NHL Conference Semifinals Preview
For some fans, the dream of watching their team win the cup is still alive, but for others, it’s all over. Congratulations to the eight teams moving on, but the job is far from finished. The first round had some surprises, and there will be more in the next.
So who’s got a chance at advancing to the Conference Final? Eight teams will continue the journey, but only four will make it to the next round and keep the dream alive. Let’s take a look at which teams will make it past round two in the Eastern and Western Conferences.
New York Islanders Vs. Tampa Bay Lightning
Prediction: Tampa Bay in 6
Thanks to some key performances, both teams surpassed my expectations and have made it to the second round. For Tampa Bay, Ben Bishop and Tyler Johnson were huge factors in getting past Detroit, while John Tavares carried the team on his back in game seven against Florida, scoring the game tying goals and eventually the overtime winner. It was a great performance in round one by both teams, but the dream ends here for New York.
Both teams lack depth past the top line, but Tampa Bay was able to survive that, thanks to Bishop and their strong penalty kill (96.0%). Tavares scored five goals in the first seven against Florida, but he won’t be able to repeat that alone in this series. The Islanders’ depth just isn’t there, and Thomas Greiss just doesn’t have the experience needed to steal two games for New York. It will be a battle till the end, but the Lightning will come out on top.
Pittsburgh Penguins Vs. Washington Capitals
Prediction: Washington in 7
It’s a dream matchup for the NHL—Sidney Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin. Both players are competitors and leaders on their respective teams, but only Crosby has a ring to his name. Ovechkin has often been criticized for his lack of leadership and inability to get his team to the next round, but this year, that changes.
The Penguins came out in round one and fired everything they had at Henrik Lundqvist and were rewarded. They finished first in GF/GP (4.20) and had the best power play (38.1%) in the first round. What’s more surprising is how good Matt Murray was in that opening round. The 21-year-old went 3-0 with a 1.33 G.A.A and a .955 SV%. That’s absolutely remarkable for a youngster making his playoff debut. As impressive as the numbers are, Murray will have no chance in this upcoming round.
The Capitals are a high-powered offence, but it was their strong goaltending that got them to the next round. Braden Holtby posted a sick 0.84 G.A.A and a .968 SV% against the Flyers, and although the Penguins are a better team offensively than Philly, there’s no one who thinks Pittsburgh will light up Washington like they did the Rangers. Scoring goals is an important factor in winning hockey games, but when your (soon to be) Vezina trophy-winning goalie doesn’t allow any pucks to get past him, all you need is one. The motto in hockey is “defense wins championships”, and the Capitals have the defense to take them to the Conference Finals.
St. Louis Blues Vs. Dallas Stars
Prediction: St. Louis in 6
The Blues were able to do something not many teams have done in the last few years—win a playoff series against Chicago. St. Louis deserves to be in the second round, and they also deserve to be in the Conference Finals.
Dallas had the “easy road” to the second round—beating a depleted Minnesota team that should have never made the playoffs in the first place. Their offence was on full display, mostly thanks to Jamie Benn and Jason Spezza. The duo combined forces to score eight goals and 11 assists in that opening round, but the rest of the offence did very little to support them. Patrick Eaves finished with five points in that series, and that’s very concerning. If Benn and Spezza don’t produce, this team isn’t going anywhere.
For St. Louis, it’s all about getting as many shots as possible on Kari Lehtonen. For some bizarre reason, Lindy Ruff has decided to go with Lehtonen as his starter, which is mind-boggling. His 2.27 G.A.A and .911 don’t look too bad, but let’s not forget he was facing a Minnesota team without Zach Parise.
The Blues have some holes in their game, specifically their penalty kill and shots-against per game. They finished with the second-worst penalty kill in the first round (68.4%) and gave up a whopping 36.6 SA/GP. Granted, some of those games went to overtime, but the Blues are going to need to tighten up defensively and not give Dallas too many opportunities to score goals, or they will be done and out by game five. Despite those concerns, St. Louis has the depth and defense to lead them to the next round. All that’s left to see is how much ice time Ken Hitchcock will give Vladimir Tarasenko this series.
San Jose Sharks Vs. Nashville Predators
Prediction: San Jose in 6
The Sharks did something many people thought was impossible to do—beat L.A in the first round. San Jose has a reputation for being dominant during the season, but being unable to translate that into playoff success. This year seems different though- it seems like the year that the Sharks prove the haters wrong.
The Predators had a whirlwind first round; taking both games on the road in Anaheim, only to lose the next three, before winning games six and seven. Many people (including myself) had Anaheim advancing all the way to the Stanley Cup Final, so this series win for Nashville is huge. Can they take that first round success and carry it into the next round? Not a chance.
Pekka Rinne was absolute trash in the first five games of the open round, before turning it all around in the final two games. He single handedly got Nashville to the next round by standing on his head in the final two periods of game seven. Anaheim threw everything they had at the Finnish goaltender, but he hung in there and stole one for his team.
The Sharks are not exactly the Anaheim Ducks, but they have a number of players who can take over a series at any time. Joe Pavelski lead the Sharks in goals in the first round with five, and if Rinne plays like he did in the first five games, the captain will have a field day. The key in this series is going to be how well Rinne will play and if Sea Weber and Roman Josi can shut down San Jose’s top line. Both are enormous tasks that just don’t seem realistic. It will be a close series for sure, but this is the year the Sharks make it to back to the Conference Finals for the first time since 2010-11.