And then there were four. The remaining quartet may have arrived at this point, but each one got here using different techniques. Phoenix once again showed us how to successfully execute counterattacks and then shut the door. Los Angeles overpowered another opponent and didn't let anyone in. New York continued to rely on their veterans and home crowd to squeak out a second series. And New Jersey managed to take the other team's physical play and throw it back in waves.
It all comes down to a pair of Pacific and Atlantic Division clubs. So who will come out on top? Can the troubled Coyotes franchise make a name for Southwestern hockey? Or will The Return of the Kings ascend to the throne? Are the Rangers finally ready to show how dominant they can be? Or will the Devils prove to everyone their run has not been a fluke?
Conference Finals Preview
(3) Phoenix vs. (8) Los Angeles (Season series: Phoenix 3-2-1)
There's no better place to start on Phoenix than the goaltending, seeing how awesome Mike Smith (1.77 GAA, .948 SV%, two shutouts) has shown himself to be. The Coyotes teased us with nine goals in the first two with Nashville, but only managed three in the last three. Nice balance of forward contributions, with Shane Doan (four points in four, including a game-winning goal) and Martin Hanzal (four in five, with his second postseason GWG) picking up their pace in the second round. No surprise in what Keith Yandle (seven assists) has accomplished, but no one could have envisioned Rostislav Klesla (seven in six) matching those totals. Jonathan Quick (1.55 GAA, .949 SV%) is to the Kings as oxygen is to human existence. Dustin Brown lives up to and beyond his captaincy, supplying stats in multiple categories (11 points, 20 PIM, 39 hits, plus-9). Dustin Penner (five in four) sure is making up for a lackluster regular season (17 in 65).
Prediction: Trying to decide a winner in this series is similar to choosing a preference among Lindt Excellence bars. They're all good but one of them eventually looks more appealing than the rest. The Kings have gained strength by the week and have proven to be a hard squad to crack Ė or deny, for that matter. But then again, the Coyotes have looked equally formidable during this stretch. And this column originally tabbed the Coyotes to make the Final, so it will be. Phoenix in seven.
(1) NY Rangers vs. (6) New Jersey (Season series: Rangers 3-2-1)
After potting a whopping 14 goals against Ottawa, the Rangers managed to smash that total with 15 versus Washington. Brad Richards is coming up big (leads with 11, six of them on the power-play), recalling his 2004 efforts with Tampa. The defense maintained their strong offensive output, with four blueliners topping the five-point mark (Michael del Zotto tops with eight). Nothing new in net, as Henrik Lundqvist (1.68 GAA, .940 SV%) has now turned back 371 of 396 shots. Ilya Kovalchuk (12) may be pacing the scoring department, but he's the only Devil who sits in the red for plus-minus (at a -3). Good thing Marek Zidlicky woke up (four in four), but it's even nicer to see rookie rearguard Adam Larsson (goal in his playoff debut) back in the lineup. Think how foolish those reports were early in the season suggesting Martin Brodeur (2.05 GAA, .918 SV% vs. Philly) had nothing left to give.
Prediction: A rematch of that classic 1994 series and their first playoff battle since that kerfuffle in front of the net in 2008. The Devils have displayed a stronger determination to attack, but the Rangers have proven to be formidable on the back end. Each side possesses enough experience and skill to will that extra goal or summon that spectacular save. Neither Stephane Matteau nor Sean Avery will be present but the end result will be the same. Rangers in seven.
The Conn Smythe trophy race has heated up since the last installment. A couple of the contenders have cemented their stock while others have bowed out. Tough decisions to make but here are the Top 5 based on what they've provided: 1. Mike Smith; 2. Jonathan Quick; 3. Martin Brodeur; 4. Brad Richards; 5. Dustin Brown. (So where is Henrik Lundqvist on this list, you may ask? You try leaving off Assistant Captain Clutch. And I wanted to break the goalie trend at the four-spot. That's all I've got.)
After all this time, I am obviously sticking with Phoenix to prevail in the end. And as they'd serve as the road team in the Finals, might as well have them finish the job at home. No, I'm not predicting a sweep. Merely a six-game triumph over the Blueshirts.
Naturally, I'll be back to take a look at the last series. So, until then, sit tight every night and be right ... in front of the TV watching.