FANTASTIC FOUR

IT’S DOWN TO JUST FOUR TEAMS CHASING THE NHL’S ULTIMATE PRIZE AND THERE ARE SOME FAMILIAR FACES ALONG WITH SOME SURPRISING NEW ONES

      And then there were four. Four teams are all that remain in the hunt for the Stanley Cup and each offers plenty of intrigue and questions. While the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings clashing for the second consecutive season to represent the West in the Stanley Cup Final probably doesn’t surprise a lot of hockey fans, the fact that the East is up for grabs between the New York Rangers and the Montreal Canadiens blows more than a few predictions out of the water (mine included). There are three original six teams included among the Final Four, as well as the first Canadian team in seven years, the defending Stanley Cup champions, the 2012 Stanley Cup champions, the team that won the Cup twenty years ago (the Rangers) and the team that won it twenty seasons ago (Montreal, adjusted for the 2005 lockout that scrapped that year’s post season). And each remaining roster includes at least two members from Canada’s gold medal winning team from the Sochi Winter Games, meaning that no matter what happens over the next few weeks, a couple of players will accomplish the incredible feat of winning both an Olympic gold medal and a Stanley Cup ring in the same year. Its gonna be an awesome end to the 2013-2014 campaign.

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS: No team is a better example of excellence and champion building in today’s NHL than the Chicago Blackhawks. A decade ago, the Blackhawks were consistently written off as perennial losers and the only time they were ever mentioned in the same sentence as the playoffs was as the punch line of a joke. But through smart drafting, patient development, shrewd trades and a handful of brilliant free agency signings, the Blackhawks are on the cusp of being a modern day dynasty. They had to strip some parts after their Stanley Cup parade in 2010 for salary cap reasons, but were still playoff worthy in 2011 and 2012 before winning the Cup again last spring. It should come as no surprise that the Hawks were tied with Detroit and St. Louis for sending the most players to the Olympics (including Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith to wear the Maple Leaf) or that this is their third appearance in the NHL’s Final Four in the past five years. Nor should it come as any surprise that they remain most people’s favourites for the 2014 Stanley Cup

 LOS ANGELES KINGS: 2012’s Stanley Cup winners are looking to avenge their 2013 elimination by Chi-town this spring and get some of that Dynasty recognition for themselves. They are perhaps the only team in the League right now that can challenge Chicago in terms of depth and playoff caliber talent. Despite some big names up front, the Kings did have some scoring difficulties during the regular season. That was until they added sniper Marion Gaborik at the trade deadline and now roll three lines that are a danger to score at any time. With Drew Doughty leading a deep blue line and franchise goalie Jonathan Quick as the last line of defense between the pipes, the Kings are a super power. And if anyone doubts the Kings’ emotional resolve, well you can just ask the San Jose Sharks, who jumped out to a commanding 3-0 lead during their first round matchup, only to watch L.A. storm back and become just the fourth team in NHL history to overcome such a deficit and win their series. What turned the tide during that matchup? For the first three games, Quick wasn’t on his game. For the last four he was unbeatable. Now the Kings are contending for the Cup and San Jose is doing a full post mortem on their entire organization. Enough said.

 MONTREAL CANADIENS: I have to hand it to the Habs; I didn’t give them much of a chance against the Boston Bruins in their second round series. Boston was the East’s answer to the Chicago Blackhawks, tailor built for playoff success from the ground up with one of the best goalies, one of the best defensemen and one of the best two-way forwards in the game all wearing Bruins’ jerseys. Good thing nobody told Les Habitants that. Anyone who doesn’t believe that Carey Price and P.K. Subban are now prime time talents in today’s NHL clearly wasn’t paying attention. The Bruins made a habit of outshooting and out chancing the Habs early in the series, but Price routinely made game-saving stops while Subban increasingly dominated the ice, challenging the Bruins as often as he could, refusing to back down when they challenged him and putting more than his fair share of pucks behind Tuuka Rask. Meanwhile, Montreal’s forwards adapted to Boston’s bigger yet less mobile defense, allowing them to gradually take the lead in shots and scoring chances. Montreal proved they wouldn’t be intimidated by either the odds or bigger teams and through perseverance and self-confidence now find themselves the first team representing the Great white North in the Final Four since the Ottawa Senators in 2007 (and 20 seasons after they won it all in 1993, over Wayne Gretzky’s Los Angeles Kings no less). And while losing Price to a knee injury is a devastating blow, if there’s one team that seems destined to overcome such enormous adversity this spring, it’s Montreal. Does another goalie rise to the occasion in Price’s absence? Does Peter Budaj rekindle his days as a starter? Or does an unheralded prospect like Dustin Tokarski get in touch with his inner Bill Ranford and emerge as the team’s savior? This could be interesting.

 NEW YORK RANGERS: At the beginning of the season, would anyone outside of New York’s dressing room have thought the Rangers would still be playing meaningful hockey in mid-May? Even at the beginning of the playoffs, no one outside the most optimistic Rangers fan thought they’d get this far. And when Pittsburgh jumped out to a 3-1 lead in their second round series, the Rangers were given up for dead by just about everyone. But that’ why they play the games. Henrik Lundqvist, who backstopped his native Sweden to silver at Sochi last February, has reasserted himself as The King, keeping his team in games no matter how many shots they give up or how difficult the Rangers attack finds it to score. The Rangers blue line meanwhile, may be the most underrated defense corps in the NHL and the entire team blocks more shots then targets at a shooting range on NRA appreciation day. Scoring on the Rangers sometimes resembles a feat of Herculean proportions (just ask the Philadelphia Flyers, Sidney Crosby and Evengi Malkin). Deadline acquisition Martin St.-Louis not only offers experience (having won the Cup in 2004 with the Tampa Bay Lightning) but an emotional fire as well, playing in tribute to his mother who tragically passed away earlier this month (the Rangers defeated the Penguins in the game St.-Louis missed, embracing the mantra “Win it for Marty,” a win that sparked their comeback). The simple fact is New York is red hot right now with most cylinders firing at warp speed. If Rick Nash can return to form, the Rangers may be this year’s Cinderella team, an unstoppable David that slays all the remaining Goliaths on their path to Stanley Cup glory.

 Shayne Kempton

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