We’ve hit the NHL’s final four and it starts Saturday in the Eastern Conference. But with apologies to the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning, there’s a large segment of the hockey cognoscenti who think the eventual winner of the Stanley Cup is once again coming from the West.
Game One between the Anaheim Ducks and Chicago Blackhawks is Sunday in the Honda Center, and the winner of that series almost certainly rates a prohibitive favorite to raise silver sometime next month. It’s pretty much the same scenario as last season, when the Blackhawks were eliminated in overtime of Game Seven by the Los Angeles Kings, who then took care of the Rangers in five games.
That last-shot stunner prevented the Hawks from posting the NHL’s first back-to-back titles since the ‘97 and ‘98 Detroit Red Wings, but they’re still the closest thing the NHL has to a dynasty these days. This is Chicago’s fifth trip to the Western Conference final in seven years. And the Hawks are on the prowl for three Cups in six years, something not done since the Wings did it from ‘97-2002.
Over in the East, the Rangers are gunning for their first back-to-back trips to the Cup final since 1932-33. Meanwhile, the Lightning’s Game Seven victory over Detroit in the first round was their first series victory since 2011 and they’re trying to get to the final for the first time since they won it all in Game Seven against Calgary in 2004.
Here’s a look at how the two series shape up:
Chicago vs. Anaheim
The Blackhawks have the motivation to make up for last year’s near-miss against the Kings, and this feels like 2010 all over again. With the big-money deals of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews ready to kick in next season, it will be tough to keep the band together after this run.
And what a band it’s been. Kane has 13 points in 10 playoff games and shows zero effects of his broken collarbone. In Toews, Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp, nobody has the total collection of star talent that the Hawks do.
Since winning its only Cup in 2007, Anaheim has pretty much been a playoff failure until this season. The Ducks didn’t win a playoff series from 2010-2013, and their playoff wins the last two years have been against Dallas, Winnipeg and Calgary; It had been at least six years since the last trip to the postseason for all three of those teams.
Playing the Blackhawks, clearly, is a big step up in competition. And that’s especially true for coach Bruce Boudreau, who never got this far while he was coaching Alex Ovechkin in Washington.
“I’m not sure how high he can jump,” Anaheim winger Matt Beleskey said of Boudreau after last week’s clincher against Calgary. “But I’m sure he was jumping for joy.”
The Ducks have only three players left from the their ‘07 Stanley Cup team in stars Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, and defenseman Francois Beauchamin. They have a huge team and have retooled with the likes of Ryan Kesler, Beleskey and Andrew Cogliano. The defense is young but the talents of Cam Fowler, Hampus Lindholm and Sami Vatanen have been on display all season.
The Hawks will be dealing with the loss of defenseman Michal Roszival, out for the playoffs with his fractured ankle, and will be playing David Rundblad in his place for the first time in the postseason. That should increase the heat – and ice time – for Keith, Seabrook, Nicklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya.
In goal, the Blackhawks needed to use unheralded backup Scott Darling to get through the first round against Nashville as Corey Crawford struggled. But Crawford pretty much owns Minnesota and parlayed that confidence into a .947 save percentage in the second-round sweep. So the thought is that Crawford has regained his swagger and reclaimed his unquestioned No. 1 spot in goal.
The Ducks also have a clear No. 1 in Frederik Andersen, who is 8-1 and has put up a .925. That’s rendered John Gibson a bench-warmer now being eyed by teams in need of goaltending for next season (see Sabres, Buffalo).
As we get to the end, remember this point: No one closes like the Blackhawks. They’re 14-3 under coach Joel Quenneville with a chance to win a series - and 26-6 in Games 5-7 of all series under him. That’s downright incredible.
Prediction: Chicago is the best team in hockey right now and has huge motivation after last spring’s near-miss. The Ducks simply haven’t been challenged enough so far. At this point in the spring, these are the two best teams in the NHL and one won’t get the chance to play for the Cup. Blackhawks in six.
New York vs. Tampa Bay
They made the big news last season as trade partners: Martin St. Louis for Ryan Callahan. Now they’re playoff opponents for the first time and those two players are again in the spotlight. St. Louis seems to be showing his age (no goals in the postseason), and is losing ice time while Callahan’s status is up in the air after the emergency appendectomy that kept him out of Game Six against Montreal.
But the biggest subplot to this series is in goal. Henrik Lundqvist is the best there is in the NHL right now, with apologies to Montreal’s Carey Price. He leads the playoffs with a .944 save percentage and is the closest thing to automatic as there’s even been in a Game Seven if the series gets that far. He’s 6-1 in deciding games with an 0.97 GAA. Tampa Bay’s Ben Bishop has been nearly as good (.931) but had plenty of yips in the first round against Detroit and let in a couple of untimely goals against Montreal.
There are pretty much no bad goals against Lundqvist. So Steven Stamkos, who didn’t score in his first eight playoff games this year, will have to really earn his offense. Stamkos heated up against the Habs with three goals and seven points in Games 2-6. The Lightning led the NHL in scoring during the regular season and have the best second line in hockey, led by undrafted Tyler Johnson.
The Rangers have injury concerns with Mats Zuccarello and Dan Boyle, both believed to be dealing with concussions. They have scoring concerns, as Rick Nash has only two goals.
The Lightning dominated the regular season series, winning all three games by a combined 15-7. But the teams haven’t met since Dec. 1 and plenty has changed. And that might mean the hate factor won’t ratchet up until a couple games are played.
Prediction: If it gets to Game Seven, you have to go with Lundqvist and the Rangers. The betting here is it doesn’t get that far. The Lightning had their scare in the first round when Mike Babcock’s Red Wings had good chances to close them out. A strong team that has a close shave often finds its stride and Tampa looked much more comfortable against the Habs. It should find a way here as well. Lightning in six.