The matchup most expected for the Eastern Conference finals came to fruition as the time zone’s deepest squads, Pittsburgh and Boston, clash with a berth in the Stanley Cup finals on the line.
Much like the East, the Western Conference finals between Chicago and Los Angeles should be awesome to watch.
Here’s how they stack up, and who we think will reach the Finals:
1. Pittsburgh Penguins (36-12-0) vs. 4. Boston Bruins (28-14-6)
How they got here: Pittsburgh outlasted the New York Islanders in six games and Ottawa in five. Boston survived Toronto in seven games and dumped the New York Rangers in five.
After dispatching the Ottawa Senators, one of the East’s best teams all season, Pittsburgh appears to firing on cylinders – offense, defense and goaltending – and looks primed for a berth in the Stanley Cup finals. After a slow playoff start, the Penguins’ second line (Evgeni Malkin, Jarome Iginla and James Neal) has dominated of late, helping Pittsburgh score 13 goals in its last two games. Sidney Crosby has found a comfort zone with linemates Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis. Veteran goalie Tomas Vokoun became the number-one goalie during round one, while defensemen Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin were effective against the Senators. The Pens’ less-heralded players have been great all playoffs long.
After barely surviving the first round, Boston cruised against the tired Rangers, earning some much-needed rest (now a full week’s worth). Boston overwhelmed New York with its superior depth, while defenseman Zdeno Chara completely neutralized star right wing Rick Nash. Meanwhile, rookie blueliner Torey Krug has been a revelation, setting an NHL record with four goals in his first five playoff games. He and fellow defenseman Johnny Boychuk have been taking some of the offensive load off the capable hands of forwards David Krejci, Milan Lucic, Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand. Tyler Seguin and future Hall of Famer Jaromir Jagr will need to produce more against the Penguins, while goaltender Tuukka Rask needs to find yet another level to stop all the rubber he’s about to see.
Considering the players available to both coaches getting any advantage in the matchups will be at a premium. Bruins coach Claude Julien will likely pit Chara against either Malkin or Crosby, but will be unable to utilize him against both. Meanwhile, Boston will crash Vokoun harder than anything he’s faced so far. Before the playoffs, I thought the tired Bruins would fall meekly against the mighty Penguins, but now I see the B’s lasting six games before falling aside.
1. Chicago (36-7-5) vs. 5. Los Angeles (27-16-5)
How they got here: Chicago eased past Minnesota in five games and came back to beat Detroit in seven. Los Angeles won four straight games to get past St. Louis 4-2, but needed seven games to outlast San Jose.
After making short work of Minnesota, Chicago nearly suffered an early exit against its overmatched archrival, Detroit. Simply put, the Red Wings outplayed the Blackhawks through four games and forced Chicago to bear down for the first time all season. Facing a 3-1 series deficit, the Blackhawks woke up with desperate play led by forwards Byron Bickel, Andrew Shaw, and goaltender Corey Crawford. Johnathan Toews finally evened up the matchup with Henrik Zetterberg and even though Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa struggled, the Blackhawks’ offense finally overwhelmed Detroit’s inexperienced blueline.
Though the defending champion Kings haven’t quite reached their level of play from last year, goaltender Jonathan Quick has, and that spells trouble for the rest of the NHL. Forwards Anze Kopitar, big game Justin Williams and Philadelphia castaways Jeff Carter and Mike Richards have all been solid, allowing Los Angeles to dictate play with their unique blend of speed and size. Young defenders Slava Voynov and Jake Muzzin are continuing to blossom and that certainly hasn’t hurt. However, in both of the first two rounds, Los Angeles has been outplayed in stretches, needing Quick to steal the show.
Neither team has played its best hockey. The winner of this series will be the team that can dictate the play against the other, provided of course that Quick doesn’t steal the show. I think Chicago will need seven, but knock off L.A.
A quick look at the finals:
In a rematch of the 1992 clash, I still predict Pittsburgh, having beat weaker teams in the East, to have enough left to knock off Chicago in a seven-game finals for the ages.