2013 NHL Playoffs: Conference Finals Preview

2013 NHL Playoffs

It was quite the contrast between the Conference Semi-Finals of the 2013 NHL Playoffs. Both Eastern Conference Finals representatives – the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Boston Bruins – cruised through the Conference Semi-Finals in five games, defeating Ottawa and New York respectively. The Western Conference Finalists – the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings – however, both had to go the distance in the second round, being pushed to seven games by Detroit and San Jose, respectively. Chicago also had to complete something the franchise had never done before; win a series after trailing in that series 3-1.

Both of these series promise to be excellent. The East features without question the two top teams in that Conference this year and in my opinion, it is the same in the West.

2013 NHL Playoffs
May 25 2013 Boston MA USA Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara 33 and Boston Bruins forward Milan Lucic 17 celebrate a goal against the New York Rangers in game five of the second round of the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs at TD Garden Michael Ivins USA TODAY Sports

Pittsburgh Penguins (1) vs Boston Bruins (4)

Normally, you see tighter-checking hockey in the playoffs, which you would think would lead to less goal scoring. This is not the case for the Penguins. After averaging 3.38 goals per game in the regular season, Pittsburgh is averaging almost a full goal higher at 4.27 so far this postseason. Even Boston is scoring; they averaged 2.65 goals/game in the regular season, they are a distant second behind Pittsburgh at 3.10 goals/game these playoffs.

As with anyone that faces Pittsburgh, it would be wise for Boston to stay out of the box; Pittsburgh had six power-play goals in their four wins in the Ottawa series (and even chipped in two short-handed goals for good measure). The only game Ottawa won, Pittsburgh stayed off the special-teams score sheet. This is much easier said than done; we all know how prolific their scorers are. But the facts are the facts: in Pittsburgh’s losses this postseason, their power-play efficiency is 8.3% (1 for 12); in their postseason wins, it is 36% (12 for 34).

The curious thing about this match-up is what we saw happen in the regular season. Pittsburgh took all three games by a one-goal margin, but here’s the kicker: Evgeni Malkin didn’t face them once in the regular season (injury), Sidney Crosby missed the last meeting of the season and Boston out-attempted Pittsburgh by 35 shots in total, including a whopping 38 shot-attempt margin in the season’s final match-up (a 3-2 Boston loss). That’s what is making this match-up a potential nightmare for Boston: if you can dominate a skill team at 5 vs. 5 and their goalie still steals wins, you’re in for a playoff exit.

As it usually does, the winner of this series will have the goaltender that doesn’t give away games. Pittsburgh’s Tomas Vokoun is featuring the second-best even-strength save percentage this postseason at .949%, but Boston’s Tuukka Rask has been nearly equally as good at .940%.

This series will probably come down to Vokoun. This is a goalie who was stuck on the bench in lieu of a younger goalie last year in Washington’s playoff run; now he’s the goalie who has usurped the younger starter in Marc-André Fleury. As a goalie who turns 37 this summer and is entering the second-year of a two-year contract, he might have one run for a contract left in him and this is his time to show it. I wonder how long his leash is – does he come out after one bad start? That has to be playing in the back of his mind as well.

Both teams have holes: Pittsburgh’s fourth line is nothing to write home about and some of Boston’s stars are struggling to score. The Penguins feature a defensive corps that is pretty porous after Kris Letang while Boston’s is struggling to stay healthy. Pittsburgh obviously has more offensive weapons while Boston (in my opinion) has the better goaltender.

If Boston tries to be the “Big Bad Bruins” and can do it smartly, they can get Pittsburgh off their game (Philadelphia did this in the first round in 2012) and steal this series. However, if they try to be those “Big Bad Bruins” and run themselves into penalty trouble, they will run their playoff hopes into trouble as well.

This will be a tight series that might not be as high-scoring as some people may think.

My Prediction: Pittsburgh in 7 

2013 NHL Playoffs
May 28 2013 Los Angeles CA USA Los Angeles Kings goalie Jonathan Quick 32 celebrates with defenseman Matt Greene 2 and defenseman Brad Stuart 7 after game seven of the second round of the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs against the San Jose Sharks at the Staples Center The Kings won 2 1 to win the series four games to three Robert Hanashiro USA TODAY Sports

Chicago Blackhawks (1) vs. Los Angeles Kings (5)

It’s pretty amazing how the two series parallel each other: Two of the teams (Pittsburgh and Chicago) feature loads of top-end talent with a questionable goaltending situation, the other two teams (Boston and Los Angeles) have two of the best goaltenders on the planet and rely on five-on-five dominance to win games.

In a match-up of probably the two best teams in the West this year, we get to see two of the last three Stanley Cup winners go head-to-head.

Chicago won a hard-fought series with Detroit in which they came back down three games to one to win game seven in overtime. The main reason they found themselves in that deficit was the play of goaltender Corey Crawford; he managed just a .916 SV% (although not terrible, it’s not stealing hockey games). Don’t let the .938 SV% for the playoffs fool you, he is currently sporting a ridiculous .985 SV% on the power-play this postseason. To tell you how much that has to regress, the NHL regular leader among starting goalies with at least 25 starts was James Reimer at a .920 SV%. Los Angeles’ power-play has been actually OK these playoffs at 20% efficiency, so if Chicago starts to get into penalty trouble, look for pucks to start flying in the Blackhawks’ net.

If Chicago wants to win this series, their top-end talent needs to get on the score sheet. They don’t need to just win face-offs, kill penalties and stay out of the box, their scorers need to score. Chicago’s depth players won’t find much success against Los Angeles’ depth, so Chicago’s top six forwards need to take control of the series. Jonathan Toews only has six points in 12 playoff games after averaging over a point-per-game in the regular season while Patrick Kane has just two goals in those 12 games after scoring nearly a goal every two games in the regular season. Not only do they need to score, they need to make everyone around them better, as well: Kane and Toews are among the worst forwards on Chicago in team On-Ice SH% (the shooting efficiency of the team when a player is on the ice).

There is no doubt that Los Angeles has the edge in net with last year’s Conn Smythe winner (as playoff MVP) Jonathan Quick. He leads playoff goaltenders in overall SV% at .948 and even-strength save percentage at .960. I would argue that Los Angeles has the edge on the point as well: Drew Doughty and Robyn Regehr will eat the big minutes while the supporting cast can control the play against weaker match-ups. I know the Corsi stats might favor the Chicago defense corps so far, but that series against Minnesota was a joke. Chicago was a +74 Corsi as a team in five games and that skews their playoff numbers a lot. They were still a big Corsi winner over the seven games against Detroit at +60, but the attempts/game difference between the two rounds 6.2. Minnesota sucked, Detroit did not and Los Angeles certainly does not.

For Chicago to win this series, they need Crawford to steal at least one game and hope he doesn’t give one away. Even if Chicago is the better team (which you can argue they are), Jonathan Quick is playing like an all-world goalie right now. More often than not, goaltending wins out. I expect the same here.

My Prediction: Los Angeles in 6

Enjoy the Conference Finals everyone. It’s not too often you get the (probably) four best teams in the final four and that’s what we have here. The only thing I’m looking more forward to is a Pittsburgh/Los Angeles final.

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Michael Clifford
Michael Clifford was born and raised in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada and is a graduate of the Unviersity of New Brunswick. He writes about fantasy hockey and baseball for XNSports and FantasyTrade411.com. He can be reached on Twitter @SlimCliffy for any fantasy hockey questions. !function(d,s,id){var js,fjs=d.getElementsByTagName(s)[0],p=/^http:/.test(d.location)?'http':'https';if(!d.getElementById(id)){js=d.createElement(s);js.id=id;js.src=p+'://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js';fjs.parentNode.insertBefore(js,fjs);}}(document, 'script', 'twitter-wjs');

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