals in the sweep while emerging as the front-runner to win the Conn Smythe and making Pittsburgh the biggest playoff disappointment since the 1995 Red Wings – coincidentally the last time the NHL had a shortened schedule due to a work stoppage. Jonathan Quick was not the superman we thought (although he still played great, just not out of this world) and Patrick Kane woke up just in time to make everyone realize that the Blackhawks have been the best team in the NHL from day one this year. What we are left with is the NHL’s first Original Six matchup since 1979 when the Canadiens beat the Rangers in five games.
1. Chicago vs 4. Boston
Forwards: The Blackhawks stars have not been consistent this playoff year but there is hope. Patrick Kane’s Game 5 hat trick could be the spark that wakes him up and has him playing up to the playoff standard he set in 2010. Patrick Sharp (14 pts) paces the Hawks with 8 goals, good for second in the playoffs, and Marian Hossa (14 pts, +8) has continued his solid two-way play. Chicago’s biggest surprise has been Bryan Bickell (13 pts) who since being inserted on their top line has contributed some big goals; he’s tied with Sharp for second in the playoffs with 8 goals. If the Blackhawks are going to win this series they are going to need Jonathan Toews (1 G, 8 A) to wake up and play like the Conn Smythe winner he was in 2010.
Boston’s forwards have played a physical brand of defensive hockey that frustrated Pittsburgh’s skill players last round. David Krejci (9 G, 12 A) leads the playoffs in points while Nathan Horton (7 G, 10 A) has been a force, leading all players in +/- by a wide margin with a +21 rating. Patrice Bergeron (5 G, 6 A) has cemented himself as the top defensive center in the NHL by logging big minutes last round against Pittsburgh’s top line and winning draws at a very good 61% clip in the playoffs. Boston’s confidence and production from all four lines should give them the edge overall in this series and be a big factor in wearing down Chicago’s top guys.