Burning Questions for the 2014 NHL Conference Finals
With the third round of the NHL playoffs in full swing, there are some obvious questions to ask.
The answers are for the readers to decide for themselves.
The beauty of burning questions is that either side of the coin could come up in the end, so like the teams vying for their respective conference finals, you've got about a 50-50 shot at coming out on top of your argument.
Be safe and have fun with the debates.
*All stats via NHL.com
Can the Habs Overcome the Injury to Carey Price?
It's not out of the realm of possibility that the Montreal Canadiens can come back from a 2-0 series deficit after losing the first two on home ice against the New York Rangers, but it sure is unlikely—especially without their season and playoff MVP Carey Price between the pipes.
Price was THE biggest reason the Canadiens got to the Eastern Conference Finals in the first place and why some people expected them to have a clear-cut path to the Stanley Cup Final. Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist might have had something to say about that "easy route," but without Price, the Habs are minus the biggest game-breaker on the team.
To come back from a couple of games in the hole with three of the next five contests being played in New York, the Canadiens will need a goalie to help steal at least one of those. Price was capable, but Dustin Tokarski and Peter Budaj don't inspire the same confidence.
The Canadiens carried the play in Game 2 but still came away with the loss. The reason? The other team's goalie. That's not going to happen to the Rangers.
Did Chris Kreider Intentionally Hurt Price?
Here's the followup question, and the answer changes depending on which team you ask.
Is it a good thing for the Rangers that Price is out for the series? Absolutely. So cop TV aficionados can suggest motive if they want.
Really, though, at such a high speed and with the intention of scoring on a fast break between two defenders, could Kreider have decided he'd try to injure the Canadiens' best player in a fraction of a second, tip his body in the perfect missile form and then make sure he caught Price's leg against the post?
It's easy to understand the Habs' outrage and need to place blame, via CBC's Tim Wharnsby, but there's a difference between a guy going hard to the net with the intent to do damage and a guy going hard to the net with the intention of scoring.
Is There a More Intriguing Postgame Interview Than Darryl Sutter?
There are long seconds of silence, sarcasm, moments of frustration (for reporters) and instances of fear (also reporters), and then there are times when the Alberta rancher shows he has a sense of humor—like when he talks about the team having to share a hotel with a Star Trek convention, this via L.A. Kings Insider Jon Rosen, and then gives away his age while mentioning his players are clueless when it comes to those men in tights.
Having Los Angeles Kings head coach Darryl Sutter in the final four is entertaining because you never know what you're going to get. He was oozing sarcasm when he declared Anaheim Ducks goalie John Gibson the best ever and writers had a field day. But if you ask a yes or no question, you're guaranteed to get a yes or no answer—or be ignored altogether.
Having covered Sutter from the trenches when he was head coach and then general manager of the Calgary Flames for a number of seasons, I've seen the full spectrum of his on-and-off personality.
If your network isn't broadcasting his podium appearances, find them online.
Will Toews or Kane Finish with More Game-Winning Goals?
The Chicago Blackhawks are blessed with not one but two clutch players who have more game-winning goals between them in these playoffs than all but one player has regular goals.
The captain, Jonathan Toews, has four of them. The playmaker, Patrick Kane, has three. The Blackhawks have won nine games through the three rounds so far. Yup, that is about 77 percent of the team's winning goals (44 percent for Toews and 33 percent for Kane). Defenseman Duncan Keith and winger Brandon Saad have scored the other winners to this point.
To put those numbers in perspective, two other semifinalists have a pair of players with more than one game-winning goal, but none combine for more than 50 percent of their team's total winners. Derick Brassard (2) and Brad Richards (2) make up 40 percent of the New York Rangers' most important scores in 10 victories. Dale Weise (2) and Max Pacioretty (2) count for 50 percent of the winners in the Montreal Canadiens' eight triumphs.
That probably doesn't mean anything in terms of Stanley Cup predictions—you could argue the scoring of these big goals is better when it's spread around the lineup—but it makes for a fun side bet on Toews and Kane.
Two of Kane's three have been in overtime, so maybe he gets bonus points.
Is Rick Nash Really Officially out of His Funk?
Here's a puzzling topic: Rick Nash scores one goal in 25 playoff games over two springs and the hockey world is declaring him to be washed up and awaiting his retirement. He scores in back-to-back games and he's back?
He probably wasn't playing as poorly as his lack of goalscoring indicated over the stretch of the "slump," and he isn't suddenly the game-breaker he was previous to that, either. The truth almost always lies somewhere in the middle.
That said, the 29-year-old is at his best when he's playing with confidence and shooting to score rather than just get a shot to the net in hopes it goes in—not a quantifiable stat but something the athletes like to refer to as gripping the stick too tightly, or trying to do too much.
With a game-winner under his belt, reporters off his back and probably a lucky stick he'll remain loyal to until the next goal drought, Nash could be deadly against whoever is playing goal for the Montreal Canadiens the rest of the series.
Is Corey Crawford an Elite Goalie Yet?
If a .933 save percentage, 1.90 goals-against average and nine wins in these playoffs aren't elite numbers, I don't know what are.
Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford's save percentage is just a tenth of a percent below league leader Henrik Lundqvist of the Rangers. Crawford's GAA is marginally better than Lundqvist's. None of the remaining two goalies in the postseason is anywhere near that consistency this spring.
He was a huge part of the Blackhawks' championship run a year ago but still hasn't gained the respect of many members of the public and media.
Ben Strauss of The New York Times tells a great story of one of those "reformed" doubters from Chicago, who has since come around on Crawford's status.
Forward Patrick Sharp also finds himself defending his goalie in that article—something he's getting tired of doing:
The last couple of seasons I’ve been answering questions about Corey and saying the same thing over and over and over again. It was annoying for a while, but now it’s just ridiculous that people keep questioning him.
There's your answer, folks.
Which Trade Deadline Pickup Is Having the Biggest Impact?
Canadiens winger Thomas Vanek has struggled recently, but defenseman Mike Weaver has thrived in Montreal this spring. Marian Gaborik is leading the Kings—and the entire NHL—in goals so far in the postseason.
But Martin St. Louis has been more than just an offensive leader for the Rangers. He's been a locker-room inspiration.
So, which of the newcomers has made the biggest difference for his team? It's got to be St. Louis, for the complete package he's brought to the Rangers.
The team has rallied around him for reasons outside of hockey with the tragic passing of his mother, but you can't trivialize what St. Louis has helped cement in New York just with that singular sad event. The veteran speaks in the room and everyone listens. He and fellow former Tampa Bay Lightning sniper Brad Richards are guiding the Rangers toward the Stanley Cup Final with their words and actions on the ice.
St. Louis has three goals and four points in his last four games and leads the team with 11 points in 16 games. His effort and plight isn't lost on fans, either, who are buying up his jerseys at an incredible rate, according to Steve Zipay of Newsweek.
Gaborik is a close second, but if you remove him from the lineup, the Kings would probably still be in the third round of the playoffs. I don't think you can say the same of St. Louis.
Who Are the Favorites for the Conn Smythe Trophy?
You can definitely make a case for some of the players already mentioned in this slideshow. St. Louis, Gaborik, Crawford, Kane, Toews and Lundqvist are definitely all in the mix with plenty of hockey remaining.
You can throw dark horses Brad Richards and Marian Hossa in there, as well as some of the other favorites like Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar, P.K. Subban and pre-injury Carey Price.
Out of that lengthy list of eligible candidates, a few stand out as the most likely to take the Conn Smythe at the end of the final round: Lundqvist, Toews, Kopitar and Subban.
For all that St. Louis has done for the Rangers, Lundqvist is the key to their stability and he leads all goaltenders with a .934 save percentage so far. Subban is the fire that drives the Canadiens and will have to be even more prominent with Price out. The Blackhawks' Toews is simply the most impressive two-way player in the game, but he is rivaled by the less heralded Kopitar of the Kings. Kopitar's 19 points and plus-seven rating lead the NHL at the moment. Toews has 11 points and a plus-six rating.
Do the Eastern Conference Champs Stand a Chance in the Cup Final?
OK, I'm half kidding on this one. The Western Conference was littered with spectacular teams this season. Six teams finished with more than 100 points, and four of those had at least 111. The Eastern Conference wasn't nearly as strong—or tough.
You could make a case that either the Blackhawks or the Kings will be a tired and beat-up team based on the quality of competition en route to the Stanley Cup Final. That's about the only argument I'll buy when it comes to betting on either the Rangers or the Canadiens to sip from the Stanley Cup at season's end.
The Rangers and Canadiens both fared relatively well against the Kings and Blackhawks during the regular season, but over a seven-game series, the size and speed of the defending champs and 2011 Cup winners will wear down either opponent.
Of course, that's what so many said about the Boston Bruins...and they're golfing.
Steve Macfarlane has been covering the NHL for more than a decade, including seven seasons for the Calgary Sun. You can follow him on Twitter @MacfarlaneHKY.
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