Key players: This series underscores why the Canadiens acquired left wing Thomas Vanek at the trade deadline. In 55 career games against the Bruins, Vanek has 32 goals. There’s no guarantee the Canadiens will be able to re-sign Vanek, who can become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, but if he makes a postseason run to earn a big contract, the Habs won’t complain. Bruins forward Reilly Smith may draw this assignment when Boston can match lines at home. Bruins third-line center Carl Soderberg only had one point in the first round, but the Swede was a strong two-way force and could see increased opportunities in this series due to his size (6-3, 216) against the smallish Canadiens and Montreal’s focus on the Bruins’ top two centers.
Breakdown: No team has haunted the Bruins more than the Canadiens. In a five-decade span from 1946-87, the teams met 18 times in the postseason and Montreal won all 18 series, including six meetings in the Stanley Cup Final. But that streak ended more than a quarter-century ago when the 1988 Bruins, led by Ray Bourque and Cam Neely, defeated the Habs in five games.
On paper, the Bruins appear to have advantages in size, in depth and on their revamped blue line, which has massaged the youth of Dougie Hamilton and Torey Krug nicely into what had been a veteran core led by Zdeno Chara. After a slow start against Detroit, the Bruins’ top line of David Krejci, Milan Lucic and Jarome Iginla totaled 10 points, with Lucic scoring three goals and adding an assist, Iginla posting two of each and Krejci adding two assists. The Bruins also have one of the game’s premier two-way centers in Patrice Bergeron. You won’t find a more detail-oriented and defensively sound player and Bergeron is more than capable of providing offense.
Montreal is in the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2009-10. This is Michel Therrien’s second go-round as coach of the Habs. He was fired midseason in 2002-03 and replaced by none other than current Bruins coach Claude Julien. Montreal is not blessed with size, but that didn’t matter in the first round against the offense-oriented Lightning. Montreal used its tenacity, its speed and the puck moving ability of defenseman P.K. Subban to oust the undermanned Lightning, and could get center Alex Galchenyuk (13 goals, 31 points in 65 games) back at some point in this series. He skated alone on Wednesday morning, his first time on the ice since injuring his right knee in Chicago on April 9.
No matter who takes the ice for Montreal, the road will prove far more difficult against a Bruins team that appears to have the perfect balance of size, speed, grit and skill. The ghosts of the Montreal Forum no longer exist. Boston is just too solid to lose this series.
METRO NO. 1 PITTSBURGH vs. METRO NO. 2 NEW YORK RANGERS
How they got here: Pittsburgh defeated Columbus, 4-2; New York defeated Philadelphia, 4-3.
Season series: Split. Each team won a game in regulation and a game in a shootout.
Playoff history: Pittsburgh leads, 4-0. No series has gone further than six games. The Penguins have won 16-of-20 postseason games between the teams.
Key players: Rangers rookie left wing Chris Kreider (left hand) was handling a puck and taking shots Wednesday, the New York Daily News reported. Kreider had 17 goals and 37 points this season but hasn’t played since March 25. His return would be a big boost to a subpar New York offense that needs as much help as it can get against the explosive Penguins. Penguins C Sidney Crosby has gone 11 straight playoff games without a goal. He’s doing everything else — creating lots of chances, playing superb defense and winning face-offs — but you get the feeling he’s ready to break out just like fellow star Evgeni Malkin did in Game 6 against Columbus with a hat trick. In 47 career games against the Rangers, Crosby has 21 goals and 65 points.
Breakdown: This series boils down to two interrelated issues. Will Fleury play well enough in net to carry the Penguins back into the conference finals, and will New York get enough offense to stay with the high-powered Pens?
If they get Kreider back, that will help, but as long as everyone is talking about Crosby’s drought, what about Rangers forward Rick Nash, who didn’t score in the seven-game series with the Flyers and has one goal in 19 postseason games since he was acquired at a huge cost from the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 2012 offseason? Beating a mediocre Flyers club was one thing; beating a Stanley Cup contender is another when your star forward isn’t contributing much. Brad Richards and Martin St. Louis led the Rangers offense in the first round, but Derick Brassard, Mats Zuccarello and Benoit Pouliot played well and must continue to press the action.
Pittsburgh’s special teams were among the best in the regular season and that is another concern given the Rangers’ power play struggles. Penguins defenseman Kris Letang appears to be rounding back into form, and center Brandon Sutter had as strong a series as any forward against the Blue Jackets. With the Penguins apparently close to full health, they’ll have too much for New York to handle again.
Prediction: Pittsburgh in 7.
WESTERN CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS
PACIFIC NO. 1 ANAHEIM vs. NO. 3 LOS ANGELES
How they got here: Anaheim defeated Dallas, 4-2; Los Angeles defeated San Jose, 4-3.
Season series: Anaheim won, 4-0-1.
Playoff history: The teams have never met.
Key players: LA defenseman Jake Muzzin. He was in the doghouse earlier this season, but he continues to man the left side of the Kings’ top defensive pairing with Drew Doughty. That means it’s his job to protect Doughty’s offensive forays and not allow LA to get exposed on the back side. Anaheim comes in waves so Muzzin has his work cut out for him. Ducks right wing Corey Perry only had two assists in last season’s shocking first-round loss to Detroit. He had seven points in the first round this season. Anaheim needs him to show up.
Breakdown: Anaheim and Los Angeles have played 117 regular-season games against each other, yet the southern California neighbors have never met in the postseason where rivalries are truly created. It’s tempting to anoint Anaheim the favorite based on their Western Conference-best 116 points, but hard, heavy LA is built for the playoffs and the Kings are not far removed from their 2012 Stanley Cup, whereas Anaheim has turned over most of the roster from its 2007 Cup-winning team.
The teams both boast terrific two-way centers in LA’s Anze Kopitar (10 points) and Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf (seven points), but the Ducks are more of an offensive team, finishing second in the NHL with 266 goals while LA led the league in goals against (174). If the Kings have an advantage anywhere, it’s in goal. Quick is a proven playoff performer; Anaheim’s goaltending situation is in flux.
Kings coach Darryl Sutter said after the trading deadline that it was time to give some rookies an expanded role. Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson have delivered in the postseason, combining for eight points in a series win over the Sharks. The Kings will need that balance to continue, but it’s at the other end that LA will win this series. Anaheim had nine players with 10 or more goals this season and the Ducks power play has been clicking in the postseason with seven power-play goals in 26 chances.
CENTRAL NO. 3 CHICAGOvs. WILD CARD NO. 1 MINNESOTA
How they got here: Chicago defeated St. Louis, 4-2; Minnesota defeated Colorado, 4-3.
Season series: Minnesota won, 3-1-1.
Playoff history: Chicago leads, 1-0.
Goalies: Chicago’s Corey Crawford does not get receive the accolades afforded the NHL’s top goalies. Usually, he hears the opposite, but Crawford has performed well since returning from an injury in early January. He played well in last year’s run to the Stanley Cup and is currently third in the league in save percentage (.935) and third in goals against average (1.98) in the 2014 postseason. It may be time to give Crawford his due.
Key players: Chicago C Michal Handzus was the biggest reason Chicago’s horrid regular season penalty-killing unit is tops in the playoffs at 93.1 percent. Handzus’ value is limited in 5-on-5 play because he is slow. Chicago needs an upgrade at center and may pursue free-agent Paul Stastny, but in the meantime, Handzus has dropped to fourth line and the Hawks are surprisingly weak and small up the middle for a Cup contender. It would help if Handzus could reprise his 2013 playoff success.
Breakdown: The Blackhawks barely broke a sweat in dispatching Minnesota in five games in the first round of the 2013 playoffs. Chicago fans are probably happy they won’t have to face the Avalanche with their scary array of skilled forwards that put a regular-season whipping on the Hawks, but the Wild actually won the season series from Chicago, too — as did first-round victim, St. Louis.
Minnesota is a different bunch than last season and they’ve got some weapons to contend with including Game 7 hero Nino Niederreiter, the No. 5 overall pick in the 2010 draft, who was acquired last June from the Islanders for Cal Clutterbuck. Niederreiter set up the game-tying goal late in regulation in Denver on Wednesday and scored the game-winner in OT. The Wild also got superb series from forwards Zach Parise (10 points) and Mikael Granlund as well as defensemen Jared Spurgeon and Ryan Suter, who logged better than 29 minutes per game.
“We’ve got more confidence than when we played them in last year’s playoffs, we’ve got more momentum,” coach Mike Yeo said of a return engagement with the Hawks. Whether any of that will matter is an entirely different question. Sure, the Wild beat Chicago in the regular season series and gained some confidence from that win over the Avs, but the Blackhawks have won two Stanley Cups and they proved they are capable of flipping the switch in their first-round series with St. Louis.
On paper and in experience, the Blackhawks are simply a better team than Minnesota. They have erased the defensive and penalty-killing deficiencies that plagued them in the regular season as if on cue. Colorado’s skill is mind-boggling, but Chicago’s stable of forwards — Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marina Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Brandon Saad — is just as impressive, but with far more playoff experience. What’s more, the Blackhawks don’t have the blue-line deficiencies Colorado had. Norris Trophy candidate Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Johnny Oduya and Nick Leddy are as good a top five as exists in the league. And it’s no longer fashionable to criticize Crawford.
The Wild may push this series farther than last season’s matchup, but Chicago is too battle-tested to lose this one.