The Show Must Go On: A View of the Conference Finals
By Miranda Martin
Nashville Predators fans have had one week since the team’s exit to adjust to what may be a very bumpy offseason.
With several Predators going into free agency (whether restricted or unrestricted) and a CBA agreement that is sitting on the NHL docket, no one really knows what to prepare for this offseason. Many Predators fans may have opted to follow the handful of players who went to Finland for the IIHF World Championships. Others may just be curling up into a ball in denial of the potential changes this summer.
For those who have decided to stay entertained by the NHL for a few more weeks, brace yourself. The Conference Finals can arguably be one of the biggest surprises in a long time. No matter what, the Stanley Cup finals will be Atlantic vs. Pacific, as those are the only two divisions represented this late in the postseason.
If anyone actually predicted that the Los Angeles Kings and the Phoenix Coyotes would be the two teams in the Western Conference Finals this season, please go get a lottery ticket right now. This season, the Western Conference was seemingly dominated by the Central Division, with four out of the five teams in the division taking first place. Going a little under the radar, the Pacific Division took up three of the eight positions in the postseason. Only one team from the Northwest Division (Vancouver Canucks) made it this far. The eighth seeded LA has been on a roll this postseason, taking out the President’s Trophy winning Vancouver Canucks in five games and sweeping the St. Louis Blues in the second round. The Phoenix Coyotes have made an impressive run in the postseason, visiting the Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history after knocking off the Chicago Blackhawks and the Nashville Predators.
As for the Eastern Conference, it has been a little more predictable, but still an impressive run by both teams. The Atlantic Division, which held four out of the eight positions in the Eastern Conference, saw two of their teams prevail to the finals. The New York Rangers, who took first place in the conference, found themselves fighting two seven-game series to beat the Ottawa Senators and Washington Capitals, respectively. After taking a seven-game series against the Florida Panthers in the first round, the New Jersey Devils dominated the Conference Semifinals, winning four in a row as they took the series against the Philadelphia Flyers in 5 games.
The story for the Conference Finals across the board will be goaltending. Vezina finalists Jonathan Quick and Henrik Lundqvist have made it this far. Four-time Vezina winner Martin Brodeur broke the all-time playoff shutout record, surpassing Patrick Roy, at the beginning of the postseason. Mike Smith would likely be fourth in the ranking in the Vezina race, having an outstanding regular season as well as postseason. In the West, Jonathan Quick and Mike Smith have both been particularly crucial for their respective teams. Though the goaltending story in the East hasn’t been as crucial, it is the first Conference Final appearance by Henrik Lundqvist. With retirement looming in every Devil fans mind, this may be Martin Brodeur’s last Conference Final appearance.
Another crucial component of the two series will be the captains. There is a 75% chance that an American captain will lead their team to the Stanley Cup. In the East, Devils Zach Parise has posted 8 points in 12 games, and Rangers Ryan Callahan has posted 6 in 14, but their leadership has been crucial. Kings Dustin Brown and Coyotes Shane Doan have been more in the headlines, posting pivotal goals in their series, while also bringing an intense physical presence to the series.
One game has already been played in the postseason, with LA taking a 1-0 series lead after defeating the Coyotes 4-2 Sunday night. The Eastern Conference Finals kicks off tonight at 6 PM CST at Madison Square Garden. For a full schedule of the two series, check out NHL.com.