Monday, May 16, 2016

And Then There Were Four

(Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

We are one game into the 2016 NHL Conference finals with the final four teams left to compete for the Stanley Cup. Based on regular season rankings and playoff predictions, the four teams left weren't exactly expected to be here. The top two teams from the regular season, the conference leaders, Washington Capitals and Dallas Stars were eliminated last round. The third and fourth ranked teams, St. Louis Blues and Pittsburgh are still around which shouldn't be a huge surprise, but the 11th and 12th place, San Jose Sharks and Tampa Bay Lightning caught me a little off guard. Actually all these teams are well deserved as they all seemed to gain momentum late in the regular season and peaked going into the playoffs.

(photo by Peter Diana/Post-Gazette)

Pittsburgh Penguins vs Tampa Bay Lightning

The Penguins in recent years have been known to underachieve in the playoffs and the expectations of a team that has it's share of superstars. Crosby, Malkin, Letang and Fleury made it difficult to overlook the disappointment year after year. A slow start of the season resulted in a coaching change firing Mike Johnson and replacing him with Mike Sullivan who took over the head coaching reins on December 12, 2015. Soon after, the Penguins turned their season around and boasted one of the best records in the second half. With the addition of free agent, Phil Kessel and some tweaking here and there, they have advanced further than any playoff since their last Cup win. A solid performance against the Cap was impressive because the Pens biggest weakness was actually one of their strengths to hold off the firepower and offensive stars from the Caps. Especially impressive was the defense for the game when Letang was suspended. Blackhawk throwaway, Trevor Daley stepped up and played career minutes to help lead the Pens past the Caps.

The Lightning hasn't missed a beat without key players throughout the playoffs and in game one of the Conference finals, Ben Bishop left the game on a stretcher. They still won the game and his injury isn't as serious as first thought, so he'll be back. Even if he's lost for any games, the Lightning will still play to their system and be a handful for the Pens. Their series against the Islanders ended sooner than I thought it would, but really it shouldn't be a surprise. Their defense even without Stralman is as good as any in the league and Victor Hedman has proven this year and last playoffs, he is defensively one of the best in the league.

Since the Lightning has a 1-0 series lead at the time of this writing it would be easy to say they won't get swept. This definitely can't happen, but predicting this series is very tough. The Pens have a lot of offensive strengths, yet Crosby and Malkin were not factors in the Capitals series. Players like Hornqvist, Fehr, Cullen, Hagelin and Nick Bonino who scored the series winning OT goal against Washington, stepped up and made key contributions. The same can be said about the Lightning who have been getting a balanced attack, but they are winning games with their defense and goaltending. Game 2 could be a battle between two 21 year olds as Andrei Vasilevskiy will more than likely get the start while Matt Murray continues to surprise in net for Pittsburgh, but don't be surprised if Fleury sees some action if the Pens go down 2-0. I think this might go the limit and though I like how the Lightning are playing, I expect the Penguins to come out flying the next game and for the rest of the series. Can't believe Crosby won't be silent this series.
Penguins in 7

(Photo by Scott Rovak/NHLI via Getty Images)

St. Louis Blues vs San Jose Sharks

To begin, I should confess as a Blackhawks and Jets fan, I hate the St. Louis Blues. It's nothing personal, I just can't stand the players, their coach and their fans. The rivalry between the Jets/Blues and Hawks/Blues is heated and the satisfaction of beating the Blues is better than any other team. Just because I have a personal hate on the Blues doesn't mean I don't think there any good, in fact they were the third top team in the league and are the top ranked team left in the playoffs. The achievement of making it out of their own division (the best in the league) was a huge hump to climb and their success is well deserved. They are deep on defense and Brian Elliott is playing out of his head. He had one bad game in each of the first two series, but otherwise played lights out. Right now, I would put him as the Blue's MVP of the playoffs and they would not have beat the Hawks or Preds without him.

When the Blackhawks were eliminated, after I got over the initial shock, I thought about what team I would like to see win the Cup. I always felt bad for the way the San Jose Sharks have fared in the playoffs. Two years ago they blew a 3-0 series lead to the Kings and last year the team seemed to play sad hockey and needed a coaching change badly. I guess I also feel bad for Todd McLellan who left to an even sadder team, the Edmonton Oilers. I fear that McLellan will be fired before the Oilers realize all their talent when they suck again next year. Pete DeBoer has injected some life into the Sharks and got excellent season from vets, Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelsky and Brent Burns. The Sharks are playing exciting hockey and finally have a reliable starting goalie, Martin Jones. So personally I wouldn't mind if the Sharks made it to the Cup finals and especially would like to see them beat the Blues.

Game one of the Western Conference finals saw the Blues hang on to a 2-1 win. If it wasn't for the brilliant play of Brian Elliott and two goal posts in the last couple of minutes, this would have gone the other way. The Blue's go-ahead goal was a cheap one Jones should have had, but that's how the playoffs are, breaks. Despite this, the Sharks dominated and I expect they will capitalize on more of their chances. Could also be a long series so I'm picking the Joe's or the team that has the best two beards. Go Sharks!
Sharks in 6

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