The conference finals exhausted every possible minute by stretching both series to the limit. That’s a good thing if you like hockey.
In the East, The King is dead after having been checkmated by the Bishop, no less. The Rangers were done in by their inconsistent offense and the Lightning used their speed to overpower a battered New York blueline.
Meanwhile, out West, one goalie rose to the occasion while the other looked unsure after a late Game 5 gaffe. Chicago pooled their skill and savvy to knock out an Anaheim side that once again disappointed at home when it mattered most.
So now, the Final. The fresh-faced Bolts versus the playoff-savvy Blackhawks. Will youth make a statement? Or will experience prevail? (And what are the odds I’m going to script some sort of similar-sounding starting syllable sentence somewhere?)
Tampa Bay (A2) vs. Chicago (C3) (Season series: Tampa Bay 1-0-1)
Who to watch: How clutch is Tyler Johnson (leads with 12 goals and 21 points)? But, more importantly, does he have enough left to earn a ring? On the topic of Triplets, let’s not forget about Ondrej Palat (four of his seven goals vs. NY). Some might say Ryan Callahan (four in 19) has been demoted, while others would claim he’s been transferred to a more resourceful department (58 hits, general nuisance). It’s amazing to believe someone as huge as Victor Hedman (10 points, plus-11) could move so gracefully while dominating on the backline. Matt Carle’s (three in 19, minus-8) fantasy career path has been trending downward ever since he left Philly. While the defense is holding opposition opportunities to a minimum (fourth-lowest average in shots against), Ben Bishop (2.15 GAA, .920 save percentage, three shutouts, started all 20) warrants merit for his service…A favorable position (the top unit) and some wicked skills has Brandon Saad (five of eight points in the last four) set up nicely. Antoine Vermette (five in 14) may not be as offensively gifted as in the past but he’s still contributing (56.5 percent on face offs). Teuvo Teravainen (two goals, four assists in 12) is showing a few flickers of brilliance to lock down a regular role next season. Beyond the multitude of minutes (averaging 31:35 (!) a night), Duncan Keith (18 points, including five on the power-play) proves proficient in all areas. Nice to have a solid skater and puck mover like Kyle Cumiskey (at 11:14 in six) take a supplementary role. A couple early hiccups aside, Corey Crawford (from a 4.19 GAA and .850 save percentage in the opening round to his current 2.56 and .919) has grown in confidence by the series.
Prediction: Southeast against Midwest. Beaches and sunshine against Wrigley and the L Line. Shallow water against deep dish. There may be parity among the two sets of skaters but this series will be won in net. Central Florida is long overdue for a revival but the Hawks will put an end to the uprising and take their third trophy in six years…Chicago in six (to four).
CONN SMYTHE CANDIDATES
The pool of worthy recipients has been whittled down to a select few. Tampa’s No. 9 remains No. 1 on the list, while Captain Chicago’s clutch creations have him climbing the charts. Watch out for the tireless workhorse. And a hot run could end up netting the award for one of the goalies:
1. Tyler Johnson
2. Jonathan Toews
3. Corey Crawford
4. Duncan Keith
5. Ben Bishop
And we’re done for this season. Sit back, relax and enjoy these last few games. Stay tuned for bonus material during the summer and all that other fun stuff to prepare you for next year.