We are down to hockey’s final four, not to be confused with the NCAA’s Frozen Four. A year ago, the New York Rangers and Chicago Blackhawks appeared headed for a Stanley Cup Finals showdown, but the Los Angeles Kings had Game 7 magic that would not quit. But it very well could happen this year. The Rangers and Blackhawks will have a tough road, as the Tampa Bay Lightning and Anaheim Ducks stand in their way. A look now at the two series:
Eastern Conference – Rangers (M1) vs. Lightning (A2)
The Rangers are trying to buck a trend of President’s Cup winners who have faltered in the playoffs. They were just over a minute from being eliminated by the Washington Capitals in Game 5 before rallying to erase a 3-1 series deficit. New York is a very deep team and goaltender Henrik Lundqvist can take over a game when he’s on. Here’s the problem: Tampa Bay matches up very well with certain teams, and one of those is the Rangers. They went 5-0 against Montreal during the regular season before disposing of them in six games in the conference semifinals. They went 3-0 vs. the Rangers this season, outscoring them 15-7. A return to health of former Ranger Ryan Callahan, who was traded last year for Martin St. Louis, would go a long way for the Bolts, who won their only Stanley Cup in 2004. The Rangers have won just one Cup since 1940, which was 21 years ago in 1994. Though Ben Bishop played very well in net against Montreal, New York has the edge at goalie in this series and seems like a team on a mission after coming up just short a year ago. This will be the first playoff meeting between the two teams. Prediction: Rangers in 6.
Western Conference – Ducks (P1) vs. Blackhawks (C3)
Of the four remaining teams, the Blackhawks are the team with the most recent postseason success, having won Stanley Cup titles in 2010 and 2013. Like the Eastern finals, Anaheim and Chicago are meeting for the first time ever in the playoffs, with the Blackhawks winning two of the three regular season meetings and outscored the Ducks 8-3 overall. With Patrick Kane back in full swing, the Blackhawks are making life much easier on goalie Corey Crawford, who rebounded in a big way against Minnesota after being benched in the opening round against Nashville. Crawford is the only remaining goalie to win a Stanley Cup, experience that could prove valuable against his counterpart, Frederik Andersen. The Ducks’ rookie netminder has been stellar in his first postseason, winning eight of nine games and posting a 1.96 goals against average. Still, the Winnipeg Jets and Calgary Flames did not pose the offensive threat that the Blackhawks do. Anaheim knows how to win the close games, setting a league record this season by going 31-1-7 in one-goal contests. But the Blackhawks are a dominant postseason team, and even though the Ducks, who won their lone Cup in 2007, are a valiant foe, it’s hard to bet against Chicago in this spot. The Hawks came up one goal short of reaching the Cup last year, giving them that same on-a-mission feel that the Rangers are carrying into their series. Prediction: Blackhawks in 7.