2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Conference Final Round Prospectus
We are near the promised land. The Conference Finals. The weed has been separated from the chaff. The cream has risen to the top. All of the superlatives you want to use apply here. The four best teams in hockey this year are on display for the conference finals (or the four teams that have withstood the attrition that comes along with injuries and player slumps?) Nevertheless, we will have the Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference, and the San Jose Sharks will battle it out against the St. Louis Blues in the Western Conference. Here is the outlook heading into both series (TB vs. PIT begins Friday, May 13, 2016 at 8 PM, SJ vs. STL begins Sunday, May 15, 2016 at 8 PM).
Tampa Bay Lightning (2 Atlantic) vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (2 Metropolitan)
There are several layers to this series. The first being goaltending. The Pens will stick with Matt Murray in goal, although incumbent starter Marc-Andre Fleury is ready. Fleury had not been too hot in previous playoffs, and Pittsburgh undoubtedly hopes that Murray’s solid play in Fleury’s stead will continue. Tampa presents a relentless attack that the New York Rangers could not (would not?) muster, and one that the Washington Capitals could not sustain consistently throughout the previous two series. This will be Murray’s biggest test. Before last series, Tampa had a week off before facing the New York Islanders, and Ben Bishop appeared rusty in Game 1, before going into lockdown mode for four straight games thereafter. The Penguins are going to have to test him constantly, as they know Murray will be attacked regularly by Tampa’s forwards.
A key to look out for is the Pens’ defencemen’s propensity for jumping up into the play in order to force and generate more pressure in the offensive zone. This makes the Pens attack non-stop, as they have had all four lines contribute (although more so their third and fourth lines in the last series, while all four lines were productive against the woeful Rangers defence). However, what this often does is lead to giveaways and breakaways. Kris Letang and Trevor Daley are mostly the culprits for these, and this has to be limited against the speedy Tampa rush if the Penguins want to avoid being blown out of any game in this series.
Bishop still gets a nod over Murray at this point, but the difference between the two at the moment in terms of level of play is negligible.
Will Tampa get Steven Stamkos (blood clot in shoulder area) back for this series? Considering that while he is skating and doing drills to remain in playing condition, he is still on blood thinners and would have to wait 24 hours after coming off the medication to be ready to play. In other words, don’t expect him before Game 3 at the earliest. Anton Stralman (leg fracture), on the other hand, may return sooner; although that is not a surety, either. Despite it all, Victor Hedman has been the most dominant defenceman in these playoffs, and Matt Carle, Jason Garrison, Slater Koekkoek and the mish mosh third pairings have been solid enough to not hang Bishop out to dry. Pittsburgh’s defence is better when they have a lead, while being prone to coverage gaffes and frustration penalties when tied or playing from behind. This has been evident in the games that the Pens have lost in the playoffs thus far (albeit only three). With the pressure that Tampa can sustain, the match up between the Palat-Johnson-Kucherov line and Letang/Daley will be worth watching, while the Boyle line (with Namestikov and Callahan) will test the Pens’ third pairing quite often. The fourth lines of both teams pretty much cancel, but where Pittsburgh had a speed advantage in previous series is now vanished. Who can make a play? The Crosby and Malkin lines were quiet against Washington, and with the Killorn-Filppula-Drouin (especially Drouin) line emerging, more will be required of the Pens’ top two lines in order to emerge victorious in this series.
Overall, if Stamkos and Stralman return at all for this series, Tampa will have a decided advantage in goaltending, defence and offence. As it is, they get a slight advantage for now in each area, as their top two lines have produced consistently throughout the playoffs, whereas the Pens’ top two have been spotty or even invisible at times.
Call: Lightning in 6.
San Jose Sharks (3 Pacific) vs. St. Louis Blues (2 Central)
This series will be antithetical to the Eastern Conference series, where there is speed, speed and more speed. Instead, there will be crushing hits, tons of board play and, while both teams can certainly skate, it will be a battle of physical wills more than anything else. Both teams are coming off grueling seven-game series, and will have a few days to prepare before consummating this series on Sunday, which makes for optimal hockey.
Much as Victor Hedman has taken over for Tampa, Brent Burns has done the same for San Jose. Alex Pietrangelo has been omnipresent all over the ice for St. Louis, and while Burns shoots and scores more, defence overall is a virtual wash between these two. It is all about goalie play and the forwards. Brian Elliott has had a couple of eyebrow-raising (negatively) performances, but has erstwhile been stellar, and the same can be said for Martin Jones. When both have been on, they’ve looked like Vezina candidates in these playoffs, against some relentless (save for Nashville’s listless effort in Game 7 for Jones) attacks.
San Jose is the most complete team remaining in the playoffs, top to bottom. Any one of their four lines can dominate on a given night, and in the 12 games San Jose has played, one of the lines has stood out in at least one of them. Sometimes two or three of the lines in one game. The Hertl-Thornton-Pavelski line has been deadly, so has the Donskoi-Couture-Marleau line. Additionally, the Nieto-Tierney-Ward line has been valuable (especially in the closeout game vs. Nashville) while the fourth line has been juggled at times, the contributors have done their jobs as checking forwards and agitators. The same can be said about the Blues’ fourth line combinations, which have also been juggled at times during their 14 games thus far.
The Lehtera line with Schwartz and Tarasenko has been active, but hit or miss on the score sheet (other than Tarasenko), while it has been the second and third lines (Stastny centreing Fabbri and Brouwer, and Backes centreing Berglund and Steen, respectively) that have done the majority of the work for the Blues consistently in the playoffs thus far.
The Blues defence has been prone to awful giveaways at times, which has caused Elliott some grief in net, but for the most part, the three pairings have been solid.
The Sharks are on a mission however. Barring injury or heavy slumps in play by several players (aided by the Blues’ defence, of course), it is difficult to see any of the three remaining teams beating the Sharks at this point, as they finally look to get to the Stanley Cup Finals and win their first up in their 25 years in San Jose — despite several years with stacked teams and coming up short in the past. If there are two players remaining in the playoff field who deserve to hoist the Cup it is “Jumbo Joe” Thornton and “Mr. Shark” Patrick Marleau. And both have been heavily involved in their team’s fortunes thus far, despite both in their age-36 seasons, which is remarkable in its own right.
Call: Sharks in 6.