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Giving The NHL Playoffs The Oscar Treatment

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scarjo

For anyone who saw the outstanding Spike Jonze-directed movie Her at some point during this unending winter, there were a lot of things that made it an Oscar contender.

The futuristic yet not unrealistic setting, the fascinating questions about where human relationships are headed, the wardrobe choices – I’m looking at you, high-waisted pants – and Joaquin Phoenix’s subtly vulnerable performance were all captivating in their own right.

But nothing was quite as attention-grabbing as that voice. The sultry tone of Samantha, the operating system that made Phoenix’s Theodore Twombly begin to fall in love, was captivating enough to make even the audience forget it was actually coming from a computer.

The voice, that voice, was famously Scarlett Johansson’s, but you know whose it was supposed to be? Samantha Morton’s. Fine actress, Academy Award nominee, probably a nice person, but little more than your run-of-the-mill British accent.

Jonze brought Johansson in during the post-production process and, though no footage or audio seems to have been released with Morton voicing Samantha, the decision completely changed the experience viewing and hearing the movie. It’s a good flick if Morton’s is the voice you’re hearing Phoenix banter with for two hours, but the switch to Johansson made it borderline great.

The NHL regular season is a pleasant, satisfying Samantha Morton – always comforting, occasionally wonderful.

The NHL playoffs are ScarJo.

Steven Stamkos now has two healthy legs on which to celebrate. (Getty Images)

Steven Stamkos now has two healthy legs on which to celebrate. (Getty Images)

There’s a lot of playoff analysis and regular-season award chatter around this time, but instead of simply breaking down the first round or delving into who should win the Calder and Hart trophies, why not combine some postseason prognostications with a bit of talk about which individual hockey hardware belongs where?

Without further ado, Checking The Score presents … the NHL playoff Oscars as we head into the best postseason in sports.

8.) Best Writing – Adapted Screenplay

And the Oscar goes to … the Tampa Bay Lightning and Montreal Canadiens.

Steven Stamkos missed 45 games with a broken leg and the relationship between GM Steve Yzerman and franchise mainstay Martin St. Louis was so damaged that St. Louis wound up being dealt to the New York Rangers. Yet here’s Tampa Bay, with 100 points and home-ice advantage against Montreal. Ondrej Palat, Valtteri Filppula, Tyler Johnson, Teddy Purcell and Alex Killorn stepped up in Stamkos’ absence and Ryan Callahan – over from the Rangers in the St. Louis trade – became a positive presence after a somewhat difficult start. The Lightning’s biggest adaptation, however, may be yet to come. Vezina Trophy candidate Ben Bishop has a sore elbow and won’t play in Wednesday’s Game 1, leaving backup Anders Lindback and his woeful .891 save percentage to start. The Canadiens, meanwhile, have gone from a team that relied too heavily on balance in 2012-13 – no consistent goal scorers, too much pressure on an inconsistent Carey Price – to one that has two stud scorers and a completely confident Price between the pipes. Max Pacioretty finished fourth in the league with 39 goals and Thomas Vanek had 15 points in 18 games after coming over for basically nothing from the New York Islanders at the trade deadline. It’s Price, though, who may make the biggest difference. He’s 12-4-1 with a .945 save percentage since Jan. 28 – and oh, by the way, he led Canada to Olympic gold in that stretch as well.

Post-Oscar buzz: Bishop should return at some point in the series and Tampa Bay is a far better possession team that Montreal and figures to keep Price busy. He may be up to the task in a series that figures to be tight and low-scoring – these two produced just 11 combined goals in four games this season. I’ll take a healthy Stamkos to be the difference.

Academy consensus: Lightning in 7

Henrik Lundqvist doesn't let the Flyers get much by him. (New York Times)

Henrik Lundqvist doesn’t let the Flyers get much by him. (New York Times)

7.) Best Visual Effects

And the Oscar goes to … the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers

There’s just something appealing about these two matching up in the postseason for the first time since 1997, and what’s so striking might be the contrast in styles. Only conference No. 1s Boston and Anaheim have scored more goals since Jan. 1 than the Flyers, and no one has allowed fewer than the Rangers in that time. Claude Giroux has been a different player for Philadelphia after a rough first two months that cost him a spot on Canada’s Olympic team, but like Price in Montreal, New York’s Henrik Lundqvist has been rejuvenated after leading Sweden to silver in Sochi. He’s 11-4-1 with a .939 save percentage since March 7 and he’s kind of owned the Flyers in recent years – if that’s what 13-3-0 with a 1.81 goals-against average in his last 16 starts means. He’s allowed 21 goals in 14 home games against Philadelphia in five years, and guess what? He has home-ice here. There are always questions in net for the Flyers and that’s no different here, with Steve Mason slated to miss Game 1 with an upper-body injury. That means Ray Emery, and that probably means trouble for Philadelphia.

Post-Oscar buzz: The advanced stats love the Rangers, who are fourth in the league in shot differential and far better in puck possession. The Flyers thrive on the power play but New York actually is four goals better overall in special teams differential. The Rangers are, quite simply, not a good matchup for Philadelphia.

Academy consensus: Rangers in 5

It's OK, this man is Swedish so he's allowed to wear this jersey. (USA Today Sports)

It’s OK, this man is Swedish so he’s allowed to wear this jersey. (USA Today Sports)

6.) Best Foreign Language Film

And the Oscar goes to … the Boston Bruins and Detroit Red Wings

The Red Wings have imported more Swedish products than Ikea for the last few decades, but it’s one of their youngest who helped push their streak of consecutive postseason appearances to 23. Gustav Nyquist had 14 goals in his first 18 games back from the Olympic break, keeping Detroit afloat while Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg were down with injuries. Datsyuk is back but Zetterberg is no sure thing to return for this series. Even if he does, he’ll run into fellow Scandinavian stalwart Tuukka Rask, who’s 11-1-2 with a 1.68 GAA in his last 14 starts and was outstanding throughout the postseason while guiding Boston to the Stanley Cup final a year ago. Boston’s defense has a lot of youth in front of Rask with Adam McQuaid and Dennis Seidenberg out, but it also has Zdeno Chara, a top-seven penalty kill and the fewest goals allowed in the Eastern Conference. Chara, in fact, was one of eight Bruins to score at least 16 goals for a team that had the NHL’s best differential (plus-87) since Ottawa and Detroit topped that in 2005-06.

Post-Oscar buzz: The Red Wings didn’t just miss Datsyuk and Zetterberg. There are still injuries to Mikael Samuelsson, Daniel Cleary, Stephen Weiss and Jonathan Ericsson to worry about, which will severely test their youth and depth against what’s probably the league’s deepest team. Detroit played well down the stretch but this is an awfully tall task. Had the Red Wings jumped Columbus for the first wild-card and landed a series against Pittsburgh, they might have had just enough to pull the upset. Rask was sick in the Olympic semifinals and his absence cost Finland against Sweden, but he’ll get a little sweet Scandinavian revenge here.

Academy consensus: Bruins in 6

Jonathan Toews reminding Alexander Steen that he may win this series, but still lives in St. Louis. (USA Today Sports)

Jonathan Toews reminding Alexander Steen that he may win, but he still lives in St. Louis. (USA Today Sports)

5.) Best Original Score

And the Oscar goes to … the St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks

This was going to be the second-round matchup for the ages, the defending Stanley Cup champs against the loaded, deep machine that was out to run them down. Then something funny happened: the Blues became kind of mediocre overnight. Starting with a 4-0 loss at Chicago on March 19, St. Louis went 5-9-0 down the stretch, totaling an NHL-worst 21 goals and breaking out the fine china to serve up the Central Division title to Colorado in a 14-course meal that would make Thomas Keller blush. The Blackhawks’ woes date back to their return from the Olympic break, as they went 11-10-1 down the stretch and lost eight of 10 on the road. The last 13 of those, however, came without Patrick Kane and the last six without Jonathan Toews, both of whom will be back for Game 1. The Blues had a lot of injuries down the stretch as well, and not all of their walking wounded are likely to be back as soon. Shootout sensation T.J. Oshie and center David Backes should be, but Patrik Berglund, Vladimir Tarasenko and Brenden Morrow may not be ready for Game 1. If the ‘Hawks and Blues are even close to full strength, expect some offensive fireworks. Chicago was second and St. Louis seventh in scoring in the regular season and neither Ryan Miller nor Corey Crawford was particularly impressive in net toward the end of the regular season.

Post-Oscar buzz: Aside from injuries, a lot of both teams’ struggles may have had to do with complacency. It’s difficult to get up for each of 82 games the season after winning the Cup, and in the Blues’ case, the Olympics seemed to do plenty to slow what to that point had been the Western Conference’s speediest freight train. This is a heavyweight title fight in every sense, and it’d be no surprise to see it go the distance.

Academy consensus: Blackhawks in 7

He's no Goldberg, but the Ducks are hoping he'll do. (AP)

He’s no Goldberg, but the Ducks are hoping he’ll do. (AP)

4.) Actor in a Supporting Role

And the Oscar goes to … Frederik Andersen

Jonas Hiller was a Swiss Olympian and Anaheim’s unquestioned starter through the first half of the season, but he might not even be the backup when the top-seeded Ducks open the playoffs against Dallas on Wednesday. The starting job belongs to Andersen, who beat out Hiller and fellow rookie John Gibson to be the eventual target of coach Bruce Boudreau’s ire. Andersen wasn’t exactly awesome himself down the stretch, posting a 2.72 GAA since the Olympics, but he’ll be the Ducks’ man – at least initially. Both Anaheim and Dallas rely heavily on their top lines, and this series may come down to whether Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf or Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin can produce more. Neither team has a particularly productive power play and neither has a starting goaltender with playoff experience – though Dallas’ Kari Lehtonen certainly isn’t without NHL experience. The 10-year veteran will get his first taste of the postseason since playing two games for Atlanta (remember them?) in 2006-07. He’s perhaps the best backstop in this series, though, having gone 13-5-1 with a 2.07 GAA since February and winning nine of his last 10 home starts.

Post-Oscar buzz: There doesn’t seem to be a lot of faith in the Ducks for a team that finished atop its conference, and with the questions in goal, many of those may be justified. Anaheim is not a great possession team and isn’t particularly good at faceoffs, and there’s a lot of pressure on Perry and Getzlaf to carry the team – particularly with the inexperience in next. The Stars haven’t been to the playoffs since 2008, but Seguin should have a vested interest in stepping into the spotlight after his 2013 postseason disappearing act with Boston. The Ducks went down in Round 1 last season after winning the Pacific, so why can’t it happen again?

Academy consensus: Stars in 6

Odds are Patrick Roy is angry with you right now. (Icon CMI)

Odds are Patrick Roy is angry with you right now. (Icon CMI)

3.) Best Director

And the Oscar goes to … Patrick Roy

After no playoff appearances in their last three years under Joe Sacco, the Avalanche made the ballsy move to hand the reins to Roy, who had no previous NHL coaching experience. And … it couldn’t have worked out better. Roy made his presence felt from his first game behind the bench, nearly challenging Boudreau and Anaheim to a fight, and the Avalanche seemed to take their cues from their feisty and often crazy boss. Colorado won 12 of its first 13 games but was playing perhaps its best down the stretch, going 8-1-2 in its last 11 to seize the Central Division from St. Louis and likely lock up the Jack Adams Trophy for Roy. The Avalanche aren’t without their warts, though. Leading scorer Matt Duchene likely won’t play in this opening series against Minnesota due to a bruised knee. They’re 25th in the league in shot percentage, meaning they’ve perhaps too heavily relied on Semyon Varlamov at times. The Wild, meanwhile, are hitching their wagon to Ilya Bryzgalov, who was solid in the final two weeks of the regular season but has a spotty postseason track record – unless a 3.70 GAA in his last 15 starts is your thing. Minnesota lacks Colorado’s depth up front – especially down the middle – and is going to have to turn this series into a bunch of 2-1 games to have a chance.

Post-Oscar buzz: With Duchene out and his team’s sudden offseason transformation from the second-worst in the league to the third-best, Colorado would seem to be ripe for an upset. The Avs aren’t a great possession team and they’re relying on a lot of youth in key areas, but Minnesota – for as well as it played down the stretch – isn’t the team to knock them out.

Academy consensus: Avalanche in 6

That baby face my never seem to age, but the Penguins' gap between Cups is getting wider. (Getty Images)

That baby face my never age, but the Penguins’ gap between Cups is getting wider. (Getty Images)

2.) Actor in a Leading Role

And the Oscar goes to … Sidney Crosby

Yes, Flyers fans, it’s richly ironic that we’re giving the diving diva of a man you all love to call “Cindy” an award for acting. Very funny, but go back to booing your grandmothers so we can all move along. The NHL’s leading scorer is a shoo-in for his second Hart Trophy – and it really should be his third or fourth, but they have to give Alex Ovechkin some reason to keep playing. All that being said, Crosby’s Penguins have earned the label of postseason underachievers the past few seasons. The captain himself shouldn’t shoulder a ton of blame – he’s averaged 1.39 points in the regular season and 1.28 in the always more tightly contested playoffs while his shooting percentage (14.8) is identical – but he hasn’t really elevated Pittsburgh come mid-April since the team’s Stanley Cup run in 2009. The pressure is on, yet in reality this isn’t one of the Penguins’ strongest groups. They missed 529 man-games to injury – most in the league and 180 more than the No. 3 team – but Crosby played essentially his first full season in four years. Pittsburgh is a poor puck possession team and relies heavily on its special teams to succeed, generally lousy things to rely on if you fashion yourself Cup contenders. The forward depth isn’t even as good as it was last season, when the Penguins were last seen scoring two total goals while being swept by Boston. Enter Columbus, which has never won a playoff game in its 13-season existence, yet has turned into a solid two-way club with a stud goaltender in Sergei Bobrovsky under coach Todd Richards. Bobrovsky won the Vezina Trophy last season, but he might have to be superhuman to keep Crosby and the Penguins from advancing.

Post-Oscar buzz: The Blue Jackets couldn’t solve Pittsburgh in the regular season, losing all five meetings, and Bobrovsky has a career 3.38 GAA in 11 games against the Penguins. Boston completely shut Pittsburgh down in last season’s Eastern Conference finals but Columbus won’t be able to rely on Bobrovsky doing it alone. The Penguins have been vulnerable in up-and-down, high-scoring hockey games the past few postseasons, but Ryan Johansen is the only consistently intimidating offensive threat for the Jackets.

Academy consensus: Penguins in 5

Quick! Who was the last goalie to single-handedly win a Stanley Cup? (Getty Images)

Quick! Who was the last goalie to single-handedly win a Stanley Cup? (Getty Images)

1.) Best Picture

And the Oscar goes to … the San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings

These games might be low-scoring, but not in an “Astros-Marlins can’t get out of their way” type. I’m thinking more along the lines of “Greg Maddux-Pedro Martinez throwing zeroes for nine innings” type. The home team won every game in last season’s 7-game second round masterpiece, which featured five one-goal margins, and four of their five 2013-14 meetings were also decided by a single light of the lamp. San Jose had the highest shot differential since the Cup-winning 2009-10 Blackhawks, peppering the net with nearly 35 shots per game, but there may be no goaltender you’d rather have facing those than Jonathan Quick. Twenty-two goaltenders have started at least five games over the last two postseasons and Quick’s 1.62 GAA is nearly a quarter-goal lower than the man closest to him, Boston’s Tuukka Rask. The advanced stats love the Kings, who rank first in Corsi and also happened to allow the fewest goals in the league. The Sharks, meanwhile, can empathize with the Penguins’ underachiever label – but at least Crosby and company have one Cup to show for their troubles. San Jose has finished with at least 105 points in six of the last seven non-lockout-shortened seasons and hasn’t even made it out of the West once, losing eight of the nine conference finals games it’s played in that time. With Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Logan Couture and a healthy Tomas Hertl, there’s plenty of firepower to make this year the year for the Sharks. But it’s hard to believe it until we see it.

Post-Oscar buzz: The Kings had identical 23-14-4 records at home and on the road, and when it comes to the playoffs, that’s probably a good thing. They owned the road en route to their Cup win two years ago, though they had no success winning in San Jose last postseason. In fact, they’ve lost 10 of their last 11 in the Shark Tank and scored a whopping total of … 17 goals. Quick is good, but the Sharks are better, and more importantly, they have home-ice this time around. One bounce will probably decide that series, and San Jose is finally due to have it go their way. This is a series worthy of a conference final.

Academy consensus: Sharks in 7

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Stanley Cup Finals primer: Bruins vs. Blackhawks

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Barring anyone waving a beer or pretty lady in front of his face, Patrick Kane is due for a big series. (Getty Images)

Barring anyone waving a beer or pretty lady in front of his face, Patrick Kane is due for a big series. (Getty Images)

Contrary to what some may believe, I haven’t sworn off hockey for good after the Penguins – the same Penguins who were averaging more goals than any team in the playoffs since 1990 – managed to score TWICE IN 275 MINUTES in their embarrassing no-show in the conference finals.

Rather than focusing on Pittsburgh’s ineptitude, though, don’t forget to credit Boston for controlling that series from the opening puck drop and Tuukka Rask for never allowing the Penguins the life they were so desperately seeking in the double-overtime Game 3 thriller, which was one of the best hockey games I’ve seen in a long, long time.

The Blackhawks are a minus-150 favorite in Vegas, which means they should win this series approximately 60 percent of the time. But nearly all of the experts I’ve seen throwing their hat in the prediction ring have picked Boston, and it’s pretty easy to see why after the Bruins clogged up the neutral zone, beat down the Penguins’ forwards and allowed nearly no rebound opportunities.

The Blackhawks and Penguins are both similarly skilled teams, but Chicago is faster. The Blackhawks also will not allow Boston to put up police tape in a 20×20 area in front of the net to keep everyone out of Rask’s way.

Aside from Patrick Kane’s hat trick in Game 5 against the Kings, Kane and captain Jonathan Toews had combined for 4 goals in 16 playoff games. Yet here the ‘Hawks are anyway, having had little issue against either Minnesota or Los Angeles even with that Detroit scare in between.

Boston may very well win this series. They might have gotten that massive scare from the Maple Leafs in Round 1 and then taken off like a Lamborghini. After they held the Penguins scoreless for 60 more minutes in Game 4, I was all ready to pick the Bruins in six. But if there’s ever been a stronger case of recency bias getting in the way than this, I’d love to hear it. Chicago might be similar to Pittsburgh, but it’s also a smarter, more well-coached team that will adjust on the fly. Corey Crawford will need to be stellar, as Boston has the ability to get goals in bunches – Game 2 in Pittsburgh, anyone? – but he’s proven to be up to the task. This should be a tight series featuring strong goaltending, great penalty killing and not too many goals. I’d imagine we’ll have an overtime or two to digest in the coming few weeks, and plenty of nerve-wracking finishes.

The pick: Blackhawks in 7

Conn Smythe winner: Marian Hossa

The NHL Playoff Primer: Western Conference Finals

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Kings goalie Jonathan Quick doesn't care if cameras are always looking over his shoulder (Reuters).

Kings goalie Jonathan Quick doesn’t care if cameras are always looking over his shoulder (Reuters).

The seemingly random aspects of hockey – the ability for a goaltender to play out of his mind, a team going all out to shut down an opposing star, the chance that a favorite might have some injuries taking their toll – make the NHL playoffs a guessing game to even the most highly trained mind (leaving someone like me absolutely no chance). How tough is it? There were eight teams seeded sixth or lower to make the conference finals in the seven playoffs after the 2005 lockout.

Perhaps it’s a bit ironic, then, that in this shortest of short seasons, where a team could easily prove to have David Blained its way through 48 games without being exposed as a fraud, that the four best teams are in the conference finals. Chicago and Pittsburgh were clearly the top two in the regular season. Boston finished fourth in the East – not second, ahead of Montreal – due partially to a jam-packed late-season schedule that was altered after the Marathon bombings. And Los Angeles, after popping two Stanley Cup hangover ibuprofens and chugging some Gatorade, was the West’s second-best team over the final two months.

It’s a dream final four in nearly every way possible for the league. You may have heard that the last four Stanley Cup champs are the four teams remaining. Every potential matchup, save for maybe Boston-Los Angeles, is extraordinarily enticing. Penguins-Blackhawks? Two best teams, high-scoring, star power. Bruins-Blackhawks? Original Six glory; fast-skating, skilled Chicago against bruising Boston. Pens-Kings? Crosby and Malkin against a tenacious defense and the seemingly impenetrable Jonathan Quick.

And at least if we’re left with Boston-LA, Gary Bettman can pretend he’s promoting Celtics-Lakers to the unsuspecting novice sports fan. “Garnett! Kobe! It’s the Stanley Cup finals on NBC Sports Network!”

Sadly, Bettman’s head is so far up his own ass he might actually believe it.

Would you let this man run your multimillion dollar enterprise? Or be within 500 feet of your children? (Getty Images)

Would you let this man run your multimillion dollar enterprise? Or be within 500 feet of your children? (Getty Images)

We’ll tackle what should be an excellent series between the Kings and Blackhawks in a moment, but first let’s sneak in just one more reminder of how this league succeeds in spite of itself. You may have noticed the LA-Chicago series is starting hours prior to Boston-Pittsburgh despite the latter two teams having had a combined THIRTEEN days off since last playing. You also may have noticed that there was no, and I mean NO, logical reason that Bruins-Pens could not have started Thursday, a day after a thrilling Game 7 between the Blackhawks and Red Wings and two after the winner-take-all-finale between the Sharks and Kings. That way, Game 2 in the Steel City still could have been played on Saturday, satisfying NBC and the league’s Canadian broadcast partners’ bloodlust for Hockey Night in Canada (in Pittsburgh).

What you may not have noticed is that, looking ahead, should both conference finals go the distance, those Game 7s would be played ON THE SAME NIGHT. This is a problem that’s somewhat unavoidable in the first round, with eight series being scheduled that all must conclude on or around the same date. It’s something I could even see being tough to tackle in Round 2, though it happened to work out in this case with Game 7s on back-to-back nights.

But in the conference finals? That’s nothing but shameful. The absolute APEX of this sport is a Game 7. Nothing in ANY sport compares to the intensity and edge-of-your-seat uncertainty of a Game 7 in the NHL. Yet here we are, faced with the possibility that these four teams, the last four to grab that 35-pound silver chalice from Bettman’s weaselly clutches, will be playing do-or-die games on the same night to decide who gets a chance to get back to hockey’s grandest stage. One time zone apart.

No word yet on whether Gary is planning to hold two games in the Stanley Cup finals in one evening.

Jonathan Toews is struggling to score, but can always fall back on being Hugh Jackman's body double in the Wolverine series (Comcast SportsNet).

Jonathan Toews is struggling to score, but can always fall back on being Hugh Jackman’s body double in the Wolverine series (Comcast SportsNet).

1. Chicago vs. 5. Los Angeles

The Blackhawks will win if: Like madness, gravity and The Joker, all it took was … a little push. Chicago got what amounted to a massive shove from Detroit in the second round, but I’m fairly convinced that might have been the best thing to happen to the Blackhawks. This is a team that did essentially nothing wrong for three months, seemed to be at half-speed in its first-round series against overmatched Minnesota and then found itself on the brink of elimination against its most bitter rival faster than Patrick Kane can shotgun an Old Style. As a Chicago resident, trust me when I say this city was resigned to an early exit when the Blackhawks went down 3-1 after managing to get only one puck past Detroit’s Jimmy Howard in Games 2 through 4.

But like a group that went half a season without a regulation loss, Joel Quenneville’s boys persevered. They got away with not playing their best against Detroit, and while that won’t be the case against the Kings, we’ve yet to see the next level that this Blackhawks team has somewhere underneath those Indian head sweaters. Unless he’s hurt, Jonathan Toews is not going to again play like he did against the Red Wings, where he has as many penalties in a six-minute stretch of Game 4 as he had points in the series. Patrick Kane, who scored roughly every six times he put a shot on net during the regular season, is bound to see his luck turn after scoring only twice on the 43 shots he’s attempted in the postseason. You win in the playoffs by getting big production from your stars. Chicago’s two biggest guns haven’t played at nearly the level they’re capable of, and it still finds itself in the conference finals.

That’s a credit, of course, to the Blackhawks’ depth at forward. They don’t have another stud center beyond Toews, but Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Michal Handzus, Brandon Saad and the rather effective Bryan Bickell and Andrew Shaw are all good enough that Quenneville can have no qualms about tinkering with his forward lines until he finds some combinations that click. Which he has.

Bryan Bickell, Blackhawks tough guy and dental hygienist's dream.

Bryan Bickell, Blackhawks tough guy and dental hygienist’s dream.

The Blackhawks’ power play was not good during the regular season and was especially disastrous over the last month, but they scored three massive man-advantage goals in Games 5 and 6 against Detroit to help turn the tide. And while all you’ll hear heading into this series is about how impenetrable Quick is, he gave up four power-play goals over the last five games against San Jose. With that being said…

Los Angeles will win if: Quick, can you name the only goaltender in postseason history to go 33 games without allowing more than three goals? The answer is in the asking, though no matter how brilliantly the reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner plays, it’s hard to imagine Chicago not sneaking four pucks past him at some juncture in this series.

That’s not the point, though. Quick can have a bad game and Los Angeles can still win the series, but in order for Chicago to advance he can’t have two or three great games. Which is something he’s done in basically six straight playoff series. For LA to get through this series, however, he’ll have to steal a game at the United Center. Frankly, that’s going to be a tall order.

Since April 1, the Kings have played 12 games away from Staples Center, winning once. Their goal totals in those games: 1, 3, 1, 2, 1, 1, 1, 1, 3, 1, 1, 1. That’s a whopping 17 goals, one for approximately every 21 shots Los Angeles puts on net. That’s obviously a problem on the surface, but here’s the bigger issue. No team in these playoffs attempts fewer shots than the Kings. They take a crack at the net 24.8 times per game, five fewer than they averaged during the regular season. While that’s a relatively small sample size that came against two tight-checking, space-eating teams in St. Louis and San Jose, it’s also a massive concern for a team that already has enough trouble scoring.

Los Angeles’ scoring issues aren’t due to a lack of talent, as Dustin Brown, Jeff Carter, Anze Kopitar, Justin Williams and Mike Richards are more than capable of lighting the lamp rather often, but if you want an X-factor for the Kings in this series it might be Jarret Stoll. Stoll suffered a concussion on a hit from Raffi Torres – a name already infamous to Blackhawks fans – in Game 1 against San Jose, but seems to be progressing and could play in Saturday’s opener. Stoll only had seven goals and 11 assists in the regular season and one assist in his seven playoff games, but he’s an outstanding penalty killer who’s good on faceoffs. For a team that likes to get a lead and choke the life out of its opponent, having Stoll out there would be a very good thing.

If Stoll would rather hang out with girlfriend Erin Andrews in the press box than chase Kane and Toews and risk life and limb diving in front of vulcanized rubber flying at him at 90 mph, though, can you blame him?

Outkicking his coverage doesn't really apply, so can we say Jarret Stoll iced the puck? (Fox Sports).

Outkicking his coverage isn’t really the right phrase, but can we say Jarret Stoll iced the puck? (Fox Sports).

It’s very possible this series could be decided by which goaltender is the most dominant, and Quick’s .948 save percentage and dynamite glove hand would certainly seem to give him the edge of Corey Crawford, who has a questionable glove and has allowed a few iffy goals in the past month. But I think it’s just as likely, if not more so, that the Kings’ road woes really catch up to them and Chicago’s offensive depth is just a little too much for a talented group of LA defenders and Quick to contain. The Kings are the most physical team the Blackhawks have seen by far, but if they don’t let LA goad them into taking foolish penalties, they should be OK.

If the Kings are going to win this series, it’s probably going to be in six games. After much back-and-forth, I’ll give them Game 6 – but only because they were down 3-2 to begin with.

The pick: Blackhawks in 7

Fun fact: Dating back to last season’s playoffs, the Kings are 39-5-2 when they score first.

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Coming tomorrow: After vacationing on the Maldive Islands together during their week off in the NHL’s first-ever Big Brother-style reality show, the Bruins and Penguins find out this house isn’t big enough for both of them! Hilarity ensues, and an NHL playoff series begins – much to the dismay of Zdeno Chara and Sidney Crosby, who were about to begin filming the most unlikely buddy cop movie yet.