By Mike Ivcic and Alex Rajaniemi
Four teams remain in the chase for the greatest trophy in all of sports, and as Yogi Berra would say, “It’s deja vu all over again.” Yes, the four squads still left standing are, ironically, the last four teams to win a Stanley Cup – the 2012 Kings, the 2011 Bruins, the 2010 Blackhawks, and the 2009 Penguins. So there won’t be any major championship drought ending this year, at least not for individual teams. There are, however, a plethora of storylines that will permeate the conference finals, like Jaromir Jagr’s return to Pittsburgh, Jarome Iginla’s search for his first ever Cup, the Kings shot at the first repeat championship since the 1998 Red Wings, and Chicago’s quest to finish off the best season in the sport – and that, as they say, is why we’re here.
The head-to-head battle between Alex and I has swung slightly to the junior half of the duo, as Alex correctly predicted the Penguins win in five and series wins for both the Kings and Blackhawks. I stupidly expected the Sharks to be able to score on Jonathan Quick as easily as they did the tandem of Corey Schneider and Roberto Luongo, so I earned nothing for that series and only correctly predicted wins for the Penguins and Blackhawks, so after two rounds Alex holds a 12-10 lead with six points still on the line between the conference and Cup finals. Once again we’ll split the duties of picking first, and like golf the leader heading into the final round will have the honors of starting off the preview.
Lock in, folks – we’ve got four excellent teams, two excellent series, and only one Cup, so this next month promises to be special.
Note: All times and networks are courtesy of nhl.com. The odds next to each team are Bovada’s updated odds to win the Stanley Cup.
Mike: First off, let me start by saying that the Rangers looked nothing like the team that beat the Capitals as they got flat-out steamrolled by Boston in the second round. Lundqvist looked human, Boston’s defense suffocated what little offensive spark the Rangers were able to muster, and the Bruins did such a good job offensively, both of forechecking and creating odd-man rushes, that the New York defense was hardly ever able to jump into the play on their own offensive chances, negating the one area where the Rangers were actually better than almost everyone else. If the B’s can do the same thing to Kris Letang and Pascal Dupuis that will significantly help their chances in this series.
That said, this Pittsburgh team is on a mission offensively, scoring 12 goals in the last two games against Ottawa. If there was any doubt after the Senators double OT win in game three, that was quickly erased by the offensive explosion from the Penguins in games four and five. Alex, it’s still Vokoun in net, but I think what you said last preview still applies – there will be a Fleury sighting before these playoffs end regardless of whether or not Pittsburgh ultimately hoists the Cup. I can’t predict when that will actually happen but I will predict that the Pens will at least be playing for the Cup after these next two weeks. David Krejci and Milan Lucic have been an unbelievable scoring tandem for Boston, but I just can’t see Tuuka Rask playing well enough in net to win four out of seven against the firepower that the Penguins bring to the rink. Three, maybe – but not four.
Alex: I wish we could rip Glen Sather apart for the terrible decision he made to can John Tortorella, but seeing as though I’ve only got about a paragraph or two here and the Rangers are no longer in the playoffs, I’ll leave it.
As for Pittsburgh and Boston, we’ve got a hell of a matchup to talk about. One of the best offensive powerhouses in the game going up against a defensive stalwart in the B’s. Pittsburgh is playing far too well and has too many cannons firing all at the same time to be beat by anyone. Pascal Dupuis, Chris Kunitz, Sid, and Geno are scoring at will right now and have done so in two series that have boasted stellar goaltenders like Craig Anderson and Evgeni Nabokov. Tukka Rask doesn’t hold a candle to those two in my mind’s eye, and if he’s playing on either of those two squads I don’t believe the Islanders or Sens make the playoffs. He’s a Finn and I love my homeland and the players that come from there, but I’m just not impressed by his play. Boston rolled over an abysmal Rangers squad in the second round with some great help from their grinders like Shawn Thornton and rookies like Torey Krug, but the Pens are a completely different animal. Zdeno Chara can shut down just about anyone in the league– just about– but not Sidney Crosby, especially when Pittsburgh is at home with the last change. Vokoun is playing magical hockey, going 6-1 with a miniscule GAA and soaring save percentage (hell, the only game he’s lost came in double overtime where he stopped nearly 40 shots). Mike, if he keeps this play up, Marc-Andre won’t see the ice until this summer at home in Quebec.
Alex: My, oh my, what a series we just watched between two Original Six squads. Halfway through I thought I’d gotten caught in the veteran buzzsaw that was Detroit, but eventually the complete play of the Chicago Blackhawks anchored by their defensemen like Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith took over. The same can be said of the series out west on the beaches, it was a solid seven game tilt and home-ice advantage proved to be the winner. LA looks scary when their skating downhill in their own barn, but San Jose shut them down on the road and made the offensive talents of Anze Kopitar and Mike Richards moot. That being said, Jonathan Quick has been unbeatable at home and is looking like the Conn Smythe winner we all know and respect. As for the Hawks, it took a 3-1 deficit to kick them into gear last series, and if they want any chance of hoisting another cup, they’d better not let that happen again. This Kings squad is too young, quick, and skilled to hope to win three in a row against. Both teams will lose games, although I don’t believe those will come on their own ice. These teams are six of one and half a dozen of the other, so I’m going with the upper seed and the home ice advantage to give us what the NHL desperately needs: a Chicago/Pittsburgh final where the two best teams in the NHL all year get to go head to head in the limelight. It is a perfect storm coming off the sprint we had as a regular season and great storylines coming from two hockey hotbeds. This one’s going seven, but I’ll give it to the boys from the Windy City
Mike: As much as I don’t want to admit this, it looks like our competition is going to go down to the Stanley Cup final because I’m in agreement with your assessment of this series, Alex. The Kings are obviously a good team – they’ve now won six consecutive playoff series against five different opponents in the last 12 months. If you’re looking to bet on a team’s track record, theirs is as good as it gets. Boston is the epitome of Jekyll and Hyde, Chicago looked lost for three games against a clearly less-talented team, and Pittsburgh, for all of their scoring, still doesn’t understand the meaning of the word “defense.” The Kings, with their tremendous scoring punch (Richards, Carter, Brown, Kopitar, Williams), stellar backline (Greene, Doughty, Scuderi), and of course all-world goaltending (Quick) are the quintessential “team” and should be, after the way they played in the last two postseasons, considered the favorite to win it all.
So why aren’t they? Because Jonathan Toews finally found the back of the net, Corey Crawford suddenly emerged as a rock-solid backstop in the final five-plus periods of the Detroit series, and Brent Seabrook finally found his groove to join the rest of the nasty blueline for the Hawks. Everything the Kings are – except for goaltenders – the Blackhawks are just better, and they also have home ice. Anyone that watched game 7 between Chicago and Detroit saw that the “Madhouse on Madison” can, in fact, help sway the emotion of a winner-take-all contest. I’ve seen Quick steal a series – after all, it just happened against the Sharks – but no matter how I slice it, I just find the Blackhawks to be a better team, so I’ll see your pick of Chicago in 7 – and I’ll see you for one more round in two weeks.