I just got back from Japan. What did I miss? The Capitals are out after the second round? The devil you say!? One of the Sharks or Blues are guaranteed a shot at the Stanley Cup? Huh? This year keeps getting weirder and weirder.
R.I.P. bracket. No path forward here, for the first time since I started doing them. Oh well.
Lightning vs. Islanders: After a scare in Game One, this turned out to be a pretty easy win for the Lightning, all things considered. It was also the only series of these three I saw basically only one game of — Game Three — which was fun, barn burning hockey. It reminded me a little of the Sabres-Senators Game One from 2006, played almost ten years to the day before this one, where the Sabres won 7-6 in OT and neither team led by more than a goal. If the Lightning can bring this kind of style to the Conference Finals, I would be quite happy. The Islanders were lucky to be in this round, carried by their captain and backup goaltender after the injury bug struck. They were probably never going to win this series, even with crucial injuries to Tampa as well. Still, I think the boys from Brooklyn might just be the best New York team for years to come. At least until Tavares signs in Toronto as a UFA…
Capitals vs. Penguins: Why am I not surprised by this? I swear this year felt different. And then… There was a voice in my head that was whispering for me to choose Pittsburgh. After all, this was the team that blasted up the standings in the second half of the season, finally gelling into the contender we all knew they should have been since 2007. Washington, though, was still dominant, posting the second-best regular season in their history, but winning the league by 11 (!) points. With their Vezina-nominated goaltender in Holtby and Rocket Richard winning winger Alex Ovechkin, they should have easily beaten down Pittsburgh, with their backup goalie. What happened was the reverse, a take down by Pittsburgh’s forward depth and defensive lines, with clutch support from the youngster in net. It wasn’t all domination though, as three of the games went to overtime. Then again, a major reason there was overtime at all in Game Six was because of three consecutive puck-over-glass penalties by the Penguins, who’d led 3-0 after two. Where do we go from here? Washington has another long offseason of contemplation and self-doubt to contend with. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh might just be the new Cup favorite.
Stars vs. Blues: Oh man, oh man what a series. It was tighter than it should have been, sort of, but it ended the way I wanted. On the scoresheet, this series reminded me a bit of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final — a seven game series in which the teams traded close games for blowouts, the latter of which went against the series-losing team each time. The Stars functioned as expected; a team with a weak back-end who win by scoring a handful of goals to cover for the handful -1 that they let in. When it works, it’s fun. When it doesn’t, you get Games Three, Five and Seven of this series, the offensive counter-punch of St. Louis, fortified by their rock in net, Brian Elliott. If there was lacking any evidence that Dallas’s 1A/1B goaltending was flawed, there is plenty available now. When the Stars fix that problem, they’ll be dominant. Until then, the Blues have become the team Dallas strives to be. Now they get to play in their first Conference Final since 2001, for their first shot at the Cup since 1970.
Sharks vs. Predators: For the first time since the Sharks-Kings series of 2013, the home team won every game in this series, a full seven game marathon that honestly had me a little nervous. The Sharks won’t shed their choker label until they win the Cup, so when Nashville tied this series twice, I feared the worst. I’m starting to feel differently, however. I was at Game One of this series, the first playoff game I’ve ever been to. Nashville scored first, in the second period, and silenced the entire 17000-strong crowd. But I should have known better — the Sharks roared back to score 5 (!) in the third period, bringing the building to life and causing my voice to disappear for 18 hours. Most importantly, they showed absolutely no cracks in Games Five and Seven, which, like the Stars-Blues series, were domination from the winning teams. San Jose outscored Nashville 10-1 in those two, providing confidence in the face of potential collapse. The last game I was able to watch in the second round was this series’ Game Four, a triple-overtime classic. It was worth staying up an extra two hours for, even though it ended the wrong way. That said, please get the next series done in regulation San Jose; I won’t be able to handle more of that.
As I mentioned in the last post and at the top of this one, I just got back from vacation. I watched no hockey since last Thursday night. It was nice. Hopefully as my interest in playoff hockey hits its nadir in the Conference Finals, that little break will have skipped past that and we can finish the year strong here. Less than four weeks to go!
Fun fact: every team that has won the Stanley Cup since 1994 has worn either black or red as their main jersey color. Funner fact: only one of the remaining four teams wears either of those colors. Three of the teams left wear blue. It’s a different look for a final four; one that’s been a long time in the making.
(Disclaimer: I wrote the following Eastern Conference Final preview after Game One has already been played due to vacation. My prediction still stands despite the Lightning taking Game One.)
Advanced stats herein are taken from February 29th through the end of the first round, with the rankings being among the four teams remaining. Power play and penalty kill are for the playoffs only. Wonkiness may be present as ECF Game One is partially included, but the numbers shouldn’t be affected that much.
M2. Pittsburgh Penguins vs A2. Tampa Bay Lightning: Capitals aside, there are no surprises here. Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay are the beasts of the east and they’ve run all over their playoff opponents to get here. Pittsburgh made quick work of New York and Washington, though the Capitals mustered a brief, albeit incomplete, comeback in the later stages of that series. Their stars are moderately productive, but as I mentioned before, their forward depth has been alarmingly good. The Penguins defense is decent, if a little bruised, and their goaltending has looked surprisingly good, considering there’s a previously untested rookie in net and their starter with a Cup ring hasn’t seen the ice once. The Lightning are in a similar spot, having beaten both of their opponents in a total of ten games, though the Red Wings and Islanders were hardly tough match-ups. Their forward depth has been similarly strong, especially in the absence of Steven Stamkos (who could be back any day now), and their goaltending has been strong as expected. What’s been a pleasant surprise is the emergence of Viktor Hedman as a true number one defenseman. He won the battle of the top picks of 2009 against Tavares, and has put up as many goals as Brent Burns, if you can believe it. This series could go either way, depending on who’s in or out [and after Game One, who knows what’s going on] so I’ll go with my gut here. Penguins in six. They’ve got the healthy star-power, their lines are clicking better than they’ve ever done before, and after summiting Mt. Washington, they’re probably going to go all the way to a Cup Championship.
PP% / PK%
27.3%, 3rd / 81.8%, 3rd
17.8%, 4th / 87.2%, 1st
5v5 Corsi, Score-Adjusted
2016-01-15; PIT 4, TBL 5 OT
2016-02-05; PIT 3, TBL 6
2016-02-20; TBL 4, PIT 2
PIT: 0-2-1 — TBL: 3-0-0
C2. St. Louis Blues vs P3. San Jose Sharks: For the third time in five seasons, the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings are meeting in the Conference Final, in what’s sure to be an epic… wait, what’s going on here? St. Louis? San Jose? In the Conference Final? Together? They both beat the Blackhawks and Kings, respectively? In the first round!? What is going on? This is weird, you guys. Two teams that have been pegged as perennial playoff disappointments, teams that have struggled to break through, especially against their aforementioned rivals, have both done just that, at the same time. The timing is terrible, as I’d love to see both of these teams succeed. However, we’re instead guaranteed a Cup Final appearance for one of them: either the first in Sharks history, or the first for the Blues since 1970. Pretty cool stuff. Now comes the hard part — picking a winner. The Blues have been through 14 games already this playoff, eking out a win after nearly blowing the series with Chicago, but having as one-sided a seven-game series as can be against Dallas. Their goaltending is solid and their offensive is rolling. If not for their 8-6 record, they’d be looking unbeatable. In the other corner, the Sharks have played two fewer games, romping over Los Angeles, while having a similarly one-sided seven-game series against Nashville. Their forward core is unstoppable, along with their insane power play and its quarterback, Brent Burns. Goaltending has been decent, though there’s a fresh James Reimer still waiting in case things go sour. Not a bad security system there. It’s a toss-up of the best kind here. Two giants emerging from the West after years of slumber. The better team will win here, and that will be the Sharks in seven. I haven’t been wrong about this team yet (at the start of each round, that is) and I don’t plan on being wrong now.
PP% / PK%
27.5%, 2nd / 79.5%, 4th
30.9%, 1st / 82.3%, 2nd
5v5 Corsi, Score-Adjusted
2016-02-04; SJS 3, STL 1
2016-02-22; SJS 6, STL 3
2016-03-22; STL 1, SJS 0
STL: 1-2-0 — SJS: 2-1-0
I can’t emphasize enough how weird of a year it’s been. I’m so looking forward to seeing what the Conference Final brings!
Final Four Fun Facts & Frivolity Field
Cup Virgins: 2 —
NSH, SJS, STL, WSH
Cup Champions since 2006: 1 — PIT (’09)
Longest Cup drought: STL — 47 seasons
Returning teams (to the third round): 1 — TBL
Fresh blood (in the third round): 3 — PIT, SJS, STL
Round three — let’s go! (Sharks!) ((I can’t believe you’re still here!))