Friday, May 31, 2013

Conference Finals Preview

Wednesday night, the Chicago Blackhawks won a 2-1 overtime thriller against the Detroit Red Wings to join the Los Angeles Kings, Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins as the four teams remaining in the quest for Lord Stanley's Cup. With the Conference Finals set to start this Saturday, here is what you can expect going forward from both series.

Blackhawks vs. Kings - This series is an interesting match-up as it places the hottest goalie left, Jonathan Quick against a Chicago team that is probably the most well- rounded squad left in contention.

One of the things about playoff hockey is that one player can entirely change the dynamic of a series, particularly when the individual in question is the man between the pipes. The last four Stanley Cup Champions have ridden hot goalies all the way to the Cup. The Conn Smythe went to Quick last year and the Bruin's Tim Thomas in 2011 and while they didn't win any awards Antti Nieme and Marc-Andre Fluery played crucial roles in the victories of the Blackhawks and Penguins respectively.

The Kings are hoping that goaltending once again can dictate the course of the cup this year because in all likelihood that is the only way they can compete with the three other teams left in the playoffs. Their defense has been solid thanks to the addition of Robyn Regehr but the Blues and Sharks both lack the talent of the Blackhawks forwards. Simultaneously their offense has struggled scoring three or more goals in only three of the thirteen games they've played this post season. Their leading scorer Mike Richards (two goals eight assists) is their only player in double figures and regular season scoring leaders Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams have been stagnant so far this post season.

The Blackhawks are probably the most complete team left in the playoffs. Their forward lines house the superstar power of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp (who's tied for the playoff lead with seven goals). Defensively the Hawks are anchored by blueliners Duncan Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Brent Seabrook. While Seabrook has underperformed thus far he did score the game winning goal against Detroit in overtime which may provide the spark he needs to play up to his ability level. When you put Corey Crawford's, 1.70 GAA and .938 Save Percentage in the crease with that lineup you have one of the most formidable teams in the leave.

Prediction- Hawks in 6- Quick's 1.50 GAA and .948 Save Percentage are good but he can only do so much, particularly when the Kings struggling offense will be facing a talented Corey Crawford and the best defense they've seen throughout playoffs. The Kings will probably steal a game or two at home but expect the Hawks to cruise on to the Cup.

Bruins v. Penguins- The Penguins handled the Bruin's fairly easily in the season series but the playoff will pit two very different teams against one another. This is going to be a tough one either way and both teams have a legitimate shot at taking the East.

The Penguins have the most talented forwards in the league plain and simple. Any team that can place the league's reigning Most Valuable Player on the second line clearly has a lot of depth and that's exactly what the Penguins have done with Evgeni Malkin. Oh and by the way they also have Sydney Crosby the league’s best playmaker running the first line. Veterans Pascal Dupuis and Jerome Iginla  give the team the experience it needs for a playoff push and their third and fourth lines are two of the best in the league. While Bruins fans may claim to have four solid lines the Penguins have more depth and skill top to bottom then the Bruins forwards do. For this reason the Penguins forwards will be the ones who decide the series. Defenders Kris Letang, Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik are extremely talented but they have been plagued by subpar goalkeeping throughout the playoffs giving up a lot of soft goals. Thanks to their lackluster defense they are going to need to score if they want to win games.

The Bruins on the other hand are going to need to rely heavily on their defense and an underrated Tuuka Rask if they are to contain Pittsburgh's explosive forwards. Boston's Young Defenders Dougie Hamilton, Matt Barkowski, and the unbelievable Torey Krug played a fantastic series against the Rangers, but the Bruins are going to need Dennis Seidenberg and Zdeno Chara to play their best in order to prevent Crosby and Malkin from running wild. In order to accomplish this the Bruins need to play physically but disciplined. The slight physical edge the Bruins bring to the table could be their biggest asset, particularly with the Merlot Line playing extremely well. That being said it is imperative that the Bruin's stay disciplined and out of the box. If the Bruins commit the number of penalties against the Penguins that they did against the Ranger's they'll be out of the series before you can say “Crosby to Dupuis”.

Prediction- Bruin's in 7- I'm not even going to pretend to not be biased on this series. Are the Penguins the favorite? Definitely. Do they have home ice? Yes. Does that matter? No. It's the playoffs and the beautiful thing about the playoffs is that nothing leading up to a series matters. The Bruin's are going to need to play well to win, but they made a very talented Ranger's team look so bad that head coach John Tortorella got the boot. It's going to be a tough series, but I've got faith in the boys.

Regardless of what you think there is no denying that the Conference Finals are going to be great battles. These four teams deserve to be here and have all played exceptionally well up to this point. If the first two rounds are any indication there's a lot to look forward to as the hunt for the Cup continues.

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