Appetizers have been wolfed down. Now it’s time for the main course: the conference semifinals of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The playing field has been sliced in half. Only eight teams remain in the postseason tournament, but the slope becomes increasingly steep from here on out. The competition becomes tougher, hits become bigger and goals become ever-so-important.
The smallest mistake could alter, let alone decide, a series.
The No. 1 seed in each conference remains intact in Pittsburgh and Chicago. On paper, the path to the Stanley Cup Final appears to be in their favor.
However, the opposition could prove challenging.
Pittsburgh eliminated the New York Islanders in six games, while Ottawa cruised past Montreal in five. Meanwhile, the New York Rangers and Boston Bruins triumphed in a pair of memorable Game 7 tilts to reach the second round.
Pittsburgh averages over four goals per game, while Ottawa is right behind with four per contest. Moreover, both clubs have had success on the power play. The Penguins have netted seven goals on the man advantage to the Senators’ six.
This series will come down to which stars will rise to the challenge.
The Penguins will need substantial efforts from their leading offensive weapons in Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and the recently acquired Jarome Iginla. The Senators, on the other hand, will need more contributions from forwards not named Daniel Alfredsson.
When it’s all said and done, the Penguins will ride their explosive offense and solid goaltending to the Eastern Conference Final in six games.
The other bout in the Eastern Conference features the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers—two Original Six teams.
For the Rangers to advance, they must find a way to contain David Krejci, who has 13 points (five goals and eight helpers). New York needs to stick to its game plan of solid goaltending and timely scoring to be effective in this series.
On the other hand, Boston will need to capitalize on the power play. Against Toronto in the first round, the Bruins tallied just three power-play goals on 20 chances.
In the end, the Bruins square off against the Penguins in the Eastern Conference Final.
In the Western Conference, the top-seeded Blackhawks will clash with the Detroit Red Wings, who knocked off the Anaheim Ducks in seven games. Chicago didn’t break a sweat against Minnesota in the first round, winning 4-1.
It appears Detroit’s age is finally catching up to it.
The Red Wings average 2.57 goals per game compared to the Blackhawks’ 3.40. The Blackhawks are allowing the fewest goals per contest to boot.
There’s a reason why Chicago was picked by many to hoist the Stanley Cup. The Blackhawks are young, explosive and big. They resemble a club of All-Star caliber. It's hard to imagine the Red Wings matching up with the Blackhawks' swiftness and youth.
Chicago won’t have a tough time defeating Detroit to reach the Western Conference Final.
The second matchup in the Western Conference semis features the San Jose Sharks, who swept Vancouver, and the reigning Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings, who, after being down 2-0 against the St. Louis Blues, won four straight to advance.
This series will be marked by intense, physical play.
The Kings will rely on the quickness of goaltender Jonathan Quick, who was brilliant against the Blues in the first round, and timely scoring from snipers Jeff Carter and Anze Kopitar.
The Sharks must be prepared for a brutal series. They must match the Kings’ aggressive style of play. Space will be tough to find and the San Jose forwards need to create multiple scoring chances because Quick doesn’t give up many goals.
When the final buzzer sounds, the reigning champs will play the Blackhawks in the Western Conference Final.