Eastern Conference Finals
Penguins vs Lightning
The Lightning have had the easiest path amongst the four remaining teams and it is not even close. The other three teams have played and beaten perennial Cup contenders. The Lightning have only faced the Red Wings, the worst team to qualify for the playoffs, and the Islanders, arguably the second worst. Granted, the Lightning won both series in 5 games and each series was never really in doubt. However, this is a huge break for a team playing without Steven Stamkos, their best player, and Anton Stralman, their #2 defensemen. If they played anyone else, they would have been tested more, but guys like Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson, and Victor Hedman have been picking up the slack. Johnson leads the team in points this postseason (13), Kucherov in goals (9), and Hedman completely neutralized John Tavares, who did not record a point in the four Islander losses.
Unlike the Lightning, this will be the easiest team the Penguins have faced thus far in the playoffs. But let’s be honest, they haven’t even been tested much, either. The Rangers played them tough for the first few games, but games 4 and 5 were decidedly in the Penguins favor. The Capitals penalty kill did a much better job against that super talented Pens power play, so they made it to six games. The Penguins have been flying up and down the ice, using their blazing speed to their advantage, making great teams look ordinary. And all of this without Marc-Andre Fleury. Matt Murray has been insanely great, posting a 2.05 GAA and a .935 SV%. Wow.
Overall, I have been mightily impressed with this squad. The addition of Carl Hagelin has invigorated this team and putting him on a line with Phil Kessel and Nick Bonino has been outstanding. Probably the best line in the playoffs. Hagelin led the team in points last series with 7 (3 G/ 4A), with Kessel (2 G/ 4 A) and Bonino (2 G/ 3 A) second and third. What great production.
Now, the Lightning are a gritty squad with a lot of talent and some good players waiting in the wings to return. But this just seems like the Penguins’ year. They are hot at the right time and I can’t see anybody beating them. And Sidney Crosby only recorded 2 points last series. He should produce more this series, one would assume.
Penguins in 6
Western Conference Finals
Blues vs Sharks
After a tough seven game series against the defending champion Blackhawks, the Blues found themselves in another seven game series. This time they dominated that game 7 against the Stars. Vladimir Tarasenko netted 3 more goals last series, bringing his total up to 7 this postseason. David Backes made a huge impact with 4 goals and 4 assists and taking the body. But goaltending is where this series was decided. Jake Elliot was great all series and has a stellar 2.29 GAA in the postseason. He was the difference maker in the series, as he had a 2.19 GAA and a .929 SV%. The Stars, on the other hand, had massive issues in net. Anti Niemi struggled a lot (3.21 GAA/ .857 SV%), and Kari Lehtonen was not much better 3.22 GAA/ .891 SV%). His performance in game seven was very disappointing.
The Sharks found themselves in a seven game series of their own, after defeating the Kings in five in the first round. The Predators played them tough, but the skill on the Sharks squad was too much. Logan Couture (17 pts), Brent Burns (15 pts), and Joe Pavelski (13 pts) have had an outstanding second season. Couture had 11 points (6 G/5 A) against the Predators alone. And Joe Thornton emerged in the second series, with 2 goals and 6 assists himself.
There is a lot of top end talent on both squads and Martin Jones, who I have not mentioned thus far, has been very solid, making the big saves when the team needs it. This should be a tight series between two similar teams. The Blues are probably going to want to play a little more physical than the Sharks, but ultimately, I think that San Jose, after years of great regular seasons and playoff disappointments, will finally reach the Cup Final.
Sharks in 7