And then there were four. We’ve made it to the conference finals in the NHL Playoffs after one of the most exciting second rounds in recent years. The Eastern Conference final will have an Original Six feel to it as the New York Rangers take on the Montreal Canadiens. The Western Conference final has the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks facing the Los Angeles Kings in a rematch of last year’s conference final.
I’ve set the scene, so let’s get right to it.
EASTERN CONFERENCE FINAL
Montreal vs. New York Rangers
How the Rangers got here: Survived two seven-game series as they beat Philadelphia in round one and Pittsburgh in the conference semifinals.
What’s been going right for the Rangers: The Rangers have shown a lot of character after the death of Martin St. Louis’ mother. It seems cliché, but they’re playing in her memory. The top six forwards have chipped in with some goals, but the bottom six forwards have given the Rangers depth. Derek Brassard-Mats Zuccarello-Benoit Pouliot have arguably been one of the best lines in the NHL. Imagine if Rick Nash turns it on? The Rangers could really frustrate the Habs.
What’s been going wrong for the Rangers: Rick Nash hasn’t been scoring and that’s just plain baffling. Nash has been helping other ways, but they paid him to score goals in big spots. Nash has put up good CORSI stats, but the fans at MSG want to see Nash bury goals. He’s not been Sidney Crosby like in that he’s actually kept his head.
Rangers’ x-factor: Can Henrik Lundqvist get over his Montreal-a-phobia? The King has been anything, but regal at the Bell Centre. He’s 4-5-2 with a 3.87 goals-against average and .876 save percentage when he plays in Montreal. He hasn’t started since January 2012, where he got pulled. Some goalies just stink at certain places, but Hank can turn it around.
How the Canadiens got here: Swept Tampa Bay in the opening round and upset Boston in seven, four games to three.
What’s been going right for the Canadiens: Speed, P.K. Subban and Carey Price. The Habs were the underdog in the series and played that card to perfection. The Big, Bad Bruins were supposed to rough the Canadiens up, but Montreal played smart and fast. I said Subban is going to get paid in the offseason. He carried the defense (and sometimes the offense) for the Habs.
What’s been going wrong for the Canadiens: Subban has been great, but he can’t do it all himself. Josh Georges has been a great partner, but the other defensive pairs need to step or the Rangers’ depth will frustrate them. Subban can’t play 40 minutes a game.
Canadiens’ x-factor: Habs head coach Michel Therrien has plugged in Nathan Beaulieu late in the last series, and he’s been a breath of fresh air. He’s young, raw, but full of energy. He could give the Rangers fits.
Prediction: This is going to be a nasty, low-scoring series with goals at a premium. Price and Lundqvist could put a goaltending show. Both teams are playing with house money, but I think the Rangers win in seven as they’ve done all playoffs.
Chicago vs. Los Angeles
How the Blackhawks got here: Beat St. Louis and Minnesota in four games to two in the first two rounds.
What’s been going right for Chicago?: I know we all rave about Kane, Toews, Sharp and the rest of the defensemen, but can we please give Corey Crawford some credit for once? “Crow” has made plenty of great saves in both series. A lot of people say Crawford isn’t an elite goalie, but he’s certainly playing like an elite one. Nice to see some recognize that Crawford plays a big part in Chicago’s success.
What’s been going wrong for Chicago?: I’m going to keep harping on this, but the Hawks need a second center. Marcus Kruger did OK filling, but this is going to be a problem against a Kings team that can put a few lines out there. The Hawks did it last year when they won, but it could be the thing that trips them up.
Blackhawks x-factor: Ben Smith has done everything the champs have asked of him. He’s been a critical part of the success of the second group. He’ll need to keep it up if Andrew Shaw is still out.
How the Kings got here: Survived two rough seven-game series against San Jose and Anaheim.
What’s been going right for Los Angeles?: The Kings love winning in crunch time. Los Angeles is 6-0 in elimination games this postseason. Marian Gaborik has been an excellent fit for LA. It’s like’s regained the form he had when he was in Minnesota and Columbus.
What’s been going wrong for Los Angeles?: While they’re great in these crunch games, Los Angeles really needs to stop getting into these type of troubles. Los Angeles has been sloppy and giving away a lot of breaks in their losses. The Blackhawks are deadly when they’ve got a chance to close. The champs don’t let teams off the mat when they’ve got them down.
Kings x-factor: The health of Willie Mitchell will be key for the Kings. He’ll be needed against Toews, Kane, Sharp and Marian Hossa. The Kings have to cut down on the sloppy play if they want to advance.
Prediction: This is going to be a great rematch of last year’s Western final. However, I’m going to keep the same result with the Blackhawks beating the Kings in six.
Dan Mount is an NHL columnist for TJRSports.com and NYSportScene.com. He is based out of Watertown, NY and can be found on Twitter @DanMountSports.