Finals set; Belfast and Athens to do battle

The Season 4 Cup will go to either Belfast or Athens as both teams scored 6 goals to emphatically finish off their conference finals series this past week.

The Giants scored 4.6 goals per game against Copenhagen to advance, while Athens scored 3.83 per game against Paris. The Greeks also won 2 out of 3 in the toughest building in the league to win this season. Paris was 34-5-2 at home during the regular season. Staffan Kronwall of Athens, who delivered 5 hits in Game 6, was the star of the pivotal Game 5 that the Greeks won by a goal in Paris. He had two assists in Athens’ comeback from a 3-0 deficit before he scored the game-winner on a powerplay early in the third period.

Here’s what to look for in the Finals:

Forwards

Athens – David Backes is the leader of the team and is presently its leading scorer with 20 points in 15 games. He and Jason Pominville have been the best Greek triggermen in the post season with 8 goals each. But Athens’ top line needs to be better in the Finals than it has in the playoffs. Backes, Scott Hartnell and Kyle Palmieri have been outplayed by some other top lines and the threesome is in the minus-4-to-minus-7 range currently during the playoffs. Vadim Shipachyov has been the most pleasant surprise of the playoffs for the fans of the Greeks. The third-line center leads the league in post-season assists with 13 in 15 games and he is second on the team in scoring. The young Russian plays with T.J. Oshie on his right and Michael Ryder on his left and together, they have been a plus-6 line. The second line, with Ryan O’Reilly centering Dimitrios Kalyvas and Pominville have gotten a ton of shots on goal in the playoffs and are also in the plus 5 range as a unit. The fourth line hasn’t been too noticeable, other than center Bobby Butler, who has 25 hits in the playoffs to place him third among Greek forwards in that category.

Belfast – If Belfast wins the Cup, they should have the 12 forwards to thank. Teams that have to play Belfast hate it because there are always three Tazmanian Devils twirling in their zone. The team is loaded to the rim with speedy, skilled, young forwards. Sidney Crosby, who had to wait 41 draft picks before Belfast took him in the second road of the initial draft, has become the superstar the rest of the league was hoping he wouldn’t become. A season after posting a 53-goal season, Crosby has been the top-line center who led the Giants into their first playoffs and now, into the Cup Finals. Centering James Neal and Nazem Kadri, Crosby is the league’s leading scorer in the playoffs with 21 points in 15 games. The top line has scored 26 goals in the 15 post season games. The second line has played even hockey throughout the playoffs, with veteran Joe Pavelski centering youngsters Nathan MacKinnon and Ondrej Palat. The third line? Now they have been a work of art in the playoffs. Got past Crosby’s line? Not matched up against Pavelski’s unit? Too bad for you, because here comes Matt Moulson, Vladimir Tarasenko and Matt Duchene over the boards. Averaging only a little more than 10 minutes per game, the unit has 12 goals in 15 games and is in the plus-10-to-12 range as a line. They are listed as the top 3 players in the league in terms of plus-minus these playoffs. The fourth line of Cody Hodgson, Mikko Lehtonen and Gabriel Bourque has skill, but not ice time. They have been a forgotten part of the team for the most part this post season, scoring just one goal in a little more than 4 minutes per 15 games.

Defense

Athens – If Athens wins it all, this group will deserve the praise. Staffan Kronwall is one of three Greek defensemen who have been contributing mightily to the offense in the playoffs. He has 13 points through 15 games, while big brother Nicklas has 11. They are plus 5 and plus 8, respectively, playing as the team’s second defense pairing. Dustin Byfuglien leads the team’s defensemen in scoring (14 points in 15 games) and takeaways and he is Athens’ leader in hits with an average of 3 per game. Ian White, Big Buff’s partner, has 24 shot blocks in the 15 games. How will Athens deal with the Giants’ awesome set of forwards? Consider that in these playoffs, Athens defeated Bratislava, Berlin and Paris, which are all teams that scored more goals in the regular season than Belfast did.

Belfast – This is the Giants’ weakest area, but they obviously have been doing enough to get the team through each series. The 6-man defense corps has 12 more giveaways than takeaways in the playoffs. It seems their recipe for success is simply to get the puck onto the slick forwards’ sticks and let them work their magic. Still, one member of the defense corps has been outstanding in the playoffs. P.K. Subban has just about doubled his offensive production rate in the playoffs. He had 46 points in 82 regular season games, and he has 15 in 15 during the playoffs. The other five defensemen on the team have not been as productive, contributing a combined 19 points in the playoffs.

Goalies

Athens – Cam Ward has played every playoff minute for the Greeks and has posted the seventh-best goals against average in the league these playoffs, and the seventh-best save percentaqe at an un-jaw-dropping rate of 89.8. During the regular season, he was fifth best in the league at 90.8. One of the most interesting questions of this series is “Will fifth-best – or seventh-best, depending on how you look at it – be good enough to win the cup?”

Belfast – The best playoff goalie, and second-best by a hair regular season goalie wears a Giants sweater. Jonathan Quick was acquired from Munich for Cory Schneider and Filip Forsberg and the deal is close to paying off big for Belfast. He has won 12 of his 15 playoff starts for Belfast and put together an impressive 92.3 save percentage.

Special teams

The two teams’ specialty teams units have been basically equal during the playoffs. They are both in the top 4 in the league under powerplay goals and in the top 3 in penalty killing. Athens has spent slightly more time in the penalty box, but the difference between the teams is miniscule. Backes and O’Reilly have managed two shorthanded goals each in the playoffs and Staffan Kronwall has been a powerplay weapon for Athens with 4 goals. Belfast’s Crosby has more PP goals than anyone with 6.

Analysis

The top forward lines look like they will put up goals and cancel each other out. The second lines – O’Reilly vs. Pavelski – might represent a slight advantage for Athens, but they could also cancel each other out. The real drama looks to be in the third-line matchup of Shipachyoy/Ryder/Oshie vs. Duchene/Tarasenko/Moulson. Both lines have had success in the playoffs, with the Duchene line having slightly more. The fourth lines won’t see the ice enough to make a meaningful difference in the series, although Athens’ Butler has been great in his role.

Belfast’s defense has been unspectacular in the playoffs – Subban aside – and if they don’t win it, fingers of blame will be pointed at them. It took Athens’ defense corps a playoff series to gel, but they have their game running on all cylinders now.

Belfast has averaged 3 more shots per game than has Athens and they have given up 3 fewer shots per game than have the Greeks. Those 6 shots per game could be big of the games are tight.

Rose picks Athens to win thanks to their experience and size advantage, especially on defense.

The commissioner has Jonathan Quick being the difference and expects to be handing the Cup to Belfast captain Crosby.

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