Over the years, while covering 10 Stanley Cups, I’ve come to realize the best hockey generally isn’t played during the final series. By then, both teams are usually physically and emotionally spent from playing the first three rounds and have less to offer even with a title on the line.
In terms of quality, the best hockey is usually played during the conference finals. The four remaining teams needed to perform at the highest level to get through the first two rounds. They often empty the tank knowing an opportunity to raise the Stanley Cup awaits the conference winners.
Energy shouldn’t be an issue this year, particularly in the West. If anything, the Blackhawks and Ducks could be shaking off a little rust when their series begins Sunday. They can thank television networks, which determine postseason hockey schedules, for their extended break.
Patrick Kane & Co., which swept Minnesota, will be playing their first game in 10 days when the series begins. Anaheim will be playing its first game in a week after eliminating Calgary in five games. Nobody should be surprised if the first period Sunday is slow and sloppy before both teams settle into a terrific series.
Kane returned from a broken clavicle and re-established himself as the best player in the league. He was in position to win the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player when he was sidelined in February. He came back ready and refreshed and has been superb in the postseason. A second Conn Smythe is well within reach.
The South Buffalo native was the Blackhawks’ best player in the second round, scoring in each of the four games. He has six goals in a five-game streak going back to the first round. He has 13 points in 10 postseason games, second to Corey Perry. Perry has seven goals and 15 points in nine playoffs games for Anaheim.
Questions remain about goaltender Corey Crawford. He was shaky in the first round before playing better against Minnesota. Chicago still has a slight edge in my book, largely because the Blackhawks are deeper in talent across their three lines. They have more experience in big games and the best understanding among the four remaining teams what it takes to win.
Plus, the laws of probability are bound to take over, assuming they get their feet under them in Game One.
Marian Hossa had just one goal to show for the first two rounds. Brad Richards had a goal and four points in his first 10 playoff games this season. Hossa is 36 years old, Richards is 35. The time off should help them. If they can take pressure off Kane, the Blackhawks will win their second Cup in three years and third in six years.
Keep an eye on Jonathan Toews, who is expected to be matched up against Ryan Getzlaf as much as possible. Toews is one of the best defensive forwards in the league. If he can slow down Getzlaf, and score a goal or two, it could be the difference in a tight series.
The situation is considerably different in the East, although there’s no beating the storyline that comes with the Rangers and Lightning. Martin St. Louis plays against his former team for the conference title. He would love nothing more than to beast Bolts GM Steve Yzerman.
If you remember, St. Louis was offended when Yzerman initially left him off Canada’s roster for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. Their relationship soured before St. Louis was sent to the Rangers for Ryan Callahan in a swap of captains.
Callahan’s status for the Game One on Saturday was uncertain after he had an appendectomy. He hasn’t skated with conviction since surgery earlier this week. He could be cleared to play, but nobody should expect him to be fully healthy for several weeks.
The Rangers, coming off an emotional overtime victory over the Caps in Game Seven, barely had enough time to catch their breath before the next round. Sometimes, it benefits the team forced to stay busy, but only to a point. They could use St. Louis, who has been practically invisible in the postseason. He has no goals and four assists in 12 playoff games.
St. Louis vs. the Lightning, and Callahan vs. the Rangers makes for an intriguing series, but they’re not likely to make the difference. The real matchup, as usual, will be between the two goaltenders. Henrik Lundqvist has been nearly unbeatable for New York, but Ben Bishop isn’t far behind for Tampa Bay.
Lundqvist takes a 1.60 goals-against average and .944 save percentage into the series for the Rangers. Bishop had a 1.81 GAA and .931 save percentage for the Bolts. Both have won seventh games this year. Remember, Bishop shut out Detroit in Game Seven in the first round.
It has the makings of another grueling series. Will either team have enough to beat the Blackhawks in the finals? No.
Western Conference final: Blackhawks in six.
Eastern Conference final: Rangers in seven.
Stanley Cup: Blackhawks in six.