Well, here it is, round three. One step away from the final. I was correct on 3 of 4 series last round (the Lightning/ Islanders series tripped me up!), and I am once again having to write after a series has already started. Oh well, lets get to it!
Eastern Conference Final: Penguins vs Lightning
Programming note: I am a bad person. I did not watch the game last night. So my thoughts will be devoid of information from game 1 which Tampa Bay won.
This one has set up as a mirror image series, as both teams boast blazing speed and scoring talent throughout the lineup.
The path for Tampa Bay’s return to the Eastern Conference final has included 5 game series wins versus the Red Wings and Islanders. The Lightning should be getting credit for efficiently taking care of business, not apologizing for their schedule. The triplets (Kucherov, Johnson and Palat) continue to carry the load for Tampa Bay, along with the stellar play of Victor Headman. As predicted pre-playoff preview, Jonathon Drouin has been a force as well. You have to think this little run, without Stamkos, has made Steve Yzerman’s dilemna a little more bearable. He can point to the success they have had without their captain as a reasonable sign of hope for continued success if they are unable or unwilling to win the Stamkos auction.
Like the Penguins, the Lightning defense does not get a lot of accolades, they just get the job done.
The Penguins run has seen them vanquish their recent playoff nemesis Rangers, and follow it up by knocking off their historical playoff punching bag, but President’s trophy winning, Capitals. The second round upset really highlighted the Penguins improved depth, as Crosby and Malkin were held to 4 points in that series. It was the Bonino – Kessel- Hagelin line that took care of business in the second round. They are going to need to get bigger contributions from the “Big 2” guns if they are to reach the final. It’s about time NBC started to acknowledge that this Penguins team is good, not just hot! I thought Milbury was going to be physically ill when Pittsburgh eliminated the Caps.
Matt Murray continues to be a huge story for the Penguins. The rookie is giving them cool, calm and composed goaltending throughout these playoffs, well beyond expectations for a 21 year old rookie goaltender. But playoff history is full of these types of stories. Cam Ward being a very similar (replaced starter due to injury and ran with it all the way to a Cup and big contract) story. For the Penguins, they can only help it ends the same way. I do want to throw out a cautionary comment here – I have a feeling we do see Marc-Andre Fleury here at some point. It’s just a gut feel nothing to base it on. And I must compliment Fleury on the way he has handled this since coming back from injury. Absolutely pure class, a true pro and great team mate!
Keys to the Series:
- Penguins got themselves in trouble against the Caps when they took penalties. They were better than Washington 5 on 5, and I suspect that will be the case here.
- Goaltending is always a key this time of year. Will Murray continue his run of excellence, and beat another Vezina nominated goalie. Note I am not sure what status is now of Bishop, and if he is down, we could have dueling surprise starters, with Vasilevskiy every bit as calm and capable as Murray.
- Cliche I know, but at this point in the playoffs, your best players need to be at their best. Past few years, the Penguins undoing has generally been linked directly to Malkin and Crosby disappearance. That can’t happen.
For the Lightning, Tampa Bay saw their penalty killing take a major tumble in round 2, from 96% rating against the Red Wings, to 87.2% following the Islanders series. Combined PP+PK now stands at 105%, lowest among the remaining teams.
For the Penguins, both their power play and penalty kill numbers took a major slide against a good Capitals special teams. Of particular concern, their powerplay was not real good in spots against the Caps…and got nothing done in an early 5 minute major in game 1 versus the Lightning. PP+PK rating of 109.1% is second best of those remaining, but that is 20% worse than it was after round 1.
What could go wrong:
- Matt Murray turns into a pumpkin in this series, and Cinderella does not get to go to the ball.
- The Penguins big guns (Crosby, Malkin – I’m calling you out here) don’t find a way to contribute, and the Lightning find a way to control the Bonino – Kessel – Hagelin line.
- Game is played too much on special teams, which limits the Penguins superior depth.
- Wear and tear of 3 rounds catches up to Penguins smallish D-core.
The Pick: Penguins in 6 (yes, stubborn given I know they have lost Game 1!)
Western Conference Final: Blues vs Sharks
Well, good news here. One of these long maligned teams for their playoff performance will finally get the monkey off their back. Bad news, one will be so close, only to hear all the same criticisms again.
The Blues are on a great run, having knocked off defending champ Chicago and Western Conference regular season champion Stars. The worry for me is that they seemed to take the hard way in both rounds, instead of finishing them quickly. That can be a problem this time of year, especially for a team like the Blues that must play a physical, heavy game to be successful.
On the positive side, I think the Blues are the deepest of the remaining teams, and have always seemed built for long playoff runs. They have 4 lines that can contribute, 6 solid D that are the envy of most the league, and not one but two starter caliber goaltenders. On the goaltending side, Hitchcock appears to have finally stopped tinkering, and Elliott has earned right to run with the job. He has been so good for the Blues.
They are also getting contributions throughout their lineup. We know Tarasenko and Backes would perform, but Robby Fabbri has provided another dimension to the Blues. He has even made Paul Statsny relevant again. Like the Penguins, it has been this “third” line of Fabbri – Statsny- Brouwer that has come up big for the Blues.
On the Sharks side, it has been a remarkable run for a team most were thinking had seen it’s Stanley Cup window close. The kids are alright…but the vets can still play! Logan Couture has had a coming out party in these playoffs, currently leading the league in scoring. This kid is good, I don’t think us “Eastern time zone non-zombies” get to see him enough. He also plays in the shadow of the “Joes” in Thornton and Pavelski, who have both had stellar playoffs as well. The wildcard for the Sharks though has been Chewie, Brett Burns. Again, us folks who like sleep don’t see these West coast guys enough, but Burns is so good. He is mobile, he is dynamic, and he defends. I will say it again, a must add to any Team Canada going forward.
Martin Jones continues to provide great goaltending for the Sharks, quietly doing his thing under the hype of the Matt Murray story. I don’t think Jones has stolen a bunch of games for the Sharks, but he has been a pillar of strength and stability back there.
Keys to the Series:
- To me biggest key here is who can dictate the pace and style of play. Both teams are more than capable of playing heavy or fast…but Blues would prefer to keep this game on the boards and fight it out in hand to hand combat, where Sharks would prefer a bit more of a track meet.
- Can the Blues forward depth expose the Sharks 2nd and 3rd pair defence?
- As always, the tale of the twine will be big also. Elliott versus Jones will be very interesting.
For the Blues, they have consistently boasted a plus power play (27.5%) but have struggled on the penalty kill (79.5%). Their PK will need to improve greatly if they are to advanced. Combined PP+PK rating of 107% is solid third of those remaining.
The Sharks have feasted on special teams throughout the playoffs. They got better on the powerplay in round 2, now at a 31% rate with the extra man. That is intimidating. Their PK also improved over the course of the playoffs, now at 82%, for a combined rating of 113.2%, easily a playoff best.
What could go wrong:
- If the Blues take too many penalties, they will get eaten alive. As noted above, the Sharks have rode their powerplay so far.
- Elliott appeared to have sprung a couple of leaks in round 2, and to right now the Sharks are every bit as dynamic as the Stars were.
- Coaching – as good as Hitchcock is, it is Peter DeBoer who has guided his team (Devils) to a Cup final most recently. He certainly seems to have a more even keeled approach to Hitch, and really has this team playing well.
The Pick: Blues in 7
Can’t wait to watch these two series, we sometimes get a dud in the third round, as a Cinderella falls apart, but I expect both of these series to continue to exhibit great hockey. Enjoy everyone!