The first round has come and gone. The Western Conference mainstays have all been eliminated. The Blackhawks and Kings have alternated winning the Cup the last 4 years. Both out in the first round. And Anaheim, with their 4 straight Pacific Division titles, can’t seem to muster a game 7 win. A bunch of new blood is out in the west, which should make for a very interesting next two rounds.
In the East, well, it may only be the second round, but it might as well be the Eastern Conference Finals. I have written about before how absurd the NHL playoff structure is, essentially negating all 82 regular season games. The Lightning, owner of the East’s 6th best record, get consecutive home match ups against the 5th and 8th best records. Congrats to being mediocre and being rewarded. And neither the Islanders or Lightning play any of the East’s best 3 teams until the ECF. What a ridiculously easy road for two mediocre teams. And on the other hand, the Penguins finished second, knocked off the Rangers and get the Capitals. Just so damn weird.
It’s like in the NBA a few years back, when the Suns and Spurs, the two best records remaining, played in the second round because they didn’t reseed. The result was a fantastic series, but a very underwhelming Conference Finals. That is what we are going to get with this Eastern Conference. The winner of Capitals/Penguins should run through the winner of the other series. The NBA changed their bracket structure to a re-seeding structure, because the point of the regular season is to have it matter and you want the two best teams playing in the last series. I hope the NHL realizes this error and goes back to the common sense re-seeding.
Capitals vs. Penguins
As I mentioned, these are easily the two best teams remaining. It is a shame they are playing now. How awesome would it have been to have Crosby and Ovechkin on opposing teams with a trip to the Stanley Cup Final on the line? It would have been great for the game, because these two players have been the face of the league for the last 10 years. But now, the winner is not even guaranteed a trip to the Final. Granted, they will be heavy favorites, but this is hockey and weird things happen.
But I digress, we unfortunately have to watch this series in the second round. Better than nothing, I guess. The Capitals did not look convincing against the Flyers in round one, but eventually prevailed. The Penguins, on the other hand, took control of the their series in the final two games to exact their revenge on the Rangers. They were fortunate to be up 2-1 after three games, but they controlled games 4 and 5. A bunch of little things went their way, like a miscall in game 3 that led to a power play goal and the fact that Kris Letang slashed Vikor Stalberg’s face without any consequences. But when you’re hot, you’re hot, and this team is hot.
Both the Capitals and Penguins had dominating power plays in the first round. Each side recorded a whopping 8 goals on the man advantage. This will be something to keep an eye on in this series. Also, will Marc-Andre Fleury return? If he does, how will he perform? Rookie Matt Murray is going up against Brayden Holtby, Vezina finalist and likely winner. If he can continue to play solid, then I like the Penguins to move on. This team is clicking at the best possible time.
Penguins in 6
Lightning vs. Islanders
Here are two lucky teams, let me tell ya. I hate that one of these teams will be playing for the right to represent the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Final, when neither are that close to the Capitals or Penguins. Somehow the Lightning, as I mentioned, have home ice advantage, again. They eked past the Red Wings in 5, but did not look great in doing so. Inconsistent play both offensively and defensively plagued this squad all season and in game 1 against the Islanders. And not having Steven Stamkos, their best and most important player, is a huge blow to their hopes. With him, this team is a legitimate contender.
Their opponent, the New York Islanders, were constantly behind and outplayed by the Panthers in the first round. By some stroke of fate, they won all three overtime games. No team had the puck more compared to their opponent in the first round than the Panthers and The amount of shot attempts they had compared to the Islanders is mind boggling. It took a soft call in overtime of game 5 to give the Islanders a power play, which they scored on, and one of the worst no-calls I have ever seen in game 6 to advance. Sometimes it is better to be lucky than good. Gotta feel for the Panthers though, who had their season decided by the refs. As a Rangers fan, I can relate. Oh, and Roberto Luongo was brutal, and apparently exhausted.
The Islanders again got outshot by their opponent in game 1 of the second round. Shocking. I know. The Lightning lost game 1, but had 23 more shot attempts. The Islanders are now a -90 in that department. -90!!! Those numbers should not correlate with winning hockey games. I can’t see this team winning another series with how they are playing. Even without Stamkos, and losing game 1, and Bishop having a bad first game, I see the Lightning fighting their way through.
Lightning in 6
Stars vs. Blues
Congratulations to the Blues, who managed to escape the first round for the first time in 4 years. They were up 3-1 on the Blackhawks, before being forced to a game 7, but they prevailed in what was the best game of the playoffs thus far. That series should give this team a lot of confidence. It was highly competitive and very well played. Brian Elliot was solid in goal and Alex Pietrangelo was on the ice for like half of every game. And to top it off, Vladimir Tarasenko is a complete stud. The Russian had 4 goals in the series and now has 14 career playoff goals in 20 career playoff games. He is what Dick Vitale would call a PTP, baby.
The Stars dominated long stretches against the injured Wild and won in 6 games. But to be fair, the Stars were also without Tyler Seguin for most of the series (and who is out for at least the first two games this series as well), so that hurts. Good thing Jason Spezza and Jamie Been showed up, as each netted 6 goals in the opening series. However, what worries me most about this Stars team is their goaltending. Both Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi struggled and allowed the Wild to stay in the series (Niemi especially). For this team to advance another round, they are going to need to have their goalies play better. This will be a thrilling series, but in the end, just think the Blues are a better hockey club.
Blues in 6
Sharks vs. Predators
The Sharks exercised their demons from a few years ago, when they blew a 3-0 series lead to the Kings in the first round, who then went on to win the Cup for the second time in 4 years. The Sharks made no such errors this time around, ending it in 5. Granted, it was a much closer series than the 5 games would let on, but the Sharks did all the little things they needed to win and captain Joe Pavelski came through with 5 goals, including the series-sealer in game 5. Also, Martin Jones, and his 2.18 GAA, outplayed Jonathan Quick, who was way off his game.
They are up against the Predators, who haven’t made it out of the first round since 2012, but made it past the Ducks in a wild 7 game series. After going up 2-0, the Preds dropped the next 3 games, only to rebound and win games 6 and 7. Impressive stuff. Peter Laviolette is an outstanding head coach and kept his team composed against a physical Ducks team, who committed the most penalties in the first round. Pekka Rinne was good when he needed to be and captain Shea Weber came up huge, with 2 goals and 3 assists in the series. I love a lot of what both of these teams do. In a close series like this, I will lean towards the side with the better talent.
Sharks in 7