2014 NHL Conference Finals Preview

The Stanley Cup playoffs are pared down to four teams, as we come out of a second round that saw favorites in the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins fall, along with the Los Angeles Kings’ Game 7 demolition of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. In fact, none of the four regular season division winners are still playing hockey.

I’m sure no one at NBC is complaining though, because what the league does have are the three biggest American markets, along with a team from Canada that is only the most storied organization in the history of the sport. As conference finals go, you could do worse than Chicago, Los Angles, New York and Montreal as your foursome.

Here’s a look at the 2014 NHL conference finals

Chicago Blackhawks-Los Angeles Kings

This is the titanic battle of the last two Stanley Cup champions. Neither team was great in the regular season, but the Blackhawks appear to be the NHL’s version of the Miami Heat, where they were just lying in wait until the postseason began. We should also note that Chicago caught a considerable break in drawing the Minnesota Wild in the second round, the Blackhawks took full advantage of the break.

Los Angeles had a similarly ho-hum regular season—not great, but never in danger of missing the playoffs. The Kings have also flirted with disaster in the playoffs, including digging a 3-0 series hole against the San Jose Sharks in the first round before becoming the fourth team in NHL history to win four in a row. The Kings were then down 3-2 in games to Anaheim before winning two straight.

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Just as noteworthy as Los Angeles’ 6-0 record in elimination games this spring is that both Game 7 wins have been decisive. Clearly, this is a team that has heart. But do they have the talent to knock off Chicago, something they couldn’t do when these teams met in last year’s Western Conference Finals?

The answer is no, although that doesn’t make an upset (betting odds are not yet posted for this series that starts on Sunday at 3 PM ET on NBC, but I have to think Chicago will be the favorite) unthinkable. Chicago clearly has the more talented players, from Patrick Kane, to Patrick Sharp to Marian Hossa to Jonathan Toews to Duncan Keith. Los Angeles has some pretty good ones, starting with Justin Williams and including Jeff Carter—though he’s been very quiet this postseason—but there’s no comparison between the nets.

What Los Angeles can reasonably hope for is that goaltender Jonathan Quick significantly outplays Chicago counterpart Corey Crawford and the Kings win a series built around 2-1 and 3-2 games. The NHL playoffs are a goaltender’s time, so this is reasonable.

The reason I would be loath to predict it is that Quick has been up-and-down during these playoffs. He’s always righted the ship in time, but never against a team that has a consistent goalie. Crawford, admittedly, can frustrate Chicago fans, but he’s also won a Stanley Cup and is undeniably better than what Los Angeles faced against either St. Louis or Anaheim.

Montreal Canadiens-New York Rangers

The Eastern Conference finals start this afternoon (1 PM ET, NBC) at Bell Center in Montreal. The Canadiens are not a great team, but they combine several factors that make them a tough out—they play smart, they’re fast to the puck, they have a standout defenseman in P.K. Subban and a goaltender in Carey Price who ranked sixth in the NHL in save percentage this season.

Price is not unbeatable—he had some third-period lapses against the Bruins, and Subban can be contained if he’s forechecked aggressively when he handles the puck out top, something Boston consistently failed to do. But when you combine all of Montreal’s assets together, it adds up to a team that, while beatable, demands a high level of intensity and execution over a seven-game set.

Montreal is a (-125) betting favorite to move forward in pursuit of their first Stanley Cup since 1993 and what their fans hope will be reclamation of the glory years of the franchise that is the New York Yankees of the NHL, and even more pompous than those in pinstripes. Can the New York Rangers knock them off?

I knocked Ranger goalie Henrik Lundqvist after his shortcomings led to his team falling in a 3-1 series hole. Lundqvist promptly went into lockdown mode for the next three games against one of the game’s truly great offenses in Pittsburgh. That’s where Lundqvist has to be frustrating for New York fans—he’s capable of doing that for an entire series and carrying this team all the way to their first Stanley Cup since 1994. But will he do it again?

New York, like Montreal, isn’t a great team, but they have enough assets that, when you combine them with great goaltending, can win you a Cup. Rick Nash and Derek Stepan are solid offensive players. Martin St. Louis’ best days, when he led the Tampa Bay Lightning to the 2004 Stanley Cup are well behind him, but St. Louis has shown he has solid leadership skills and can be counted on at big moments.

This is a tough series for me, as a partisan Boston fan. I have no choice but to root for the Rangers, because rooting for the Canadiens is simply unthinkable. But that means standing in alliance with a New York fan base that I’m currently passionately rooting against in the ongoing baseball season. That’s depressing.

But seriously, the Ranger fan base is a great one, and I hope they get it done here and that Lundqvist finally makes the Stanley Cup Finals.