The NHL conference finals are set to begin this weekend, with the East on Saturday afternoon and the West following on Sunday afternoon. Here’s a breakdown of the matchups, New York-Tampa Bay and Anaheim-Chicago, that will settle who we watch in the Stanley Cup Finals.
EASTERN CONFERENCE: NY RANGERS-TAMPA BAY
New York goaltender Henrik Lundqvist has essentially put this team upon his back and carried them through the first two playoff rounds over Pittsburgh and Washington. The Rangers’ offense is struggling badly and the team defense has been about average. There is no discernible edge to be found on the power play. It’s just been impossible to score against Lundqvist.
He’s Exhibit A as to why TheSportsNotebook always emphasizes that hockey—especially in the playoffs—is a goaltender’s game above all else.
Tampa Bay’s goaltending work has been solid as well, with a rising star in Ben Bishop in net. Bishop was a little inconsistent against Detroit in the first round, but settled in the six-game series win over Montreal. The key question—this is Bishop’s first appearance in the playoffs. Is there any point where the nerves will get to him as he goes against the more battle-tested Lundqvist?
The offensive stars of both teams have been non-factors in the first half of the postseason. Steven Stamkos for the Lightning and Rick Nash for the Rangers haven’t made an impact—certainly not by scoring or passing and not even by sustained aggressiveness taking shots.
When great offensive players simply take shots it has a positive ripple effect on the rest of the offense. Rebound opportunities are more likely because the most talented players have such velocity on their shots. Defenses have to be more mindful of where the star is, creating chances for other players. I want to see if Stamkos and Nash come out of their playoff comas and at least start attacking.
The Lightning have had other offensive players step up. Tyler Johnson’s eight goals are the most of anyone in the postseason. Nikita Kucherov has six goals and was great in the Montreal series. A big question mark with Tampa is going to be Ryan Callahan. One of their more productive players during the season, he’s coming off an appendectomy and we’ll have to see how effective he is.
New York needs offense from just about anyone and the likely candidates are Derek Stepan, who scored the Game 7 OT winner against Washington, along with Derick Brassard, Ryan McDonagh and Chris Kreider. Keep a special eye on Kreider—he’s got an absolutely nasty shot that he fires from deep and is very difficult to get a clean glove save from.
WESTERN CONFERENCE: ANAHEIM-CHICAGO
This is a showdown series. Anaheim had the best record in the Western Conference during the regular season. Chicago is the West’s standard-bearer, with two Stanley Cups since 2010 and three consecutive appearances in the conference finals.
When you look at the team-wide playoff numbers, the Mighty Ducks are at or near the top in just about everything, but caution has to be exercised. Those numbers just mean that Anaheim has dominated Winnipeg and Calgary, not exactly the most inspiring of playoff fare. It’s a deserved reward for regular season success but the biggest question I have regarding the Ducks for this series is simply how well they’ll react when they get really punched in the mouth by a good, experienced team.
Chicago’s questions are different. They bring not just the experience, but an impressive array of firepower, with Patrick Kane, Jonathan Towes, Patrick Sharp, Brandon Saad and Marion Hossa. The Blackhawks get on the attack, play in the open ice and stay on the attack.
But the open ice the Blackhawks’ style creates works both ways. They’ve already had significant goaltending problems in the opening round with Nashville. Chicago’s season was saved by backup goalie Scott Darling who carried the team for a brief spell until starter Corey Crawford got his head together again.
Furthermore, Chicago hasn’t had to face the kind of offensive talent that Anaheim will bring. Corey Perry’s combination of seven goals and eight assists make him the points leader in the playoffs. He’s also a former MVP and as good a scorer as there is. Ryan Getzlaff is an excellent passer, and the Ducks get important contributions from Jakob Silfverberg and Ryan Kesler.
There’s no way Chicago should change its approach—they’ve had too much success and defenseman Duncan Keith is too good of a passer and offensive threat to have him lay back and prevent any odd man rushes the other way. The Blackhawks need to attack, but let’s at least be aware that these Ducks can take advantage.
Anaheim’s goaltender, Frederik Anderson, is playing well against the mediocre postseason competition he has faced, but I’m not sure I would feel entirely confident about him going against Chicago. The Blackhawks’ problems in net are well-documented. As much as this league might be about goalies, if there’s problems on both sides, we could see lighting of the lamp in this series.
THE VIEW FROM VEGAS
The oddsmakers see both of these series as very competitive, especially in the West. Chicago is the slight favorite at (-115), although Anaheim is posted at (-105), so even the underdog doesn’t offer value on the moneyline. In the East, New York is a (-135) favorite, while you can take Tampa Bay at (+115).
Prior to the playoffs, my picks were Tampa Bay and Chicago to reach the Finals and there’s certainly not a reason to change course. These series prices are fair enough that in both instances I’d put my money on it if I were a betting man.
Tampa Bay-NY Rangers starts Saturday at Noon EST, with Chicago-Anaheim going on Sunday at 3 PM EST. Both games are on NBC. Each series goes into next week continuing on the every-other-day format, with NBCSN picking up coverage on weeknights.
TheSportsNotebook will have game-by-game coverage of the conference finals, with reports planned after a sequence with each series has finished—meaning our first report would come on Monday to discuss the Game 1 results, then on Wednesday to go over what happened in each Game 2, etc.
These series have a lot of promise. Everybody enjoy them.