NHL Conference Finals Preview
Congratulations to the four teams for making it this far. After a long, grueling second round, they definitely deserve to be here. A trip to the Stanley Cup finals is now on the line, and no team wants to go home at this point. All four teams have a shot at making it to the next round, but which two teams will come out victorious? Let’s take a look.
Pittsburgh Penguins Vs. Tampa Bay Lightning.
Prediction: Pittsburgh in 6
No offense to the Detroit Red Wings or New York Islanders, but the Tampa Bay Lightning had a relatively easy road up to this point. It’s not to say that Tampa doesn’t deserve to be here, but their competition up till now has been mediocre at best. The Pittsburgh Penguins are completely different animals, who will likely prove to be too much for the Lightning to handle.
In 11 games so far this postseason the Penguins are averaging 3.36 G/GP (the highest of the four remaining teams) and have the second best GA/GP, behind Tampa Bay. Phil Kessel has been Pittsburgh’s best player in the playoffs up till now, while Matt Murray continues his Cinderella story.
For Tampa Bay, it’s all about Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Jonathan Drouin. The three have combined to score 14G and 20A to go along with a crazy plus-21 rating (Drouin is a minus-1, but more on that later). The play of Ben Bishop has also been outstanding, leading all remaining goalies in SV% (.938), G.A.A (1.89) and GA (18).
So what gives Pittsburgh the edge?
The Penguins have a ton of depth at the forward position. With all the talk surrounding Kessel and his breakout playoff performance, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have been side stories. The duo have combined to score only six goals, but they’ve added 13 assists in the process and have created a ton of space for the second line to operate. If Tampa were to choose a line to focus on, it would be the Crosby line, but that would allow Malkin’s line, or Bonino’s line, to do as they please against inferior defenders.
For all the talk about Drouin and his playoff success after being sent down to the AHL earlier this year, his defensive game is still very basic. In fact, most of Tampa Bay’s defensive game has been basic. Outside of Johnson, Kucherov and Alex Killorn who are a combined plus-32, the rest of the team is a combined plus-13. Those aren’t terrible numbers, but gap between the top line and the rest of the team is pretty drastic.
For the Lightning to win this series, they need Bishop to at least steal one game. Matt Murray was able to outplay Braden Holtby in the second round, and assuming he is the starter for round three, he will need to do the same this series. The Penguins will go as far as their goaltender takes them, and if last round is any indication, it’s a ticket to the Stanley Cup Finals.
San Jose Sharks Vs. St. Louis Blues
Prediction: St. Louis in 6
To be honest, this was a coin flip. I’ve been staring at my screen for over ten minutes and just couldn’t make a decision. Both teams deserve to be here, and they both play to their strengths extremely well. San Jose right now just looks unstoppable, but don’t count St. Louis out just yet.
The Blues have the make-up of a team that knows how to play playoff hockey. They are deep from the top line to the fourth line, and they are the definition of “scoring by committee”. Vladimir Tarasenko has been the go-to guy in the post season, but the emergence of Robby Fabbri adds a whole other element to an already dangerous offense. Kevin Shattenkirk continues to provide scoring from the back end, while David Backes is showing everyone he’s still got what it takes to be a great player in both the offensive zone and defensive zone.
For San Jose, it’s been an impressive run up to now. Known for being playoff chokers, the Sharks have come out and proven all the haters wrong, (myself included). Logan Couture leads all skaters in the postseason with 17 points (7G, 10A), while Captain America Joe Pavelski leads all players in goals with nine. They’ve been San Jose’s best players from the start, and if they want to make it to the finals, they’re going to need them to continue to produce at a high level. Is that realistic, though? Probably not.
Unlike the Nashville Predators, the Blues are a complete team. It was easy for San Jose to shut down Nashville’s top line and score goals against a below-average Pekka Rinne, but that won’t be the case with St. Louis. They play a hard nosed brand of hockey and really wear down their opponents. That wear and tear may be the success to shutting down Pavelski and company, and because San Jose doesn’t have the offensive depth to compensate should the top-6 slow down, they would come up short in a best-of-seven series.
For St. Louis, the key is strong goaltending and scoring goals. Brian Elliott was really good in the second round, but he needs to elevate his game once again. Of the four remaining goalies, his GAA is the worst (2.29) and his SV% is third (.929). Those numbers aren’t bad by any means, but there is room for improvement.
That same can be said for Martin Jones. His task in the third round will be much greater than it was in the second round, and his .918 SV% just won’t cut it. In the regular season, that’s solid, but in the playoffs, it’s not good enough. If San Jose wants to get past St. Louis, Jones is going to need to come up big for his team every night and hope his offense can do the rest.
In the end, the edge goes to the Blues, but don’t be shocked in San Jose causes an “upset” and makes a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in franchise history.