The 2014 NHL playoffs have featured plenty of twists and turns with top contenders dropping like flies, but the stage is still set for a spectacular Stanley Cup Final.
Both conference finals series could still go in either direction as all four remaining teams have shown a great deal of resiliency all season. Regardless of which teams ultimately come out on top, the playoffs will unquestionably reach a thrilling conclusion.
Along with a look at the upcoming playoff schedule, here are the latest predictions for the Eastern and Western Conference Finals, along with a breakdown of the potential Stanley Cup Final.
NHL Playoffs Schedule
|Kings @ Blackhawks||WCF||2||Wednesday, May 21||8 p.m.||NBCSN|
|Canadiens @ Rangers||ECF||3||Thursday, May 22||8 p.m.||NBCSN|
|Blackhawks @ Kings||WCF||3||Saturday, May 24||8 p.m.||NBC|
|Canadiens @ Rangers||ECF||4||Sunday, May 25||8 p.m.||NBCSN|
|Blackhawks @ Kings||WCF||4||Monday, May 26||9 p.m.||NBCSN|
|Rangers @ Canadiens||ECF||5 (if necessary)||Tuesday, May 27||8 p.m.||NBCSN|
|Kings @ Blackhawks||WCF||5 (if necessary)||Wednesday, May 28||8 p.m.||NBCSN|
|Canadiens @ Rangers||ECF||6 (if necessary)||Thursday, May 29||8 p.m.||NBCSN|
|Blackhawks vs. Kings||WCF||6 (if necessary)||Friday, May 30||9 p.m.||NBCSN|
|Rangers @ Canadiens||ECF||7 (if necessary)||Saturday, May 31||8 p.m.||NBCSN|
|Kings @ Blackhawks||WCF||7 (if necessary)||Sunday, June 1||8 p.m.||NBCSN|
*Stanley Cup Finals schedule to be determined.
New York Rangers vs. Montreal Canadiens
The New York Rangers haven't reached the Stanley Cup Final since the 1993-94 season, but everything is working in their favor in terms of returning a decade later. The Rangers currently hold a 2-0 series lead over the Montreal Canadiens, but that may not be the biggest reason why they're heavily favored to advance.
During New York's 7-2 drubbing of Montreal in Game 1, Habs goalie Carey Price injured his knee when Rangers forward Chris Kreider came crashing into the crease following a slash from Canadiens defenseman Alexei Emelin. Price stayed in the game, but he was removed with Montreal trailing 3-1 at the start of the third period.
Unfortunately for Habs fans, it was later revealed that Price will miss the remainder of the Eastern Conference Finals, according to the team's official Twitter account:
"Carey Price will not be available tonight, nor for the rest of that series"-Michel Therrien— Canadiens Montréal (@CanadiensMTL) May 19, 2014
As pointed out by Daniel Friedman of WFAN, Price's absence means there is essentially no reason why the Blueshirts shouldn't win the series and advance to the Stanley Cup Final:
Carey Price is out for the rest of the series. If #NYR can't win this series, something is seriously broken.— Daniel Friedman (@DFriedmanOnNYI) May 19, 2014
New York took another step toward doing just that in Game 2 as it came back from a 1-0 deficit to win 3-1. Montreal turned to Dustin Tokarski in net rather than Peter Budaj. That decision ultimately didn't pay off as the Canadiens now travel to Madison Square Garden with their Stanley Cup hopes quickly fading.
It will be interesting to see how Canadiens head coach Michel Therrien handles the goaltending situation for the remainder of the series, but it may not even matter. A 2-0 hole is a big one to dig out of with Price on the shelf, so it is tough to imagine the Rangers relinquishing this lead.
The forgotten story in the this series is the fact that Rangers forward Rick Nash has a goal in each of the first two games after going scoreless in the first two rounds. With Nash rounding into form and Price out of action, New York should close this series out fairly quickly in five games.
Chicago Blackhawks vs. Los Angeles Kings
In their quest for a second consecutive Stanley Cup title, the Chicago Blackhawks took a 1-0 series lead over the Los Angeles Kings in the Western Conference Finals. The Blackhawks and Kings have won the past two Stanley Cups, so both teams know what it takes to be champions. Neither team won their division this season and they had their trials and tribulations, but both turned it on come playoff time.
That is especially true of goaltenders Corey Crawford and Jonathan Quick. Although Quick gets more accolades due to the fact that he captured the Conn Smythe two years ago, Crawford is proving to be just as good or perhaps even better. Crawford outdueled Quick in Game 1 and Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews believes he continues to improve as the postseason progresses, per 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.
Additionally, the Blackhawks have an incredible amount of depth throughout their lineup. The same can be said for the Kings, but with guys like Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp and others threatening to score at any moment, L.A. can't afford to let its guard down.
Chicago also happens to protect its home ice better than any team in the playoffs, as the Hawks have yet to lose at the United Center this postseason:
Blackhawks: only team to remain undefeated at home in postseason (7-0). Blackhawks: 8-0 in postseason when scoring game's 1st goal.— John Buccigross (@Buccigross) May 19, 2014
Another win at home in Game 2 would put a ton of pressure on the Kings, but it certainly wouldn't bury them. They have overcome two deficits in the playoffs already, including a 3-0 lead by the San Jose Sharks in the first round. The Kings are battle tested and they won't fold without putting up a fight.
The Blackhawks are more dynamic offensively, though, and with Crawford playing at such a high level they appear to have the advantage. With that in mind, look for Chicago to advance in six games.
Stanley Cup Final
In the event that the Rangers and Blackhawks reach the Stanley Cup Final, it will certainly be a major coup for American hockey. New York and Chicago are arguably the two most hockey-crazy markets in the United States. Add in the fact that the Rangers and Hawks are Original Six franchises and this is a potential series with a ton of appeal.
Which team will win the Stanley Cup?
The Blackhawks would unquestionably be tabbed as favorites due to the fact that they have a great deal of Stanley Cup experience. With that said, forwards Martin St. Louis and Brad Richards are two of New York's top contributors, and they won a Stanley Cup together with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2003-04.
Also, the Rangers would likely have the goaltending advantage with Henrik Lundqvist playing at an incredible level. If Crawford continues to play the way he is now, though, it may not be as big of an advantage in New York's favor as one might think.
The Blackhawks and Rangers are fairly evenly matched, so it may ultimately come down to intangibles. Both teams have shown a great deal of resolve in these playoffs, but Chicago has been there and done that on a couple previous occasions.
Because of that experience, the Blackhawks will find a way to win Lord Stanley's Cup once again in six games.
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