Welcome back to 4 on 4! Four prominent hockey writers; John Hoven of The Mayor's Manor, Bryan Reynolds and Nathan Eide of Hockey Wilderness, Derek Tanabe of Fear the Fin, and Cheryl Adams of Hockey Broad preview the Western Conference Finals.
LA v Chicago - Both the Kings and Blackhawks were pushed to the limit in the second round, as each team played seven-game series to finally punch their tickets to the Western Conference Final. If the Kings want to get past Chicago though, they're going to have to win on the road and find a way to score more than one goal (their last six road losses have been 2-1 decisions). If it comes down to goaltending though, and it usually does in the post-season, the Kings have the decided edge. Jonathan Quick has posted even better numbers than his Conn Smythe campaign of a year ago, putting up a 1.50 GAA and .948 save percentage thus far. Then again, the Kings' slow starts and lack of sustained pressure in their defensive zone for prolonged stretches, combined with more penalties, have been new issues that weren't present during their 2012 run. Overall, Chicago has been the class of the league since the shortened season began, including their 30-game unbeaten streak and dominating the Wild in the 1st round of the playoffs. That said, the Kings appear to be up to the task. Dustin Brown, Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter really haven't gotten things going offensively yet - that should change. Defensively, Drew Doughty has taken his game to the next level, Slava Voynov gets better each passing day and the return of Matt Greene has solidified an already potent blueline. It's going to take seven games, but look for the Kings to win their seventh straight playoff series and earn a return trip to the Stanley Cup Final.
Boston v Pittsburgh - For the Bruins and Pens, their roads to the Eastern Conference Final wasn't ideal, but they've persevered to this point and it's looking like another grinding match-up between two elite teams. Plus, there are some outstanding stories here - including the Bruins' Jaromir Jagr going up against his former team, where he began his career and played 11 years, and the Pens' Jarome Iginla, who shunned the Bruins at this year's trade deadline and ultimately chose to be traded to Pittsburgh. While GM Ray Shero is given lots of credit for his late-season roster makeover, something just doesn't feel right when you watch his team. Meanwhile, the Bruins appear to be gaining steam and confidence as the playoffs roll along. Once again, if it's goaltending, the Bruins appear to be the ones who have things in order. And while home ice would normally tilt the advantage towards the Penguins here, the fact is the Bruins know their foe well. Grit and character will shine though. Take the Bruins in six games.
Kings - Hawks: This series has all the makings of a series to determine which team style NHL GMs will try to copy next. Will it be the Kings, with their size, grit, never ending physicality, and ability to score from anywhere? Or will it be the Hawks, with their speed, wave after wave of scoring lines, and a seemingly unending ability to control the puck? Whichever team wins this, expect players with even a minor similarity to anyone on the team to get paid on July 5th.
As for the series, it comes down to what has always had success in the playoffs. Team defense and physical play, along with a hot goalie, are what win in the playoffs. While the Hawks have the hot goalie, the team's defense is built on puck possession, something the Kings are not going to simply concede like both of the Hawks' previous opponents. If Jonathan Towes holds the puck for one second too long against the Wild, he likely scores. Do the same against the Kings, and he'll be in the third row.
The Hawks, however, have shown they can win, even with their backs to the wall. The never ending threat from every line on the team should prove an interesting challenge for the Kings, and give Jonathan Quick nightmares. Trust me when I tell you this, Kings fans... there is no let up from the Hawks. Every player on that team can score, and they can do so when you least expect it. It is truly death by 1000 paper cuts.
Prediction: Kings in 6
Bruins / Pens: This one is a little more difficult to predict. These teams despise each other, see plenty of each other in the regular season, and are built to play... against each other. Sidney Crosby is back, and as lethal as ever, but the Bruins team defense was manufactured specifically to slow him down. The Bruins have weapons everywhere, and are a team built to win in the playoffs, much like the Kings. Still... the Penguins are pretty much built to beat anyone, anytime, anywhere.
This series has the capacity to be really fun to watch, especially for the people who like high flying, fast, shoot out style hockey. The goalies will need to be sharp at all times, and the defensemen are going to need to give cushions to the superstars on the ice, meaning there should be plenty of space to make things happen.
While the West will be determined by hard hits, and grit, the East could provide the highlight reel goals that play so well on ESPN. You know, if ESPN knew how to spell hockey.
Prediction: Bruins in 7
Los Angeles vs. Chicago: After beating up on a couple of relatively weak sisters in Phoenix and New Jersey en route to the franchise's first championship last spring, it's only fair that the Kings' road to a repeat takes the most arduous path imaginable. Chicago, Los Angeles, St. Louis and San Jose were likely the four best teams in the Western Conference this regular season (in that order) and if the Kings are to return to the Stanley Cup Final, they'll have had to vanquish all four apart from themselves. I didn't have a lot of confidence in the Kings' chances of getting past the Sharks four games into that series when they were playing decidedly un-Kings like hockey, having leaned overwhelmingly on the stellar play of Jonathan Quick to advance past the Blues and scoop up two wins against San Jose. But Darryl Sutter's lineup changes prior to Game 5 of the second round have given the Kings a true three-line attack and largely reinstated them as the puck possession juggernaut that breezed through the postseason in 2012. They'll face their toughest challenge yet in a high-flying Blackhawks squad that boasts the speed and puck-moving ability to counteract the Kings' tenacious forecheck and the depth up front to gain an edge when the team's respective bottom-six forwards do battle. I think this series comes down to the matchup between the Hawks' second line, which has struggled defensively all season regardless of whether it's been Dave Bolland or Michal Handzus at center, and that of the Kings. If the trifecta Chicago uses spends most of their ice time in their own end against Mike Richards and company, Jeff Carter has the talent to burn the Blackhawks repeatedly. On the other hand, Sutter wasn't the only head coach to make changes when things weren't working for him in the second round and the Hawks' reconstructed forward lines, on display in Game 7 against Detroit, might have the juice necessary to power past L.A. This looks to be a terrific and extremely close series but Chicago has a much more potent offense than either St. Louis or San Jose and I think they'll finally be the team to break through on Jonathan Quick this postseason. Blackhawks in 7.
Boston vs. Pittsburgh: They struggled to make it past the Islanders in the first round but after swapping Marc-Andre Fleury for the decidedly superior Tomas Vokoun, the Pittsburgh Penguins rolled past Ottawa in the Eastern Conference Semifinals right to a third-round date with Boston sure to be filled with intriguing storylines and awesome hockey. Sidney Crosby and Patrice Bergeron will see a ton of each other in this series. No slight intended to Alex Ovechkin or Steven Stamkos, but that's a matchup that in my mind pits the two best forwards in the East against each other. It's easy to say Crosby vs. Bergeron is where this series will be decided but that overlooks the excellent second-line centers these teams boast in Evgeni Malkin and playoff scoring leader David Krejci. Ultimately it's the Penguins' depth along with Boston's injuries on defense that will move the dial here. I predicted before the season that Chicago would beat Pittsburgh in the Final and I don't see much reason to change my mind there. Penguins in 6.
Los Angeles vs. Chicago : The Blackhawks took a while to get going in the playoffs. Although they took out the Wild in five games, it wasn't their best hockey of the year. Detroit was going to give Chicago all they could handle in a farewell-to-the-Central showdown. Despite all their talent and skill, it sometimes seems like the Blackhawks always play their very best hockey when they're up against the wall. If Chicago wants to win, they need to bring their best effort to every shift, every night, and not get rattled by the Kings' physical play. Their star players need to shine like the elite players they are starting with game one, while their depth lines continue to produce. Los Angeles will do all they can to slow down the high-flying Blackhawks while stifling their scoring opportunities. Jonathan Quick is showing the same MVP-worthy form he displayed last season, and he will continue to be their most vital player. However, since the Blackhawks have proven in the regular season that they can fill Quick's net, the Kings' third and fourth lines need to find their production.
It's only fitting that the defending Stanley Cup team has to go through the Presidents' Trophy winners if they have any hope of becoming the first back-to-back Cup champs since Detroit did it in 1997 and 1998. This series has everything you want for a classic-in-the-making. Both teams are coming off a grueling game seven/Quarterfinals win. The Blackhawks speedy, puck-possession style contrasts with the Kings' strong, physical game. Their regular season games were highly entertaining, and more of the same should be expected in the playoffs. It'll take seven, but the Blackhawks are going to come out on top.
Boston vs. Pittsburgh : Both of these teams loaded up at the deadline to take another run at the Cup, and so far it has paid off. After a meltdown in the first round against Long Island, Marc-André Fleury was replaced by Tomas Vokoun, who gave the Penguins the stability in goal they needed to finish off the Islanders in six, and take out the Senators in five. Pittsburgh has so much talent and firepower that they have plenty to spare; but can there be too much of a good thing? The Pens have no problem scoring - they're leading the playoffs with 47 - but they're only going to go as far as their goaltending holds up.
Meanwhile, the Bruins have stayed true to the hard-nosed, physical style of play that won them the Cup in 2011, and Tuukka Rask has made the net fully his own. Boston's main focus will be disrupting all the fire power the Pens bring to the table. These two teams don't like each other, so if you like "old school" hockey (plenty of scoring and plenty of fights), you're probably going to love this series in the East. It'll be a killer series (in more ways than one), but Penguins in six.
John Hoven is the founder and editor of MayorsManor.com - selected as 2012's Best Hockey Blog by Yahoo Sports. As a member of the Professional Hockey Writer's Association, his insights and information have been featured on several well known websites, magazines and in print for the LA Newspaper Group. He can also be heard over the airwaves, as he's a regularly featured guest on sports radio stations across North America. Be sure to follow along at www.twitter.com/MayorNHL for his daily notes and inside scoop.
Bryan Reynolds is the editor of Hockey Wilderness, the SB Nation site covering the Minnesota Wild. He also covers the Minnesota Swarm of the NLL for SB Nation Minnesota and dreams of one day being the Senate confirmed Director of Vengeful Beatings - @hockeywildernes.
Nathan Eide is the managing editor of Hockey Wilderness, a Minnesota Wild fan community. Nathan likes long walks on the beach, spending time with his family and enjoys the schadenfreude surrounding the Edmonton Oilers.
Derek Tanabe is currently the managing editor for Fear The Fin, a Sharks blog with up-to-date news and analysis concerning California's only team still chasing the Stanley Cup. You can follow him on twitter at @fearthefin.
Cheryl Adams is a featured writer and the Blackhawks team leader for TheCheckingLine.com. She also writes for her own website, HockeyBroad.com, and can generally be found at the rink, camera in hand.