We’re now down to the NHL’s “Final Four” on the road to the 2013 Stanley Cup, featuring the Stanley Cup champions of the past four years.
In the Eastern Conference, it’s the Pittsburgh Penguins (champions in 2009) facing off against the Boston Bruins (2011 champs), while in the Western Conference, the Chicago Blackhawks (champs in 2010) square off against the defending champion Los Angeles Kings.
If you were to go by the regular season standings, it could be assumed the Blackhawks (runaway winners of this year’s President’s Trophy for the best regular season record) and Penguins (tops in the Eastern Conference standings) are the logical choices to march on to the Stanley Cup Final.
That, however, does a grave disservice to the Kings and Bruins.
As noted earlier, the Kings are the defending champions, showing their mettle overcoming two very tough opponents in the St. Louis Blues and San Jose Sharks to reach the Conference Final. The Bruins had some difficulty dispatching a tougher-than-expected Maple Leafs team, but quickly found their groove in the second round to crush the New York Rangers.
By contrast, the Penguins struggled to eliminate the upstart NY Islanders, then used their superior scoring depth against the over-matched Ottawa Senators. The Blackhawks had little difficulty eliminating the Minnesota Wild, but had a serious scare thrown into them by the determined Detroit Red Wings in a tough seven game series which needed overtime to settle.
So, how does these teams match up?
The Penguins are currently the highest-scoring team in this year’s playoffs, with the most impressive offensive depth seen in years, led by superstars Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jarome Iginla, James Neal and Kris Letang, along with Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz.
While the Bruins posses notable offensive forwards in Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Brad Marchand, Nathan Horton and a struggling Tyler Seguin, they cannot match the Penguins offensive depth.
However, the Bruins are a more physical team, and their blueline – anchored by captain Zdeno Chara – has been bolstered by the additions of young defensemen Dougie Hamilton, Matt Bartkowski and Torey Krug.
In goal, the Penguins have been stabilized by Tomas Vokoun, who took over for a struggling Marc-Andre Fleury midway through the Islanders series. The Bruins, meanwhile, have been carried by the solid play of Tuukka Rask, who has erased any doubts of his capability to handle the starter’s job.
The key to this series will be the Bruins ability to nullify the Penguins vaunted offensive depth whilst using speed and physical play inside the Penguins zone to generate scoring opportunities. The Penguins, meanwhile, must match the Bruins physical style, use their offensive depth to take advantage of the young Bruins defenders and Vokoun must out-play Rask.
This should be a close, entertaining series, but ultimately I think the Penguins possess too much firepower for the Bruins to contain, so I’ll take Pittsburgh in six games.
As for the Kings and Blackhawks, I believe the former is the best-balanced of the remaining teams in the playoffs.
They’ve got arguably the best goaltender in the league in Jonathan Quick, possess a mobile blueline corps anchored by Drew Doughty and emerging star Slava Voynov, an aggressive offense lead by Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown and clutch playoff scorer Justin Williams, and a strong overall team work ethic.
The Blackhawks are no slouches in the talent department. You don’t dominate the regular season without skilled depth. They’ve got experienced scorers in Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp, a solid defense led by Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, and a solid cast of role players, including Bryan Bickell, Andrew Shaw and Michael Frolik.
However, in their series against the Red Wings, flaws were exposed in the Blackhawks game. Their top scorers were virtually neutralized by the Wings tenacious checking, starting goalie Corey Crawford struggled at times, and as a team they were thrown off their game by the Wings physical play.
That plays right into the Kings wheelhouse, as they’ll bring their aggressive physical style to bear against the Blackhawks, hoping to replicate the Wings efforts but with better results. The Blackhawks must elevate their physical play, their best scorers must step up, and Crawford must match Quick’s level of play.
This series could be the most entertaining of the Conference Final. Ultimately, I think the Kings balanced attack, physical play and Quick’s goaltending will make the difference. Los Angeles in Six.