The 2014 NHL playoffs have reached the conference finals, and it's time for the top standouts on the four remaining squads to take over each respective series.
The road to the Stanley Cup has been thrilling through the first two rounds of the playoffs. Four teams have outlasted the rest of the field. The Montreal Canadiens, New York Rangers, Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings are still in the hunt for the Cup, and the top stars on each team will be the ones who dictate the outcome of the remaining games.
Which players should you expect to step up for their teams in the conference finals?
There are so many to keep track of, but keep your eye on the following three players.
P.K. Subban, Montreal Canadiens
P.K. Subban has been a revelation for the Montreal Canadiens. Always a quality player, Subban has transformed himself into a star with his showing these past several weeks.
The Boston Bruins slowed him down a bit after their physical play got to him, but the Rangers don't offer that same physicality on that end of the ice. Subban should be able to exploit the holes in the defense and rack up a few points.
Subban's contributions during the playoffs have lifted the Habs' offense to new heights. They averaged 2.55 goals per game in the regular season. That total has increased to 3.27 as a result of his play in the playoffs.
Without Subban, the Canadiens would not have upset the Bruins or gotten past the Tampa Bay Lightning. His quick shot and explosiveness near the net has been just what Montreal has needed.
Brad Richards, New York Rangers
The Rangers were dynamic in Game 1, defeating Montreal by a score of 7-2. Four of those goals were scored against Carey Price in the first two periods, but Rangers star Brad Richards told NBC Sports that he knows that they'll face a tougher test in Game 2, via Yahoo! Sports: "We’re going to see a whole different team tomorrow night and we’re expecting a big push from them."
A former Stanley Cup MVP, Richards has become rejuvenated under head coach Alain Vigneault. No longer is Richards used in shot-blocking sets or things of that nature. Vigneault uses him on the attack and in goal-scoring situations.
This allows Richards to both rack up the goals and assists. With Richards thriving and tallying point after point, the Rangers are in good shape against the Canadiens.
His bond with teammates is something that makes him truly special. Larry Brooks of the New York Post points to a one special bond that Richards has made:
His ability to make everyone around him better is what really makes him special. Richards is no longer the player he was a few seasons ago, but the veteran forward is smart and knows how to put his teammates in positions to succeed.
It's nice to see a long-term commitment by the Rangers actually paying off.
Corey Crawford, Chicago Blackhawks
Corey Crawford has been the stabilizing force for a Blackhawks team that isn't always acknowledged for its defense. Captain Jonathan Toews points to Crawford as a big reason for the team's success, via Shannon Ryan of the Chicago Tribune:
(Crawford) just keeps getting better and better. As a team you want to keep raising your level of play as sometimes the stage gets bigger and bigger. If there's anyone who's doing that it's (Crawford). Whether it was big penalty kills or protecting leads in tough situations late in games, he just seems to get better and better.
After two not-so-good games against the Minnesota Wild in the previous series, Crawford has stepped it up. His team was up 2-0 in the series before the Wild stormed back to score four goals in consecutive games to tie the series. How did Crawford answer? He allowed one goal in each of the next two games.
The Kings have a stalwart in net of their own in Jonathan Quick, and Crawford will have to match him save-for-save if he wants to win. The Kings have a strong defense, so pushing a goal or two past Quick might be all Chicago gets.
With that being the case, Crawford will need to be on his game.