A few surprises and a lot longer to go: Stanley Cup Semifinals Preview
No. 1 Chicago Blackhawks vs. No. 7 Detroit Red Wings
The Red Wings are fresh from a Game 7 victory and have more pieces of the puzzle than their No. 7 seed might suggest. Meanwhile, the Blackhawks were hardly stymied by the hardworking Minnesota Wild in the first round. The Wings have a ragtag group of forwards and a young defensive squad who have proven that they can win, while Chicago is the powerhouse they’ve always been (See: a 100% penalty kill success rate in the first round and not a chink in their armor). The Blackhawks’ lineup is as solid as ever, and while it might have more top-to-bottom dominance than the Wings, Detroit and Chicago should be evenly matched in goal.
Corey Crawford had a solid first round for Chicago and Detroit’s Jimmy Howard is turning in a fairly prodigious performance of his own. The difference-makers will likely be the defensive squads and how well they match up against each team’s top forwards. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane were unable to produce much in the first round, while Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg have some goals under their belts. The Hawks’ blue line is sharp, and the Red Wings’ d-men have bonded together through the uphill battle against Anaheim in Round 1. If the Hawks really get rolling, they could take it easily, but the Red Wings never make it easy.
Prediction: Blackhawks in 7
No. 5 Los Angeles Kings vs. No. 6 San Jose Sharks
No one (or everyone, depending on who you ask) expected the Vancouver Canucks to roll over so easily for the San Jose Sharks in the quarterfinals. Hopefully the Sharks know that they have an uphill battle on their hands. The Kings aren’t going to lie down and take it. The defending Stanley Cup champions played a hard-fought series against the Blues, and have offensive stars to match the likes of San Jose’s Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski. For example, the Kings have Jeff Carter, who has four goals so far in the playoffs, and players like Anze Kopitar, who are waiting in the wings to wake up and score a back-breaker or two.
Give the Kings the advantage with defense perhaps — the Canucks were very limited by the Sharks in the opening round, but they also didn’t get too much of a fight at times. The Kings have several bona fide shutdown defensemen and a few with offensive edge. Still, the Sharks defense is rolling, and Dan Boyle’s steadying presence is not to be overlooked. In goal, Antti Niemi versus Jonathan Quick is a battle that will be both exciting and unpredictable–neither goalie has been at his strongest, but they have also been clutch when called upon in every situation.
Prediction: Kings in 6
No. 1 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. No. 7 Ottawa Senators
The Penguins really were a night and day team in the first round. The six games they played against the Islanders saw a little bit of everything: two shutout wins, two embarrassing losses, and two overtime thrillers. The Penguins’ mercurial ways are not to be underestimated, and they won’t have much room to work with, given Ottawa goaltender Craig Anderson’s virtuoso performance against the Montreal Canadiens. Some of Pittsburgh’s scoring against the New York Islanders came because Evgeni Nabokov was playing flat-out poorly, though many of the goals that counted had the X-factor of Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin sitting behind them, and both could beat any netminder in the NHL.
The question mark for the Pens is whether they will start Tomas Vokoun, who brought their series back from the brink on two strong performances, or Marc-André Fleury, who struggled to stop average shots from the Islanders. The Senators have a little bit of everything in their lineup to try to counter the Pens–forwards who can be both pesky and skilled (from Chris Neil to Cory Conacher). They have a punishing blue line with a deadly power play run by Erik Karlsson and Sergei Gonchar. It’s not going to be an open-and-shut series by any means, but the Pens can keep the Senators at bay with disciplined play and goal scoring–as long as they get goaltending to at least try to match Craig Anderson’s hard work.
Prediction: Pens in 6
No. 4 Boston Bruins vs. No. 6 New York Rangers
Like the Penguins, the Bruins have had some ups and downs as of late. The Leafs series was a testament to how quickly the Bruins can fall as well as how quickly they can rise. A prime example for them is Milan Lucic, who has gone from a healthy scratch during the regular season to a 9-point playoff performance so far. The Rangers know how to hang around–but the only reason they’re still here is (perhaps) because the Caps didn’t put up a fight in their recent Game 7. Still, the Rangers have Henrik Lundqvist to thank for getting them there, and he could very well get them there again, since while Tuukka Rask has come up when needed, he hasn’t looked unbeatable by any means so far these playoffs.
Lundqvist has also looked good because of the defensemen in front of him featuring many of the same guys who were shot-blocking themselves into oblivion last playoffs. This year, they managed to contain a previously-explosive Alexander Ovechkin to complete their 7-game series win. Give the Bruins the edge in offense, perhaps, with David Krejci a.k.a. the leading point-getter in the playoffs in their hip pocket. The Rangers, and particularly Lundqvist won’t make it easy, so the Bruins might need seven to do it again.