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Neutral Zone Wrap: The Finals Countdown

Evan Berofsky

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Since the first round didn't provide enough excitement, this last round decided to kick in and offer a whole new set of heart-stopping moments.

Did you get your fill of Game 7s? No? OK, just checking.

Thanks to the Blackhawks for breaking that trend by receiving some timely wizardry from Corey Crawford to down the Wild in six. Orange County ran into Hollywood and the 2007 champs ended up getting squeezed out. The Bruins slumped in the final two contests and were outmuscled by a feisty Habs lineup. After a 3-1 series lead, Crosby and Malkin went AWOL and the Pens fell to the Rangers led (obviously) by the King.

That leaves two deep sides to beat each other up out West and another Original Six war in the East. Sounds like heaven.

And this is how the stories go:

Conference Finals Preview

Western Conference

Chicago (C3) vs. Los Angeles (P3) (Season series: Chicago 3-0)

Who to watch: After a slow start (two points in the opening series), Marian Hossa really picked up the pace (nine in five, what a way to make a living)...What did we say about Bryan Bickell and this time of the year? Just put the big guy in front of the net and watch him rack up the goals (four vs. Minnesota, six total)...Brent Seabrook may be the clubhouse leader amongst Hawks blueliners (11 points) but let's not forget about ol' reliable Duncan Keith (eight) and the recently-benched-but-offensively-gifted Nick Leddy (nothing in the last round, but still receiving some power-play duty)...Corey Crawford maintained a solid stat line (1.97 GAA, .931 SV%) and made some huge saves to build his legend...Hands up if you thought Marian Gaborik would be tops in playoff goals (nine), three more than any remaining skater...Looking for a clutch 21-year old? How about Tanner Pearson (six in limited minutes), who has looked impressive in tandem with Jeff Carter (11)...Despite the exploits of Drew Doughty (eight) and Jake Muzzin (seven), Alec Martinez (six, including two PPAs) is supplementing the attack...Jonathan Quick (2.72 GAA, .915 SV%) may not be acting in his superhuman form from two years ago, but it's steady enough behind an outstanding offense.

Prediction: All the combined experience makes it difficult to differentiate between the two clubs. LA seem to be scoring at will (lead with a 3.15 average) but Chicago can counter with a disciplined defence (lead with a 2.04 average). Can't ignore how successful the Kings operate under pressure but the conference title remains in the Midwest...Chicago in seven.

Eastern Conference

Montreal (A3) vs. NY Rangers (M2) (Season series: Montreal 2-1)

Who to watch:

The Habs are killing opponents on the power-play (10 goals from 38 opportunities), with their first unit combining for 23 points...It's almost as if we're stuck in a flashback, considering how well Daniel Briere (six in 10) is performing...Nathan Beaulieu (two in two after 27 in 57 in the AHL) has become the perfect D-man lineup insertion. Now let's see if Alex Galchenyuk (missed 13 with knee injury) can do likewise...Gotta hand it to Carey Price (2.15 GAA, .926 SV%), who has a knack for shutting things down when it matters...The Rangers may be struggling to find the net (15 goals against Pittsburgh in seven after 19 in seven vs. Philly) but that hasn't stopped upstarts like Derick Brassard (six in eight, including two game winners) and returnee Chris Kreider (goal and assist in Game 5, five minutes of PP action in Game 6) from making an impact...It's like 2004 all over again with Brad Richards (leads with nine) and Martin St. Louis (next with eight) the two most important players up front...Even though he lost his man-advantage role, Anton Stralman (three in four, five overall) is getting enough looks...Nothing more can be said regarding Henrik Lundqvist's brilliance (1.99 GAA, .931 SV%). And while his lifetime record against Montreal is more or less average (13-11-2), his experience in the Canadian city has proved to be less than stellar (4-5-2, 3.87 GAA, .876 SV%).

Prediction: Two of the oldest franchises meet for the 15th time in the playoffs, with each team splitting the first 14. Montreal may lack size but make up for it with loads of heart and determination. Unfortunately, all that extra energy will hurt the Canadiens, who won't be able to contain a lightning quick Rangers unit. New York stormed back against Pittsburgh but that won't be necessary here ... Rangers in six.


A few changes in my top-5 for the Conn Smythe. Two goalies stand tall but don't discount what a leading scorer, tireless contributor, or clutch producer can do: 1. Henrik Lundqvist; 2. Anze Kopitar; 3. Corey Crawford; 4. P.K. Subban; 5. Jonathan Toews.

And in a week or so, two will remain. That's when the real excitement kicks in. Hold on, sit tight, and enjoy the experience.