Conference Finals preview and prediction
The NHL’s change to divisional seeding for the playoffs has paid off ten-fold for the league as the Conference Finals are set to begin. A thrilling set of first round series led into another entertaining round two that saw three of the four series go to a game seven. With an Original Six matchup in the East and a rematch of last year’s Conference Final in the West, the third round ought to shake out much the same way the first two rounds did.
Montreal Canadiens vs. New York Rangers
Things could change drastically in this series if Carey Price is unable to play for any length of time. The first game shook out in a way few could have predicted as the Rangers tilted the ice in their favor from the opening faceoff and ran the Habs out of their won building with a 7-2 victory.
It was my expectation that the Canadiens defense could serve as their weak spot but that their depth and speed up front would outperform the Rangers. While New York may have more big guns, it seems as if the Canadiens had depth on their side. Both teams had been largely powered by their third lines and those units will likely be the focal point yet again as each team works to shut down the opponent’s top line.
What could ultimately tip the scales in New York’s favor is their slight defensive advantage. As immensely talented as PK Subban is, the Montreal defensive corps don’t impress me as much as the group New York plays on a nightly basis.
The goaltending matchup is also an interesting one, although game one may alter how the rest of the series plays out. Henrik Lundqvist has shown a Hasek-ian propensity to steal games for his team even when they’re overmatched. He’s been nearly impossible to score on and only flukes and perfect tips have been getting the job done lately. Price, meanwhile, has been just as impressive throughout the playoffs. He’d be Montreal’s conn Smythe candidate should the Habs lift the Cup and he will be a key factor in this series.
While game one makes things look bad for Montreal, I think they will find a way to overpower New York thanks to the overall balance of talent. Both teams are very similar to one another but I feel like the Canadiens come away as the winners here.
Montreal in 6
Chicago Blackhawks vs. Los Angeles Kings
This is the showdown between the burgeoning dynasty and the plucky underdogs who won’t go away. Chicago was likely the favorite to win the Cup from the start of the postseason for many fans and experts. They have show little, to no drop off from last season’s Cup run and they got things off on the right foot in game one of this series.
Los Angeles has stared down two separate elimination scenarios and came away victorious in their first two rounds. After winning four-straight elimination games against San Jose, they did it again against the Ducks. Between their first two series, the Kings have played a pair of game sevens and faced elimination a total of six times.
While goaltending is a major reason both of these teams have made it to this point, I feel that this series will be decided by the team’s top lines. The Stanley Cup playoffs are always about matchups, shutdown pairs and the ability to stymie a team’s best weapons. The Kings and Blackhawks have the luxury of not only having incredible forward depth, but a top line that can double as a shutdown unit. So, depending on how Anze Kopitar and Jonathan Toews’ units fare in this series may just dictate who comes out on top. Game one tells a story where Toews and his wingers enjoyed the advantage and the score reflects exactly that.
Another potential factor is the fatigue that LA is dealing with versus that of the Blackhawks. Chicago got out of both the first and second rounds in six games while the Kings played seven games in each series. As brief as the rest may have been for the Blackhawks, the Kings have not been able to enjoy as much time off. While their first two series were both played in California, those extra games will certainly take a toll on the players. If they’re unable to maintain against Chicago, it could make for a quick series.
Chicago in 6