Thursday, May 14, 2015

Conference Finals preview

Twelve down, four to go. We’re on to the NHL’s conference finals, and if you’re at all confident that you know who’s going to the Stanley Cup finals, then you’re a much smarter fan than I am.

Luckily, the NHL has wisely given us the next two days to think about it, because honestly, who’d actually be in the mood for more hockey now? Instead, let’s all take a few days off to mull over the matchups, comb through the story lines, and come up with some predictions.

Will they be good predictions? No. That would take two months, minimum. But we’ll do the best with what we have. On to Round 3 …

Western Conference: Anaheim Ducks vs. Chicago Blackhawks

Series starts: Sunday afternoon in Anaheim.

Season series: The Blackhawks took two out of the three games; the Ducks never managed to score more than one goal in any of them.

Playoff history: They’ve never met before in the playoffs. But they did meet once in a movie, according to this image that’s shown up 400 times in your twitter feed this week.

Dominant narrative: Two teams that have both looked just about completely unbeatable face each other in a battle of the powerhouses.

In this corner: Chicago Blackhawks (48-28-6, 102 points, plus-34 goal differential)

How they got here: After a hard-fought win over the Predators in the opening round, the Hawks cruised to a surprisingly easy four-game sweep over a Wild team that we’d been led to believe was pretty good.

Conn Smythe candidate: Patrick Kane. Why is Kane so good in the playoffs? Old-school hockey wisdom tells us he shouldn’t be. After all, he’s a speed and skill guy, and while he’s not exactly soft, he’s never been confused for a power forward. Guys like that are supposed to fade in the playoffs, when every square foot of ice turns into a war zone. And yet Kane seems to get even better during the postseason, especially in close games. What’s the secret? Is it the mullet? It’s probably the mullet.

Wakey-wakey: Marian Hossa. Counting back to last year, it’s now been 23 games since Hossa scored on a goaltender in the playoffs. He’s still productive — of his seven assists this spring, six have been the primary — and he’s so good defensively that the Blackhawks don’t necessarily need him to score goals. But he usually does, and when the puck finally does start going in for him, a stacked Chicago roster gets even scarier.

The big question: Which Corey Crawford shows up? In the first round, Crawford struggled and lost his job to backup Scott Darling, who eventually struggled and handed it back. In the second round, Crawford was excellent. Maybe you look at him as a guy who needed a wake-up call in Round 1 and is now locked in and ready to win another Cup, but I’m still a little nervous if I’m a Blackhawks fan.

Health watch: Defenseman Michal Rozsival broke his ankle on this play which I cannot implore you strongly enough not to watch. He’s done for the year, and perhaps beyond. Kris Versteeg is day-to-day.

Key number: 72.7 percent — The Blackhawks’ penalty-killing efficiency in both the first and second round. You always like for your special teams to be consistent, but you’d prefer they weren’t consistently bad. It wasn’t enough to cost the Hawks against the uneven Predators and the overmatched Wild, but the Ducks could be a different story. In what projects to be a physical series, power plays will be crucial — Chicago will need to be much better at killing them off.

Bandwagon status: They’re on the verge of a mini dynasty and a hell of a fun team to watch, but the bandwagon already filled up and left the station during the regular season. Check back this summer after the salary cap dismantles half the team; we should have some vacancies then.

They win this series if: Crawford doesn’t implode, they sort out the penalty kill, and the Hawks’ best players can at least match the Ducks’ best.

And in this corner: Anaheim Ducks (51-24-7, 109 points, plus-7 goal differential)

How they got here: They swept the Jets in Round 1, and had only slightly more trouble knocking off the Flames in five in Round 2. They really, really hate heartwarming underdogs that used to be in Atlanta.

Conn Smythe candidate: Corey Perry, bless his punchable little face, has been on fire, racking up seven goals and 15 points in just nine games. He left the final game against the Flames with what looked like a nasty leg injury after being clipped, and then came back in time to score the series winner in overtime.

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