In my last set of predictions, I correctly predicted the winner of each second round series. I had the Penguins winning in 7, the Bruins in 6, the Blackhawks in 6, and the Kings in 7. That improves my “record” of predicting series outcomes to 10-2 this postseason, which I won’t complain about. As it turns out, the remaining 4 teams in the playoffs are the last 4 teams to win the Stanley Cup. The Penguins won it in ’09, the Hawks in ’10, the Bruins in ’11, and the Kings in ’12. If the NHL could have its dream pair of conference finals’ (in terms of TV ratings), it would probably look something like the way it does now.
So with that, here are my conference finals’ predictions.
Western Conference Finals
Season series: Blackhawks 2-1-0 against the Kings.
It took both of these teams seven games to advance to the Western Conference Finals, but they are both more than deserving of being here. The Sharks and Red Wings both played fantastic in the second round, but in the end, it wasn’t enough. The Kings are back in the WCF’s for the second year in a row, and are now looking to advance to their second consecutive Stanley Cup Final. Much like last year, Jonathan Quick has become the story of the L.A. Kings. He has played unbelievably, to say the least, and is on his way to another Conn Smythe if the Kings win the Cup. In their series with the Sharks, L.A. failed to win a game on the road, but won all 4 at home. Over the last 2 postseasons, no one has been even close to being as successful on home ice as the Kings. While I wouldn’t label them as a bad road team, they are definitely a different team when not on home ice. Obviously in this series, they will not have the home ice advantage, which may or may not hurt them based on their track record. I said before the playoffs started that it would be interesting to see what type of goal scoring the Kings would get in this postseason. Through two rounds, their leading point producer, Mike Richards, has only 10 points in 13 games. Jeff Carter is second on the team with just 8 points. To compare, the Blackhawks have 4 guys with at least 9 points, and two with 11. In this series with the Hawks, the Kings need to use their size to their advantage. They are one of the heaviest teams in the league in terms of weight per player, and they have the ability to be one of the best hitting/checking teams in hockey. That style of play has worked well against the Blackhawks all season long, which bodes well for L.A. In the regular season, the Blackhawks ranked second in the league in G/G. This postseason, L.A. ranks first in GA/G, thanks in large part to Jonathan Quick. They will need this trend and the play of Quick to continue in this series.
As for Chicago, it would appear that they have finally “arrived” to the playoffs. Through about the first 9 games or so of this postseason, they were still stuck in regular season mode. As a result, they fell into a 3-1 hole against the Red Wings before turning things around in Game 5. They are currently riding a 3-game winning streak into this series after pulling off one of the best comebacks in franchise postseason history against Detroit. Corey Crawford has been pretty darn good for the Blackhawks this postseason and has been overlooked by many when discussing the Hawks. He single-handedly kept the Blackhawks in almost every game against Detroit. If it wasn’t for their random inability to score goals, they could have won that series in 5 games because of Crawford. He will need to keep that up this round because odds are the Blackhawks aren’t going to be scoring a whole lot on Quick. In Game 5, Joel Quenneville reunited the defensive pairings of Keith-Seabrook, Oduya-Hjalmarsson, and Rozsival-Leddy. Those were the pairings for more than half the regular season and during their 24-game point streak. As a result, the Blackhawks won the last 3 games against Detroit to advance. Keith and Seabrook are pretty safe bets to play well this series, but I believe that the Oduya-Hjalmarsson pairing will be a big key to the Blackhawks’ success. If they play well, the Blackhawks normally win games. Depth will be another big factor for the Hawks. They have arguably the deepest team in hockey, which was a big reason for their win over Detroit. If the top 2 lines for Chicago can be effective offensively (the Toews line was quite against Detroit), then the third and fourth lines are what could put them over the top against L.A. The absolute biggest concern for the Blackhawks in this series is their lack of physicality. The Kings are going to take runs at any Blackhawk they can, especially the stars, and the Hawks will need to respond accordingly. Whether that means successfully battling through it or hitting back, they will need to do something if they want to win. This should be a fantastic series.
-Chicago wins series, 4-3.
Eastern Conference Finals
Season series: Penguins 3-0-0 against the Bruins.
This is the matchup that I really wanted to see in the Eastern Conference Finals. Both of these teams were near the top of the league throughout the whole regular season, and now they will play for a birth to the Stanley Cup Finals. The Bruins needed a dramatic seventh game victory over Toronto to advance to the second round, but only needed 5 games to oust the Rangers. They looked very, very good against New York and seem to be playing their best hockey of the year right now. Tuukka Rask has been good for Boston with a 2.22 GAA and a .928 save percentage, but not great. He gave up some weak goals through the first two rounds, but he cannot afford to do that again against Pittsburgh. The Penguins will get plenty of tough goals as it is, so Boston and Tuukka Rask cannot afford any soft goals-against. Defensively, the Bruins are one of the best teams in hockey. They are very deep on the blue line, especially with Seidenberg and Ference coming back, and their forwards are some of the best defensive forwards in the game. Patrice Bergeron, a Selke Trophy finalist, will need to shut down either the Malkin or Crosby line of Pittsburgh in this series. Offensively, David Krejci leads the league in points this postseason with 17. Nathan Horton currently ranks fifth in points, while Zdeno Chara ranks 13th, and that’s as a defenseman. As a team, they rank second behind Pittsburgh in G/G this postseason. Much like Chicago, one of Boston’s biggest strengths is their depth. Their third and fourth lines will need to produce against Pittsburgh for them to win this series.
The Penguins rolled through Ottawa in the second round without much of a problem. In the second round alone, Pittsburgh scored 22 goals. That’s pretty ridiculous. Malkin, Letang, and Crosby rank second, third, and fourth respectively in points this postseason, which is rather impressive. Offensively, the Penguins need to keep doing what they’ve been doing. There’s not much else to say about that area of their game. Defensively, they could be better. Of the 4 teams remaining in the playoffs, the Penguins rank last in GA/G. Tomas Vokoun, however, has stepped up big time in relief of Marc Andre Fleury. While he hasn’t been perfect, Vokoun has gotten the job done. When playing on a team that scores as many goals as the Penguins, a goalie can afford to not be perfect every game. However, that is no excuse to play bad in this series. One of the biggest strengths for Pittsburgh in these playoffs has been their powerplay. They rank first in PP percentage at 28.3 percent. I would not count on them to score as many power play goals against Boston, which means that their G/G could go down in this series (it will be tough for them to score 22 goals again). In all honesty, I don’t know what more there is to say about the Penguins. They’re playing the best hockey of any team this postseason and are showing no signs of slowing down. Having said that, I don’t think this will be another quick series.
-Pittsburgh wins series, 4-3.
I have both series’ going 7 games, which is a testament to how good the final four teams are. This should be an epic round, and I can’t wait for it to begin.