And then there were four. The NHL Stanley Cup playoffs has entered its “final four” stage with the start of its Conference Finals. The Eastern Conference Final, which began Saturday, is an Original Six match-up pitting the Montreal Canadiens against the New York Rangers, while the Western Conference Final is a rematch of last season’s, with the defending Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks squaring off against the Los Angeles Kings.
My predictions for the previous two rounds were part of my bi-weekly column for my local paper, The Guardian (PEI). As I’m currently between columns, I’m making my Conference Final picks here.
After going seven-for-eight in the first round (Only got the Kings-Sharks series wrong), I was two-for-four in the second round, as the Canadiens upset the Bruins while the Kings downed the Ducks.
Be advised I’m not a big fan of making predictions, considering it a waste of time. Still, it’s the sort of thing that’s expected this time of year, so as usual I’m playing along. If I didn’t pick your team to win, don’t get upset or waste your time sending me angry, expletive-laden emails telling me what an idiot I am. Those missives will be ignored and deleted. This isn’t a life-or-death issue, so don’t get carried away.
Chicago Blackhawks-Los Angeles Kings. Having met in last year’s Conference Final, these two teams are building a bit of a postseason history. Given the depth of talent of both clubs, I anticipate a dandy of a series. In fact, I expect it will outshine the Eastern Conference Final.
These two teams are evenly matched in skill and experience. Kings goalie Jonathan Quick is a proven playoff performer, winning the Conn Smythe in 2012 carrying his club to the Stanley Cup. Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford has proven he can hold his own, and is the most underrated of the four starters remaining in this year’s playoffs. The two best centers in the game right now are Chicago captain Jonathan Toews and the Kings’ Anze Kopitar. The Blackhawks have a clutch scorer in Patrick Kane while the Kings counter with Jeff Carter. The Blackhawks’ blueline corps is anchored by Duncan Keith, the Kings with Drew Doughty.
Both clubs have depth throughout their lineups. The only advantage I can see is the ‘Hawks are defending champions, which could give them an edge over the Kings, though the latter were defending champs last season and it had no impact on the outcome of that series.
The Blackhawks swept their regular season series, but that of course means squat now. In the Kings’ first round elimination of the San Jose Sharks, they became only the fourth team in NHL history to overcome a 3-0 series deficit to win in seven games. This series could go either way, but I’m favoring the defending champion Blackhawks and say they’ll take it in seven games.
Montreal Canadiens-New York Rangers. The Rangers took the opening game of this series with a lopsided 7-1 victory. The Canadiens, still coming down from their intense, seven-game series against the slower Boston Bruins, struggled to adjust to the Rangers speed. That being said, this series should still be a good contest between these two clubs. It’s the first time these Original Six rivals have faced each other in the playoffs since the 1996 Conference Quarterfinal.
This should be a goaltending duel between Montreal’s Carey Price and New York’s Henrik Lundqvist. Price backstopped Team Canada to Olympic gold in Sochi over Lundqvist and Sweden. Lundqvist, who’s had difficulty winning in Montreal, will try to one-up Price in this series. The Rangers netminder got off to a good start with a victory in Game 1. Price struggled early and appeared to suffer a leg injury during a second-period collision with Ranger forward Chris Kreider. He finished the period but spent the third on the bench. If Price is sidelined or his performance is hampered, the Canadiens’ Cup chances will go up in smoke.
Both clubs also have big-name scorers who, in my opinion, haven’t met expectations. Montreal’s Thomas Vanek has five goals and eight points in 12 games, but he’s been streaky throughout, with four of his goals coming in only two games. The Rangers’ Rick Nash was stuck in a massive scoring slump, with no goals in 14 games until ending his drought in Game One.
The Rangers deserve full credit for their series-opening beatdown of the Canadiens. They can match the Canadiens’ speed, roll four lines well, overcame adversity in their previous series and seem to have a good mix of veteran talent and promising youth. The Canadiens weren’t anywhere close to being at their best in Game One, especially with their defensive game. In the previous two series, the Canadiens defense corps was a shot-blocking machine, plus they’ve got the free-wheeling P.K. Subban, a game-breaker the Rangers lack on their blue line. Few of the Habs’ skills were on display in Game One, but could come to the fore as they adjust to a swifter opponent.
If Price is hurt, the Rangers will have this series in the bag, as backup Peter Budaj won’t out-duel Lundqvist, no matter how well the Habs play in front of him. If Price is unhurt and returns to form, and the Canadiens adjust their style to match the Rangers, I believe they can win it in six games.