the Fifth Line: Conference Finals, 2015 Edition

While we were all watching playoff hockey, another spectator added chum to the shark tank of off-season coaching vacancies.

Mike Babcock, whose Detroit Red Wings spent another postseason extending a record yet coming up way short of the Cup, has been given permission to shop his coaching talents to other teams.

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Babcock’s glare is so withering, it actually put out that terrifying AHL Flames mascot.

 

But for the moment, the courtship of Babcock takes a back seat to the four teams who’ve survived to the Conference Finals, including the new ‘comeback kids’ of the playoffs, the New York Rangers. Before we get to them, let’s look at the West:

Anaheim Ducks | 0 – 0 | Chicago Blackhawks

How the Ducks Got Here: Uh, did you see their schedule? If the Ducks had not made it this far, it would’ve been a failure of epic proportion that would’ve potentially cost Bruce Boudreau his job. Anaheim got here by not by not being an epic failure.

And for being adequate enough to make it past the worst playoff bracket in the NHL, the Ducks are being lauded as the team to beat. They may be, but what evidence do we have for it? They spent most of the first round trailing the lowest seed in the West, and yet found the resolve to come back and win every game against the worst goalie in the playoffs.

Then they went up against a Calgary Flames team whose depth chart is so shallow, it comes with a “No Diving” warning. Credit to Anaheim, though — they dominated those first couple games. One might point out that Jiri Hudler was injured most of game 1, and the Flames without Hudler might as well be the Edmonton Oilers. Calgary was able mount something resembling a comeback (they are the 2015 Flames, after all)… until Anaheim took advantage of Deryk Engelland and Brandon Bollig living together in the penalty box, and put the series away.

Anaheim (and Boudreau) took what was given them, didn’t screw it up, and got the “early exit” monkey off their backs. Now they’ll have to actually play a high-caliber team for the first time in these playoffs.

How the ‘Hawks Got Here: By being a dominant team in all three zones and in net.

It is difficult to overstate both Chicago’s dominance and my surprise of the fact that this was the series that produced the only sweep in the second round. Over the 240 minutes of gameplay, Minnesota lead for exactly 0:00. It’s difficult to parse the possession stats, because a lot of analysis discounts shot attempts when a team is trailing late in a game. The Wild were always trailing late in every game, and 172 out of those 240 minutes.

At the end of the series against Nashville, it seemed that Chicago had rediscovered its defensive bona fides, and the question was if that form would carry into the series against the Wild. Not only did it, but the offense didn’t lose a step against another Vezina Trophy finalist in net. The Blackhawks are rounding into form at the right time, and look to carry that into Anaheim

Where We Go From Here: Damned if I know. By all accounts, the Ducks have the better postseason numbers this year. But they put up those numbers against woeful opponents. Both teams have swept a series — Anaheim against the Jets, and Chicago against the Wild. We saw how dominant the ‘Hawks were, leading for nearly 3/4 of the time they were on the ice. Anaheim, however, spent less than 40 minutes (out of 240) leading the Jets — a far worse team than the Wild. Despite that, Anaheim lead when it counted.

Chicago, meanwhile, will be dealing with an injury to its defensive corps. Michal Rozsival pretty much destroyed his legs while trying to quickly reverse direction during a Wild transition. On one hand, Rozsival was the weak link in the the Blackhawks’ defense, and his increased ice time and decreasing skills were were causing the rest of the defense to compensate for him. On the other hand, Rozsival hadn’t looked awful in the Wild series, and you rarely want to change up a unit when it’s clicking. In his absence will step David Rundblad, a young defenseman who saw ice time in the latter half of the season. He has youth and a fresh set of legs that Rozsival didn’t, but he’s still green.

At Anaheim, the Ducks might be able to exploit some matchups against Rundblad or Kimmo Timonen. But Coach Q has no problem pairing either of those defensemen with other d-men, and neither is the turnstile that Rozsival could be. In addition, none of Chicago’s forward lines have suspect defense, and their depth is ridiculous. Any team who can ice a “third line” of Antoine Vermette sandwiched between Patrick Sharp and Teuvo Teravainen is a team with the advantage.

Prediction: Blackhawks in 6. Anaheim has a lot of confidence and physicality, but they’ve barely been blooded in the playoffs. Chicago has fought through two rounds against better defenses and better netminders.

New York Rangers| 0 – 0 | Tampa Bay Lightning

How the Rangers Got Here: With a lot more trouble than expected.

Henrik Lundqvist has been stellar between the pipes for the Rangers, and without his .944 save percentage, New York likely isn’t in the conference finals. Credit him, credit the defensemen in front of him, credit his coach. Then ask: where in sweet Liberty’s arms is New York’s offense?

Of the sixteen teams that made it into the playoffs, the Rangers have the second-fewest goals per game. You could chalk this up to facing a Barry Trotz team for seven games, but that doesn’t hold up. They didn’t face any of the Vezina Trophy finalists, they didn’t face any of the teams in the Central, and their offensive numbers looked anemic before they faced the Capitals.

The Rangers are currently relying on two men named Derek (or Derick) to lead their scoring, but neither Stepan nor Brassard would break the top five in scoring if they were on, say, the Lightning. Their defense has kept them in every game — fewest goal-against-per-game in the playoffs — and it’s allowed the offense to eke out just enough goals to win. Usually from their blue line or depth players.

But the Rangers still won, even when they were deep in a hole against Washington. They adjusted to Washington’s schemes, and pulled out a series win after coming within two minutes of being eliminated. I reiterate that it will be a damned shame if Alain Vigneault doesn’t win the Jack Adams Award this year.

How the Lightning Got Here: By remembering that they have one of the most dangerous, lightning-fast (sorry, couldn’t help myself) offenses in the NHL.

That’s not to impugn Tampa Bay’s defense. Victor Hedman and company a perfectly good defensive corps, and Ben Bishop was the main goalie on my fantasy team. But nobody scored more goals during the regular season than the Lightning, and that’s how they’ve made it to the Eastern finals. Nobody else in the East has come close to the offensive output of the Lightning.

The Red Wings pushed Tampa Bay to the limit, and the Canadiens didn’t go quietly to the end of their season, but neither team could stifle the multi-pronged and multi-facted attack of the Lightning.

Where We Go From Here: This is shaping up to be another close-run series. Tampa Bay survived the stifling schemes of Mike Babcock and the Red Wings; New York survived the stifling schemes of Barry Trotz and the Capitals. Tampa Bay out-dueled Hart Trophy finalist and projected Vezina Trophy winner Carey Price; New York out-dueled Hart Trophy finalist and Rocket Richard Trophy winner Alex Ovechkin. Both have had to come back to win a series in seven games.

Tampa Bay won all three of the regular-season meetings between these two teams, but they haven’t played each other in 2015 at all. Lundqvist is the consummate playoff goalie, but Bishop is no slouch. And if Carey Price could only slow the Lightning’s roll, Lundqvist will be just as hard-pressed. New York has the defensive depth, but their offense has a tendency to experience inopportune droughts. The Lightning might have Ryan Callahan at less than 100%, if he plays when the series starts. The Rangers may have lost Dan Boyle, may or may not get Mats Zuccarello back, and have no idea where Marty St. Louis has disappeared to.

Prediction: Lightning in 7. Tampa Bay has a lot fewer question marks coming into this series, but I would not be surprised if Vigneault makes enough adjustments to prove me wrong.

Unfortunately, the conference finals don’t start until Saturday, so we have two whole days without playoff hockey. Could I interest you in a few drinks while we wait?

-J.

-J.

The entity known as -J. would be at home in a place like Carcosa or Night Vale, but instead lives near a far more dreary place -- Wrigley Field. He is the patron Addisonian of whisk(e)y and tabletop games, and is often adorned with a waistcoat & his ridiculous mustache.

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