It seems like a lifetime ago that the dominant conversations about the NHL focused on things like industry growth funds and lonely podiums and Ron Hainsey and hockey-related revenue and, most loudly, about how fans just were not gonna take it anymore. It was hard not to wonder, as the negotiations acrimoniously dragged on, just how badly the league was screwing itself; it was hard not to worry whether anyone would care if the NHL ever came back.
Now that all feels so alarmist, so quaint. As it turned out, the shortened year was ultimately a boon: for record-setting TV ratings, for regular-season intrigue, for reminding people how much they either secretly or aggressively missed it when the NHL went away.
Now, halfway through the playoffs, we are left with four of the league's most marketable franchises — maybe because they're also the four most recent Stanley Cup winners — still standing. (That sound you hear is a room full of NBC Sports executives and NHL suits licking their chops.) The Pittsburgh Penguins will play the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference finals beginning Saturday on NBC, while the Chicago Blackhawks and L.A. Kings, each of them not-so-fresh off a seven-game series, will meet up in back-to-back Games 1 and 2 in Chicago on Saturday and Sunday on NBC Sports.
Here's a look at some of the stories, key players, and big questions as we head into the penultimate playoff round en route to this year's Stanley Cup. Because while Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr may have been worthy adversaries, the on-ice battles were always far more fun to watch.
Boston Bruins (4) at Pittsburgh Penguins (1)
The Backstory: As the Western Conference semifinals stretched to seven games over the past week, the Bruins and the Penguins had the rare opportunity to stretch their legs. Both teams won their last series in five games and have now had more time off to prepare for the Eastern Conference finals than they had in January training camp to prepare for the whole 48-game season.
The Bruins outclassed the New York Rangers in Round 2 after winning their first-round playoff series against the Maple Leafs in one of the great comebacks in NHL history. And while they have some notable holes in their scoring — Jaromir Jagr has no goals in 12 games, Tyler Seguin has just one — they've received lots of offensive contributions from players like David Krejci (five goals, 17 points) and Nathan Horton (five goals, 12 points). Tuukka Rask has stopped 92.8 percent of shots on goal and enlivened the team with his feisty play. The Bruins remain hobbled defensively, but that wasn't a problem for them against New York.
Pittsburgh looked at one point like it might be heading toward a humiliating first-round defeat by a speedy Islanders team, but after winning that one in six games, it dominated the Ottawa Senators. Sidney Crosby will be playing this series without the awkward face mask he had on to protect his recently shattered jaw — though, with the exception of a few moments here and there, the bulky equipment didn't seem to affect him too much. In 10 playoff games he has seven goals and 15 points, while his linemates Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz have added another 11 goals and 19 points combined. The Penguins have the postseason's best power play and the most goals per game, and the question mark that was Marc-Andre Fleury in their own net has been answered, for the time being, by solid backup Tomas Vokoun.
The Big Questions: Who will win the anticipated on-ice matchup between Crosby (the leading Hart Trophy candidate) and Patrice Bergeron (who will most likely take home the Selke)? Will Vokoun keep his hold on the starting position, or will one bad game bring Fleury back into the conversation? Can the Bruins rattle guys like Crosby the way the Philadelphia Flyers were able to last season? (I'd do anything for a reprisal of L'affaire Glove, to be honest.) Will Seguin, whose postseason has represented one of the low points of his young career, bounce back to his prior form? How many times will we be told "they're not booing, they're saying Tuuuuuuk"?
Any Bad Blood? Oh, you know, just some minor issues related to Matt Cooke and Marc Savard … and Jaromir Jagr … and Jarome Iginla … (and Ulf Samuelsson and Cam Neely) but you probably haven't heard about any of those things because if there are two NHL fan bases who are known for their ability to take a step back and let bygones be bygones, it's Boston and Pittsburghahahahahahaha oh my god so many people are going to end up in jail by the time this series is over and it's going to be great.
Fun Fact: A Pittsburgh bar is refusing to serve Sam Adams during the Eastern Conference finals. (Never mind the fact that the bulk of the beer is brewed in Pennsylvania and Ohio.) Boston fans (or players!) looking to rile up the Yinzers in return might want to take a page out of Peter Laviolette's playbook and go get them some DeeJays ribs.
Bold Prediction: I picked against the Bruins last round in large part because their defensive corps was riddled with injuries — and then watched as 22-year-old Torey Krug, who had all of three games of regular-season NHL experience under his belt, scored four goals in five games against the Rangers. Oops. Still, while Boston has big Dennis Seidenberg back in the lineup for this round and always has the giant benefit of Zdeno Chara, its blue line remains diminished with Andrew Ference and Wade Redden still day-to-day — and the Bruins won't have an anemic Rangers offense on the ice against them this time.
Overall, Pittsburgh has the more worrisome offensive talent, while Boston has the edge in terms of forward depth. The Bruins' "Merlot line," so named because of the color of the three players' practice jerseys (though I'd enjoy it if it also happened to be Shawn Thornton's beverage of choice) will be a key piece for the Bruins. If they can wear down the Penguins and knock in a few goals, they could send things in Pittsburgh into a bit of disarray.
Still, at the start of the season the Penguins were one of my Cup picks, and nothing has really happened to change the logic. The Penguins are far from the unbeatable team they sometimes look like on paper; the Islanders made that abundantly clear. But they're still loaded with talent, well-rested, and not a team I'd want to match up against. Penguins in six.
Representative Song: I know the Biebs is usually spotted at L.A. games, but I'm going with the Bieber-will.i.am collaboration "#thatPOWER" for this East Coast matchup for two reasons: (1) The Pittsburgh power play has been the best in the postseason — "And I'm loving every second minute hour bigger better stronger power," explains the song — as the special teams unit has scored 13 goals and boasts a 28.3 percent conversion rate; and (2) the gimmicky hashtag song name represents how over-the-top ridiculous the Internet is about to become before, during, and after every Bruins-Penguins game. I can't wait.
Los Angeles Kings (5) at Chicago Blackhawks (1)
The Backstory: After a truly authoritative regular season in which they didn't lose in regulation once in their first 24 games (and were never shut out), the Blackhawks have seemed off for much of the postseason. They beat the Minnesota Wild in five games but looked shaky, and the Detroit Red Wings got off to a 3-1 series lead before Chicago pulled it together and won three straight. While captain Jonathan Toews has scored just once this postseason, his absence in the box scores has been made up for by players like Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa, who have combined for 12 goals and 22 points in 12 playoff games.
For Los Angeles, it's all been about two words: Jonathan Quick. The Conn Smythe–winning goaltender from last season and the presumptive favorite to be the United States's goalie at the upcoming Winter Olympics had a mediocre (for him) regular season after undergoing back surgery over the summer. But he's returned to his old infuriating (for everyone else) self during the playoffs, stopping 94.8 percent of shots, recording three shutouts, and getting in the heads of opponents. On the other end of the ice the Kings have gotten consistent production from Jeff Carter (five goals), defenseman Slava Voynov (four), and Justin Williams, who has reprised his under-the-radar role from last season and scored the Game 7 winner against the Sharks on Tuesday.
The Big Questions: Has the demonstrative Quick cried wolf a leeeettle too often? (In Game 7 of the Sharks series, he was finally called for diving … on a play in which he had been legitimately sticked in the throat.) Can the Blackhawks' penalty kill keep up its Scrooge-like levels of stinginess? It's allowed just one power-play goal this postseason. Will L.A.'s Drew Doughty crack the 30-minute time-on-ice mark this series, as he did twice against St. Louis in the first round? Which team will make the most of home ice: the Blackhawks, who earned it throughout the playoffs with their play all season and who won key games at home in the last round to advance, or the Kings, who are 7-0 at Staples Center in the playoffs this year? Will Chicago fans ever be fully comfortable with goalie Corey Crawford, who has had an outstanding postseason but whose occasional awkward lapses can be slightly unsettling? And most importantly: Will Patrick Sharp's neighbor's dog continue to poop glad tidings onto his lawn?
Any Bad Blood? I dunno, maybe you should ask Superfan 99 over there. Both teams are moving from playoff rounds in which they played pretty familiar regional rivals — San Jose and Detroit — to a matchup that has been relatively unexplored in the past. The Kings and Blackhawks haven't met in the playoffs since the Hawks beat L.A. in a quarterfinal round in 1974 — though Mike Richards and Jeff Carter were on the Flyers team that lost to Chicago in the final in 2010.
Trash-talking material for this series is so tough to find at this point that after Chicago won Wednesday night, Kings fans took to Twitter to come up with #HowToMakeChicagoMad. (Results were mixed.) This will be the second series in a row in which Darryl Sutter faces a team he once coached. When he left Chicago in 1995 he proclaimed, "I know for a fact that I'll never work for another club … once you have that crest tattooed on your butt, you can't get it off." Who knows, there's probably been advances in laser therapy since then.
Fun Fact: Jonathan Toews has a Mario Kart fixation and I'm beginning to worry. After the Hawks' Stanley Cup–winning run in 2010, he told ESPN.com's Jon Robinson that the team spent their off time playing Mario Kart on Wii in their hotel rooms. (Toews competed as the evil Waluigi back then, and was known to spike controllers out of frustration.) And now he's returning to his old favorites: This past Wednesday night, following the Blackhawks' 2-1 Game 7 overtime win over Detroit, Toews again brought up the game. "We enjoy going on the road and playing Mario Kart," he said. Can't you just imagine this little guy growing up to be a total controller hog?
Bold Prediction: This one feels particularly tough to call because throughout the playoffs, the Blackhawks have simply not looked like the commanding team that they were during the regular season. That said, they showed impressive composure by rattling off three straight brink-of-elimination wins over Detroit, the last of which easily could have spiraled out of control. You almost get the sense that they're finally rolling into gear.
The Kings return their defending-champion team almost entirely intact, boast the league's best goaltending, and are unbeaten at home. But I see this being a matchup in which both teams steal a game on the road, and I think it'll settle into another long, back-and-forth series. Chicago in seven, because I keep picking the Kings to lose and they keep proving me wrong, but if I change my mind now, it'll be like when you think you've gotten out of a slow-moving lane and then suddenly you have to slam on your brakes in the new one. (P.S.: You're welcome, The Royal Half.)
Representative Song: The NHL is a copycat league, and as Jonathan Willis pointed out at Hockey Prospectus, this is "a series that will shape the perception of what matters in a playoff team." The Kings are a group built on goaltending and bulk that has averaged just two goals and 24.8 shots per game in the postseason — the latter statistic being the worst out of all 16 playoff teams.
The Blackhawks, meanwhile, are a smaller, speedier, and more dynamic team that is at its most effective when it's making stretch passes and tic-tac-toe setups. Whichever team advances will leave GMs — who perhaps had never cared for what they say / games they play / what they do / what they know — with an open mind for a different view … whether they ought to have one or not.