After each took respective 3-1 series lead, a New York Rangers and Los Angeles Kings Stanley Cup Final seemed a foregone conclusion. With Game 5 wins, however, the Montreal Canadiens and Chicago Blackhawks have now shifted the pressure back on the teams seeking a closeout win on home ice.
The Habs and Blackhawks have proven resilient in erasing deficits earlier this postseason. Montreal came back to beat the heavily favored Bruins despite trailing 3-2, and Chicago bounced back after dropping the first two games of their first-round series against St. Louis.
Thus, in reality, it was foolish to count either team out. Both series have seen tightly contested games, and neither Montreal nor Chicago figures to go away quietly. With that in mind, here's a critical key each team must execute for an opportunity to play for the Cup.
Rangers: Get Lundqvist Back on Track
For the majority of this postseason, Henrik Lundqvist has flashed the form that won him the Vezina Trophy back in 2012. However, after allowing four goals in Game 5, Lundqvist was pulled as the Rangers nearly came back to steal the clincher at the Bell Centre.
The Rangers netminder has been rock solid for nearly the entire duration of this series, as Game 3 was the only other contest in which he allowed more than two goals. Nevertheless, with the spotlight on him after a horrific performance, Lundqvist seemed ornery to the media:
Lundqvist testy: “All of you keep asking about the last game but I don’t think about the last game. I think about tonight.” #NYR— Pat Leonard (@PLeonardNYDN) May 29, 2014
Of all New York's problems, Lundqvist ranks near the bottom of the list. Montreal has dominated play since the latter stages of Game 4, playing a wide-open style and holding the majority of the puck possession. But Lundqvist must at least give the Blueshirts a chance to win, a standard he nearly always meets.
Canadiens: Ramp Up Aggressive Defense
Montreal is one of the fastest teams in the league, but it seems as though the Habs did not realize that fact until mid-series. The Canadiens' defensemen have been noticeably more aggressive in pinching down into the offensive zone and generating longer possessions and more scoring chances.
Andrei Markov and P.K. Subban put tremendous pressure on the Rangers in Game 5 and, though neither scored, they have made their way onto the score sheet in every game since the middle of the series:
With the Canadiens' forwards doing a good job of tracking back, Montreal has found a nice harmony between offensive aggression and defensive responsibility. With huge contributions from 20-year-old forward Alex Galchenyuk, the Habs may have finally concocted the offensive formula to beat Lundqvist.
Kings: Tighten Up
The Kings have predicated their recent run of postseason success on strong defensive hockey. However, in conceding five goals to the Blackhawks in Game 5, Los Angeles played one of its sloppiest games since falling behind 3-0 to San Jose in the first round. The pairing of Slava Voynov and Willie Mitchell, solid for much of the postseason, had an especially rough time handling the puck during the loss:
Voynov and Mitchell takes turns misplaying the puck in their own zone. Kings going to have to make it into a track meet to end it.— Dennis Bernstein (@DennisTFP) May 29, 2014
If there's a silver lining for Los Angeles, it's that the Blackhawks' top lines failed to score until Michal Handzus' overtime winner. The Kings have been able to roll four lines throughout the season and— though some may question using that strategy in overtime—they should be fresher than Chicago, who played its top guns heavy minutes in the elimination game.
However, that will have little relevance if Los Angeles does not do a better job in their own defensive zone. Los Angeles has flustered Corey Crawford throughout the series, and a little support for Jonathan Quick should send them through to the Final.
Blackhawks: Stay 5-on-5
The Blackhawks are typically among the best special teams units in the league, but have given up barrages of goals this series due to an inability to stay out of the penalty box. Moreover, the Hawks have had a poor power play, leading to a huge disparity in special teams:
Kings have four power-play goals in the last three games. Blackhawks allowed four power-play goals in first 13 playoff games.— ESPN Chicago (@ESPNChiHawks) May 27, 2014
Chicago was able to somewhat reverse that trend in Game 5, as they scored their first goal on the extra-man advantage while also killing off all three Kings' power plays. Nevertheless, the Blackhawks have held the edge in five-on-five play for much of the series, especially since Joel Quenneville paired Brent Seabrook and Johnny Oduya together to provide an offensive burst.
Despite long lapses in defensive discipline, the Blackhawks have the talent and pedigree to pull off the 3-1 series comeback. Los Angeles has carried the play so far, but Chicago is one road win away from potentially stealing back the Western Conference crown and returning to the Final for the second consecutive season.