Separating the Men From the Boys

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By Greg Hudson
 
As the Conference Finals roll around, it’s crunch time. It’s the business end of the playoffs and it’s the time when the players with the goods to deliver need to take the driver’s seat.
 
Insert another dozen cliches and you’ll sound just like the average New York sports fan who couldn’t name the Rangers’ second line but is a diehard Blueshirts fan come playoff season, dusting off the old Messier shirt to watch his team take on the challenge of a race for the Stanley Cup.
 
Cliches are common – perhaps too common – but the reason for their over-use is the fact that there’s truth to their meaning. While it isn’t quite time for “champions being made, not born,” it IS time to separate the men from the boys.
 
Eastern Conference – Montreal Canadiens v. New York Rangers
 
There are a lot of good men in this matchup. Habs boast the hardest-shooting man left in the playoffs in P.K. Subban, and perhaps the most under-rated goaltender in the National Hockey League: Carey Price. Max Pacioretty has come up big in tight games and scored pivotal goals this post-season, and the hard-hitting duo of Tomas Plekanec and David Desharnais have helped lead a devastating forecheck that even the tight-run Bruins defense couldn’t cope with.
 
But with all those strengths, the Rangers have a definitive edge in this series. And while a fair portion of that edge is due to the blinding form from tender Henrik Lundqvist, the real key to the Rangers’ edge is their belief. They have real he-men buried in the lineup, from the courage of Martin St. Louis carrying on after the sudden passing of his mother, to the physical toughness and work ethic of Carl Hagelin, to the determination of Rick Nash to find ways to contribute even when he wasn’t putting the biscuit in the basket. The Rangers put themselves against the wall against Pittsburgh but their rally has given them a surge of belief, and it’s visible watching them play.
 
The men: New York Rangers
The boys: Montreal Canadiens
 
Western Conference – Chicago Blackhawks v. Los Angeles Kings
 
When you look at this matchup it’s easy to understand why many hockey analysts believe that the winner of this series will hoist the Stanley Cup. These two teams have won three of the last four Cups, and it’s clear why. Chicago has perhaps the single best lineup in the National Hockey League, while the Kings bring an irresistible style and quality that even the best of teams can’t cope with.
 
Chicago is a team stacked with talent. They play hard, they play rough, they play tough, and they make you play their game if you want to beat them. They’re a team full of men, and the boys in the team quickly learn the way. They go into the Conference Finals with an undefeated record at home in the postseason this year and with home ice advantage, it should give them an edge in the series.
 
But like the Minnesota Wild, the L.A. Kings have just the right mix of quality, speed, and creativity to really give the Blackhawks a run for their money. And perhaps most importantly in this series, unlike Minnesota, the Kings don’t consider the Blackhawks a superior team. They aren’t afraid of falling behind in the series, or of having to win on the road. Both the Kings’ first two rounds went to game seven, and the Kings won both of those games away from home. But the real reason you can’t count the Kings out (no, it isn’t just Jonathon Quick, although he’ll be very important) is the fact that they play well under pressure. This postseason the Kings have played six win-or-go-home games, and won all of them, by mostly comfortable margins. If the Blackhawks don’t bring their A-Game for all 60 minutes of every game in this series, they won’t play for a chance to defend the Cup. That being said, if they do bring the A-Game, it will take a Jonathon Quick miracle to keep the tribe out of the Cup Finals.
 
The men: Los Angeles Kings
The boys: Chicago Blackhawks

Stanley Cup Playoffs: First Round Drama

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By Greg Hudson

The first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs have been some of the most hard-fought series’ in recent memory, and three of the eight first-round matchups head to a 7th game, to be played Wednesday night. Let’s take a look at each matchup and predict a winner.
Rangers/Flyers
These two teams are the epitome of the multi-sport, across-the-board rivalry between New York and Philly. Both teams and both sets of fans absolutely despise the other side, and this carries into baseball, football, and if men’s beach volleyball had teams there, you know their fans would hate the other team too.
But this series has been full of more than cheap shots and power plays. It’s been a series of two good teams hungry for a chance at Cup glory, and just as in the regular season, the Rangers and Flyers have traded wins, the Rangers winning games one, three, and five, and the Flyers taking games two, four, and six.
The difference-maker in this series has been the replacement of Ray Emery with Steve Mason in the Philly goal after game three. Since then the Flyers have won two of three games, having lost two of the first three games.
But both of those wins came on home ice, and game seven is at Madison Square Garden, where the Rangers’ faithful will be full of noise and energy. Added to this, the Rangers have been here before, since their last two playoff series victories have been in game seven.
Prediction: Rangers win it 3-1 or 4-2.
Avalanche/Wild
Few would have predicted that a team with such low goal-scoring would last six games against the juggernaut Avalanche, but make no mistake: the Wild have more than held their own.
For me, as a neutral, this series has been the most fun to watch because the
games have been so close. Four of the six games played have been decided by a single goal, with three of those games ending in overtime.
The fact that the Avalanche have been pushed so hard by Minnesota seems to have rattled a few in the Colorado ranks, most notably their stalwart goaltender Semyon Varlomov, who has given up 3 or more goals in three of 6 games.
Meanwhile, the Wild came into this series taking nothing for granted, but also entirely unafraid of playing a team with better players. They’ve matched Colorado step for step in most major categories, and their composure has gotten them to an unlikely game seven. Composure in Denver tonight might well get them to the second round against Chicago.
Prediction: Wild win it, 4-3 in OT
Sharks/Kings
I’ll admit it. I went to bed after the first period in game two of this series having watched the Kings thorough outplay the Sharks en route to a 2-0 lead after the first 20 minutes, a brilliant response to their 6-3 thumping by San Jose the night before.
When I woke up and turned on Sports Center the next morning and saw the Kings didn’t score again and that the final score was 7-2 San Jose, I said to myself “That’s it, they’re finished.”
But the fact that they weren’t finished has been overshadowed by the fact that they are now the favorites to win it. The Sharks eased to a 2-0 lead in the series and then pushed the Kings to the brink of elimination with a 4-3 overtime win in game three, but that third loss seems to have sparked the Kings into life.
The L.A. boys have won the last three games, each by three goals: a 6-3 reversal of their game one defeat, a 3-0 shutout that has re-affirmed the Kings’ faith in stopper Jonathon Quick, who at times looked like an amateur in net in the first two games of the series, and a 4-1 game six win to send the series back up the coast to San Jose for game seven.
The pressure is now back on the Sharks, who looked to have this one in the bag and are desperately searching for answers in the hopes of keeping the Kings from becoming just the fifth team in the history of American sports to rally from 3-0 down to win a best-of-seven series.
Prediction: Kings take it 5-2.

 

 

Stanley Cup Playoff Second Round Preview: Bruins v Canadiens

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By Greg Hudson
 
There are few forms of hate more vicious than the hatred between the Habs and the Bruins, particularly when the teams meet in the playoffs, an occurrence which is fast becoming a mainstay in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The two teams will meet for their sixth postseason series in the past 11 seasons, and with the quality and temper on both benches, this matchup has explosive potential.
 
The Bruins impressed in their 4-1 series win over Detroit, with goaltender Tukka Rask earning special plaudits for his outstanding work in front of the net, allowing just 6 goals in the series. Milan Lucic netted three times, and stalwart defender Zdeno Chara chipped in with two goals of his own.
 
But Chara and his defensive partners will need to be on high-alert against a fast-paced Montreal team that made short work of the highly-touted Tampa Bay Lightning, shutting down star attacker Steven Stamkos for most of the series and finding a way to win close games en route to a 4-0 series sweep. Rene Borque and Brendan Gallagher each contributed three goals, while Dale Weise and Max Pacioretty provided late-game heroics with their only goals of the series.
 
The key matchup in this series is set to be between Rask and Habs ‘tender Carey Price. Rask is 3-10-3 in his career against Montreal, but Price allowed six third-period goals in the four games against Tampa, which could well play into Boston’s hands if they can maintain a solid fore check into the final 20 minutes of play.
 
Prediction: Boston in 6. Habs will be tough to beat in Montreal, but the B’s are just too much for Carey Price to handle over a 7-game series.