Back at the NHL trade deadline, when Jarome Iginla decided he’d rather play for the Penguins than the Bruins, an Eastern Conference general manager told me he would not be surprised to see the Penguins and Bruins in the Eastern Conference Final.
And is anyone surprised that the Chicago Blackhawks, who did not suffer a regulation loss until their 25th game of the regular season, will be meeting the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings to decide which team will return to the Stanley Cup Final?
Tonight all four teams will open the third round of the playoffs, with the Kings and Hawks starting at 5 p.m. on NBC Sports Network and the Pens and Bruins starting at 8 p.m. on NBC.
Here’s what we expect for both series:
No. 1 Penguins vs. No. 4 Bruins
Offense:The Penguins clearly have the edge in offensive fire power, averaging 4.27 goals per game, led by center Evgeni Malkin [4-12-16], defenseman Kris Letang [3-13-16] and center Sidney Crosby [7-8-15]. But the Bruins have been no slouches in the post-season, with David Krejci [5-12-17, plus-9] and Nathan Horton [5-7-12, plus-14] leading the way. The Bruins also have the best faceoff/shutdown center in the game in Patrice Bergeron.
Defense: The dynamic duo of Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenbeg might be the best in the NHL and they will punish Malkin and Crosby whenever they enter the zone. But don’t be surprised to see Claude Julien split up his top pairing so one of them is facing either Crosby or Malkin. The Pens have perhaps the most offensive defenseman in the league with Letang and Brooks Orpik will draw the difficult assignment of slowing down Krejci and Horton.
Goaltending: This is where the series could be decided. Former Capitals starter Tomas Vokoun has been extraordinary [6-1, 1.85 GAA, .941 save percentage, 1 shutout] since replacing Marc-Andre Fleury in Game 5 of Round 1. Boston’s Tuukka Rask [8-5, 2.22, .928] has been very good as well. On paper, Rask is the better goalie, but Vokoun is playing better right now.
Prediction: Because the Penguins are so explosive offensively, Vokoun will not be asked to work as hard as Rask. Crosby and Malkin are too much to handle when both are healthy. Penguins in 7.
No. 1 Blackhawks vs. No. 5 Kings
Offense: Neither team has really dominated on the offensive side, with the Hawks averaging 2.75 goals per game and the Kings averaging just 2.00. The Hawks are led by Patrick Sharp [7-4-11, plus-4] and Marian Hossa [5-6-11, plus-4], but Patrick Kane [2-7-9, plus-2] has been unusually quiet. The Kings are being led by former Flyers teammates Mike Richards [2-8-10, plus-5] and Jeff Carter [5-3-8, plus-3] but are still waiting for some offense from Dustin Penner [2-1-3, plus-1].
Defense: The Kings’ Drew Doughty [2-3-5, minus-1] has had a monster playoff performance, even if his numbers don’t suggest it. He’s routinely logging 27 or 28 minutes a game and has been a force in all three zones. For Chicago, Duncan Keith [1-8-9, plus-4] has had to carry Brent Seabrook [1-1-2, minus-5] but Niklas Hjalmarsson [0-3-3, plus-6] has been excellent.
Goaltending: If the Kings hope to return to the Stanley Cup Final, they’ll need Jonathan Quick to be, well, Jonathan Quick. He leads all playoff netmidners in goals-against average [1.50], save percentage [.948] and shutouts . Chicago’s Corey Crawford [8-5, 1.70, .938, 1 shutout] is right behind him in all three categories.
Prediction: Another excellent series. The Kings have the better goaltender, but the Blackhawks have more overall balance at the other positions. Blackhawks in 7.