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The NHL Conference Semi-Finals: We Like Boston, Pittsburgh, the Kings and Chicago

Good matchups become better matchups when the timing is right. Now that the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs are upon us, it’s easy to see which teams are likely out of gas and which teams are rested and ready (or rusty).

For instance, the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers were each  taken to seven games by the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Washington Capitals, respectively. That means, there is no excuse. Both teams will be worn out, both teams know that they’re lucky to be here.

The Bruins and Rangers will go at it again.

The Bruins and Rangers will go at it again.

The Chicago Blackhawks disposed of the Minnesota Wild in five games while the Detroit Red Wings took out the Anaheim Ducks in six. Even if it happened to be the other way around, the Blackhawks are a better team than the Red Wings. After all, Chicago won all four meetings between the teams this season.

It was, in a sense, the other way around in the other Western Conference quarfinals. The L.A. Kings needed six games to take out the St. Louis Blues while the San Jose Sharks drilled the Vancouver Canucks in four straight. The defending Stanley Cup champion Kings are a better team than San Jose and even though it took them longer to dispose of the Blues, it could easily be argued that the Blues were a better team than the Canucks. At least, at the time the opening round began.

The Sharks and the Kings: one Cali team will reach the Western final.

The Sharks and the Kings: one Cali team will reach the Western final.

In the other Eastern Conference semifinal it will be the Pittsburgh Penguins against the Ottawa Senators and while I do believe the Sens could be the team of destiny in 2013, I do not believe they match up very well against an outstanding group of Penguins. After all Pittsburgh won all tree meetings between the two teams this season.

The Conference semifinals start on Tuesday night in Pittsburgh, but we will get four solid series that will leave us with hockey’s Final Four. We like the Blackhawks, Kings, Penguins and Bruins and here’s why:

THE NHL WESTERN CONFERENCE

Jonathan Toews leads the Hawks against Detroit.

Jonathan Toews leads the Hawks against Detroit.

No. 7 Detroit Red Wings (24-16-8, defeated Anaheim Ducks in six games) at No. 1 Chicago Blackhawks (36-7-5, Central Division Champions and President’s Trophy winners, defeated Minnesota in five games)

One might argue that Detroit was lucky to make the playoffs, but one can’t argue with this simple fact: the Red Wings have some very skilled and talented players and now that they’ve made the playoffs they are a legitimate threat to go deep. No, they aren’t as good as they were a decade ago, but they are good and players such as Franzen, Zetterberg and Datsyuk will make them a threat every night. The big question is this: Can Jimmy Howard get the job done in net? The Hawks meanwhile, are significantly better than the Wings simply because the Wings don’t have Nicklas Lidstrom anymore. The Hawks goaltending was a surprise this season, but that doesn’t mean Corey Crawford won’t continue to be lights out in the playoffs as he was against Minnesota. Both teams are skilled but Chicago has too much offense, right through the first three lines. They also have a better defense although Joel Quenneville won’t out coach Mike Babcock as he did Minnesota’s poor Mike Yeo. This will be the 16th time these two teams have met in the postseason, but with realignment next season (Detroit goes to the East), it could be their last battle for sometime. Chicago won all four games between the two teams this season.

Chicago in five games.

Drew Doughty leads the Kings against San Jose.

Drew Doughty leads the Kings against San Jose.

No. 6 San Jose Sharks (25-16-7, defeated Vancouver Canucks in four games) at No. 5 Los Angeles Kings (27-16-5, Defending Stanley Cup Champions, defeated St. Louis Blues in six games)

The Kings are the defending Stanley Cup champions and know exactly what it takes to win in the post-season. It’s hard to discount a team when it has Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, Justin Williams, Dustin Brown, two great goalies and a lights out defense with Drew Doughty and Slava Voynov. Even though they lost the first two games of this year’s playoffs to St. Louis, the Kings stormed back and won four straight to close out the Blues. Meanwhile, as well as the Sharks played against Vancouver – and they were very good – I’m sorry, but despite a solid season, Antti Niemi is not the answer in goal. When the chips are down, I can think of a dozen goalies I’d rather have in my net. The Kings went 2-1-1 against San Jose this season.

Los Angeles in six games.

THE NHL EASTERN CONFERENCE

Craig Anderson will play a huge role against the Penguins.

Craig Anderson will play a huge role against the Penguins.

No. 7 Ottawa Senators (24-18-6, defeated the Montreal Canadiens in five games) at No. 1 Pittsburgh Penguins (36-12-0, Atlantic Division Champions, defeated the New York Islanders in six games)

The Senators are playing well and not just in terms of skill, goaltending and scoring, but they also out-toughed the Montreal Canadiens who tried their best to turn the first round of the playoffs into a giant fight. Ottawa might have the coach of the year in Paul MacLean and there is nothing at all wrong with goaltender Craig Anderson. MacLean just finished playing like Habs like a cheap violin while Anderson stopped their yapping. The Penguins have more on-paper talent and probably more speed, but the Senators have heart, toughness, good goaltending and they also have the brilliant Erik Karlsson. Unfortunately, they face the second-best if not THE best team in the NHL in this round — especially if Sidney Crosby continues to play as well as he did against a very good Islanders team. The Penguins have way too much up front despite the Senators heart and hard work. And now, with Tomas Vokoun in goal, Pittsburgh appears to have settled its goaltending quandary. Pittsburgh won all three meetings this year, one in a shootout.

Pittsburgh in six games.

It's Henrik Lundqvist or bust.

It’s Henrik Lundqvist or bust.

No. 6 New York Rangers (26-18-4, defeated the Washington Capitals in seven games) at No. 4 Boston Bruins (28-14-6, defeated Toronto Maple Leafs in seven games)

If Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist is hot, the Rangers will win. That’s what we wrote about the series with Washington and we believe that assessment will hold up in Round 2 as well. That’s because Boston, despite being taken to the absolute wire by Toronto, is still a rock solid hockey team who might have suffered its playoff scare. With big Zdeno Chara and Tuukka Rask and three tough, fast lines – including the almost unstoppable Milan Lucic-David Krejci- Nathan Horton line – the Bruins are easily the favorites here. Boston won the Stanley Cup two years ago and a lot of those players are still wearing the Bruins Hub logo. New York won two of the three regular-season meetings, but both teams came away with four points because the Bruins had the only regulation victory. This should not take long, unless Lundqvist stands on his head.

Boston in five games.

Taylor went 5-3 in the opening round.

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