2013 Conference Finals Preview

After a frenzied, lockout-abbreviated regular season, we’ve enjoyed two scintillating playoff rounds that have reduced the field from 16 teams to 4. Making things particularly interesting, the four remaining teams also happen to be the four most-recent Cup champions. In the Eastern Conference, it’s the Pittsburgh Penguins (2009) vs. the Boston Bruins (2011), while out West it’s the defending champion Los Angeles Kings (2012) taking on the Chicago Blackhawks (champions in 2010). Here’s a closer look at both series…

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Boston Bruins

Back at the trade deadline, it was abundantly clear that the Penguins and Bruins were two of the NHL‘s finest teams, and it was no surprise that they were both competing for the services of Calgary Flames captain Jarome Iginla. Iginla ultimately chose to accept a trade to Pittsburgh where he could play alongside Sidney Crosby, and his presence on the Penguins roster has likely been a key factor in tipping the odds for this series in their favor. While Iginla (12 points in 11 playoff games) has been a key contributor, Jaromir Jagr (the Bruins’ consolation prize at the deadline) has only managed to score four points in 12 playoff games.

Featured recently on the cover of Sports Illustrated, Crosby has been playing at an elite level in these playoffs, scoring 15 points in 10 games through the first two rounds. Stopping him is without question the Bruins’ top priority. To do that, they’ll need to get a top-tier performance out of hulking 6’9″ captain Zdeno Chara and Finnish netminder Tuukka Rask. Of course, shutting down Crosby is only part of the equation, because the Pens also boast all-world forward Evgeni Malkin (16 points in 11 playoff games), Norris Trophy finalist Kris Letang (16 points in 11 playoff games) and the aforementioned Iginla.

On the Bruins’ side, David Krejci has emerged as a go-to point-getter in these playoffs, tallying a terrific 17 points in 12 games. Nathan Horton has averaged a point per game while putting up an astonishing plus-14 rating, while Chara has contributed on the offensive side (11 points in 12 games) while consistently shutting down the opposition’s top forwards. Not to be overlooked, young rearguard Torey Krug (four goals in five playoff games) emerged as a Beantown sensation during the Bruins’ Conference Semifinals win over the New York Rangers. The Bruins’ most critical edge in this series is in goal, for while Rask has been consistently sensational, the Penguins have switched from now-erratic 2008 Cup-winning backstop Marc-Andre Fleury to veteran Tomas Vokoun. Vokoun has stopped over 94% of the shots he’s faced in the seven games he’s played thus far in these playoffs (as compared to Rask’s nearly-93% success rate), but there’s good reason to wonder whether he’ll struggle if Milan Lucic, Horton and company are able to create traffic in front of his goal crease.

Prediction: Bruins in Six

Chicago Blackhawks vs. Los Angeles Kings

The Blackhawks were the President’s Trophy winners as the regular season’s finest team, but they struggled mightily in the Western Conference Semifinals against the Detroit Red Wings, ultimately prevailing in overtime of Game Seven after falling behind three games to one in the series. ‘Hawks goalie Corey Crawford (1.70 GAA, .938 SV%) has been terrific in these playoffs, but the ‘Hawks don’t have a single point-per-game scorer that they’ve been able to count upon. Instead, it’s seemingly endless depth that’s gotten them into Round Three, and the hope/expectation that Patrick Kane (nine points in 12 games), Marian Hossa (11 points in 12 games) or Jonathan Toews (six points in 12 games) will take over a game if not a series. On defense, Duncan Keith (nine points in 12 games, plus-four) is the anchor.

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Kings have been backstopped by the red-hot Jonathan Quick, who is the prohibitive favorite to win the Conn Smythe Trophy halfway through these playoffs. Quick has posted a scintillating .948 save percentage and a 1.50 GAA through 13 playoff games, and it’s likely that he’ll need to keep playing at an all-world level if the Kings are to advance to the Cup Finals for the second consecutive season. There is hope for the Kings if Quick’s play slips a bit, however, and it’s that the rest of this defending Cup champion roster hasn’t approached its potential through the first two rounds. Anze Kopitar (seven points in 13 games, only two goals) and Dustin Brown (four points in 13 games, only three goals) are likely to awaken from their slumber, and Drew Doughty (five points in 13 games) has the potential to be the most impactful defenseman in the Western Conference Finals.

Neither team has played its best thus far, and both teams have relied on red-hot goalies to get them to within one round of the Cup Finals. Given how similar their situations are, the goalie drives the prediction.

Prediction: Kings in Six

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