(1) Chicago Blackhawks vs. (5) Los Angeles Kings
There is now a blueprint to beating the Chicago Blackhawks: aggressive two-man forecheck, frustrate Toews and lots of physicality. The Kings are more than capable of doing all three. The Kings had a strong forecheck that gave the Sharks fits last round, and they can put pressure on the Hawks’ defenders this round. The Kings are big and tough and should be able to give the small-but-skilled Hawks problems. And who knows how to agitate better than Dustin Brown? Not too many.
The Hawks head into the conference finals with confidence in Crawford. Yes, he has let in some soft goals and seemed shaky at times, but overall, he has been great for Chicago. Will he be able to match Quick at the other end? Niemi almost did match him, but it wasn’t enough. Crawford has to be good, but his defense has to be even better. As a unit, they took a slight step back against the Wings. Their outlet passes weren’t very smooth, they jumped up on offense a bit too deep a few too many times and were beat behind the net a lot. They did well on rushes (for and against them), but they need to be stronger on the puck and more efficient at getting out of the zone.
Chicago’s PK is almost perfect, but the Kings have several big players to set in front of Crawford. Pair that with a defense who has been rifling shots well from the point and it looks like Chicago’s PK can be solved. It falls to Chicago’s power play to get better if they want to advance. Yes Chicago netted PPG’s against the Wings, but most of the time they couldn’t even enter the zone and when they shot or dumped it in, were quickly beaten to the puck and left to chase it down the other end. Toews and Kane have to step up their game and the PP has to click to push Chicago through to the finals.
The Kings are red hot when they need to be, again. Quick is far and away their leading Conn Smythe candidate. Both teams have a strong top-6, but have been gifted with a healthy amount of scoring from their bottom 6. I said before the playoffs that the hawks are great, but I am afraid they can be handled by a physical team. And I think this round will show exactly that.
Prediction: Los Angeles in 7
(1) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (4) Boston Bruins
The beast may have awoken. After a few scares against the Islanders and Senators, the Penguins could show that they are the team everyone expected them to be since the trade deadline. but it all comes down to their goaltending and defense. Their leadership, depth and determination has been critical and improved through each round. They can seemingly score goals at will. Their forward depth is the scariest of the remaining teams in the playoffs.
The Penguins are the highest scoring team in the playoffs, but they now meet a very big, tough defensive team. The Bruins surprised many by replacing three veteran defensemen with rookies and not missing a beat on the ice. Hamilton, Bartkowski and Krug have stepped up big for the Bruins and will need to continue to do so if they have any chance to beat the Penguins. Chara versus Crosby sounds somewhat manageable perhaps, but there’s still Malkin, Neal, Iginla, Dupuis and Kunitz to remember, and there’s still more. Rask has been stellar so far, and as true as it is that he doesn’t have much competition at the other end (unless Fluery wakes), the fact is this is the toughest he can face this postseason.
Boston might be able to hold Penguins to lower scoring than they’ve been used to the past two rounds, but it won’t matter if they can’t get their offense to wake up. Of course Bergeron and Lucic should lead the way, but Seguin needs to step up. And it’s time for Jagr to show up on the score sheet more. As seen with the Islanders and Senators, the penalty box will have to be avoided as much as possible for the Bruins to have a chance at surviving. The Penguins’ power play is lethal and full of options. It feels like a power play for them is almost a guaranteed goal more often than not.
What I’ll be looking at closely is the Penguins defense and goaltending. They’ve been ok, just ok, so far. Pittsburgh has been in too many high-scoring games with lower-ranked teams and they now meet a team that can score goals AND shut them down. If the Penguins continue to play sparingly on defense and have less-than-stellar goaltending, this series will end up going to the Bruins, no matter how gifted the Pittsburgh offense is on paper.
Prediction: Pittsburgh in 7