The 2012 NHL Playoffs have been as unpredictable as they have been exciting, and following them as a fan has been as exhausting as it has been inspiring. The Second Round has produced some of the best hockey we have seen in recent years, and has set up what should be a memorable Conference Finals.
Lord Stanley would be proud.
I am proud, Jason and Danny.
The East features the all-too familiar division rivals in the Rangers and Devils, while the West will be represented in the finals by a surprise finalist in either the Kings or the Coyotes. Both series pit division rivals against each other, fueling the passionate drive towards glory.
Danny grabbed 3 points in Round 2, correctly predicting the Coyotes, Devils and Rangers. Little Bro Jason, the ever-obvious homer, only correctly had New York in Round 3. The scoreboard shows the elder Klau in front with 8 points, to Jason's 5.
Conference Finals means the the stakes are higher. This round gets you 2 points for predicting the winner, and the bonus point for predicting the correct amount of games.
As always, we'll go East to West, Danny's prediction and preview followed by Jason's.
EAST: (1) New York Rangers vs. (6) New Jersey Devils
DK: The Rangers hardly have any time to breath in between Saturday's Game 7 victory against Washington and Monday's series opening game against New Jersey. That game will be their 15th of these playoffs, more than any other team left standing. Having already played two Game 7's, one begins to wonder if that will take it's toll on Tortorella's men. The other knock on the Rangers is the fact that aside from Richards and Gaborik, their forwards have combined for 11 goals in 14 games (R&G netting seven apiece). This stat has not caught up to them yet, mainly because of the scoring help provided by their defensemen. But you begin to wonder when guys like Artem Anisimov, Derek Stepan, even captain Ryan Callahan are going to step up their scoring game.
On a brighter note for the Blue Shirts, what the Rangers lack in firepower they make up for in attention to detail in the defensive zone. In their Game 7 victory against a relentless Capitals team, the Rangers kept the Caps pinned in their own zone for much of the third period. This was Rangers hockey as it was drawn up. If they can play like that every game, they'll be very, very tough to beat.
The Devils have not had as much trouble scoring as New York has. No surprise that Ilya Kovalchuk is leading the team, with 12 points in 11 games these playoffs. The surprising statistic is that he is the only Devil that has a negative plus/minus. In order to beat the Rangers, the Devils forwards are going to have to become more defensive minded. Dale Hunter and the Capitals drew up the blueprint for how to beat New York, and that is playing mistake-free, defensive minded hockey. Beat them at their own game.
This is a classic NHL matchup. New York vs. New Jersey. Henrik vs. Martin. They split the season series 3-3. I see more of the same on the way.
Rangers in 7
JK: As if the famous line brawl didn't already mean enough to this rivalry, the Rangers and Devils will take it to the next level with their conference finals matchup this week.
These teams flat out don't like each other. That rivalry mixed with a chance at playing for the Cup means one thing, we will see more of what's embedded above.
New York is coming off of two consecutive Game 7 victories. They haven't gotten any extra time off these playoffs. New Jersey is coming off an impressively quick 5 game KO of their rival Flyers, who offed the Pens in traumatic fashion in April - a Pittsburgh foe that had many a Rangers fan fearing for the future.
For New York, it always starts and ends with Henrik Lundqvist. Every game against Washington was decided by one goal except for the first. Lundqvist kept them close, and won a few for them as well.
On the other side of the ice, Brodeur is the the greatest goalie of all time, but right now, Henrik is King. It's no coincidence that two of the three Vezina Trophy finalists are in the finals, with the third, Pekka Rinne, losing last round.
Offensively, the Rangers have struggled to put up the overall numbers, but have come through in the clutch. Brad Richards is proving he is worth the big money they spent on him. He set up Marian Gaborik for a triple overtime winner and notched four goals in the Washington series, including the game tying-goal in Game 5 in the dying seconds.
The Rangers real strength is their defense. Not just their defensemen, but their commitment to team D. Everyone back-checks. Regardless of your salary or how many points you get, if you want a spot on the Rangers, you come back on D, and you block shots. It's what has made them successful. Led by the emergence of Ryan McDonagh, who played over 50 minutes in the triple OT game, and is as solid of a player as there can be, the Rangers defense also includes All-Star Dan Girardi playing by his side. Marc Staal is back into form at the right time, and Michael Del Zotto is turning into this year's Brian Leetch.
For New Jersey, Ilya Kovalchuck is the man. He's capable of taking over games, and plays the entire power play for NJ. Travis Zajac is having a big playoffs and Zach Parise, who is rumored to be leaving NJ after this season, is making the most of the time he has left with the organization that's developed him. This long playoff run though, might just convince Parise that it's worth it to stay in NJ. Depth guys like David Clarkson have also stepped up, with rookie sensation Adam Henrique making a name for himself.
Defensively, the Devils don't have any stars, although Anton Volchenkov has been a brick wall on the backend. Adam Larsson came back to play his first playoff games and hasn't lost one yet. Regardless of the lack of starpower on the backend, the team was defensively able to slow down a Flyers offense that can be lethal. They were able to neutralize their best player, Claude Giroux, and the rest of the team crumbled around him. If they can do the same to Brad Richards, the Devils have a really good shot at this series.
Both teams are rolling. You have to be to get this far. The Rangers are going to try and keep the momentum going into Game 1 at the Garden Monday night, where they've had some success this year. The Devils may be a tougher test than their previous two series, but I think the Rangers pull this one out.
Rangers in 6
WEST: (3) Phoenix Coyotes vs. (8) Los Angeles Kings
DK: The media is billing this series as a matchup between two franchises resurrected in some way by Wayne "The Great One" Gretzky. But unless Wayne decides to lace 'em up and get on the ice, these two teams will never mutter the man's name. Both got where they are today by riding their stellar goaltending.
Should-have-been-a-Vezina Trophy finalist Jonathan Quick has been stupid-good, going 8-1 so far in these playoffs. Those nine games were against the best two teams in the Western Conference (sike), by the way. On the flip side, Mike Smith has helped a team that has relied on him heavily. The Coyotes didn't exactly have an easy road on paper, but they quickly dispatched a good Nashville Predators team in just five games.
The last time these two teams played in the regular season, the players strapped on the boxing gloves for a good old fashioned knuckle-bruiser of a hockey game. We even saw a captain fight:
This sets an intriguing stage. Tough, defensive teams that don't like each other. In series like these I turn to my veterans. Shane Doan, Antoine Vermette and Ray Whitney have to know they won't get many more chances like this. So far in these playoffs no one has been able to look the Kings in the eye and see what they are really made of. Let's see how deep they can dig.
Phoenix in 7
The Coyote(s) moves on.
JK: Mike Smith vs. Jonathan Quick is the biggest story of this division-rival matchup, for these two goalies are the sole reasons their respective teams are where they are. Many wrote off both teams early on, but both proved the haters (aka me) wrong, dominating their previous opponents.
After scoring just enough goals to lock up the Western 8 seed, the Kings seem to have found their goal-scoring swagger during the playoffs. Dustin Brown, who was close to being traded at the deadline, is proving he was worth keeping. He leads the team in points, and has been playing physical hockey like he always does. Behind him, Mike Richards and Anze Kopitar are having very strong playoffs in their own right.
The Kings will rely on Jonathan Quick for sure, but that isn't to say there hasn't been a strong, developing defense in front of him this post season. Drew Doughty is an elite defenseman, while depth d-men like Matt Greene and Willie Mitchell have been welcomed successes.
While the kings have only lost once so far this post season, the Coyotes have been rolling as well, losing just three times, and two of those came in OT against Chicago. Mike Smith has emerged out of nowhere and the mantra in the desert has been scoring by committee.
Antoine Vermette leads the pack, but up front, Michael Bodker and captain Shane Doan have been excellent as well. Ray Whitney is the grizzled vet. He celebrated winning the series against Nashville and his 40th birthday the next day. Whitney's won a Cup before and knows what it takes.
Defenseman Rostislav "Rusty" Klesla has contributed goals from the blue line and Keith Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson can make plays happen from the backend as well. None of that matters if Mike Smith isn't at the top of his game, though. Just about all of his wins have been by one goal, and almost all of his losses have been as well.
This is an interesting series. If you're only interested in high scoring hockey, this may not be the series for you. If your a real hockey fan however, and know how exciting these tight, low scoring games can be, you'll be into it. Expect a ton of a great goaltending, expect a lot of physical play, and, if you trust my judgement the Kings to win in 7.
Play opens up tonight in Phoenix at 8 pm EDT on the channel formerly known as Versus. You can find the entire TV schedule here.