The field of 16 Stanley Cup hopefuls has been whittled down to the final four. The 2014 Stanley Cup champion will be either the Chicago Blackhawks, Los Angeles Kings, Montreal Canadiens, or New York Rangers. All others must wait another year. On Friday, May 16, 2014 the Los Angeles Kings defeated the Anaheim Ducks 6-2 in Game 7 of the Western conference semifinal, to become the last team to join the pack. Now that the Stanley Cup playoffs have reached critical mass, let's breakdown the two Conference championship series'.
I went 5-3 with picks in Rd 1 (Tampa Bay, Philly, Colorado lost) and 3-1 (Boston lost) with picks in Rd 2. Overall record 8-4; not bad for a semiprofessional. Now let's get into some further prognostication.
Eastern Conference final: New York Rangers vs Montreal Canadiens (Montreal won reg season series, 2 games to 1) - This "Original six" matchup looks to be a low-scoring affair, based on the two teams only scoring a combined 4 goals in three regular season meetings, though Montreal was outshot 102-76. Both teams have great frontline scoring. For thie season, Max Pacioretty led the Canadiens with 39 goals. In all, the Canadiens have five players who scored at least 16 goals during the regular season. Forward Rene Bourque had only nine goals in 63 regular season games, but has come alive and scored 4 goals in just eleven playoff games. Thomas Vanek had a difficult time adjusting, after having been acquired by Montreal at the trade deadline, but now Vanek leads the team in playoff goal-scoring (5). The Rangers' top forwards really need no introduction. Rick Nash, Martin St. Louis, and Brad Richards are seasoned veteran All-Stars. St. Louis and Richards were teammates on the 2004 Cup-winning Tampa Bay Lightning. Nash has played pretty well in these playoffs, but has yet to register a goal, though he leads the team in shot on goal, with 52. He could be ready to break out. On defense, a slight edge would have to go to Montreal. In Rd 2, P.K. Subban willed his team to victory over the Boston Bruins. There is now a noticeable maturity to his game which had been a missing ingredient in prior seasons. It looks as though Subban is not becoming just a great defenseman, but a true leader of men. For New York, Dan Girardi and Marc Staal anchor a solid corps of blueliners which collectively may be the equal of Montreal, though they have no one defenseman which is the equal of Subban. In goal, much like Subban, Carey Price has really come into his own. Price's play had been somewhat uneven in previous playoff years, but this season he has truly lived up to the billing. He will need to do it again in this series. At the opposite end of the ice, will be the virtually peerless Henrik Lundqvist. "King Henry" was almost unbeatable in Gm 7 against Philadelphia in the Rd 1, and then frustrated Pittsburgh in Gm 7 of Rd 2. Over his career, Lundqvist has never lost in a Game 7. This matchup of Red, white and blue (Montreal) vs Blue white and red (New York), may very well come down to a Game 7. If so, Hank has the credentials. This is a tough one to pick. No matter what, there will be some very happy fans in one of these two cities. The last trips to the Cup final for Montreal and New York respectively, were in 1993 and 1994, when each last captured the Cup. It looks as though the Montreal Canadiens are ready to take the next step - Montreal wins in 6 games. Series schedule - Gm1, Sat May 17/ Gm2, Mon May 19/ Gm3, Thur May 22/ Gm4, Sun May 25/ Gm5, Tues May 27/ Gm6, Thurs May 29/ Gm 7, Sat May 31
Western Conference final: Los Angeles Kings vs Chicago Blackhawks (Chicago won reg season series 3-0): This is a rematch of last year's Western conference final, which Chicago won with an OT victory in Game 5. The Blackhawks went on to win the Cup. In the 2013-14 regular season, they swept all three games vs the Kings; outscoring them by a margin of 9-4. The dynamic forwards of Chicago are what makes this team so special. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, and Marian Hossa will make teams pay for any little mistake made. Kane is probably the best pure puckhandler in the NHL. For the Kings, the trade deadline acquisition of Marian Gaborik has paid huge dividends. Gaborik (9 goals) currently leads the NHL in playoff goal scoring. His linemate Anze Kopitar (5 goals, 14 assists) leads the NHL in overall playoff scoring. Versatile sniper Jeff Carter normally plays right wing, but was moved to center midway through the first playoff series vs San Jose, and has been between youngsters Tyler Toffoli, and Tanner Pearson ever since. On defense, Chicago's Duncan Keith is once again a Norris trophy finalist. All do respect to Drew Doughty, but Chicago has the edge in overall blueline talent at this point, especially considering recent injuries to veteran Kings' defensemen Robyn Regehr and Willie Mitchell. In goal, Chicago's Corey Crawford has been solid, despite giving up the occasional soft goal. Crawford leads all playoff goalies in goals against avg (1.97), and save percentage (.931). On the other side, is the incomparable Jonathan Quick. Quick's overall playoff numbers are not as good, but he allowed only 5 goals over the last four games in the Rd 1 vs San Jose, and only 3 goals in the last two games in Rd 2 vs Anaheim. Though the edge in goal would have to go to Quick, Chicago simply has way too much talent, and too many pure scorers for the Kings to rely on Quick to win this series for them. To break through against the defending champs, the Kings will need to play strong overall team defense, and dominate play in the neutral zone, thus neutralizing the Blackhawks' team speed. If Chicago is allowed to freewheel, it will get ugly for the Kings. If the Blackhawks become impatient against the Kings, and start taking chances, the Kings will roll. This will be a battle of wills, and a chess match between two excellent teams with excellent coaching. In the end, it will come down to the better defensive system, and goaltending. As has been the case in this postseason - Kings win in 7 games. Series schedule - Gm1, Sun May 18/ Gm2, Wed May 21/ Gm3, Sat May 24/ Gm4, Mon May 26/ Gm 5, Wed May 28/ Gm 6, Fri May 30/ Gm 7, Sun Jun 1.