Editor’s note: With the conference finals of the NHL playoffs beginning tonight, Popblerd’s hockey writers Stephen Mapes and Jay Kumar review the second round and look ahead to the third.
Jay: Well, here we are with the conference finals about to begin Saturday. What are your thoughts about the end of the second round?
Stephen: It was interesting how the East had definitive champs, while the West was a total toss up. I am a bit surprised the Kings made it on, mostly because I didn’t think Quick could keep up his insane postseason pace, and was surprised how much fight the Wings had in them. But on the same token, the Hawks fought just as hard to dig out of a 3-1 hole and take the series. I’m afraid they may have had a wakeup call that will make them a force in the final rounds.
Jay: Yeah, the East was done fairly quickly and easily. The Bruins pretty much dominated the Rangers, who had no answer. And the Penguins were just too much for Ottawa. But the West was fun, with both series going to seven games. I was hoping the Sharks could knock off LA, and Joe Pavelski came oh-so-close to tying up game 7 in the waning minutes. But LA had the trap going and pretty much just relied on Quick to shut it down. They’ll have to do more than that again the Hawks, who were robbed of the go-ahead goal in game 7 when referee Stephen Walkom decided to call a couple of questionable penalties. Fortunately, the Hawks won it quickly in OT and avoided any lingering controversy over the disallowed goal. So we’ve got Hawks-Kings and Bruins-Penguins, which as 8 zillion folks have pointed out means the last four Cup winners are the final four teams standing. What are your thoughts on the West final?
Stephen: The West will either be a goalie duel or a rout for the Hawks. It really depends on how well the Kings defense can hold and how clutch Quick is. Of the two teams, only the Hawks really have the offensive weapons to win in an arms race. But on the other hand, Crawford doesn’t match up to Quick nearly as well. If the scores stay low, the Kings have a legitimate shot at a return to the Cup Finals. If the Hawks get the guns firing, the Kings will be through. They can’t match them in a score fest.
Jay: Yeah, it’s a matchup between warring styles, uptempo (Chicago) vs. defense-oriented (LA). I think it’s going to be a great series, but I think the Hawks win it in 7. The Wings were able to shut down the Hawks’ big guns in the early part of their series, but in the end couldn’t quite close them out. If the Kings are allowed to get their trap set and force the Hawks to play that game, it’s a different story.
Stephen: Agreed. I think Hawks take it in 6, but I’ve counted out the Kings to my own peril far too often this year.
How about the battle of the East? Or as some pundits are saying: the Iginla story?
Jay: There are so many storylines in this series, and the ridiculously long wait has just dragged them out further. Jarome Iginla vetoed a trade to the Bruins to go to Pittsburgh, so now everybody in Boston hates him. Pens legend Jaromir Jagr was acquired by Boston instead, and has so far failed to do much in the playoffs, but will he come up big against his first team? Pittsburgh’s Matt Cooke infamously delivered the nasty elbow to the head that contributed to Bruin Marc Savard’s concussion woes, which have essentially ended Savard’s career. And of course, the Penguins have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the two best players in hockey. But do the Bruins have a chance?
Stephen: It really depends on two things, I think: will the Pens keep their momentum from the final two games vs. the Sens, and can the Bruins frustrate the Pens enough to even the playing field? No one is going to argue the Pens are a strong defensive team, and they’re especially weak against fast and pesky squads. If you can control the neutral zone and force dump and chase hockey, the Pens offense becomes manageable. If you let them attack and move the puck, you’re done, as we saw in breakaway goal after breakaway goal last round. The biggest challenge for the Bruins will be to stay out of the box, because the Pittsburgh power play is scary good. But the Islanders showed a viable way to disrupt the Pens, and if they can keep the goals out, they’ll be able to chip away at Vokoun.
Also, Rask needs to be golden. They survived his soft goals thanks to Rangers squad that seemed incapable of scoring. The Pens on the other hand are averaging 4.3 goals per game without needing goalies to fall on open ice or let leaky pucks past.
Jay: Much like the West, this is a case of uptempo vs. defense-oriented teams. The Penguins are obviously the uptempo squad, but unlike the Kings, the Bruins have more offensive depth. Of course, they’re going to need guys like Jagr and Tyler Seguin to start contributing offensively. The Bruins D, especially rookie Torey Krug and Johnny Boychuk, have provided a ton of offense in the first two rounds. The Bruins’ fourth line was a force against the Rangers, and they’ll have to continue to provide valuable minutes against Pittsburgh. Rask definitely has to be at the top of his game, but I do think that the Bruins have the edge defensively and in goal in this series. I’m going out on a limb and saying Boston in 7.
Stephen: The Bruins do have far more weapons, but I think that a revitalized Neal on top of the play of Letang, Crosby, Malkin, and Iginla is going to be too much. If the Bruins come out swinging in game one and force a Vokoun meltdown, I will change my tune, but right now I’m picking Pens in 5.
Jay: Wow! I guess we’ll find out soon enough. Whatever the case, should be a great couple of series. Of course, the way things are going, there’s going to be hockey in July…
Stephen: And I am quite alright with that. The pucks drop Saturday, and we’ll see how prescient we really are. Until then!
Oh, and also, we must bid adieu to league parity.
As we’ll see our first repeat champ in a decade.
Jay: Indeed. Although some teams that looked like they would be contenders have failed miserably this year (Vancouver, Philly, etc.).
Stephen: That they have. And I’ll leave with one final fun stat: thanks to their loss to the Kings, the Sharks have now had their past 10 postseasons ended by 10 different Western Conference teams.
Jay: Oh, man. I was really rooting for the Sharks this year. I’m guessing San Jose management finally blows up that team: Thornton, Marleau, et al just haven’t been able to win there.
Stephen: Well, we’ve seen two managements explode thanks to this postseason already. The Canucks and Rangers both dumped their coaches.
Maybe the Sharks will be the third to do, if not coaching, at least some roster shuffling.
Jay: That stuff will really start happening in earnest after the playoffs. Well, until next time…