With the conference quarterfinals of the NHL 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs now history, here’s my preview and predictions for the Conference Semifinals.
Chicago Blackhawks (1) vs Detroit Red Wings (7). The Blackhawks downed the Minnesota Wild in five games in their conference quarterfinal, while the Red Wings beat the Anaheim Ducks in a hard-fought seven-game series. The Blackhawks swept their four-game season series.
The Blackhawks enter this series as the favorite, but they would be wise not to take the Red Wings lightly. While a team in transition, with a number of young players still earning their playoff spurs, their upset of the Ducks proved there’s still a lot of fight and pride left in the Wings.
It should be an entertaining goalie duel between Chicago’s Corey Crawford and Detroit’s Jimmy Howard. Crawford’s stats (1.32 GAA, .950 SP) were superior to Howard’s (2.74 GAA, .911 SP), but Howard faced tougher opposition in the first round. Defensively, the Blackhawks entered this series giving up the fewest goals, while the Wings were 11th in that category. The ‘Hawks also gave up the second-fewest shots, while the Wings were 9th in shots-against.
The Blackhawks were fourth overall in the first round in scoring while the Wings were ninth. The Wings offense was led by veterans Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk in the first round, while the Blackhawks’ scoring was more evenly spread out. Patrick Kane (5 assists) and Jonathan Toews (2 assists) have yet to score,while Zetterberg and Datsyuk are among the top fifteen scorers after the first round.
In special teams, the Wings enter this series with the fourth-best power-play, while the Blackhawks were 10th but the Blackhawks have the top penalty-kill while the Wings are 14th.
This series should be entertaing, with both clubs possessing veteran leadership and experience. Ultimately, however, the Blackhawks offensive depth should prove the difference in this series, especially if Toews and Kane regain their form. BLACKHAWKS IN SIX.
Los Angeles Kings (5) vs San Jose Sharks (6). The Kings defeated the St. Louis Blues in six games in their conference quarterfinal, while the Sharks swept the Vancouver Canucks. The two clubs split their four-game regular season series.
This round of the Battle of California pits two of the league’s best goaltenders against each other in the Kings Jonathan Quick (1.58 GAA, .944 SP) and the Sharks Antti Niemi (1.86 GAA, .937 SP), both of whom have experience in carrying teams to Stanley Cup championships.
This will also be an interesting matchup in styles, as the Kings play a more aggressive defensive style than the Sharks, though the latter did a fine job shutting down the Canucks in their opening round series.
The Sharks had the third-best offense in the opening round, led by by Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, who are among the top twenty scorers after the first round. The Kings offense, however, struggled in their opening round series against the Blues, finishing 12th overall in scoring in the first round. Entering this series, none of their top scorers are even among the top 35 in playoff points.
On special teams, the Sharks had the better power-play in the first round (2nd overall) than the Kings (12th), but the latter was better on the penalty-kill (4th) than the Sharks (10th).
The Sharks match up well against the Kings in goal and have the edge offensively, but the Kings appear the better defensive team, and as defending Cup champions could hold a psychological edge. The Sharks still have that reputation for coming up short in post-season play. Ultimately, the Kings stifling defense could prove the decisive factor. KINGS IN SEVEN.
Pittsburgh Penguins (1) vs Ottawa Senators (7). The Penguins advanced to this series by defeating the NY Islanders in six games, while the Senators upset the Montreal Canadiens in five games. The Penguins swept the season series.
This will be a classic matchup of a vaunted offense colliding against a stingy defense. Of the top 20 playoff scorers this spring, five (Evgeni Malkin, Jarome Iginla, Sidney Crosby, Pascal Dupuis and Kris Letang) are Penguins, currently the top-scoring team after round one. The Senators, however, are the second-highest scoring club, though none of their players rank among the top 20, as they’ve spread their offense throughout their lineup.
Defensively, the Senators are the better club, sitting with the fourth-best goals-against per game compared to the tenth-ranked Penguins. Interestingly, however, the Senators have given up the third-most shots against-per-game (36.0) compared to the Penguins (32.8).
On special teams, the Penguins were tops in the first round on the power-play while the Senators were fifth, and had the third-best penalty-kill compared to the Senators (8th).
Goaltending could prove pivotal in this series. The Senators were out-played, out-shot and out-chanced against the Montreal Canadiens in the first round, but goaltender Craig Anderson (whose .950 save percentage is second-best after round one) was outstanding, and the main reason for the Senators series victory. By contrast, Penguins starter Marc-Andre Fleury struggled against the Islanders, giving way to Tomas Vokoun, who backstopped the Pens to two straight victories.
Speed should be the deciding factor. The Penguins sluggish defense struggled to contain the swift Islanders, something the Senators best skaters should exploit. Combine that with Anderson’s stellar goaltending, and the Sens could be looking at another upset. SENATORS IN SIX.
Boston Bruins (4) vs New Rangers (6). Both clubs advanced after very tough seven-game series; the Bruins downing the Toronto Maple Leafs, while the Rangers dispatched the Washington Capitals. The Rangers won two of three in their season series. It’s the first time in forty years these Original Six rivals have faced each other in the playoffs.
The Bruins have the advantage offensively, sitting fifth overall in goals-per-game (3.14) compared to the tenth-overall Rangers (2.29). David Krejci leads all playoff scores thus far with 13 points, and three other Bruins (Milan Lucic, Zdeno Chara and Nathan Horton) are among the top fifteen scorers. Rangers center Derrick Brassard sits fifth overall in playoff scoring, but after him there’s a significant drop-off. Most of the Blueshirts best scorers (Rick Nash, Brad Richards, Derek Stepan, Ryan Callahan) struggled in the Capitals series.
On special teams both clubs were middle of the pack after the first round. The Bruins were eleventh-overall on the power-play (15 percent), better than the 15th overall Rangers (7.1 percent). The Rangers were ninth overall on the penalty-kill, marginally better than the 11th overall Bruins.
Where the Rangers have a clear-cut advantage is between the pipes. They gave up the third-fewest goals-against per game despite giving up the seventh-most shots, which is a tribute to superstar goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. Bruins netminder Tuukka Rask had good numbers after round one (2.46 GAA, .923 SP, but Lundqvist’s (1.65, .947 SP) were superior.
It would appear the Bruins have the offensive advantage over the Rangers, but then, so did the Capitals. The Bruins also struggled to put away the Maple Leafs, indicating their consistency issues from the regular season still plague them. Running into a superstar goalie like Lundqvist and the Rangers stingy defensive play could prove too daunting for the Bruins. RANGERS IN SEVEN.