The Glass Eye: NHL Playoff Preview, Eastern Conference Finals

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Wow, who saw THAT coming?? Two big upsets – and both via incredible comebacks – leave the mighty Bruins and Penguins searching for answers, while the Canadiens and Rangers face off for the right to play for the Cup. I’ll have more on Pittsburgh’s problems next week, and I’ll preview the Western final in the next few days – but let’s take a look at how this series figures to play out.

FORWARDS

I’ve made no secret of my disdain for New York’s collection of forwards, with the exception of one line: the Brassard-Pouliot-Zuccarello line. They have been effective at both ends throughout the playoffs. Having said that, on a high-powered team they make a perfect #3 line…they do not have the scoring potential of a true #1 line.

The Rangers’ supposed #1 line of Nash, Stepan, and Kreider has been mediocre at best…particularly Nash, who avoided TONS of hard questions thanks to his teammates’ performance in Round 2. Nash has yet to score a goal in these playoffs, and for the most part he’s been unnoticeable.

The #2 line of St. Louis, Richards, and Hagelin had their moments – Richards in particular seemed to kick it up a notch late in the series – but overall, this is NOT what I’d consider a Cup-caliber group.

Montreal features quite a bit more dynamic skill at forward – especially since adding Thomas Vanek midseason. The top line of Vanek, Pacioretty, and Desharnais is a handful and better than any line the Rangers can put on the ice. The second line has Plekanec and Gallagher with a combined 39 goals, although LW Michael Bournival didn’t produce much (seven goals).

The third line may not have been as dynamic in the postseason as New York’s Pouliot line, but Eller, Bourque, and Gionta have been quite effective in their own right – and provide an excellent balance of size and speed, youth and experience.

Overall I have to give the edge to the Canadiens, especially since they faced down perhaps the best defenseman (Chara)/goalie(Rask) combo in the East.

DEFENSEMEN

THIS is where I underrated New York thus far…I still don’t believe there’s an elite player here, but their play is more than the sum of their parts – and perhaps most importantly, there’s no obvious weak spot. The top pair of Girardi and McDonagh did a masterful job against the Crosby and Giroux lines, Marc Staal appears to be rounding into form on the second pair along with anton Stralman, and the third pairing of John Moore and Kevin Klein was not noticed/mentioned much – which is a good thing for the bottom-pair defensemen.

The team has allowed only 27 goals in 14 games against top-flight offenses…and while Lundqvist gets – and deserves – much of the credit, this defensive corps has more than held their own as well.

Montreal is a bit more top-heavy – PK Subban is rapidly becoming the premier defenseman in the Eastern Conference, he blends offense, defense and orneriness in equal quantity. Opposing fans love to hate him, but be honest – you’d LOVE him if he played for your team.

He also leads the team thus far with four goals and 12 points in 11 games – excellent work for ANYONE, much less a defenseman! His partner Josh Georges’ steady, defense-first play is an excellent complement to Subban’s flashy style.

The second pair, Markov and Emelin, have had their struggles in the postseason but both are veterans who are unlikely to wilt under pressure. Mike Weaver has had an excellent playoff in the third pair, while the sixth ‘D’ slot has been manned by three different players in 11 games, mostly Beaulieu and Boullion.

Overall both teams boast good defensive depth, but again I give a slight edge to the Canadiens here because Subban is by far the most talented defenseman on either roster. As long as he doesn’t take his antics over the line, he’s Montreal’s best asset.

GOALTENDING

Here’s the REAL story of this series – two of the best goaltenders, each with an interesting narrative.

For the Rangers, Lundqvist has long been a top goalie, but he’s never gotten ‘over the hump’ to even a Cup final, much less a championship. If he wins this series, he solidifies his status as an all-time great goalie. He had a few hiccups, especially in the first round, but he was strong in the Pittsburgh series and almost unbelievably good in the last two games – he flat-out stole Game 7.

Price, on the other hand, could pull of a Crosby-like double here – fresh off a gold medal performance in Sochi in February, he has the rare chance to be the winner of a Stanley Cup AND the Olympics in the same year. He’s long been considered amongst the most talented goalies in the world, but inevitably has fallen short in the playoffs – this season, his play is a big reason that the ‘Habs’ bested the Bruins.

I give Lundqvist the edge here, although by a smaller margin than I would have a season or even a few months ago. He’s excellent, but Price is no longer far behind.

OTHER FACTORS

There’s no question that the 3-day rest benefits the Rangers – they’ve played 14 grueling games in a very short time, and with a couple of exceptions they are NOT a young team at all. They cited fatigue as a reason for their 3-1 deficit to the Pens…they will have no such excuses this time.

Montreal has home-ice advantage and unlike so many of the newer facilities, it really IS an advantage for the Canadiens – their fans get the Bell Centre rocking for EVERY home playoff game. Madison Square Garden is older and has more history, but before Game 6 the crowds at MSG were very tame.

I see no coaching advantage at all – both coaches have been there and done that, both have lost Cup Finals (Therrien with the ’08 Pens, Vigneault with the ’11 Canucks) and both teams seem to be 100% ‘bought in’ to their coaches.

PREDICTION

Both of these teams are better than I originally thought…but NY had to survive TWO Game Seven trials, and their offensive struggles cause them to work a lot harder for wins than most teams. The Canadiens might just be this year’s surprise team – they dominated the Lightning and then knocked off the best team in the league, looking quite dominant at times in doing so.

I think Lundqvist is ALWAYS good for at least a win or two on his own, but I just think Montreal is the better team. CANADIENS IN SIX.

This weekend we will preview the West.

Dave Glass can be reached at buggyracer@verizon.net.

 

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