The rarity of having the last four Stanley Cup champions as the remaining teams left in the playoffs means the field is filled with experienced combatants who know what it takes to advance to the final. But only two can make it and the outcome of each series may be decided by how these questions are answered once the puck drops for the conference championship round:
How will the Blackhawks handle the Kings' physical attack?
The defending Stanley Cup champions are no longer a surprise to anyone. The Kings play an old-fashioned, hard-hitting style in the mold of their coach, Darryl Sutter, and their aim is to dominate the areas along the boards, in the corners, and in front of the nets. Their games tend to be low-scoring and not very pretty to watch, but the Kings are effective. They have a good amount of high-end skill in their lineup, but that's probably not the side of their game the Hawks will see in this round. They'll get the anvil chorus. That would be something of a departure from what Chicago experienced against Minnesota and Detroit, neither of which had the extensive physical arsenal that Los Angeles does. A strong forecheck is the Kings' trademark and Dustin Brown alone can be a one-man wrecking crew who will likely try to inflict pain on the Hawks' defense corps led by the reunited tandem of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, the depth of which is one of Chicago's strengths. The Kings have lots of potentially ferocious forecheckers -- Dwight King, Kyle Clifford (who inexplicably saw some time on the first line in Brown's spot during the last round), Dustin Penner (when he's in the mood), Brad Richardson, and Trevor Lewis, to name the prime suspects -- and their aim may be to turn the series into trench warfare. The challenge for the Blackhawks will be to fight through it and stick with their game plan without losing their composure.
Detroit made a point of targeting Hawks captain Jonathan Toews and there's no reason to believe that the Kings won't continue the abuse. Kopitar is one of hockey's best all-around players, but Mike Richards is nastier and would assume the role that Henrik Zetterberg just played for Detroit. It took a while, but Chicago coach Joel Quenneville eventually got Toews away from Zetterberg and the grinding he was under, especially on home ice, and Toews was more of a factor in the latter stages of the second round. Quenneville will probably have to do that again. Patrick Kane is not one of the bigger Hawks and he, too may be leaned on. He wasn't explosive against Detroit (limited to only two goals, two assists, and a minus-1) and could have even less room to maneuver against L.A. Fortunately, others such as Patrick Sharp (who is tied with Sidney Crosby and Pascal Dupuis for the lead in goals with 7) picked up the slack. Whoever does the scoring will have to get to the net and play in traffic, no easy task against L.A.
Can the Kings withstand Chicago's potent offense and still manufacture enough goals of their own?
If the Blackhawks want to open the game up, the Kings will want to shut it down. L.A. likes to play close games. Despite their talents, the Kings don't score much, but they always seem to manage to get one goal more than their opponent, which is all they need. And they have the uncanny ability to get contributions from everyone during a series. Of course, everything with the Kings starts with goalie Jonathan Quick, last year's Conn Smythe Trophy winner and a strong candidate for the award once again. Chicago's array of elite scorers will perhaps present the sternest test of his six previous playoff rounds, just as the Kings' physical play will likely be the roughest the Hawks have faced in recent years. The Hawks' attack will also be a challenge for the mostly veteran L.A. defense led by Drew Doughty, which has held up very well with rookie Jake Muzzin in place of injured Willie Mitchell this season (although some observers thought Muzzin started to show nervousness for the first time during the last round against San Jose). Chicago's forwards have a good deal of bite as well -- guys like Andrew Shaw, Bryan Bickell, Brandon Saad, Dave Bolland, Michal Handzus, Viktor Stalberg and even elite talents such as Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa all can play effective physical hockey -- so the Kings won't be the only side handing out punishment. Plus, the Hawks' defensemen all have great mobility, joining the rush and figuring in the forecheck, so the Kings' defenders and backchecking forwards will have to be alert.
With goal scoring always at a premium when the Kings play, special teams could be crucial to the series outcome. The Kings' power play has had very decent success so far, but the Hawks' remarkable penalty kill is easily the best in the playoffs, having allowed only one man-advantage goal in 41 attempts thus far while scoring a shorthanded tally to boot. Chicago's power play, however, has sputtered this spring, clicking at just over 16 percent, although it came on late in the Red Wings series with a pair in Game 5 and another tally in Game 6, accounting for half of the six power play goals the team has scored in the playoffs, so the Hawks may have found some confidence. On the other hand, the Kings' penalty kill at 86 percent hasn't quite been up to the standards of last season's excellent performance (over 92 percent) and a good part of that is due to the absence Jarret Stoll, who is sidelined with a concussion. Stoll is especially strong on face-offs when L.A. is shorthanded. He is skating again, but hasn't been cleared for contact.
How will the Bruins defend the Penguins' 1-2 punch of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin at center?
No other NHL team features a dynamic duo in the middle like Pittsburgh's and, according to Bruins coach Claude Julien, Boston's plan isn't quite certain yet. He may start by shuffling his top two defense pairs, especially when the Bs are on the road and don't have the luxury of the last change. Julien has had his blueliners practice with their usual partners -- Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg, rookie Matt Bartkowski and Johnny Boychuk, and in a new configuration, Chara with Boychuk and Seidenberg with Bartkowski. The split is more likely as long as Andrew Ference, who has missed the last seven games with an injury to his left foot (he wore a walking boot until last weekend) remains out of the lineup. Ference has resumed skating and is thought to be near his return, but he hasn't been practicing with the top three pairs, so it may not be imminent. Bartkowski has acquitted himself well (as has fellow rookie D-man Torey Krug, who has fired up Boston's once-limp power play) and as long as he continues to do so, Julien may be reluctant to insert Ference, especially if he's not fully healed. However they are paired, Julien will probably want to get Chara out against Malkin since the 6-foot-9 Boston captain's frame would be such an asset in containing the Pens 6-foot-3 second center.
As for who Julien will deploy up front, it's possible that top defensive center Patrice Bergeron and his linemates will go up against Crosby, Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis. The difficulty with that is Bergeron has been skating with Brad Marchand and Jaromir Jagr, and Jagr's speed and endurance at age 41 are diminished. That would be a liability against Crosby's line, so Tyler Seguin, who had been Bergeron's winger for much of the season and has been playing with Chris Kelly and Rich Peverley since Jagr's arrival, might be put back in his old spot if Julien decides on that matchup.
Can the Penguins' defense continue its improved play in the face of Boston's mighty forecheck?
The nightmare of the Penguins' early postseason games may have been highlighted by the calamitous play of goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, but his struggles were aided and abetted by the chaotic doings of the guys in front of him. Things began to change when Tomas Vokoun stepped in (he will have to remain steadfast during this round) and the Pens' D-men pulled it together after Brooks Orpik returned from injury for Game 4 of the Islanders series. Orpik's stabilizing role can't be underestimated in Pittsburgh's scheme of things, but just as important was the better play from the mobile Paul Martin, who resumed being a quiet, highly effective defender and minutes-eater, and from the underappreciated Matt Niskanen. Douglas Murray is always a physical force and, along with Mark Eaton and offensive dynamo Kris Letang, the Pens did an admirable job of picking up forwards in front of the net and assisting Vokoun in denying second chance opportunities during the second round against Ottawa. The Bruins' net-crashing style will offer more of the same, but on a higher level. Expect Letang to be in for a rough ride, and this defense corps as a whole will have to be up to the challenge.
Away from the net, the Penguins have to withstand the pounding from Boston's rugged heavyweight forwards like Milan Lucic and Shawn Thornton, and its combative middleweights, such as Brad Marchand and Gregory Campbell. While the Bruins' depth and physicality proved to be the undoing of the Maple Leafs and Rangers, wearing them both down during the course of their series, Pittsburgh's got the depth to match, plus the Pens play a better puck possession game than Boston's previous foes, which could somewhat limit the pressure that the Bs put on Pittsburgh's defense corps.
As always, no predictions here. Toe Blake once said, "Predictions are for gyspies," but if you want one, Allan Muir is the man to see.