Welcome back to 4 on 4! Four prominent hockey writers; John Hoven of The Mayor's Manor, Bryan Reynolds and Nathan Eide formerly of Hockey Wilderness, and Cheryl Adams of Hockey Broad preview the Western Conference Quarterfinals.
Boston vs Montreal
First off, let’s share a little secret that you’re absolutely not going to hear or be made aware of in any other previews you read or watch this week – the Bruins and Canadiens are two Original Six teams who have a long and deep-seeded rivalry, one that extends back over 33 previous playoff matchups and hundreds of regular season games. You heard it here first.
Before we completely move on though, it’s at least worth noting the last time they met up in post-season action was the first round of the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs. And it ended the way every series should end if life was perfect – in overtime of Game 7.
Their impending clash in 2014 could be best capsulized as one team trying to prove they’re as good as they are on paper, while their opponents look to prove they’re as good as all the hype they get from their hometown fans.
Since that 2011 series, the Habs have largely remained a smaller and faster team, yet they’re more rugged than before. Even so, the Bruins are the class of the Eastern Conference when it comes to grit and are one of the few teams on that side of the NHL that can easily adjust to playing against skilled teams or those who prefer a grinding, heavy and intense style. Discipline will likely be the key to Boston finding success in this series, as Montreal has shown the ability to get under their skin and goad them into taking stupid penalties.
After fairly easy first round runs against the Lightning and Red Wings, both reams will now get a real test. Tuukka Rask is arguably one of the three elite goaltenders in the NHL and if he can perform like he did in the regular season, Montreal will be in trouble. On the flip side, the Bruins would be encouraged to get in the face of Carey Price, try to disrupt his crease and get inside his head.
While the Habs team speed could cause issues for the B’s, their top line of Thomas Vanek, Max Pacioretty and David Desharnais will more than have their hands full with a Bruins team that consistently counters with solid team defense in their own end. Plus, it remains to be seen if Brendan Gallagher, Lars Eller and Rene Bourque can keep their offense going in this series, as they did against the Lightning.
In the end, look for the better team - the Bruins - to grind the Canadiens down with their size, firepower and toughness. Take the Bruins in six games. In overtime too, why not.
[ed. note: The above preview was written before Game 1 on Thursday. Given that Montreal won, they could push things to a Game 7 now, but Boston should still win the series.]
Los Angeles vs Anaheim
Players to watch:
The high powered offense for both teams is off the charts. The Kings made a bold move at the deadline bringing in Marian Gaborik to add to an already scary top six featuring Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Anze Kopitar, and Dustin Brown. The Ducks counter with Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, and silver surfers Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu. The sheer volume of offense on both sides likely cancels out like an Oilers fan canceling out numbers when multiplying fractions in order to somehow prove that defensemen and goalies don't really matter and the Oilers already won the Cup.
That leaves guys like Drew Doughty, Jonathan Quick, Cam Fowler and Jonas Hiller to keep an eye on. Which is nice, since half of those guys don't go very far, meaning even the refs from the Avs / Wild should be able to see them.
If any of the players listed above fail to show up, their going to be on a short list with fans of their respective team. Both goalies are going to be critical to this series, putting an even more intense spotlight on an already highlighted position. (Side note for Oilers fans, goalies are the ones that are supposed to stop the puck from going in the net. It's important.) Coaches have pretty much made it past the point where their job security is questioned (looking at you, Wild fans), leaving just the masked men to be the single fall guy. I don't envy Quick and Hiller their burdens.
Here's hoping Wes McCauley isn't reffing at all in the series. If he is... double up on the pads, gents.
Prediction: Kings in 7
New York vs. Pittsburgh
The Penguins' captain, Sidney Crosby, when healthy, is then best offensive player in the NHL, as evidenced by his winning the Art Ross this season. While fans have been bemoaning his "lack of production" in the playoffs since he hasn't scored any goals in seven games, he has put up six assists. If he gets hot, then the Penguins will follow.
But wait, there's this guy in New York who plays goal, and I hear he's just as handsome and awesome as that Patrick Sharp guy in the West. He's a Swede, and his name is Henrik Lundqvist - but that's "King Henrik" to those in the know. While the Blueshirts have their share of offensive skill, it is the Vezina-winning Lundqvist who can really make a difference for them.
Sure, both teams have "other" talent. The Rangers have guys like Rick Nash, Brad Richards, Martin St. Louis, Dan Girardi, and the only Staal brother who doesn't play for Carolina (that's Marc, by the way). The Penguins have that awesome Evgeni Malkin guy, and fill out their roster with the likes of Kris Letang, Beau Bennett, and Jussi Jokinen.
Who will emerge out of the rink as top of the heap? A quick look at the regular season shows us these two teams split their series evenly: both won once in regulation and once in a shootout, by nearly identical scores. Not much help there. So let's look instead at Friday night's results after the first game of this series, which the Rangers won in OT, 3-2. During the regular season, the Rangers usually out-possessed and out-shot the Penguins; but the Pens still managed to win against them twice. In the first game of their series, the Penguins led the Rangers both in Corsi and Fenwick, outshooting New York 36-27. But the Rangers still managed to sneak out of the first game with a win, because that's just how the hockey gods roll sometimes.
What will be the deciding factor in this series? It's all about the goaltending. Marc-Andre Fleury has held his team in the playoffs, despite posting an average 2.82 GAA and .906 sv% so far. While his name is on the Stanley Cup (2009), historically, his playoff numbers have never been sterling, and they've been downright awful the past two years, making Fleury synonymous with playoff meltdowns. If the Penguins' offense can find another gear, it won't matter if Fleury has another ho-hum playoff run.
Lundqvist, on the other hand, is a recent Vezina winner (2012) and has very solid playoff numbers (average .921 sv% and 2.26), although the deepest he's been in the playoffs was a third-round exit, also in 2012. The Rangers also have not won the Stanley Cup since 1994, so they'll be motivated for a deep run into the playoffs. Their current coach, Alain Vigneault, has also proven he can take his team all the way to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final; he, too, has the motivation to show that he can win the Cup.
Rangers in six. (Hey, I called the Wild winning over the Avs!)
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 former editor of Hockey Wilderness, retiring in June 2013 to get a real job, smoke cigars, and spend time with family. He now can be found giving sarcastic commentary about the NHL and Minnesota Wild on Twitter @BReynoldsMN, while continuing his quest to become the Senate confirmed Director of Vengeful Beatings.
Nathan Eide is a recovering hockey blogger. After 6 years on the job, he's spending the year relearning how to be a fan. In addition, Nathan likes long walks on the beach, spending time with his family and enjoys the schadenfreude associated with the Edmonton Oilers.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.