NHL Conference Finals Preview

Posted: 05/13/2016 by levcohen in Hockey

It was a round with a lot of twists and turns, but for the most part, the second round ended about as I thought it would. The Lightning, after dropping game one at home against the Islanders, won the next four, showing again that they have the fortitude and ability to win without Steven Stamkos and Anton Stralman. The Islanders saw some regression to the mean in terms of overtime success, dropping both of their overtime games against Tampa after winning all three in their first round series against the Panthers. In the end, career backup goalie Thomas Greiss couldn’t carry a struggling offense like he did in round one, and the Lightning won game five in style, 4-0. They’ll face the Penguins, who were responsible for my only incorrect series pick of the four. Guess what? The Washington Capitals choked AGAIN. All annoying hot takes aside, I don’t think you can really blame Washington for losing here. They might have been the best team in the league in the regular season, but they ran into a team that was simply on another level, were pegged back 3-0 in game six, and still fought back, nearly sending the series to a game seven in Washington (Pittsburgh’s 4-3 win in game six was the only competitive closeout game: Tampa won 4-0, St. Louis 6-1, and San Jose 5-0) . The fact that Alexander Ovechkin has (still) never made it past the second round is puzzling, but I think the people who are advocating a total rebuild are crazy. Make no mistake: the Capitals will be great again next year, and they’ll again have a chance to advance further into the postseason. Whether they can actually do it or not is the real question.

Meanwhile, out West I felt that the two teams that were clearly superior won their respective series’, although they were both pushed further than I thought they would be. The Blues outscored the Stars 25-14 in the series, and they were only pushed seven games because they lost an overtime game and a fluky game six in which they outshot the Stars 37-14 and still lost. For Dallas, the absence of star forward Tyler Seguin was too much to overcome, as the team’s goaltending woes, seemingly among the worst in recent playoff history, came back to haunt them. The starting goalie (Kari Lehtonen twice, Antti Niemi once) was pulled three times, and this was clearly a team with too many holes to advance deeper into the playoffs. A great season for the Stars came to a discouraging end, but this is a young team with really high potential. Finally, the Sharks finally vanquished the Predators with a dominant game seven showing, defeating Nashville 5-0 and outshooting them 23-8 in the first two periods. The veteran team outscored the Predators 25-17, overcoming two overtime losses (including a triple overtime loss) and winning all four games on their home ice. The Sharks were 8/21 on the power play and 6/11 in their wins while holding Nashville to three power play goals.

With all that said, we have a couple of fascinating matchups to look forward to, starting with game one of Penguins-Lightning tonight. Let’s start with that one, which I think has a clear favorite.

Penguins over Lightning in seven: On the surface, the fact that the Lightning have made it this far is insane, considering that they’re without their second best defender (Anton Stralman) and best player (Steven Stamkos). But is it really that surprising? This is a team that made the Stanley Cup Final last year, so the experience is there. They also have a capital-G Great playoff goalie in Ben Bishop, who has five shutouts in 35 career playoff games along with a .938 save percentage this postseason, tops among goalies still in the playoffs. The “Triplets” line that was so incredible in last year’s playoffs? Well, after a poor regular season, the Palat-Johnson-Kucherov line is back, as the latter two lead the team in playoff points with 13 (four goals and nine assists for Johnson) and 12 (nine goals and three assists for Kucherov) in 10 games. How about Jonathan Drouin, the clearly-talented young forward seemingly always in coach Jon Cooper’s doghouse? In Stamkos’s absence, Drouin has nine points in the playoffs. And defensive stud Victor Hedman has added nine points in a ridiculous 27:30 minutes per playoff game. Finally, the Lightning have been able to go 8-2 because they’ve gotten two pretty easy matchups with wild card teams that slumped down the stretch. Even with Stralman and Stamkos out, the Lightning were more talented than the full-strength Detroit Red Wings and had the much better goalie than the Islanders. The Penguins are a different story.

After finishing the regular season 14-2-0, Pittsburgh hammered the Rangers in five games, outscoring them 21-10. Then they knocked off the NHL’s best regular season team, outscoring the Capitals if not necessarily outplaying them. With the Caps out, the Penguins are the favorites, with a 30-35% chance of winning it all per most betting markets. They have a hot goalie in Matt Murray and a Stanley Cup winner in Marc-Andre Fleury waiting on the bench if Murray gets cold. They’re the fastest team in the NHL, and they might be the most talented. When Evgeni Malkin is centering the third line, and when neither the Malkin nor the Sidney Crosby line is the team’s best offensive unit, you know you have a contender for the Cup. The best line right now is the Carl Hagelin-Nick Bonino-Phil Kessel line, which has combined for 30 points in 11 games. The ironic thing? That second line, the one with the most chemistry on the team, is composed of three players who are all concluding their first seasons with the Penguins. Call them the “anti-Triplets.” And Pittsburgh also has terrific special teams, with a power play that is 11/40 and a PK that’s 35/42. They’re healthy, and at this point they feel like a juggernaut steamrolling to the Cup.

So why do I have the Lightning pushing it to seven games? For what it’s worth, the Lightning are 3-0 against the Pens this season. But more importantly, there’s the Stamkos/Stralman wildcard. Stralman could be back for game two or three, while Stamkos has a chance of returning later in the series. If those two guys come back full-strength, the Lightning suddenly transform into the better team. Finally, I just can’t see a scenario in which Ben Bishop doesn’t steal a couple of games. The Penguins are the rightful favorites in this series, but it could be a tougher one than the two that have preceded it because the Lightning play a speed-first game that’s very similar to Pittsburgh’s, while the Capitals and Rangers before them were more physical, a style that has proven to be a poor one against this Penguins team.

Sharks over Blues in six: These teams are both very good. But there’s a clear difference between the two: firepower. As in, the Sharks have much more of it than do the Blues. Now, you might be thinking that the Stars also had more scoring punch than St. Louis and that didn’t win them the series. But the difference between San Jose and Dallas is that the Sharks have a functional goalie. Let’s start with San Jose’s offensive prowess. The Sharks scored the second most goals in the Western Conference this season, behind only the aforementioned Stars. Their offense is powered by a ferocious power play that went 13/42 in the first two rounds, a number that probably doesn’t do the power play justice. Brent Burns might be the best power play point in the league, with a tremendous shot that netted him 75 regular season points and 15 so far in the playoffs. Logan Couture has been insane in the playoffs, with an NHL-leading 17 points, while steady, reliable Joe Thornton (36 years-old), Joe Pavelski (31), and Patrick Marleau (36) still have more than enough tricks in the bag to get the job done, especially on the man advantage. The Blues held the undermanned Stars to just two power play goals in seven games; I can’t see the Sharks scoring fewer than four or five in this series. Meanwhile, first-year starter Martin Jones has been very steady all year, with a .918 save percentage in the regular season and an identical one in the playoffs. The Stars wilted when under pressure against the Blues, something I can’t see the Sharks doing.

That’s not to say that the Blues have no chance. Any team this good and well rounded has an excellent chance at winning a series. In fact, the Blues are moderate (-130) favorites to win the series. Their calling card is a top-four defense that has to be the best one in the NHL. Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk, Colton Parayko, and Jay Bouwmeester have tough names to spell, but they’re forgiven because they are all amazing defenders. The Sharks are going to have to break them down every so often, which is no easy task. St. Louis probably also has the slight advantage between the pipes, with the much-maligned Brian Elliot playing excellently all season and especially in the playoffs. And they have a good group of forwards, led by sniper Vladimir Tarasenko and captain David Backes. This is a team that has been gritty and resilient for 14 games now, and winning back-to-back seven games series is no small feat. Can they do it a third time, though? It’s certainly possible, but the well-rounded Sharks are certainly a different animal than the comparatively-tame Stars.

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