No. 3 Phoenix Coyotes vs. No. 8 Los Angeles Kings
I really love what Los Angeles has been doing in these playoffs. There weren't many pundits who thought the team would get out of the first round, but it's been playing phenomenal hockey. What makes the Kings so dangerous is the fact that they're playing well in all areas of the game. They can score with Dustin Brown (11 points) and Anze Kopitar (10 points) leading the way. Los Angeles' defense is playing well, too, and when all of that breaks down, it has one of the hottest goaltenders going with Jonathan Quick. His numbers are particularly strong with a 1.55 goals-against average, and a .949 save percentage.
Another reason to like the Kings is the fact that they soundly beat two different types of teams. They played a great offensive series against powerhouse Vancouver, and then showed they can beat a great defensive team in St. Louis. Los Angeles is just firing on all cylinders, and have proven it will be a difficult out in the postseason.
Then there's Phoenix. If anyone truly thought the Coyotes would be in the Western Conference finals, raise your hand. If your hand is up, you're either lying or a really good guesser.
No one really thought Phoenix would be this far, but head coach Dave Tippett has done a phenomenal job with his club. The Coyotes play a team-based system similar to the Devils, where defensive responsibility is even more important than quality scoring opportunities. Phoenix won't win many high-scoring games, but that's not the style that is working splendidly for this team.
The guy who is really turning heads around the NHL is goalie Mike Smith. Before the season, Smith was known more as a journeyman player who was just alright in Tampa Bay. He has been absolutely unreal this postseason however, thus far posting a 1.77 goals-against average, and a .948 save percentage. Smith essentially won his team's second-round series against Nashville, and will have to be equally as good to beat Los Angeles as well.
If Phoenix does manage to win a Cup this year, there's no question that Mike Smith will be the Conn Smythe winner as playoff MVP. A tip-of-the-hat as well to forward Antoine Vermette, as he's played very well on the offensive side with nine points in the playoffs so far, with five of them being goals.
Prediction: Kings in seven.
No.1 New York Rangers vs. No. 6 New Jersey Devils
The Rangers are becoming quite good at escaping rounds by the skin of their teeth. They've beaten the seventh and eighth seeds, but took seven games to do so in both cases. It's been an interesting postseason for the Rangers as they have not looked dominant in any facet of the games, but have won based on just having more talent than their opponents.
Take nothing away from the performances of goaltender Henrik Lundvist however, as he has been strong in net throughout the tournament. His goals-against average is well under two, and his save percentage is above .940, which is all you're looking for to be successful in the playoffs. New York has been solid defensively, but it just seems as though the spark that the team had through the regular season just isn't there at the moment.
If the Rangers going to be successful against the Devils, they're going to have to beat them at their own game. New York needs to employ a relentless fore-check and try to hem New Jersey in its own zone. The Rangers have much more in the way of offensive skill from top to bottom, and they'll need contributions from all four lines if they expect to move onto the Stanley Cup finals.
Much like Phoenix, there were few people out there who felt that New Jersey was a legitimate threat in these playoffs. However, just like the Coyotes, the Devils have bought into a team-first system that stresses strong defensive play, and it's working. What was so amazing to me in the Flyers series was how the Devils were able to completely neutralize a strong and fast Philadelphia forward core. The Flyers were a mere shadow of themselves, and much of it had to do with team defense, and of course "Captain Playoffs", Martin Brodeur.
Brodeur's numbers are not staggering, but what separates him from other goalies in the league is his ability to make a big save when his team needs it. There are many quality net minders who make 35 saves a night, but still lose. It truly is something innate in Brodeur as he might make 19 saves in a night and give up two goals, but in the last minute, he's making the game-winning save.
One of the more undocumented reasons as to New Jersey's success has been the play of forward Ilya Kovalchuk. He's a world-renowned talent for sure, but had a reputation of being a me-first type of player who just scored goals. This postseason though, he has re-invented his game. Right now, the sniper has 12 points through two series, but only five of them have been goals! He's turned into a playmaker, and it's making the other players around him better. New Jersey is going to be very tough to beat over a seven-game stretch.