The NHL is saving its best for last this season as only the past four Stanley Cup champions remain for the first time since 1945.
The 2013 NHL Conference Finals are now set after the Chicago Blackhawks defeated the Detroit Red Wings 2-1 in a dramatic game 7 Wednesday night. Believe it or not, the final five teams were the last five teams to take home the Stanley Cup. They say you have to beat the best to be the best.
The road to the Cup does not get any easier for the Blackhawks. They will take on the defending champion Los Angeles Kings in the Western Conference Final. Both teams experienced plenty of drama in the first two rounds. Although the Blackhawks won their first round series with the Minnesota Wild four games to one, coach Joel Quenneville was not satisfied with his team’s performance. Quenneville benched Viktor Stalberg for the first two games of the second round. Quenneville was trying to make a statement, but the move backfired. The Detroit Red Wings had the Blackhawks on the brink of elimination by taking a 3-1 series lead. Quenneville juggled the lines hoping to find a solution for the Wings. This time, the move paid off and the Blackhawks took the next two games to force a game 7. Then, the Blackhawks demonstrated their resiliency once more in game 7, as they overcame a controversial call to eliminate the Wings in overtime.
The Kings have a flair for the dramatic as well. The defending champs got off to a sluggish start after losing the first two games to the St. Louis Blues. After they were the “road warriors” in the 2012 postseason, the Kings went 10-1 on the road, it appeared they lost their magic. However, the Kings rebounded and took advantage of home ice to even up the series. The Kings would seize momentum and end the series on a four-game winning streak. Next up, the division rival San Jose Sharks. The series dubbed by NBC Sports’ Liam McHugh as “The California Clash” went seven games as well. The Kings struggled on the road again, but won every home game to advance to the Western Conference Final.
Meanwhile, the Eastern Conference Final pits the Boston Bruins against the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Bruins may be considered the sentimental favorite after the Boston Marathon bombings earlier this year. The Bruins started off strong by taking a 3-1 series lead over the Toronto Maple Leafs. But, they almost blew it. The Leafs won two straight games to force a game 7. Hopes at a title run were bleak after the Leafs took a 4-1 lead in the third period. What happened next was one of the biggest collapses and comebacks in history. The Bruins scored the next three goals to force overtime. Two of those goals were in the final minute and 22 seconds of regulation, in which the Bruins pulled their goalie, and the Leafs could have put the game away with an empty net goal. The Bruins rode the momentum and completed the comeback in overtime to advance to the second round. The Bruins then made quick work of the New York Rangers in five games.
After a slow start, the Pittsburgh Penguins steamrolled through the playoffs. A pesky New York Islanders team embarrassed Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and took the Penguins to six games in the first round. To light a fire under his team, head coach Dan Bylsma yanked Fleury in favor of journeyman Tomas Vokoun. The switch paid off as Vokoun led the Penguins past the Islanders and the Ottawa Senators. Fleury, the goalie who led the Penguins to two straight Stanley Cup appearances in 2008 and 2009, including a title in 2009, is officially in the doghouse.
The general consensus is that the 2013 Stanley Cup Finals will be between the Penguins and the Blackhawks. Both teams experienced remarkably dominant runs in the regular season. The Blackhawks never lost in regulation and recorded a point in the standings for their first 24 games of the season, which set a NHL record. The Penguins went on a 14-game winning streak in the middle of the regular season. However, history shows that may not be the likely scenario. The last time a Stanley Cup Final featured two one-seeds was in 2001. Plus, all of these teams contain players who have lifted the Cup before. There is never an easy way out in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.