NEW YORK RANGERS VERSUS MONTREAL CANADIENS
Nothing has come easy for the New York Rangers this season and that certainly hasn’t changed in the playoffs. They just barely scraped by the Philadelphia Flyers and then Pittsburgh Penguins in the first and second rounds respectively.
The Rangers' offense hasn’t been the best in the playoffs and they’ve been particularly ineffective with the man advantage. And yet they’ve come this far thanks in large part to goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.
He’s been the team’s best player so far with a 1.99 GAA and .931 save percentage in 14 starts. Against the Penguins he only surrendered more than two goals in a single contest and he was particularly dominant in both series’ Game 7.
The Rangers are counting on him to maintain that level going into the Eastern Conference Final against the formable Montreal Canadiens, although history isn’t on his side there. He has a career 2.85 GAA and .897 save percentage against the Canadiens, making them the team he’s had the least success against.
On top of that, Montreal’s offense has been on fire during the playoffs. The Canadiens have gotten at least four goals in 11 games from five different players (Thomas Vanek, P.K. Subban, Lars Eller, Brendan Gallagher, and Rene Bourque) and have been averaging nearly a goal per contest more than New York in the postseason. Subban also leads the defenseman scoring race with 12 points in 11 contests.
What makes that all more impressive is the fact that the Canadiens have largely accomplished that without major contributions from Max Pacioretty, who led the team with 39 goals in the regular season. Pacioretty has been picking up steam lately though, making Montreal’s attack that much more intimidating.
The New York Rangers have to hope that Rick Nash starts producing soon too. He hasn’t found the back of the net in the 2014 postseason despite firing a league-high 52 shots on goal.
“He’s in a little bit of a funk right now, as far as finding ways to put the puck in the net,” Vigneault said, per the Toronto Star. “But the looks are there. And we all believe — and I hope he believes the same thing — that as soon as one goes in, more are gonna go in.”
A Nash breakout alone might be enough to put the Rangers over the edge. As it is though, they have shown a lot of perseverance and with Lundqvist playing at his best, they could end up frustrating the Canadiens. Montreal is a great team and this series could go either way, but after years of the Rangers coming up short in the playoffs, I think they will finally make it back to the Stanley Cup Final. I'm taking them over Montreal in six.
Ryan McDonagh-Dan Girardi
Henrik Lundqvist has been dominant in the playoffs with a 1.99 GAA and .931 save percentage in 14 starts. He allowed just one goal in each of Games 5-7 of the Rangers' second-round series against Pittsburgh.
Derick Brassard has three goals and four points in his last three games.
Rick Nash hasn't scored a single goal in 14 playoff games. He has just two goals in 30 career postseason contests.
Ryan McDonagh has three points and is tied for the team-low with a minus-five rating in 14 games.
Henrik Lundqvist hasn't won a game in Montreal's Bell Center since 2009. He has a career 3.87 GAA and .876 save percentage in Montreal.
Current Rangers coach Alain Vigneault started his career as a bench boss in Montreal. He had a 109-118-35-4 record in parts of four seasons with the Canadiens before he was replaced by current Montreal head coach Michel Therrien.
This is New York's second trip to the Eastern Conference Final in three seasons.
The Rangers have converted on 10.9% of their power-play opportunities, which ranks dead last among the teams that are still alive.
P.K. Subban has stepped up in the playoffs with four goals and 12 points in 11 games.
Max Pacioretty is starting to get hot after a rough start to the postseason. He has two goals and four points in his last three contests.
David Desharnais has just five points in 11 playoff games, although he's started to turn a corner with assists in each of his last two matches.
Tomas Plekanec is going through a mini-slump with an assist and minus-one rating in his last four games.
Alex Galchenyuk (knee) has been given the green light to participate in contact drills, but should still be regarded as doubtful for Game 1.
This is the first time the Montreal Canadiens have made it to the Eastern Conference Final since they won the Stanley Cup in 1993. Incidentally, this is also the longest stretch Montreal has endured between Stanley Cup championships since the NHL's inaugural season in 1917-18.
Montreal has scored an NHL-leading 3.3 goals per game in the playoffs and have only allowed three goals in the first period of their contests.
They have been deadly with the lead, winning all seven of their games where they scored first. They are also 6-0 when leading after one period and 7-1 with the lead going into the third frame.
CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS VERSUS LOS ANGELES KINGS
For the second straight series, the Chicago Blackhawks will face a team they vanquished in their 2013 Stanley Cup championship run. Last time it was the Minnesota Wild and this time it’s a rematch of the 2013 Western Conference Final.
Chicago managed to best the Kings in five games last time, but that doesn’t mean the series was one-sided. Neither team won a game with more than a two-goal edge. Chicago also had to take the Kings to double-overtime to win Game 5.
This time around, the Kings might be even more dangerous. First off, they’ve been superb in the clutch, as demonstrated when they overcame a 3-0 series deficit against the San Jose Sharks and 3-2 deficit versus the Anaheim Ducks.
That being said, the Sharks and Ducks haven’t been particularly successful in the postseason in recent years while the Kings have become very familiar with how to win. They won’t have that edge against Chicago.
The Blackhawks, like Los Angeles, are a team that can thrive when the pressure's on. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are two of the best big-game players in the league. Throw in star forwards Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp along with a solid bottom-six, great defense, and battle-tested goaltender in Corey Crawford and it immediately becomes apparent why Chicago is a serious contender to win the Stanley Cup for the second straight season.
Los Angeles isn’t short on weapons in their arsenal though. If Kane and Toews have been the best clutch players in the 2014 playoffs, then Kings forwards Anze Kopitar and Marian Gaborik have been the biggest all-around offensive threats. The two have combined for a remarkable 14 goals and 34 points in 14 playoff contests. To put that into context, Chicago’s top three scoring forwards – Kane, Toews, and Hossa – have combined for 13 goals and 31 points in 12 games.
Oddly enough, the Kings weakness might be goaltender Jonathan Quick. The term “weakness” is being used liberally as Los Angeles doesn’t have any glaring holes, but he hasn’t been the lights out goaltender we’ve seen in previous campaigns. He has been great when it’s mattered the most, but he’s also endured some rough patches in this playoff run. He has a 2.72 GAA and .914 save percentage in 14 contests, which is significantly down from the postseason numbers he put up in 2012 and 2013.
Los Angeles will need him to be at his best in order to mitigate the Blackhawks’ attack. In a series that figures to be very tight, every player has the potential to be the hero or the goat. At the end of the day, Chicago looks a bit deeper though and has been the more consistent team in the playoffs. I’m taking them to win again, although this time they should need at least six games.
Marian Hossa is ahead of both of them though in points with 11 in 12 postseason contests.
Although Patrick Sharp has started to come out of his slump, he still has just two goals and four assists in 12 contests.
It's a bit unfair because he's only 22 and has limited NHL experience, but Joakim Nordstrom is tied for the team-low with his minus-four rating despite having played in just seven of Chicago's 12 contests. He has no points and six shots on goal.
Andrew Shaw (lower body) missed most of the second round, but he's projected to start skating very soon and could even rejoin the Blackhawks early in the Western Conference Final.
Chicago has now advanced to the Western Conference Final in four of its last six seasons. Since 2009, only three teams have eliminated them: Detroit, Vancouver, and Phoenix.
The Blackhawks have killed 91.3% of their penalties, which is good for first place in the league.
Anze Kopitar has a league-leading 19 points in 14 playoff games and is on a three-game point streak.
Marian Gaborik is also riding a three-game scoring streak and leads the NHL with nine goals in 14 contests.
Dustin Brown had just two assists in the Kings' seven-game second-round series against the Anaheim Ducks.
Although not really cold, Drew Doughty has slowed down from an offensive perspective. He had two assists in the second round after recording seven points in the opening series.
Willie Mitchell (undisclosed) skated with the Kings on Friday, but wasn't able to join the team for Game 7. He might be close to returning at this point though.
Fellow blueliner Robyn Regehr has also been sidelined with an undisclosed injury. He hasn't played since May 3.
The Los Angeles Kings are now 8-1 in playoff series since Darryl Sutter took over as the Kings' head coach. He has also guided them to at least the Western Conference Final in each of his first three seasons with the team.
The only team that's been able to beat the Kings under Sutter has been the Chicago Blackhawks. As mentioned above, Chicago beat them in five games in 2013 en route to the Blackhawks' Stanley Cup championship.