Two Games into both the Western and Eastern Conferene Finals in the NHL Playoffs, I am happy to be joined by Eddie Garcia, NHL Reporter for Fox Sports Radio, to discuss the opening storylines of the NHL Playoffs 'Final Four.' Also, Detroit Red Wings Head Coach Mike Babcock has been made a few offers, where will he coach next?
The NHL Playoffs are down to their own version of the "Final Four" as the Conference Final round begins this weekend. Teams like the Chicago Blackhawks and New York Rangers make returns to the Conference Finals as Chicago is in its fifth Conference Finals appearance in seven years, 21st in franchise history and New York makes its 15th appearance in history and its third in four years. Tampa Bay makes it's third appearance in franchise history, first since 2011 and the Anaheim Ducks make their first appearance in the Conference Final round since winning the Stanley Cup in 2007, their fourth overall appearance.
Second Round Predictions - How Did I Do? (Bold = Correct / Strike through = Wrong)
Eastern Conference - Washington over New York 4-3 Tampa Bay over Montreal 4-2
Western Conference - Anaheim over Calgary 4-3 (4-1) Chicago over Minnesota 4-2 (4-0)
Eastern Conference Final - Tampa Bay Lightning vs. New York Rangers
How many one-goal games would you say the average team would face on their way to the Stanley Cup? Let's say if a team plays four rounds of six games each, that's 24 games and maybe half are decided by one goal. For the New York Rangers, they have played 12 games to get to the Eastern Conference Finals, and EVERY GAME has been decided by one goal. That is absolutely amazing. Being 8-4 in those 12 one-goal games is incredible as well, because when it comes to the NHL Playoffs, one-goal games usually come down to a lucky bounce one way or the other and for the Rangers to be on the better side of those breaks and bounces eight times already in these playoffs is nothing short of incredible. Obviously, it's not all luck. The Rangers have plenty of talent that is led by arguably the best goaltender in the world in Henrik Lundqvist and a defensive core of Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal, and Dan Girardi. Those four players are key to the Rangers grind it out, wear you down style of hockey that, as we see again in these playoffs, usually leads to tight-checking one-goal games where New York thrives. A statement I heard recently said that the Rangers have no offensive stars, and that Martin St. Louis and Rick Nash are longer big-time players. Nash, I disagree with because the guy led the NHL in goals for a while this season and ended up with 42 tallies in 79 games. But to the point of having no offensive stars, it makes sense because the Rangers have a bunch of offensive threats. Who do you cover - Nash? St. Louis? Brassard? Not to mention the emergence of rookie Kevin Hayes. Good luck with stretching your defense along the Rangers four-line attack.
Now they face the Tampa Bay Lightning, who have been able to light up the lamp offensively and take down Cup favorite Montreal on their way to the Eastern Conference Finals. The matchup will be, pardon the pun, the electric offense of the Lightning led by Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov, and a revived Steven Stamkos against the defensive wall that is the Rangers blue-line. Defensively, Tampa Bay has been streaky against teams with balanced offensive attacks. They are prone to giving up the big games (6-2 loss to Montreal in Game 4, 4-0 loss to Detroit in Game 5), so it will be a big key in the series that guys like Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman (facing his old club) step up the pressure and force the Rangers to out-score them. If the Lightning can continue to give goal support to Ben Bishop, who has been a 6'7" wall of his own in these playoffs (1.81 GAA / .931 SV%), the Lightning may be able to skate past the grinding Rangers. But, most of the time it's proved foolish to bet against "King" Henrik. Eastern Conference Final Schedule -
Saturday, May 16
Monday, May 18
Wednesday, May 20
Friday, May 22
Game 5 (if necessary)
Sunday, May 24
Game 6 (if necessary)
Tuesday, May 26
Game 7 (if necessary)
Friday, May 29
Western Conference Final - Anaheim Ducks vs. Chicago Blackhawks
What's a Western Conference Final without the Blackhawks playing a team from California? In the last seven seasons, Chicago will have played in five Western Conference Finals and four will be against teams from the "Golden State." (2010 - San Jose, 2013 - Los Angeles, 2014 - Los Angeles, 2015 - Anaheim) It goes to show what the standard is in the NHL when you want to measure success, the Stanley Cup will go through Chicago and will have to go through somewhere in California. These teams are on another level when it comes to NHL Playoffs time with proven winners on both sides of this series. The Ducks have played just nine games to get to this point, the least amount of the four teams remaining. They swept the Winnipeg Jets in Round one and made quick work of the young Calgary Flames in just five games in their Semi-Final matchup. Impressive? Yes, very. But look at what they had to face in those matchups against the Jets and Flames a little closer and you might think, "We'll duh, of course the Ducks are in the Conference Finals." Against Winnipeg, the Ducks faced a team who were back in the post-season for the first time 19 years and had a devastating grind to get into the playoff picture. The Jets seemed to get ahead of themselves in the series and made mistakes that a team in it's first post season with their core of players would be making, and not to mention it would be difficult not to get caught up in the hype that surrounded the city of Winnipeg. With Calgary, again the Ducks faced an inexperienced playoff team. This time around, the Ducks had to deal with a fast team rather than a physical team, but the Ducks are fast, too. They were able to match the Flames speed and out-muscle them to a 4-1 series win. Plus, facing Ondrej Pavalec and Jonas Hiller/Karri Ramo is nice.
For Chicago, what more can you say? Everything the Ducks do, Chicago can do. In some facets, they do better. Corey Perry can be countered with Patrick Kane. Ryan Getzlaf countered by Jonathan Toews. The Blackhawks are battle tested and have played A LOT of playoff hockey in the past seven seasons with their core group of guys. This matchup comes down to depth, and experience. Chicago's blue-line will be tested hard as guys like Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, and Niklas Hjalmarsson have played big minutes and that doesn't look to change as Michal Rosival is out for the remainder of the playoffs with an ankle fracture and will be replaced with David Rundblad. Between the pipes, Corey Crawford looked every bit the player who was robbed of a Conn Smythe in 2013, if that continues, so will the Blackhawks. Frederick Andersen has been solid for the Ducks so far. He now faces his toughest test of his young NHL Playoff career with the waves of attack from the Chicago offense.
Western Conference Final Schedule -
Sunday, May 17
Tuesday, May 19
Thursday, May 21
Saturday, May 23
Game 5 (if necessary)
Monday, May 25
Game 6 (if necessary)
Wednesday, May 27
Game 7 (if necessary)
Saturday, May 30
Eastern Conference: Tampa Bay over New York 4-2 Western Conference: Chicago over Anaheim 4-2
I was able to talk with Mike Halford, Senior Editor of Pro Hockey Talk on NBCSports.com, as the NHL Conference Semi-Final round of the playoffs is in full swing. Which teams will advance and what has surprised so far?
We are through the opening round of the NHL Playoffs and look ahead to the Conference Semi-Finals as we are into the NHL Elite 8. First, I usually am not one to toot my own horn but I would like to point out the success of my first round picks. I may not have predicted the amount of games, but the winners, not bad. *pats own back*
First Round Predications - How Did I Do? (Bold = Correct / Strike through = Wrong) Eastern Conference - Montreal over Ottawa 4-3 (4-2) Tampa Bay over Detroit 4-2 (4-3) New York Rangers over Pittsburgh 4-1 Washington over New York Islanders 4-3
Western Conference - Anaheim over Winnipeg 4-3 (4-0) Calgary over Vancouver 4-3 (4-2) Minnesota over St. Louis 4-3 (4-2) Chicago over Nashville 4-2
Eastern Conference -
New York Rangers vs. Washington Capitals
For the fifth time in the last seven years, the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers will meet up in the NHL Playoffs. The teams have split the previous four meetings with the Rangers winning the most recent two matchups in the 2012 Conference Semis and 2013 Conference quarter-finals. New York took care of business against the Penguins in five games, while the Capitals took seven games to get by the Islanders, which looked the more game opponent of the two. This matchup comes down to two things: 1) Can the Rangers offense match that of the Capitals? New York scored just 11 goals in the five game series, winning all four games by a 2-1 score. They will need much more against the high-powered scoring of the Capitals led by Hart Trophy Finalist Alexander Ovechkin. 2) The three most important defenders for the Rangers will be Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, and Ryan McDonagh as they will be tasked with stopping Ovechkin, Niklas Backstrom, and Evgeny Kuznetsov in front of Henrik Lundqvist, who has been on top of his game as of late. If Washington can use their physical play to slow down the skilled Rangers and win the battles in front of the net, they'll come away winners.
Montreal Canadiens vs. Tampa Bay Lightning
5-0-0..that's the Lightning's record this season against the Canadiens. That's incredible to think about a team who just took 7 games to get passed the Red Wings, after being down 3-2 in the series. For Tampa Bay, they have made it this far without their star-player and Captain Steven Stamkos scoring a goal in the playoffs. In fact, in the Detroit-Tampa Bay series, neither Stamkos nor Red Wings Captain Henrik Zetterberg scored a goal in the series, the first time in 23 playoff series' that Zetterberg didn't score. The scoring for the Lightning has been picked up by last year's Calder trophy finalist Tyler Johnson with 6 goals and an assist in the 7-game opening round. Given the record in the regular season between these teams, you'd think the Canadiens would be without a chance, but having both a Norris Trophy and Hart Trophy finalist on your team gives them a tremendous chance of advancing. PK Subban and Carey Price have led Montreal all year and if Price can continue his dominance in net and slow down the Tampa Bay offense, the Canadiens could be advancing to a second straight Eastern Conference Final.
Western Conference -
Anaheim Ducks vs. Calgary Flames
Calgary gets to the second round of the Playoffs in a quiet fashion after defeating the Vancouver Canucks in 6 games in a series many people, myself included, didn't find too exciting having been surrounded by matchups like the 7-game series' of Red Wings-Lightning and Capitals-Islanders or the overtime thrillers of Predators-Blackhawks or return to playoff hockey of the Jets-Ducks series. But after going back and watching the Flames again, don't count this team out. They are fast and might have a shot at out-skating the big, bruising Ducks. Anaheim made quick work of the Winnipeg Jets in their return to the playoffs, and it's again Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf leading the way for the Ducks. Add in free agent signee Ryan Kesler and a great opening round from Jakob Silfverberg and the Ducks look primed for a Western Conference Final appearance. The matchup in net will make or break this series as former Ducks goalie Jonas Hiller, now backstopping the Flames, takes on Frederik Andersen. Both had solid first round performances with Hiller scoring a 93.2% Save Percentage to Andersen's 92.4% Save Percentage with both sporting 2.20 Goals Allowed Averages, but I wonder if Andersen has what it takes to take the Ducks past the skilled Flames.
Chicago Blackhawks vs. Minnesota Wild
Speaking of meeting AGAIN in the playoffs, the Wild and Blackhawks will face each other in the Western Conference Playoffs for the third straight year. The Blackhawks have won the previous two matchups, winning in five games in 2013 and in six games last season. The Wild proved a lot in their 6-game series win over the St. Louis Blues, showing depth on both sides of the ice and proving that Devan Dubnyk is for real. This Wild team seems primed to get over the hill that is the Chicago Blackhawks. Having said that, these are still the Chicago Blackhawks (Toews, Kane, Keith, Hossa, etc.) They got passed a dangerous Nashville Predators team in six games, while shuffling their goaltender multiple times in the series. The Hawks will go back to their original starter in net with Corey Crawford between the pipes over Scott Darling. If Crawford is back on his game, the Blackhawks will yet again get past the Wild on their way to a third-straight Western Conference Final.
Second Round Predictions - Washington over New York 4-3 Tampa Bay over Montreal 4-2
Anaheim over Calgary 4-3 Chicago over Minnesota 4-2
It's spring time and that means one thing: PLAYOFF HOCKEY. The NHL Playoffs begin tonight with 16 teams vying for the Stanley Cup, although only three teams have split the last five Cups (Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, Los Angeles). Here is what you need to know as the playoff beards begin to get scraggly.
Eastern Conference -
Montreal Canadiens (50-22-10, 110 points) vs. Ottawa Senators (43-26-13, 99 points) Regular season series (Senators lead 3-1-0)
This matchup pits two of the five Canadian teams to qualify for the playoffs (Sorry Toronto) against one another, and it's sad that only one of these teams led by their incredible goaltending can advance. Clear-cut Hart Trophy favorite Carey Price leads the Habs into the playoffs looking to avenge last year's Eastern Conference Finals elimination after suffering a knee injury that forced him out of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs. For Ottawa, Andrew Hammond has taken the Sens and put them squarely on his shoulders. In 24 games played late this season, Hammond has a 20-1-2 record with a 1.79 Goals Allowed Average and a 94.1% Save Percentage. Insane numbers and made all the more special because Ottawa was not a contending team until Hammond took his spot between the pipes. Ottawa took 3 of the 4 meetings this season and I think this will be a tremendous series if you love highlight-reel saves.
Tampa Bay Lightning (50-24-8, 108 points) vs. Detroit Red Wings (43-25-14, 100 points) Regular season series (Lightning lead 3-1-0) This will be an underrated series, which is an injustice to these two teams. First of all, is this the swan song for Mike Babcock as the Head Coach of the Red Wings? Detroit boasts the longest playoff appearance streak in the NHL with 24 straight playoff appearances, but it has been 7 years since they have had a shot to hoist the Stanley Cup. Rumors have swirled over the past season that Red Wings coach Mike Babcock could be on his way out of Detroit, either for good or to coach elsewhere. Rumored landing spots have ranged from Toronto and Buffalo (Have fun), to Chicago (Highly unlikely). If this really is Babcock's final run with the Red Wings, he'd better make it count. It has been 5 consecutive playoff appearances for Detroit without making it past the second round, and for an organization and fan-base that reside in "Hockey Town," that is unacceptable. On the other side, this Tampa Bay team is lethal and it reaches beyond Steven Stamkos. Let me be clear, Stamkos is a top 5 player in the league, but this Lightning team has depth on both ends of the ice and a Florida fan-base that is hungry for post-season success after last year's early exit. Also, Detroit will start the series with Petr Mrazeck in net, not Jimmy Howard.
New York Rangers (53-22-7, 113 points) vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (43-27-12, 98 points) Regular season series (Rangers lead 3-0-1)
The Rangers have unfinished business on their mind. After riding Henrik Lundqvist to the Stanley Cup Finals last year, the Rangers were no match for the Los Angeles Kings. Now, after finishing the regular season with the best record in the NHL, the Rangers look to make it back to the Cup finals and have another legitimate shot at doing so. Lundqvist is healthy in net, Rick Nash is leading the offensive charge, and the Rangers have possibly the easiest matchup in the first-round against the Penguins. Let that sink in. The Penguins with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Marc-Andre Fluery are the easiest matchup in the Eastern Conference. That goes to show you how much depth plays a part in being a successful team. The Penguins are not healthy on defense and it is a case of such a dominant offensive attack can be squandered at the back-end. Will this series be a slugfest? Maybe, but highly unlikely.
Washington Capitals (45-26-11, 101 points) vs. New York Islanders (47-28-7, 101 points) Regular season series (Series tied 2-0-2)
Here is an understatement - I LOVE THIS SERIES. The Islanders have been a surprise success all season and ride their extended success into the playoffs in what will be the final run at the Stanley Cup in the Nassau Coliseum. What a way to send off the legendary arena, than with a plethora of playoff hockey. The Isles are dangerous offensively, led by another Hart Trophy candidate in John Tavares and by a healthy Kyle Okposo. Defensively, New York has enjoyed the acquisitions of Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk as those two have produced the most points by blue-liners on the team this year, both in career-best seasons. Also, Jaroslav Halak has been a much appreciated acquisition between the pipes. Halak will have to continue his success into this series because he and the Isles now have to face arguably the most dangerous goal-scorer of the past decade, Alexander Ovechkin. He, along with the Capitals, have embraced first-year coach Barry Trotz's coaching style and it shows on the ice with the 6th best Goals Per Game in the NHL. On the back-end of things, the Caps rely heavily on defensive scoring as John Carlson and Mike Green rank in the top 5 of team scoring, not sure many other teams can boast that stat.
Western Conference -
Anaheim Ducks (51-24-7, 109 points) vs. Winnipeg Jets (43-26-13, 99 points) Regular season series (Ducks lead 3-0-0) As Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson would say, "Finally, playoff hockey has come back to Winnipeg!" The Jets fan-base has been starved for playoff hockey for too long and they'll finally get some action against the Western Conference leading Anaheim Ducks. The home-ice advantage will bode well for Winnipeg, but in the end they are facing a dangerous, front-running Ducks team. Anaheim still has the top-end pairing of Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, who both know long-term playoff success, and will rely on them yet again to advance passed the second-round of the playoffs for the first time since winning the Stanley Cup in 2007. Bruce Boudreau has come in and made a huge impact on the Ducks organization, but it is still to be seen that he can be the guy to move the Ducks back into the NHL final four.
Vancouver Canucks (48-29-5, 101 points) vs. Calgary Flames (45-30-7, 97 points) Regular season series (Series tied 2-2-0) Let me say this first about this series - It is a damn shame one of these two teams will advance out of the first round and two of either the Wild, Blues, Predators, or Blackhawks will not. You can quote me on that, because are the Flames or the Canucks REAL Cup contenders? Not anymore than either of the four teams listed before and this is my only gripe about the changes the NHL made to the playoffs. Yes, anything can happen and every team has a shot, but realistically, especially in the Western Conference, these two teams are not on the level of Cup contender and it's going to burn even more for two of the aforementioned fan-bases knowing that either Calgary or Vancouver is in the second round. That being said this is another all-Canadian matchup and it is literally a coin toss for who can advance. Calgary has youth on their side to matchup against the Canucks veteran experience and hunger to regain contender status. Like I said, it's a pick 'em series.
St. Louis Blues (51-24-7, 109 points) vs. Minnesota Wild (46-28-8, 100 points) Regular season series (Series tied 2-2-0)
Can the Blues finally realize all the expectations that have been on them for the past three seasons? They avoid facing the Blackhawks in the first-round, as Chicago has been a thorn in their side for the last few years. The scoring depth for St. Louis has finally come to fruition and their defense is as strong as it has ever been. Goaltending will be their biggest question mark as it looks like Jake Allen will get the nod in net. On the other side of things, goaltending is far from the biggest question for the Wild. Devan Dubnyk is on some kind of superhero stupid run of starting the last 39 of 40 games to end the season for Minnesota, posting a 27-9-2 record with a 1.78 Goals Against Average and a 93.6% Save Percentage. Wow. Now can he get the offensive help? Yet again, I'm calling this one a coin-flip.
Nashville Predators (47-25-10, 104 points) vs. Chicago Blackhawks (48-28-6, 102 points) Regular season series (Blackhawks lead 3-1-0) Again it is a shame one of these teams has to lose. Nashville has been a surprise front-running team this season behind the tremendous goaltending of Pekka Rinne, and the upstart season of Calder Trophy candidate Filip Forsberg. Add in a positive year from free-agent signee Mike Ribeiro, and defensive scoring from Roman Josi and Captain Shea Weber and the Predators are a dangerous team. Now enter in the Chicago Blackhawks. A team that has captured 2 Stanley Cups in the last 5 years and has been a playoff staple since 2008. What many people overlook about Chicago is their goaltending. Everyone loves the play and contributions of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Marian Hossa, but it's a player like Corey Crawford who really puts a team like this over the top. He is quietly having a top-5 season and that's probably how he likes it. This series would have been another coin-flip, much like the rest of the Western Conference matchups, expect Patrick Kane is set to return almost 4 weeks ahead of schedule from a broken clavicle and will be in the lineup for Game one, much to the dismay of the Predators, and gives Chicago the edge.
First Round Predications -
Eastern Conference - Montreal over Ottawa 4-3
Tampa Bay over Detroit 4-2
New York Rangers over Pittsburgh 4-1
Washington over New York Islanders 4-3
Western Conference - Anaheim over Winnipeg 4-3
Calgary over Vancouver 4-3
Minnesota over St. Louis 4-3
Chicago over Nashville 4-2
The NCAA Final Four in Men's and Women's basketball just ended with Duke (yuck) and UConn (of course) coming away with the titles in Division 1. The Badgers made their 2nd consecutive appearance in the Final Four and only their second ever NCAA Championship appearance, although they ended up on the wrong side of the decision. Now the NCAA turns to another Championship tournament ending this week with the Men's Frozen Four Championship.
The four qualifying teams are - the University of Nebraska-Omaha, Providence University, #3 seed Boston University, and #2 seed North Dakota. Today marks the beginning of the National Semi-Finals (Frozen Four) with Nebraska-Omaha taking on Providence and Boston taking on North Dakota for the right to play for the NCAA Championship on Saturday in Boston.
Here's what you need to know about the four teams -
University of Nebraska-Omaha (20-12-6) Location: Omaha, Nebraska / Nickname: Mavericks / Colors: Black and Crimson
This is the school's their third appearance in the NCAA Tournament ever and first appearance in the Frozen Four after topping Harvard University and Rhode Island Tech. They are led by Jake Guentzel (So./38pts) and Austin Ortega (So./37pts) offensively, and Ryan Massa (Sr.) in net. Massa has only allowed 1 goal in the NCAA Tournament as the Mavericks defeated Harvard 4-1 and shutout RIT 4-0.
Providence University (24-13-2) Location: Providence, Rhode Island / Nickname: Friars / Colors: Black, Silver, and White
This will be the Friars first appearance in the Frozen Four since 1985 when they lost in the Championship game to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. They are led offensively by Janesville, WI native Ross Mauermann (Sr./35pts) and back-stopped by Jon Gillies (Jr.). The Friars reached the Frozen Four after defeating Miami (Ohio) 7-5 and Denver University 4-1.
Boston University (27-7-5) Location: Boston, Massachusetts / Nickname: Terriers / Colors: Scarlet and White
One of the more notable teams in NCAA Men's Hockey because of Freshman phenom Jack Eichel (Fr./67pts), but the Terriers are more than their Hobey Baker finalist and top-NHL prospect Eichel. Don't sleep on Eichel's line-mate Evan Rodrigues (Sr. 61pts) or goaltender Matt O'Connor (Jr.) who have played large parts in Boston's run to their 22nd Frozen Four appearance in school history. The Terriers have gotten here by beating Yale 3-2 in overtime and the University of Minnesota-Duluth 3-2.
University of North Dakota (29-9-3) Location: Grand Forks, North Dakota / Nickname: UND / Colors: Green and White
Another national power in Men's Hockey, North Dakota is playing in their 21st Frozen Four, having 7 NCAA Championships with their latest coming in 2000. UND is led by their own Hobey Baker Finalist between the pipes in goalie Zane McIntyre (Jr.), as he has stopped 48 of 50 shots in victories over Quinnipiac and St. Cloud State, both 4-1 victories. The top seeded team left in the Frozen Four, UND is led offensively by Drake Caggiula (Jr./36pts) and Michael Parks (Sr./32pts).
My Predictions - Semi-Finals: Providence over Nebraska-Omaha 3-2
Boston over North Dakota 4-3 Finals: Boston over Providence 5-2 Tournament MVP: Jack Eichel (Boston Univ.)