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Game 7s Up Next In Both NHL Conference Finals

The drama throughout May has been provided by the NHL rather than the NBA, so it’s fitting that both of hockey’s conference finals are going to a Game 7, promising a weekend of heart-stopping drama on both coasts.

The New York Rangers beat the Tampa Bay Lightning on the road in Game 6, meaning the Rangers now have four straight wins in elimination games, tracing back to their rally from 3-1 down to beat the Washington Capitals in the second round.

Let’s also remember the Rangers rallied from 3-1 down a year ago to beat the Pittsburgh Penguins in round two. New York is quite comfortable playing in this kind of high-pressure atmosphere.

One thing we also know from this series is that momentum is non-existent, so in spite of Tampa Bay playing an absolutely atrocious third period, giving up four goals, plus an empty-netter. A game that had been compelling for the first two periods, with New York holding a 2-1 lead, turned into a sloppy joke in the final 20 minutes.

It was a bad night for Lightning goalie Ben Bishop, but keep in mind that Bishop has already bounced back from poor home showings to play well on the road. He did it in most notably in Game 5.

Furthermore, home ice advantage in hockey is perhaps less consequential than in any other sport. It means more to the fans, who get to be there and the scalpers who get to make money, then it does in predicting the outcome.

Each team has shown they can win playing the other’s style. The defense-first Rangers held that 2-1 lead in Game 6 in spite of Tampa unloading 29 shots in the first two periods. The Lightning won a grinding fifth game that should have favored New York.

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How The Warriors Clinched The West

The Golden State Warriors are going to the NBA Finals for the first time since their back-to-back championship years of 1974-75. A 104-90 win over the Houston Rockets last night sewed up the Western Conference Finals in five games. Here’s a look at how the Warriors did it…

*The stars were close to a wash with Steph Curry and James Harden each playing well. Curry knocked down 31 ppg for Golden State, while Harden went for 28 points/8 rebounds/6 assists per game.

But Curry, with six assists of his own per game, was still a little bit better. And the biggest difference between the two is one that doesn’t show up in the per-game averages. Harden was terrible in Game 3, the opportunity the Rockets had to make it a series again on their home floor, and he also mishandled the last possession of Game 2 when his team could have stolen one on the road.

This isn’t written as a “Bash James Harden” line, because he’s not the reason his team lost this series. But he was a little bit behind his star counterpart, just as he finished in the MVP voting.

*The real difference between the two teams was rebounding. Remember those unenlightened observers who said Golden State couldn’t win it all because they were a pure jump-shooting team? I was one of them, and am feeling foolish.

As a team, Golden State outrebounded a team with Dwight Howard in the middle by a 49-42 margin per game. And this is with Dwight getting 14 boards a night. But the Warriors countered with Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut who combined to average 21.

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How The Cavs Clinched The East

The city of Cleveland closed in on its first professional sports championship since the Browns won an NFL title in the pre-Super Bowl era of 1964. On Tuesday night, the Cavaliers concluded an Eastern Conference finals sweep of the Hawks with a 118-88 win.

Conventional reporting of this series is saying it boiled down to Cleveland having LeBron James and Atlanta being a mix of injured and a fraud. The first two are clearly correct, the latter a little harsh, and as always there is more to the story.

Rebounding is what defined these Eastern Conference Finals. The Cavs held a massive 52-39 advantage on the glass as a per-game average. Atlanta’s strength in this series was the presence of Paul Millsap and Al Horford down low, and neither were able to impose their will at any point in the series. Millsap’s 7.8 rebounds per game led Atlanta, while four different Cleveland players had per-game averages of 7.5 or higher.

Atlanta played respectable defense in the series, with Cleveland shooting a hair under 45 percent from the floor and LeBron being at 44 percent. That’s not a dominating defensive display, but it’s good enough to win if you rebound the basketball and play with some efficiency yourselves on the offensive end. But the Hawks didn’t get those misses they were forcing and the Cavs defense was even better, holding Atlanta to 42 percent.

Now we come to LeBron and those Atlanta injuries. James averaged 30 points/11 rebounds/9 assists throughout the series, lifting a team that had Kevin Love out and Kyrie Irving hobbled for two games, and missing two others. LeBron got his help from Tristan Thompson, who also got 11 boards a night, and J.R. Smith, who averaged 18 ppg and hit 16 of the 34 three-point attempts he took in this series.

The question it’s fair to ask is whether Cleveland is actually better without Love. It means additional minutes for Thompson, who attacks the glass and it’s not like the Cavs don’t have three-point shooters. This is an argument I’m open to hearing, but I’d also like to see how Cleveland fares against an opponent of true championship quality.

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Ducks & Lightning Close In On The Stanley Cup Finals

The cities of Tampa Bay and Anaheim don’t exactly jump to mind when you think of great hockey towns, but there’s no disputing the quality of the talent each franchise puts on the ice. And the Lightning and the Ducks are now each within a victory of the Stanley Cup Finals after taking Game 5 of their respective conference finals.

Anaheim and Chicago continued to play a series that leaves you breathless in watching it unfold. By rights, Game 5 should have been over after a period. The Blackhawks basically no-showed the first 20 minutes and dug themselves a 3-0 hole.

They crawled back into the game with two goals in the second period and after Anaheim scored what appeared to be an insurance goal, the Blackhawks stunned everyone with two goals in the last two minutes to force overtime.

It was reminiscent of Game 6 of the 2013 Stanley Cup Finals when Chicago beat Boston much the same way—and as a Bruins fan, the electro-shock therapy I’ve undergone to deal with that game was all out the window, as the rally brought back the flood of memories.

But unlike ’13, this amazing rally only forced OT and within a one minute of the extra period Matt Beleskey scored the game-winner.

The player I most feel for right now is Chicago goalie Corey Crawford. Normally, on a team this talented, he’s the reason if they lose and just along for the ride if they win. But even though the box score says Crawford gave up five goals, I didn’t think he had a real chance on four of them and none of them were really blown saves.

Conversely, Anaheim’s Frederik Andersen basically coughed up a few freebie goals. As one who basically believes the NHL playoffs are about the goaltenders, I have no problem admitting that Game 5 of this series was about anything but.

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Golden State & Cleveland On The Brink Of Sweeps

Cleveland barely survived at home in overtime, while Golden State put its foot on the gas and turned in a road blowout. Two different paths, but each team put itself on the brink of a conference finals sweep with Game 3 victories this weekend.

The Cavs’ 114-111 win over the Hawks was by far the most compelling game and if Atlanta’s Al Horford isn’t ejected for throwing an elbow, the Hawks almost certainly win the game. But the Horford ejection, combined with a big dose of LeBron James and a huge Tristan Thompson rebound, pushed Cleveland over the top.

LeBron started off ice cold and missed his first ten shots, but without Kyrie Irving in the lineup, LeBron kept firing and ended up making 14-of-37 shots—or a solid 14/27 after the awful start. He ended up with 37 points and more important, his 18 rebounds led another dominant Cleveland outing on the boards.

In spite of this, Atlanta had taken a 111-109 lead and forced a missed shot on the defensive end. TheSportsNotebook has been touting Thompson’s importance as a rebounder all postseason and this play was the exact reason why—he gets the offensive board and quickly moves it back outside.

The best time to shoot a three is off the offensive rebound, as the defense is scattered. LeBron gets a clean look from behind the arc and drills it. It was the biggest play in Cleveland’s ultimate win.

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The Drama Keeps Building In The NHL Conference Finals

The NHL conference finals are providing springtime the drama that the NBA has mostly failed to give us. The New York Rangers and Chicago Blackhawks each tied up their series at 2-2, with the Blackhawks again going multiple overtimes to get the W, and this time turning back a stunning third period surge from Anaheim.

Chicago had just gotten what seemed like an insurance goal with 12:22 left to take a 3-1 lead. The Blackhawks had mostly controlled the flow of play with the lone exception of a sustained Duck attack late in the second period that produced their only goal. Then the madness started.

Anaheim quickly got a goal from Ryan Kesler to make it a game. Twenty-three seconds later, a foolish Blackhawk turnover led to a tying Duck goal from Matt Beleskey. While the turnover was bad and Beleskey’s shot a beautiful rocket to the upper left corner of the goal, it’s also fair to say that Chicago goalie Corey Crawford should have made the play. Nothing was blocking his vision.

Fourteen seconds later a goal that Crawford can’t be blamed for put Anaheim ahead. Two great players, Chicago’s Duncan Keith and Anaheim’s Corey Perry were positioned in front of the net as a shot went on goal. It was akin two basketball players fighting for position in the low post.

As Crawford made the save, Perry won the battle and got inside, able to poke in the puck on the opposite side of the net. Just an outstanding play from an outstanding player and the Ducks had the lead.

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