The cream has risen to the the top and the past four Stanley Cup champions are all that's left in this year's tournament. The Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins - the two teams involved in the Jarome Iginla sweepstakes at the trade deadline, faceoff in the East. In the West, the top seed Chicago Blackhawks meet the defending champion Los Angeles Kings, who are in peak post-season form.
THN breaks down both of the conference final matchups. Who are you picking?.
How the Penguins got here: By getting stronger with every playoff game, especially after Tomas Vokoun solidified himself as their starting goalie (at least, as much as any starting goalie’s job is assured in the post-season). At the end of their second-round series against Ottawa, the Penguins’ ferocious offense had established itself as the best of the playoffs – at an average of 4.27 goals-per-game, Pittsburgh was more than a full goal better than the second-best team (Boston, at 3.17) – and allowed Vokoun to relax, knowing one mistake could be made up for. It takes an almost perfect game to beat this team right now.
How the Bruins got here: By getting a barrage of rubber on the opposition’s goalie (the Bruins lead the playoffs in average shots on net with 38.2 a night) and dominating in the faceoff circle (57.5 percent success rate, also the best of this post-season), Boston has managed to overcome a defense corps thinned out by injuries as well as struggles from some top forwards (hello, Tyler Seguin). Like the Pens, Boston also was firing on more pistons in the second round than they were to start the playoffs.
OFFENSE: It’s not that the Bruins don’t have depth and balance in terms of their offensive production. It’s just that the Penguins have more. Milan Lucic has been a force after being nearly invisible during the regular season, but for every positive story the Bruins have along those lines, the Penguins have at least one (see James Neal or Chris Kunitz) to match. Late-season addition Jarome Iginla has started to get in a scoring groove, but the same can’t be said for Jaromir Jagr. Oh, and in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh has the two top offensive dynamos in the series. EDGE: Penguins
DEFENSE: The Bruins have the best blueliner (Zdeno Chara) on either team and employ a more defensively-focused attack than do the Pens. Boston also has received a boost from the emergence of slick d-man Torey Krug, who has four goals in his first five career NHL playoff games. With injuries to a number of Bruins defensemen, coach Claude Julien has had to lean on Chara and the Penguins have got banner performances from Kris Letang, Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik, but Boston’s forwards help make their defensemen’s lives easier than the Pens do for theirs. EDGE: Bruins
GOALTENDING: Vokoun’s playoff numbers (a 1.85 goals-against average and .941 save percentage) are better than Rask’s (2.22 GAA, .928 SP), but the former has played five fewer games and still can be a roaming adventure in a way that Rask won’t be. Thanks to a number of blowout Pens wins, Vokoun hasn’t dealt with nearly as much pressure as Rask, who often plays better when he’s seeing more pucks directed at him. Vokoun can still play well, but he’ll be tested often by the Bruins. EDGE: Bruins
SPECIAL TEAMS: The Penguins’ power play is tops among all playoff teams at 28.3 percent and their penalty kill is third-best at 89.7 percent. The Bruins’ power play isn’t anything to sneer at (fifth-best at 21.9 percent), but their penalty kill (eighth-best at 81.1 percent) needs work. That area of concern for Boston gives a clear advantage to the Pens. EDGE: Penguins
PREDICTION: The Bruins are a great team with impressive experience and veteran knowhow, but with due respect to the Leafs and Rangers, they haven’t exactly asserted themselves against elite opponents in these playoffs. The Leafs crumbled in a Game 7 meltdown, and calling the Rangers offense an offense was offensive to actual offenses. The Pens, on the other hand, took a well-coached, resilient Senators team and ate them alive in short order. Pittsburgh is Boston’s first opponent that is a true equal and the energy the Bruins expended just to get to the conference final could catch up with them here. PENGUINS IN 6
How Chicago got here: By the scant hair of Jonathan Toews’ chinny-chin-chin. The Blackhawks enter the conference final knowing two things. No. 1, they haven’t played their best hockey yet. No. 2, they’re going to have to if they have any hope of defeating the defending champions to earn a berth in the Stanley Cup final. Against Minnesota in the first round, the Blackhawks seemed to lollygag their way through the series. Against the Red Wings, they had to bear down and deal with an opponent that was much tougher and resilient and they prevailed…but just barely.
How Los Angeles got here: Just as was the case last spring, the Kings are riding an all-world goaltender in Jonathan Quick and combining that with a smashmouth, shut-down style of play that makes it almost impossible to run away with any game against them. They are unbeatable at the Staples Center, but do not have the luxury of home-ice advantage against the Blackhawks. Whether the Kings win or lose in the playoffs, you can almost bet the farm on the final score being 2-1.
OFFENSE: With this being the Western Conference, scoring is always at a premium. And by those standards, the Blackhawks are a bunch of gunslingers. They don’t have anyone with eye-popping offensive numbers in the playoffs, but there has been a remarkable amount of depth and scoring balance in their attack. The Kings, meanwhile, seem to take the attitude that all they need is one or two goals a game and their goaltender will be able to win it for them. And more often than not in the post-season, they’ve been right. The Blackhawks are averaging nine more shots a game than the Kings the playoffs. EDGE: Chicago
DEFENSE: Both teams give up about the same number of shots per game and are generally very good in their own end of the ice. The Kings have more offensive thrust from the blueline than the Blackhawks have. Each team has a Norris Trophy-caliber kingpin in its lineup – Duncan Keith for the Blackhawks and Drew Doughty for the Kings. The Kings are far more punishing in the defensive zone, while the Hawks rely more on positioning and transitioning the puck when they are in their own end. The Kings get the edge here, but it is ever so slight. EDGE: Kings
GOALTENDING: Simply put, Quick is channeling his inner Dominik Hasek in these playoffs. If he continues to do that and the Kings repeat as Stanley Cup champions, there is absolutely no doubt that Quick will repeat as the Conn Smythe winner. His goaltending is soul-crushing for opponents, who know they have to have an almost perfect chance if they want to beat him, which leads to them overplaying the puck in the offensive zone. Corey Crawford has been almost as good, but has a tendency to give up the occasional very bad goal. Quick leads the playoffs in goals-against average, save percentage and shutouts and it’s not that close. EDGE: Kings
SPECIAL TEAMS: The Blackhawks have been as close to perfect on the penalty kill as you can get in the playoffs – allowing just one goal in 21 games and perfection in seven games at the United Center. Both teams have been proficient, but not spectacular, on the power play, which is curious given the high-end offensive talent each of them can throw over the boards when a penalty is called. EDGE: Chicago
PREDICTION: Neither team has much of an advantage when it comes to being rested, since both went the distance in their series and were taxed to the limit by very tough outs in the second round. This should be another classic, heavyweight bout where the teams will trade blows, both literally and figuratively, for seven games. The Blackhawks have the better offensive talent, while the Kings are the superior team at keeping the puck out of their net. And they are the defending champions who will not go quietly into the night.
BLACKHAWKS IN 7