Pick 6: NHL’s Final 4 Feature Last 4 Cup Champions
LARRY LAGE,AP Hockey Writer
The final four teams in the NHL playoffs feature the last four champions for the second time in league history and for the first time since 1945, when the league consisted of just the Original Six.
Chicago hosts the defending champion Los Angeles Kings in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals on Saturday and Pittsburgh plays Boston at home in the Eastern Conference finals opener in prime time that night.
Before the puck drops for the double-header, the only one scheduled unless both series go to Game 7 on June 12, here are six storylines to watch.
THE KINGS’ QUEST: Los Angeles is attempting to become the first team to repeat as Stanley Cup champions since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998, and the first franchise to win two titles in the NHL’s eight-season, salary-cap era. The fifth-seeded Kings can take a big step toward accomplishing the feat if they can finish off top-seeded Chicago, which was pushed to the brink of elimination by seventh-seeded Detroit.
QUICK IS THE NAME: Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick has been tough to beat — again — but can he keep up the pace for his offensively challenged team? The reigning Conn Smythe winner is leading the league with three shutouts and a .948 save percentage in the playoffs and he’s giving up just 1.5 goals a game. Los Angeles, meanwhile, isn’t helping Quick out much offensively, averaging just two goals a game to trail the other three teams still playing in scoring by a large margin.
POWERLESS PLAY: Chicago’s penalty-killers have been almost perfect, allowing Detroit and Minnesota to combine for only one goal on 41 power plays. Goalie Corey Crawford has had a lot to do with that, helping the Blackhawks make a run after their championship season in 2010 was followed up by consecutive first-round exits. The only time Chicago has given up a power-play goal was in Game 4 against the Red Wings, who went on to win and take a 3-1 lead in the series.
POTENT PENGUINS: Superstar Sidney Crosby has been simply spectacular with seven goals. No one could’ve guessed his teammate, Pascal Dupuis, also would have seven goals — to share the league lead — to match his scoring total from the previous five postseasons combined. The duo isn’t doing it alone. Kris Letang has an NHL-high 13 assists and 16 points to match Evgeni Malkin for the most on the team. Jarome Iginla has 12 points in 11 postseason games, slightly surpassing his production in 13 regular-season games after being traded to Pittsburgh.
CAN HE KEEP IT UP? The fourth-seeded Bruins’ best chance to eliminate the East’s top team is to figure out a way to get to goalie Tomas Vokoun, who is 6-1 since replacing Marc-Andre Fleury in the first round against the New York Islanders. The 36-year-old Vokoun, playing on his third team in three seasons, has played in his way into being in a postseason net for the first time since 2007 with Nashville. Boston’s David Krejci leads the league with 17 points to surpass his strong pace during Boston’s 2011 championship season.
ISN’T THAT SPECIAL: Pittsburgh has been the NHL’s best team on the power play, scoring on 13 of 46 chances, to move halfway toward its goal of winning it all again for the first time since 2009. Boston, meanwhile, has allowed seven goals in 37 short-handed situations, the most of the four teams still playing. The Bruins will likely lean a lot on defenseman Zdeno Chara to slow down the Penguins. The 2009 Norris Trophy winner is averaging 29-plus minutes a game, more than any active player in this postseason.
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