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The NHL Playoff Primer: Conference Semifinals, Part II

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Original 6

The NHL is big on its history, and why shouldn’t it be? The Stanley Cup is the oldest trophy in North American professional sports and the league loves to remind us of the allure of the Original Six franchises, all of which were part of the NHL before the Great Depression.

Owning those roots is pretty good business for a league that has had about as much success with expansion in the past two decades as The Situation has had post-Jersey Shore. San Jose, Ottawa, Tampa Bay, Anaheim, Florida, Nashville, Atlanta, Columbus and Minnesota have combined to win two Cups and have one franchise relocated. The Sharks are the lone team in that group that’s both been a contender year in and year out and not struggled to fill the seats, but unless they can finally break through in the next few seasons – the Shark eating the hockey stick logo is directly next to the word “underachiever” in most English dictionaries – there’s a better chance of that group losing another team than winning another title.

Market size and location, of course, have a considerable amount to do with the general lack of success of those franchises, and that’s why the Original Six is such an outstanding marketing tool.

Not that the NHL always takes advantage. Know how many times Montreal, New York and Toronto have visited Detroit since Thanksgiving 2008? Once each! The Maple Leafs have also hosted the Blackhawks –you guessed it – once! in that span, depriving Chicagoans and Torontonians a chance to regularly trade deep dish pizza for poutine.

Fortunately, despite the best efforts of Gary Bettman, each team is guaranteed to visit the other 29 NHL cities at least once a year starting with next season’s latest crack at realignment. It’s about time. Had these shenanigans of seeing a non-conference team every other year in a best-case scenario continued, there would have been generations of kids in Raleigh, N.C., wondering what the Winged Wheel on Detroit’s jerseys is all about and masses in Columbus scratching their heads over why the Canadiens are called the Habs.

Now, instead of just watching a guy with a No. 8 jersey skating around when Washington comes to town as often as the World Cup is held, fans in Denver will know him better as Alex Ovechkin, overrated Russian marksman and David Copperfield of the postseason.

Just like every Eastern Conference city calls him already.

But today’s not a day to get hung up on Wild Panthers and Blue Jacketed Predators. It’s time to turn back the clock by looking forward to two old-school rivalries – one of which hasn’t been renewed in the playoffs since Bobby Orr was in his prime, Secretariat was a record-setting celebrity and the Yankees were better known for swapping families than winning baseball games.

Chicago's Patrick Sharp celebrates a goal against the Red Wings (Getty Images)

Chicago’s Patrick Sharp celebrates a goal against the Red Wings (Getty Images)

1.) Chicago vs. 7.) Detroit

The Blackhawks will win if: Corey Crawford’s body isn’t overtaken by a giant octopus. Many have wondered whether Crawford is a good enough goaltender to win a Stanley Cup – particularly after his struggles against Phoenix in last season’s first round – but those critics aren’t very vocal these days. Crawford was one of two netminders with a sub-2.00 goals-against average in the regular season – teammate Ray Emery was the other – and he gave up seven goals in five games in the first round win over Minnesota.

Mike Ilitch, meanwhile, may want to have his lawyers put down their Hot-N-Readies and double check the legalese on his stake in the Red Wings, because Crawford absolutely OWNS Detroit. His 11-2-2 record and 1.82 GAA in 15 starts in the series is good, but it’s even more astounding when you take a peek at his .943 save percentage. The Wings are getting looks, they’re just not getting much of anything past Crawford. He’s given up eight goals in winning his last six starts against Detroit – four this season – and the Blackhawks have won seven straight in the series overall, allowing one goal each in five of those.

Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch displaying the same face his customers experience after eating at Little Caesars (Getty Images)

Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch displaying the same face his customers experience after eating at Little Caesars. (Getty Images)

The upside for the Red Wings is that they’re always in the game against Chicago. Save for a 7-1 rout at Joe Louis Arena on March 31, the last TEN games in this series have been decided by exactly one goal. The Blackhawks’ superior depth and skill certainly had something to do with them pulling out seven of those, but the playoffs have a way of sometimes minimizing talent disparities.

Chicago’s power play was, to be kind, a disaster during the last month of the regular season – 4 for 33 over its last 15 games – but it scored twice with the man advantage against the Wild and continued to be the most dominant even-strength team in hockey. The Blackhawks are also among the best on the penalty kill, shutting Minnesota out in 17 short-handed situations. Think that trend can’t hold? Think again. Joel Quenneville’s boys have killed of 62 of 64 opponent power plays since St. Patrick’s Day. There’s no Irish luck in that.

The Red Wings will win if: Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg are the two best offensive players in the series. That may sound overly simplistic, but Detroit’s big guns have to be a pair of bazookas if it’s going to win. Datsyuk was his usual outstanding two-way self against Anaheim, frustrating Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf while chipping in two goals and five assists, while Zetterberg came alive after a slow start with three goals and four assists over the series’ final three games. This Datsyuk goal was especially filthy.

These two have had a bit of a tougher time dealing with Jonathan Toews and friends. Zetterberg has one goal in the last THREE SEASONS against Chicago and is a minus-9 in that 13-game span. Datsyuk didn’t have a point in the four games in 2013 and has just four goals in the last 20 in the series. So outperforming Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp looks like a bit of a tall order here.

Toews is certainly capable of doing his share of two-way work against a team’s top line, but the Red Wings will have another problem with the return of Chicago’s Dave Bolland. The third-line center hasn’t played since April 22 because of a lower-body injury, but he’ll be back Wednesday night to hassle Detroit’s offensive stars. And with 21 points over his last 23 postseason games, Bolland can provide some scoring as well.

There figure to be lots of 3-2 and 2-1 games in this series, and that means that even if Datsyuk and Zetterberg can get going, Jimmy Howard will need to outplay Crawford.  Is he up for it? It’s hard to say. Howard has been part of three postseasons prior to this one and has yet to make it out of the second round. In his last 24 playoffs games, he’s allowed at least two goals all but once – not exactly the mark of a goaltender that’s going to carry his team.

The Red Wings had six legs of cross-country flights in their seven-gamer against Anaheim, while the Blackhawks have been sitting home since last Friday. Detroit might be a bit tired of traveling, but its best chance to steal one at the United Center could still be in Game 1 if Chicago looks at all rusty.

Fun fact: Hossa scored a goal in each of his final three games with Pittsburgh against Detroit in the 2008 Stanley Cup finals. He has three goals in 19 games against the Red Wings since spending the 2008-09 season with Detroit.

The pick: Blackhawks in 5

Patrice Bergeron and Tyler Seguin celebrate Bergeron's Game 7 winner (Boston Globe)

Patrice Bergeron and Tyler Seguin celebrate Bergeron’s Game 7 winner (Boston Globe)

4.) Boston vs. 6.) New York Rangers

The Bruins will win if: They continue to find a horseshoe up their collective rears after Monday’s comeback for the ages against Toronto. It’s nearly impossible to determine how Boston will come out in Game 1 after its historic Game 7 thievery against Canada’s Finest, but it’s easy to guess who it will look to for inspiration. Three years ago, as any Boston fan remembers but will certainly claim not to, the Bruins blew a 3-0 second-round series lead to Philadelphia. To top it off, they coughed up a 3-0 lead in Game 7, and the Flyers then had to go home to start the conference finals against Montreal two days later. They took the momentum with them, winning Game 1 6-0 and cruising past the Canadiens in five.

But those Flyers had a growing sense they were the better team over a multi-game span in that series, while these Bruins were on the verge of a collapse until Monday’s North End Nailbiter went their way.  Now they have to cease the celebration and get ready for a team they haven’t faced in the playoffs since 1973.

The best thing to come out of Game 7 for Boston was the revival of its struggling second line of Patrice Bergeron, Tyler Seguin and Brad Marchand. The trio combined for one goal in the first six games, but Bergeron tied the finale late in regulation and then won it in OT after Seguin and Marchand put the pressure on goaltender James Reimer.

Much like Pittsburgh transitioning from the speedy Islanders to the more patient, puck-controlling Senators, the Bruins now go from facing a team that wants to get up and down to one that’s more interested in keeping the mistakes to a minimum and letting its goaltender win games. Goals will be precious in this series, particularly on special teams. The last nine games between the Bruins and Rangers have featured four power-play goals on 58 chances. Keep some Dostoyevsky handy for this series. It might start to look pretty entertaining after about two periods.

Henrik Lundqvist (Reuters)

Henrik Lundqvist (Reuters)

The Rangers will win if: Henrik Lundqvist is in the Bruins’ heads. Hmm, almost sounds repetitive. But it certainly applies to yet another series. Lundqvist is 11-4-0 with a 1.92 GAA over the last four seasons against Boston, though the Bruins did sneak three apiece by King Henrik while dropping two of three meetings in 2013. Lundqvist is coming off shutouts in Game 6 and Game 7 against the Capitals, so he probably wouldn’t care if the Bruins had scored 13 goals in the final 90 seconds against the Maple Leafs.

But here’s how little margin for error this man has. Lundqvist has a 1.74 GAA and .939 save percentage in his last 17 playoff games – and he’s 5-12! The Rangers somehow scored at least four goals in three of their seven games against the Cap, but that broke a streak of TWENTY-ONE postseason games in which they’d failed to score four. Again, keep your iPod loaded with podcasts about the harvesting of lima beans. The red-light guy at TD Garden and MSG certainly will.

The Rangers probably aren’t going to win another series with Rick Nash failing to score a goal, but they’d love to see some continued production from another former Blue Jacket. Derick Brassard had five goals and six assists in 13 regular-season games after coming over from Columbus, then recorded nine points in his final five games versus Washington.

One thing that could keep Lundqvist and Tuukka Rask from completely dominating this series is a lack of healthy defensemen in front of them. New York likely won’t have defenseman Marc Staal – forward Ryane Clowe is also hurt – while Boston defensemen Andrew Ference, Dennis Seidenberg and Wade Redden are all question marks.

Fun fact: Including the first round of the playoffs, the Rangers and Bruins are a combined 43-5-5 this season when scoring at least three goals.

The pick: Rangers in 6

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