As the conference finals continue, the plot is thickening both in the East and the West. After Martin St. Louis' overtime-winner on Sunday night the New York Rangers are now one win away from their first appearance in the Stanley Cup Final in 20 years, and the past two champions are locked up in a tight battle for a spot of their own.
Here are the things that have caught my eye in the NHL's final four:
I know right now the Chicago Blackhawks trail the Los Angeles Kings 2-1 in the Western Conference Final and that a Game 4 in L.A. could put the defending champs on the brink. But if there's one thing I've seen, it's that if you gave me a pick for one player in the entire NHL right now, I would take Jonathan Toews. I would take him over Sidney Crosby or anyone else. If your goal is to win the Stanley Cup, Jonathan Toews is your guy. I think if you look at the last two Olympic Games and the Stanley Cup Playoffs each season since the 2010 Vancouver Games, there's just no comparison of who has played the best.
Is Toews as good as Crosby as a player skill-wise? Probably not. But when you bring other things into the mix, leadership, playing well at both ends of the ice, playing well in big games, Jonathan Toews is it right now.
Look no further than his individual effort in Game 3 on Saturday night. While the rest of the Blackhawks were outworked, Toews didn't just score two goals. He scored two playoff goals. That's what he does. He scores on tip-ins, he wins battles in front of the net. His first goal, on a shorthanded breakaway, came because he made a nifty fake that completely fooled Kings goalie Jonathan Quick, and it was a highly-skilled play. But the turnover that led to it and the second goal he scored in front of the net were products of pure work ethic and being willing to pay the price. Toews is always in the scoring areas and doesn't need a lot of time and space when he's in the crease, and is willing to get down and dirty when he needs to.
And don't forget, he's doing this at both ends of the ice. When Slava Voynov scored on a scorching slap shot going 100 miles per hour, there was Toews trying to block it. Right now, nobody is playing better.
WHY THE KINGS ARE UP
If you look at the West game by game, the Blackhawks, by far, have led for more actual minutes in this series than the Kings have. And yet here we are with L.A. holding a 2-1 series lead. There are three reasons for this. For one, Quick is making key saves at key times. For another, the Kings' power play is coming through at important points. L.A. has three power-play goals, and a fourth goal that came seconds after a power play expired, in the last two games. And perhaps most importantly, Jeff Carter is on fire. Right now Carter has 10 points in his past four games, including seven points in L.A.'s two wins this round. His eight goals and 11 assists are second- and third-most in the playoffs, respectively.
His performance offensively, coupled with the Kings' typically stifling defense, is providing the difference so far. That doesn't mean, however, that the Blackhawks are done. Chicago does have to get back to what it does best. The Blackhawks have to get that hunger again. They need to get that Chicago grit, and they need to start fighting for dirty goals. L.A. packs it in so tight down low that backdoor goals aren't going to be there. Pretty passes by Patrick Kane across to Marian Hossa or Patrick Sharp for a one-timer just won't be there. They will have to go in and score with traffic in front of Quick. That's how the Blackhawks will score against the Kings.
We have to remember this is a Chicago team that came back from a 2-0 deficit against the St. Louis Blues in the first round and that rallied from a 3-1 deficit against the Detroit Red Wings a year ago. I expect the leaders in that room to give their heads a shake and for this team to play great Monday night. I think the Blackhawks will come back and win Game 4 and make this a best-of-3 series. They can't afford to wait until they get back to Chicago to turn this around, though. The Kings are getting better defensively each game, and they're starting to look like the team that won the Cup two years ago.
NEW YORK WILL STAY STEADY
It doesn't matter if you're outplayed as long as you win. That is the only reason the Eastern Conference Final has not yet ended. The Montreal Canadiens have been outplayed in each game and managed to steal Game 3 because of some lucky bounces and a strong effort from Dustin Tokarski. On Sunday night the Canadiens almost managed to do it again. Right now, though, they have their backs to the wall and know they blew a great opportunity to square this series after dropping the first two games at home.
That kind of defeat can be devastating, but it can also be dangerous for the team with the lead. The Rangers know just how tenuous a 3-1 series lead can be. Is it commanding? Obviously, yes. But no team knows better than the Rangers that it isn't a certainty. Coach Alain Vigneault can walk into that dressing room Tuesday night and say, "Guys, we've won nothing. Just remember the Penguins. The mighty Pittsburgh Penguins had us down 3-1 and we came back and won."
That kind of knowledge provides great motivation. Looking ahead, not focusing on the task immediately at hand, those won't be a factor for the Rangers. If they lose this series, it won't be because they're overconfident. I can guarantee you that. The Rangers are the Rangers. They're very good defensively, they play fast, their best players are showing up on the scoreboard now and they got a huge boost in Game 4 from the return of Derick Brassard, who scored in his first game back. It the Rangers just play the way they do, I think they'll be back in the Stanley Cup Final.