By Jason Herring, May 21 2015 —
The 2014–15 NHL postseason has wound down to the final four. Two clubs from each conference will battle it out to earn a shot at the Stanley Cup.
Right now, all four teams left — the Chicago Blackhawks, Anaheim Ducks, New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning — appear to have a chance at claiming the championship.
But before they do, they’ll have to survive the third round. The Gauntlet predicts who will make it to the Stanley Cup finals.
Western Conference Final
Both the Ducks and the Blackhawks have reached the conference finals in unusually few games. Anaheim needed only nine games, crushing two Canadian underdogs along the way, and Chicago took 10, sweeping a Minnesota team that looked poised to challenge for the title.
What sets Chicago apart is the level of competition they’ve faced. The Blackhawks had to go through two strong teams who each topped 100 points during the regular season -— Nashville and Minnesota. Anaheim, on the other hand, had an easy path to the Western final, beating two subpar teams with no playoff experience since 2009.
The Ducks will be shocked when they see just how good the Blackhawks are. Anaheim has dominated so far, but they’ve dominated against two of the worst teams that qualified for the playoffs.
And Chicago has been here before. The Blackhawks are built for the playoffs and their history shows it. They’ve racked up four conference finals appearances and two Stanley Cups in the last six years.
Anaheim is a strong team, but they’re no match for Chicago’s elite depth. The Blackhawks can run Patrick Sharp as a third-line centre — a match-up nightmare for opposing defencemen.
The Ducks still have a shot. Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry have been exceptional and the team’s defence has been smothering. But the odds are against them.
Unlike previous playoff series, this won’t be a goaltending battle. While Anaheim’s Frederik Andersen and Chicago’s Corey Crawford are both capable, neither are game-changers. This is going to be a hard-fought offensive series. If Chicago plays their game right, they’ll overwhelm the Ducks.
Prediction: Blackhawks in 6.
Eastern Conference Final
The Lightning and the Rangers are similar teams. Both play fast-paced, offensive games and finished among the league’s top three in goals per game.
But the Rangers’ offence has gone cold. If New York and the slumping Rick Nash don’t start to score, Tampa Bay’s forwards will overpower them. The Lightning also spent last round lighting up the best goalie in the league, Carey Price.
New York possesses a great equalizer, however, in Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. While the Rangers haven’t scored much these playoffs, Lundqvist has allowed their opponents to score even less.
Put these two stats together and you get a battle of Tampa Bay’s potent offence versus New York’s stifling defence. It’s a tough question — the unstoppable force or the immovable object?
There’s one element that tips the scales in Tampa Bay’s favour. The Lightning boast one of the game’s best scorers in Steven Stamkos, and he doesn’t even play on the team’s best line.
Stamkos hasn’t been playing up to his potential during these playoffs, but he hasn’t needed to. The Lightning’s second line of Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson have been scoring at an unreal pace, with 17 combined goals in the first two rounds.
If Stamkos can start contributing at the pace he’s capable of, then the Lightning’s offensive depth will make them tough to stop. Lundqvist and the Rangers’ defence will keep the series close, but it won’t be enough to lead them to the Stanley Cup finals.
Prediction: Lightning in 7.