NHL PLAYOFFS – CONFERENCE FINALS ARE FINALLY HERE

13May12

Now that the New York Rangers have finally disposed of the Washington Capitals, we can begin the third round of the playoffs.  The other three teams should be well rested, having enjoyed a mini vacation after closing out their respective series in short order. 

Hockey fans across the northern continent have been itching to get the conference finals into gear, especially those in the western portion of the land.  They have had to endure nearly a week of no hockey for their teams, waiting once again for the eastern conference to take care of business. 

Now that we’re down to the final four, you can see why I initially decided to make my predictions one round at a time. 

Granted, the Rangers would have been penciled in, since I believe that they have been the most consistently dangerous team throughout the regular season.  I had even considered marking down New Jersey to be here, at least prior to the playoffs beginning.  Their lackluster play in the first round forced me to pick the Flyers over them in round two, a decision I have now come to regret. 

But if anyone tells me with a straight face that they had the Los Angeles Kings and Phoenix Coyotes selected to reach the western conference finals, I would fully expect them to complete the thought with “and so did my wife, Morgan Fairchild, yeah, yeah that’s it, that’s the ticket”!  (A little Tommy Flanagan humor there.) 

I honestly cannot say that I am completely shocked by the western conference final matchup, since both of the teams finished the regular season off in grand fashion.  But I would be misleading you, okay lying, if I told you that I would have penciled in either of them before the playoffs began. 

Like I’ve said many times, hockey playoffs are the most exciting to watch because regardless of your seeding, if you make it to the playoffs, you’ve got a legitimate chance of making it to the Stanley Cup finals.  Looking at the final four, I think those beliefs have been confirmed. 

So who will take possession of the cup for the next twelve months?  Most would probably choose the Rangers at this point, since they are the highest ranked team remaining.  They are the #1 seed from the east, New Jersey is the #6 seed from the east, and the two teams from the west are #3 Phoenix and #8 Los Angeles. 

But let’s remember what has happened to the top seeds so far.  Out west, the Kings have knocked off the #1 seed and the #2 seed so far. Phoenix, although #3, has been the underdog in both of the first two rounds, yet has prevailed, beating #6 Chicago and #4 Nashville. 

Back east, New Jersey had to muster all of the good fortune they could find to come back from a 3-2 deficit to beat #3 Florida in the first round, before easily dispatching of #5 Philadelphia in the second round. 

Although New York has been able to get past the first two rounds, one play going the other way would have changed that storyline.  It took seven games for them to get past both #8 Ottawa and #7 Washington. 

Okay, let’s get to the winners for this round.  Since the west has had to wait on the east for both rounds so far, we’ll keep that tradition going.  Let’s begin with the eastern conference. 

#1 New York Rangers vs. #6 New Jersey Devils 

Before the playoffs began, I had picked the Rangers to be the team to beat; with the Devils one of two teams from the east that I thought had a chance to give them a challenge.  Needless to say, neither Washington nor Ottawa were the other team, and both of them came one miscue away from doing just that.  I’m not sure whether it’s New York playing below their game or their opponents stepping up to the plate, but their time to get things in order has run out. 

New Jersey started off slow in round one and nearly were eliminated by a Florida team that no one outside of gator land expected a challenge from.  Then something seemed to click and they took care of the Flyers with relative ease.  They are now playing the way they need to beat the Rangers. 

Granted, New York has the home ice advantage, but that really hasn’t been an advantage so far.  New Jersey has played well on the road in the first two rounds.  Their defense has kicked it up a notch, so I don’t look for high scoring games.  Ironically for Ranger fans, of the four teams that are left, they probably have the most suspect defense right now.  I’m not saying its bad, but the other three ‘Ds’ are playing at a higher level right now. 

I think the Rangers are the best team in the league, but I haven’t seen them live up to that reputation so far in the playoffs.  Now that they are getting no rest going into their third round matchup, and the Devils have had several days to heal their wounds, I’m going for the upset.  New Jersey in six games. 

#3 Phoenix Coyotes vs. #8 Los Angeles Kings 

Although all of the pre-playoff favorites are out of the discussion, I can’t help salivating over this matchup.  These two teams came out of the same division, a division that wasn’t decided until game #82.  They met each other six times during the season, splitting the series with three games apiece.  Only one game was decided by more than one point, a 2-0 Kings victory back in October.  Three times the game went to overtime, with one being decided with a shootout.  Three of the games were shutouts, 1-0 twice and 2-0 once.  The winning team only exceeded three goals on two occasions. 

You can see a theme here that has been magnified for both teams throughout the first two rounds of the playoffs.  Defense is going to tell the story in this round.  We’ve got arguably the two best goalies in the league (at least at this point in time) going head to head.  We’ve got tenacious defenses on both ends of the rink.  And we’ve got two teams that simply do not like each other. 

We’ve also got two teams that have been picked by the experts to lose in both of their previous rounds, yet came through, for the most part, with ease.  So who is the favorite in this round?  Of course, it’s #8 Los Angeles.  Who am I picking?  Of course, I’m going with the under dog.  Phoenix in seven games. 

Let the wild times begin!

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