NHL conference finals preview: Who’s quick and who’s sharp?

Kings goalie Jonathan Quick (left) has produced in the playoffs, but Blackhawks left wing Patrick Sharp (right) hasn't.

Gary A. Vasquez/Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

This year’s conference finals will have something old and something new. While the Montreal Canadiens and New York Rangers upset last season’s Eastern Conference finalists, Boston and Pittsburgh, in the second round, Chicago and Los Angeles will meet in the Western Conference Final for the second straight season.

The Blackhawks (2010, 2013) and Kings (2012) have won three of the past four Stanley Cups.  Montreal (1993) and New York (1994) are hoping to end long droughts.

Here’s a look at both matchups.

 

EASTERN CONFERENCE FINAL

ATLANTIC NO. 3 MONTREAL vs. METROPOLITAN NO. 2 NEW YORK RANGERS

How they got here: Montreal defeated Tampa Bay 4-0 in the first round and Boston 4-3 in the conference semifinals. New York defeated Philadelphia 4-3 in the first round and Pittsburgh 4-3 in the conference semifinals.

STANLEY CUP CHASE

Season series: Montreal won 2-1, with a total of four goals being scored.

Playoff history: Each team has won seven series. This is the first meeting in 18 years –€” and only the third since the 1979 Stanley Cup Final. New York won the last meeting in 1996 (4-2). Each team’s last Stanley Cup came in successive years — Montreal in 1993, New York in 1994.

Key players: New York left wing Rick Nash hasn’t been immune to criticism, but it would have been much more pointed had the Rangers not rallied against Pittsburgh. Nash leads the postseason with 52 shots, so he’s clearly getting his chances, but he hasn’t scored and has just one point in his past 12 games. How long can the Rangers survive without better production from their highest-paid skater? The Rangers are 13th out of 16 teams in goals per game in the postseason (2.43). Montreal defenseman P.K. Subban is going to play almost half the game. He’ll be the main target of Rangers forecheckers and neutral-zone trapping, which New York hopes to parlay into turnovers and offensive chances. Subban handled that test with ease against the Bruins, so the only things that could slow him are fatigue, injuries or a lack of focus now that the Canadiens have dispatched their hated rivals.

Breakdown: This is a series of reunions, even if it’s been nearly two decades since these teams met in the postseason. New York coach Alain Vigneault returns to face the first team he coached from 1997 to 2000. New York forward Benoit Pouliot played for Montreal from 2009 to 2011, and Rangers defenseman Raphael Diaz is facing the team he called his own four months ago. Canadiens forward Brandon Prust played for New York from 2009 to 2012, and Montreal playoff hero Dale Weise began his career in New York.

Any coach will tell you the ability to roll four lines in the playoffs is critical in what is viewed as a war of attrition. Of the 15 New York forwards to play at least one game in the first two rounds, 13 have averaged more than 10 minutes per game. That was particularly important when the Rangers played five games in seven days spanning the first two rounds.

The Rangers have reached the conference final without much production from their top line of Derek Stepan (two goals, six points), Nash (five assists) and Chris Kreider (one goal, two points), who returned from a broken hand for the final four games of the second round. New York’s top defensive pairing of Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh helped hold Philadelphia’s Claude Giroux and Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby to a combined three goals and nine points in 14 games. Girardi and McDonagh nearly matched that production, combining for two goals and eight points.

Montreal is riding a wave of emotion after upsetting arch-rival Boston and must be careful that doesn’t affect its focus. The Canadiens have to continue to play fast. That is what pushed them past Boston and that is what will push them past New York.

PHOTOS: FEEL PASSION OF NHL PLAYOFFS

Subban (26:45 ice time per game) will be a marked man again and must continue to play poised hockey while creating offense with his passing and puck handling through the neutral zone. Trade deadline acquisition Thomas Vanek had four goals against the Bruins, while Brendan Gallagher, Max Pacioretty and Tomas Plekanec all have chipped in, but Lars Eller probably has been Montreal’s most consistent forward with points in seven of 11 games. He is tied with Gallagher for the team lead among forwards with four goals and five assists. Don’t forget playoff money-man Daniel Briere (two goals, four assists) either. Briere had a goal and an assist in the series-clinching game against Pittsburgh and has 115 points in 118 career playoff games.

Prediction: Montreal in 7.

 

WESTERN CONFERENCE FINAL

PACIFIC NO.  3 LOS ANGELES vs. CENTRAL NO. 3 CHICAGO

How they got here: Los Angeles defeated San Jose 4-3 in the first round — becoming just the fourth team to come back from a 3-0 deficit — and Anaheim 4-3 in the second round. Chicago defeated St. Louis 4-2 in the first round and Minnesota 4-2 in the second round.

Season series: Chicago won 3-0, outscoring the Kings 9-4.

Playoff history: Chicago leads 2-0, defeating the Kings 4-1 in 1974 and 4-1 in 2013.

Key players: Los Angeles center Jeff Carter has been effective this postseason (four goals, 11 points), but he’s had limited success against Chicago in the postseason as a member of the Philadelphia Flyers (2010) and Kings (2013), with just two goals in 11 playoff games against the Blackhawks. L.A. needs him to contribute because the Hawks are thin at center beyond Jonathan Toews (an area they most certainly will address in the offseason). Carter needs to exploit that weakness. Chicago defenseman Duncan Keith will be the favorite target of L.A.’s withering forecheck. Keith is the Hawks’ quarterback and makes the transition offense go with quick reads and good decisions with the puck. The Kings will pound him whenever possible and try to force him into turnovers. Keith is generally up to the task. He is the favorite to win the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman for the second time in his career. Keith has logged fewer than 24 minutes of ice time in this postseason just once.

Breakdown: This is a rematch of last season’s Western Conference Final, but there are notable changes on both sides. Chicago’s forward depth isn’t as strong as it was last year due to the offseason losses of center Dave Bolland and wings Michael Frolik and Viktor Stalberg.

For the Kings, the one notable addition — and one that has paid huge dividends in the postseason — is trade-deadline acquisition Marian Gaborik, who has nine goals and 15 points in 14 playoff games. L.A.’s top line of center Anze Kopitar, Gaborik and rugged right wing Dustin Brown will give Chicago plenty to think about, especially Kopitar (five goals, 19 points), who has been brilliant at both ends of the ice in the postseason.

PLAYERS ONLY

It will be interesting to see how Chicago coach Joel Quenneville matches up with that line. Will he use his top line of Jonathan Toews (five goals, 10 points), Marian Hossa (two goals, 11 points) and Patrick Sharp, choosing to fight fire with fire (not to mention the superlative defensive skills of Toews and Hossa)? Or will that difficult assignment fall to one of Chicago’s lesser lines, all of which lack a true shutdown center?

The Hawks are hoping to get gritty forward Andrew Shaw back at some point in this series. Shaw left Game 1 against Minnesota with a right leg injury but was due to start skating this weekend. The Hawks also will get wing Brandon Bollig back from a two-game suspension served in the final two games of the Wild series.

The Hawks need more from Sharp, their regular-season points leader who has just two goals in the playoffs.

Chicago probably has a better blue line than any other team in the league, particularly with its top four players: Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya, but if the Kings can get Willie Mitchell and Robyn Regehr back at some point in the series, they may be able to match Chicago. L.A.’s top pairing of Drew Doughty and Jake Muzzin has played at a high level, but Slava Voynov, Jeff Schultz and Alec Martinez have struggled at times.

Prediction: Chicago in 7.