- Pierre LeBrun, NHL
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1. Stud goalie vs. stud goalie in the West
Mike Smith and Jonathan Quick, the two hottest goalies in the playoffs, meet up in the Western Conference finals. Smith, with a .948 save percentage, and Quick, with a .949 save percentage, have shut down opposing shooters in the opening two rounds -- and not just anyone, either. You're talking about Quick shutting down the Canucks and Blues; Smith doing it to the Blackhawks and Predators. All four teams were serious Cup contenders and now they're all home watching, thanks to these two incredible netminders. But one of these two Conn Smythe favorites will go home as well after this round.
Smith just outdueled a heck of a goalie in Nashville's Pekka Rinne, so he's up for another big matchup.
"He's a tremendous goalie," Smith said of Quick. "He's had a great year and obviously he's a Vezina nominee, and he's well-deserving of that. We're going to have to get prepared and have another battle."
2. Captains who lead by example in the West
Captains Dustin Brown of the Kings and Shane Doan of the Coyotes let their play do the talking. Both are physical players with a knack for the big goal, and their teammates feed off the energy and leadership each captain provides. Brown has had a sensational playoffs, leading the Kings in scoring. He went toe-to-toe with Blues captain David Backes in the last round with a real physical battle, just as he went after Canucks captain Henrik Sedin in the opening round. So look for Brown and Doan to tangle in this round. Keep your heads up, boys.
3. Score first, young man, score first!
The opening goal might have quite the impact in the Western Conference finals. The defensively oriented Kings and Coyotes are a combined 11-2 in these playoffs when scoring first, with Los Angeles going 5-1 in those games and Phoenix 6-1. The Coyotes' lone loss in the second round was 2-0 in Nashville in Game 3, and they will tell you that when they fall behind, it's an uphill battle for them to generate offense. Both teams are incredibly difficult to come back on, playing suffocating defense and having netminders who shut the door. Score first? A great idea in the Western Conference finals.
4. No walking stick needed
Martin Brodeur, remember him? You know, the NHL's all-time winningest goalie? He's been somewhat pushed aside in recent years when national media and hockey fans talk about the game's elite netminders, and not unjustly, as his numbers suggest a sliding game. However, the 40-year-old is finding a little juice in his game this spring in backstopping the surprising Devils to an Eastern Conference finals berth. Could there be a better storyline than Brodeur playing in yet another Stanley Cup finals in what might or might not be his last NHL season of an incredible career? Don't think so.
5. Brad Richards is worth the money
You always wonder how it's going to shake down when a team signs the it free agent to one of those whopper deals. You have to assume there's at least a little buyer's remorse in Philadelphia after the playoffs netminder Ilya Bryzgalov turned in after signing a monster nine-year deal last summer. But in New York, there's no buyer's remorse when it comes to Brad Richards. Although it took him a while to get acclimatized to life in the Big Apple after toiling in Tampa and in Dallas, Richards has been everything the Rangers had hoped for and more this spring. Richards, who inked a nine-year, $60 million deal with the Rangers last July, leads the Rangers in goals (6) and points (11) and, more importantly, leads the team in clutch moments. He scored a big power-play goal in the first round against Ottawa when the Rangers' season was on the brink. He set up Marian Gaborik for the triple-overtime winner in Game 3 against Washington, and in Game 7 against the Caps scored on the first shot of the game for the Rangers. The former playoff MVP has moved himself once again into the Conn Smythe Trophy discussion, just like the Rangers hoped would be the case. --Scott Burnside
37mPierre LeBrun and Joe McDonald