Sandwiched between the NBA playoffs and the unnecessarily long NFL draft process has been the outstanding 2014 NHL playoffs, which have once again managed to exceed expectations.
After a jaw-dropping opening salvo, the conference semifinals have been nothing short of identical quality.
This is especially the case in the Western Conference, where both series have seen the favorites exchange knockout blows, bounce off the ropes and swing for the fences again. In fact, both series started at 2-0, moved to 2-2 and have yet to secure an exhilarating finish.
Let's break down both series and pick the winners to what has been a classic half of the postseason bracket.
Los Angeles Kings vs. Anaheim Ducks
It is only fitting that a local rivalry has captured the imagination of a geographical space and morphed into a classic. Joseph D'Hippolito of The New York Times helps to set the scene: "There is a 30-mile stretch of Interstate 5 that separates the teams’ arenas, and two neighboring cities — Seal Beach in Orange County and Long Beach in Los Angeles County — highlighted the growing support for hockey in Southern California."
Los Angeles opened up the series in dramatic fashion with a 3-2 win in overtime, a fitting start for a team that had won four straight to come back from an 0-3 deficit against San Jose in the first round. The Kings kept that momentum alive with a 3-1 beatdown shortly after in Game 2.
The Anaheim Ducks won their first game of the series on the road (the home team has yet to win), 3-2, and ended the Los Angeles Kings' six-game winning streak. Anaheim pitched a shutdown in Game 4 to knot things up.
That Game 4 performance says a lot about how the series will turn out. Once widely cited issues in front of the net for Anaheim disappeared thanks to 20-year-old netminder John Gibson, who saved 28 shots in just his fourth NHL start.
Coach Bruce Boudreau has already confirmed the youngster will get another shot in Monday's critical matchup, per the Associated Press, via USA Today: "It's not a difficult decision (in Game 5). He came in. He played great. ... We knew L.A. hadn't seen him, so they probably wouldn't have a good scouting report on him."
Barring dramatic adjustments, it's hard to think the Kings will have an explosive answer. Considering the Ducks are on home ice in two out of the remaining three matchups and have discovered a potential rebuttal to their main weakness, expect to see the Ducks win Games 5 and 7 to advance to the Conference Finals.
Minnesota Wild vs. Chicago Blackhawks
It was Chicago that jumped out to the 2-0 mark at home in the other Western Conference tilt, only to see Minnesota tie things up in the next two games by outscoring the Blackhawks by a total of 8-2.
Chicago's stunned. Like it or not, the Blackhawks were not exactly expecting this from the Wild, a team they ran through in the first round a year ago on the way to winning the whole thing.
Tom Powers of the Pioneer Press puts it best:
The Blackhawks insist they are not surprised. ... Yet their play through the first four games sometimes indicated otherwise. The fact that this series will go at least six games, and most likely seven, seems to have been an unexpected occurrence for the defending Stanley Cup champions. After all, they easily handled Minnesota in the first round last season. And the Wild's current goaltending situation seems rather iffy.
The Wild's superb defense clearly flustered the Blackhawks in a big way away from home. Case in point: Chicago returned home for Game 5 and won, 2-1.
Perhaps that's a great thing for the Blackhawks considering the series ends in Chicago on Thursday, if not somehow earlier. It was predictably Jonathan Toews who came up in the clutch on Sunday night to break the tie in the third period, and he'll seemingly have to continue to break through the Wild defense for Chicago to win the series.
But it's no sure thing. Something is a bit off, even if the Blackhawks are coming off a victory. Look at this observation, via Mark Lazerus of the Chicago Sun-Times:
That's not to say the #Blackhawks can't win this game, this series, this Cup. But watch Wild and watch Hawks. Energy levels so different.— Mark Lazerus (@MarkLazerus) May 12, 2014
There was a point before Toews' heroics that the Blackhawks were getting booed in their own arena. The Wild are hungry. The Wild have a strong defense. The Wild can push this thing to seven games and pull off the upset after being written off when the matchup was created.
The only saving grace for Chicago at this point is the format. A 3-2 win with one more game at home means they'll slip away. But hopefully it serves as a major lesson to not overestimate any team when it comes to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.