Today, From the Press Box:
The second round of the playoffs wrapped up, but not before more twists and turns, continuing the unpredictable nature of this post-season. We summarize those series and then unveil our breakdowns of the Conference Finals.
Boston vs. Montreal
We pick up the analysis of this series in Game 4, a pivotal contest was expected and the clubs both played like it in the most tentative contest in this series. Goalies Tuukka Rask and Carey Price were the stars of this show, shutting the door on all scoring chances until Bruins rookie Matt Fraser settled matters on a scrambled play around the Canadiens goal only 1:19 into the first overtime frame.
A 4-2 Game 5 victory by the Bruins on home ice seemed to have the higher seed well positioned to finally take this series over. However, a narrow 31-30 Boston shot advantage was a good indicator of just how narrow the territorial edge was, even in this game.
The Canadiens turned in their best playoff game to date in a resounding 4-0 shutout win in Game 6. Even though the opening goal was scored by depth forward Lars Eller, the key development in this contest was the fact that Max Pacioretty and Tomas Vanek (with two goals) accounted for the rest of the scoring. The Canadiens have enjoyed their playoff success to date without consistent production from their top forward line in this series. This had to be a huge confidence boost, on top of Price's impressive shutout effort.
Game 7, back in Boston, was played against the electric backdrop of a vocal audience, with a strong contingent backing the visitors. In anticipation of this decisive game, there was a consensus that the first goal would provide a huge edge and, specific to Montreal, the challenge facing the Canadiens seemed to be simply to survive the first ten minutes.
Well, the Bruins came out in a very tentative manner, allowing Montreal to hem them in their own zone for much of the first few shifts. To make matters worse, the Habs fourth line scored that key first goal, when Dale Weise converted a goalmouth pass from Daniel Briere.
The Bruins seemed to have more scoring chances over the next 30 minutes, but they fell behind by a 2-0, on another goal by Pacioretty, before Jarome Iginla finally dented Price's on a late second period deflection.
As the third period wound down, a combination of desperation and sometimes-dirty Boston tactics suggested a loss of focus and the outcome was ultimately sealed by fluke goal from Daniel Briere.
Unfortunately, the blood feud that exists between these long-time rivals spilled over into the post-game handshake line, where Milan Lucic did not handle things too well, with alleged threats directed at two of the Canadiens whom he had battled throughout these seven games.
That behavior seemed to underscore a key tactic as Montreal played whistle to whistle and did not retaliate in the face of some overt and sometimes unsportsmanlike (illegal?) behavior by Boston.
Pittsburgh vs. NY Rangers
The Pens looked to have a stranglehold on this series after a 4-2 win had given them a 3-1 series lead with Game 5 scheduled for home ice. Mission accomplished, right? ---Not so fast...
A "nothing–to-lose" attitude allowed the visitors to play with a renewed confidence and they came away with a resounding 5-1 and the knowledge that they were coming home for Game 6, with a chance to level the series at MSG. That win also gave the media a chance to zero in on Sidney Crosby, who had been limited to one goal in these playoffs.
At the same time, the sudden passing of Marty St. Louis seemed to rally the Rangers around one of their new leaders. When he scored the first goal early in Game 6, there was a sudden sense that something special was going on for the Blueshirts. They quickly double that lead on a goal by Carl Hagelin and, even though Brandon Sutter cut that lead in half, late in the first frame, New York was emboldened by this good start and blanked the visitors as this game turned into another showcase for Henrik Lundqvist.
A second period goal by the Ranger's Derek Brassard allowed New York to settle into that hard-skating defensive game that they play so well and the vaunted Pens' attack was neutralized the rest of the way.
Game 7 turned out to be a virtual duplicate of the other Eastern playoff as the Rangers managed an early goal to create some tension in the home crowd and the home team. An early second period goal by Jussi Jokinen (his 5th) tied the game briefly, but veteran playoff hero Brad Richards restored New York's lead on a pass from St. Louis during a power play.
Despite heavy pressure from Pittsburgh in the third period, King Henrik would not be denied and the Rangers advanced, as they limited their opponents to a total of three goals over the final three games.
Chicago vs. Minnesota
We return to pick up this series in Game 4, with the Wild poised to try to draw even on their home ice. This series features a pair of clubs that dominate in their home rink, but there was still a great level of surprise when the Wild held serve with a convincing 4-2 win to even this series. They outshot the Hawks 31-20 and were never behind in this tilt, though they had to grab a third one-goal lead on a goal by Nino Niederreiter before ultimately holding off the relentless Hawks.
That shadow of doubt seemed to grow early in Game 5 when the visitors took an early lead on a goal by Eric Haula. Just when it looked like the defending champs might buckle, the Hawks ramped up their game a notch as playoff hero Bryan Bickell tied things on a second period power play. If you knew in advance that Minnesota would outshoot Chicago 14-7 in the third period, you would assume that they might have found a way to steal a key win. Instead, it was the opportunistic Hawks, who got the decisive goal from their leader, Jonathan Toews.
The "big-players in big games" analogy continued in Game 6 as once again, and for the final time, as it turned out another Chicago star would be the difference in a tie game. A 1-1 was snapped in overtime as Patrick Kane scored on a lovely deke to bring a sudden end to this series, in much the same manner as his Cup-winning goal of a few years ago.
Anaheim vs. Los Angeles
The divergent goalie situations that we described within these teams seemed to have Kings in a great position to advance when they grabbed that 2-0 series lead after a pair of road wins. The Ducks roared back, not only getting their own pair of road wins, but also an eventual series lead when finally got the first home ice win of this set. Rookie goalie John Gibson was emerging as a real difference-maker as he turned aside 39 shots to preserve a key 4-3 win.
Once again, we are able to look back and draw a parallel to another series as the losing team could at least hang their hat on the optimistic note of the Kings badly outshooting the Ducks (42-24) in this game. An early goal by Jake Muzzin (his third of the playoffs) was the impetus for a narrow 2-1 win that would send this series to a Game 7.
The veteran pedigree of the Kings came to the forefront early (and often) as goals by Justin Williams, Jeff Carter and Mike Richards put the Ducks into a big hole from which they could not come out. LA would build that lead to a 5-0 count before coasting to an emphatic 6-2 series-clinching win.
Eastern Conference Final
Montreal vs. New York
The theme of this series is set to be a meeting of speedy teams that can check opponents into submission, with both teams supported by absolutely top-notch goalies. They both have high-end skill leading their forward ranks as well.
The only big difference that I see is a relative lack of mobility in the Canadiens defense. I don't see much speed or mobility beyond P.K. Subban. Mike Weaver has emerged as a shot-blocking demon for the Habs. Douglas Murray is big and low. Ditto for Alexei Emelin. Andrei Markov is still a power play force, but is also suspect in his own end. Josh Gorges and Francois Bouillon are depth defenders who are not play a regular shift against the Rangers top-six playmaking forwards, either.
On the flip side, the Rangers have built a deep defense that can, and has regularly, shut down opposing offenses. Dan Girardi and Marc Staal can be shutdown defenders who will take on Montreal's top guns. Ryan McDonagh is emerging as an offensive force, though not quite on a level with Subban. Anton Stralman is an underrated puck-moving defender who should also thrive in what is expected to be a skater's series.
I think the Rangers should prevail in six games, after they sent a resounding message through the Bell Centre following a resounding 7-2 to open this series. Henrik Lundqvist just seems to be in a real zone right now and should be poised to outplay Price.
Western Conference Final
Chicago vs. Los Angeles
Just as there is little to choose between the Eastern Conference finalists, I get the same sense in handicapping the Western Final. Both teams are recent Cup winners and they retain a number of players who understand the cost of winning and the effort that is required.
I would give the Hawks forwards a slight edge due to the star power of Toews and Kane, but both sides can roll three bona fide scoring lines at each other. We have also touted the Hawks defense as the deepest in the league and note that LA's defense, led by Drew Doughty, Slava Voynov and Jake Muzzin, is no slouch at all.
In goal Jonathan Quick is on a roll after flopping at the start of this post-season. He is at the top of his game and needs to sustain that level to battle the Hawks. Corey Crawford has had no such stumble, posting a 1.93 g.a.a. (and a sparkling .929 save pct.).
The Hawks have been at a pretty high level throughout this post-season and I see them finding a way to get past the Kings, who may well provide the stiffest test so far, for the defending champs. I pick Chicago in seven games.