Of all of the storylines that have emerged in this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs, the most intriguing one has to be that the final four teams left in the playoffs are the last four teams that have won it all. The Los Angeles Kings, the Boston Bruins, the Chicago Blackhawks and the Pittsburgh Penguins have won the previous four Stanley Cups. Fans of the other 26 teams around the league may not be excited about seeing another perennial powerhouse win a championship again, but it does say something about the state of the game this year.
In a shortened season, it seems that all the teams that were “supposed to win” are actually winning. The Blackhawks, of course, made history this year with a winning streak that stretched 24 games, the third-longest streak in NHL history. After the streak ended, the Blackhawks were still an absolute powerhouse. They never lost more than two games in a row all season, and they finished the season winning the President’s Trophy with the league’s highest point total.
In the first round of the playoffs, the Blackhawks had a quick series against the Minnesota Wild. The 4-1 series win wasn’t as lopsided as the numbers indicated. Chicago was sluggish in the series but was the more talented team. The Wild’s Ryan Suter played an average of 31:37 over the five games against Chicago, which is still the highest ice-time average in the playoffs. Minnesota’s lack of depth on defense made it hard for them to shut down the Blackhawks’ potent top six scorers.
Chicago faced the surprising Detroit Red Wings in the second round. A number of experts picked the Red Wings to miss the playoffs at the beginning of the year. It made sense at the time; Detroit lost Nicklas Lidstrom, the best defenseman in franchise history, to retirement, leaving a hole in the team’s defensive core. But Red Wings coach Mike Babcock showed how great he is, and he led the team to the second round of the playoffs with one of the most limited rosters he’s had since he arrived in Detroit.
The Blackhawks won the first game of the series, but the Red Wings went on to win the next three games to hand Chicago its first three-game losing streak of the season. The Blackhawks buckled down and won the next three straight games to take the series in seven games. It wasn’t Patrick Kane or Jonathan Towes who led the Blackhawks to the conference finals. It was Patrick Sharp, who scored five points in seven games, and Corey Crawford who led Chicago.
For the Kings, not much changed as far as roster moves for last year’s champions. But the Kings still only finished fifth in the Western Conference. Like last year, the Kings turned it on in the playoffs. Each series there was a different hero for Los Angeles. In the first round against the St. Louis Blues, it was Jeff Carter who scored three goals in six games. In the second round against the California rival San Jose Sharks, it was Jonathan Quick who stole the show with 1.43 goals-against average and a .951 save percentage in the series to really steal the show.
Now it’s Kings against Blackhawks in the Western Conference Finals, and it looks like the Kings have an advantage in this one. Starting with the goaltenders, Quick is a better goalie than Crawford at this point in his career. The Blackhawks have a high-powered offense, but Kane has been held to only one goal in the playoffs, and Towes has had moments when he lost his head against the Red Wings. The Kings’ Dustin Brown will no doubt be looking to expose Towes’ short fuse and get under his skin. The key to this series for the Kings is to keep the Blackhawks’ potent offense off the board. Chicago has a much deeper defense, but the game changer is the greatness of Quick in these playoffs.
In the Eastern Conference, the Penguins took a similar path as the Blackhawks. From the beginning of the year, they were heralded as the team that will come out of the East. Pittsburgh finished the regular season atop the Eastern Conference Standings and drew the New York Islanders in the first round of the playoffs. The Islanders laid an egg in the first game of that series, losing 5-0. After that, the Islanders regrouped and put together a win that would ultimately lead to the benching of Marc-Andre Fleury. Even with Tomas Vokoun between the pipes, the Islanders forced the series to six games. The series was extremely entertaining not only because the Islanders were showing some incredible heart but also because of the atmosphere at Islanders home games. The volume that could be produced by the fans on Long Island is something that most hockey fans forgot about, mostly because the Islanders had not been in the playoffs since 2006.
The Penguins then went on to face the Ottawa Senators in the second round. Ottawa only managed to win one game in the series, as the Penguins offense started to put up big numbers. The Penguins scored seven goals in Game 4 and six goals in Game 5, James Neal scored five goals in five games, and Kris Letang amassed nine assists in five games. Thus far, three of the top five goal scorers in the playoffs are Penguins.
The Bruins finished fourth in the Eastern Conference and faced the division rival Toronto Maple Leafs. Yes, the same Maple Leafs that haven’t been in the playoffs since 2003. Boston looked to be too much for the Leafs when they went up 3-1 in the series, but Toronto battled back to force Game 7. In Game 7, the Leafs were up 4-1 in the third period, in Boston, and it looked like that game was all but over. But the Bruins scored three goals in the third period and finally won the game in overtime, completing one of the biggest comebacks in Game 7 history.
In the second round, the Bruins faced a New York Rangers team that just came off another emotional Game 7. The Bruins pushed around the Rangers for most of the series, winning the first three games handedly. The Rangers won Game 4 in New York to stave off elimination, but they couldn’t come back from 3-0 down. The Rangers beat themselves in most aspects, mostly with their inept power play.
For the Eastern Conference Finals, we have a battle of black and yellow. The Bruins have the advantage in team defense and their rookies on defense, especially Torey Krug, who has been putting up huge goals for Boston. Krug had four goals in five games against the Rangers. Boston’s Tuukka Rask has an advantage over the Penguins’ Vokoun, who has been good but is still a backup goalie in this league. The Bruins will have to neutralize the Penguins offense to win this series. They can’t allow the Penguins to get goals from all six of their top six forwards. And of course, Sidney Crosby will be banged up from breaking his jaw earlier in the season, but he will be on the ice just like he was in the past two series. Don’t think for a second that his jaw won’t be a target for guys like Brad Marchand, who is known for throwing a few punches after the whistle.
One thing’s for sure: looking at the rosters on each of these four teams, they have been here before. They’ve all won the Cup in the past four years, and each team’s core from the time they won the cup is still there. Both of these series have the potential to go deep, and no one will be surprised if any of these four teams win the cup. The Kings, though, are hard to bet against — a team that is the same as last year and a goalie who looks like he is just as good as he was last year. Back-to-back Stanley Cups and back-to-back Conn Smyth Trophies for Quick? It could happen, and that’s not too bad for a 27-year-old.