The conference finals in the NHL playoffs begin with a Saturday doubleheader. It starts in the late afternoon from the Windy City, when Los Angeles visits Chicago (5 PM ET, NBC Sports Network). Then, the action shifts to the Steel City for the prime-time battle between Pittsburgh and Boston (8 PM ET, NBC).
Before we break down both series, let me make one note—whenever I reference statistical rankings in this piece, it refers to the first two playoff rounds. We’re now deep enough into the postseason that trends have developed, and these often trump what happened in the regular season when it comes to looking for indicators of what happens next.
For the second straight year, no one is dominating the playoffs like Los Angeles goalie Jonathan Quick. His 94.8% save rate is the best going, and he alone gives Chicago fans plenty of reason to temper their celebration at having won three straight must-win games over Detroit. The Blackhawks have a lot of great scorers, but they were kept in check by Detroit goalie Jimmy Howard is “only” pretty good. Now the Blackhawks have to beat a great netminder.
If you’re Los Angeles though, there are even more concerns. The first is that Chicago goalie Corey Crawford overcame the biggest hurdle of his career in playing great hockey down the stretch in the Detroit series. Therefore, while Los Angeles certainly has the edge at the most important position, it’s not an overwhelming advantage. Whereas Chicago’s advantage between the nets is.
Los Angeles has done nothing offensively in the first two rounds. Jeff Carter has five goals overall, but his biggest impact was in the first round against St. Louis. Justin Williams has lit the lamp four times, but two of those came in the Game 7 win over San Jose. This shows that Williams has otherwise not been a notable offensive player. He’s got the unique achievement of having scored in the first four Game 7s of his career. If this series gets to that point, we’ll take him seriously. Otherwise, I don’t see a reason to identify him as a difference-maker.
Beyond that, the Kings are really struggling to find offense. Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown and Dustin Penner were offensive forces in last year’s Cup run. This year, they’ve been silent. Drew Doughty delivered some quality passing from the defenseman spot in last year’s postseason. He too, has been quiet in 2013. And it’s not as though Los Angeles is just running into hot goalies—they’re only taking 25 shots a game and that won’t be anywhere near enough to beat Chicago.
The Blackhawks had their own offensive problems against Detroit, but the one thing with Chicago is that they continue to keep attacking. They average 34 shots a game in their 12 playoff games, and they exceeded that in a Game 7 situation that often makes teams conservative. They’ve gotten solid play from Patrick Sharp at forward, and after a brief disappearing act, Marian Hossa seems to be getting active again. There have been surprise contributions from Bryan Bickell and Andrew Shaw.
Furthermore, Chicago has some sleeping giants on the offensive end. We can start with center Jonathan Toews, who’s been very quiet, but his passing from the center position can open up play, and Patrick Kane can light the lamp from the forward spot.
This series is going to be a real contrast in styles. Los Angeles is going to want to hunker down, turn every game into a grinding, defensive affair. Chicago would prefer the ice to open up a bit and let their offensive talent shine. I’m really torn on this series—which is another way of saying that it’s a terrific matchup, and with the TV markets involved, NBC has to be dancing. But if you have doubt, I feel like you take the hot goalie. I’m going with Quick and Los Angeles to return to the Finals in seven games.
Both of these teams seem to be gaining steam as the playoffs progress. Pittsburgh split four games with the New York Islanders before making the goalie change to Tomas Vokoun, ousting New York and then rolling through Ottawa. The Bruins looked a step slow through much of the Toronto series in the first round, were on the brink of elimination, unleashed the greatest comeback in history to win Game 7 and then made mincemeat of the New York Rangers.
The Bruins and Penguins are both playing very well offensively in the playoffs, though they’re doing it via different paths. Pittsburgh, like Chicago, has a truckload of offensive talent and have no fewer than six players who could be the top scorer on a playoff team. This doesn’t include defenseman Kris Letang, who’s got 13 assists, has the second-most points of anyone in the playoffs and is a dark-horse contender for the Conn Smythe Award if Pittsburgh can win the Stanley Cup.
Boston doesn’t have a Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, or even a Jarome Iginla or Pascal Dupuis in the lineup. In fact, you can make a credible argument that the Penguins have at least the top four offensive players in this series. What the Bruins do have is tremendous top-to-bottom balance and whether its players or shots on goal, they use sheer volume to overcome what they lack in star power. Boston is getting 38 shots a game in the playoffs, more than any other team.
Furthermore, the Bruins are getting production from their defensemen. The reliable Zdeno Chara has nine assists, while Johnny Boychuk and Torey Krug have four goals apiece. Boston has also used the quality of its fourth line to wear teams down over the long haul.
The goalies are huge X-factors in this series. Vokoun had a fairly mediocre career prior to this, being the goalie on Washington Capitals’ teams that became infamous for their playoff losses. It’s with good reason he spent the entire year as a backup to another mediocre netminder in Marc-Andre Fleury. But when Vokoun was put in the lineup out of desperation he got hot. Now he did start to come back to earth a bit in the Ottawa series, but his overall save percentage is second only to Quick’s. Does he sustain that, or does the descent to reality continue?
Boston got great goaltending all year from Tuuka Raask, but the young player has been up and down in the playoffs. His 92.8% save rate is seventh among playoff goalies, and he has a documented history of having trouble in close-out games, going back to 2010 when he played in place of the injured Tim Thomas. If the Bruins get the regular season Raask, they become Pittsburgh’s worst nightmare. If it’s the playoff Raask—a goalie, whose good, but not great, then the Bruins will not have a sufficient edge to overcome Pittsburgh’s offensive firepower.
Another factor I would look at is the ability of the Boston defense to prevent shots. They excelled at this all year, but in the playoffs, have allowed 33 per game, a subpar showing. In fact, it bears wondering if the Bruin defense or Raask is more at fault for the fluctuations in play. Either way, it’s not reasonable to expect a goalie to shut down the Pittsburgh stars if they’re peppering him 35 times a game. While a Boston upset will require Raask to pull at least one game, and maybe two, out of his hat, the norm has to be keeping his exposure limited.
I’m a Boston fan, so I’m not making a pick on this series. I consider our upset chances better than the mainstream media, which I think is just waiting for Pittsburgh to either play Chicago in a battle of co-favorites, or try to take on Quick and the defending champs. But I also have to be honest and say I like this matchup a lot less today than I did at the start of the playoffs, and it’s the change in form shown by both goalies that would be the reason.
With both Game 1s going tomorrow, TheSportsNotebook will have some more NHL analysis on Sunday morning to rehash each series opener and consider the early implications.