Eastern Conference Finals
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Pittsburgh Penguins
How the Lightning got here:
After losing Game 1 to the Islanders, the Lightning bounced back to win the next four games, getting a couple more bounces by winning both overtime games in the series, and they once again survived another round despite their lack of depth.
Cliché player to watch:
Ben Bishop. The Lightning’s goaltender has been excellent between the pipes, posting a 1.89 GAA and a .938 save percentage. He will have to be big once again in this series against the red hot Penguins’ offense.
Actual player to watch:
Jonathan Drouin. Hey, remember earlier this year when Drouin demanded a trade, was promptly sent down to the minors, and then didn’t show up indicating that his time in the Lightning organization was over? Well, he’s back and he’s tied for the third-most points on the Lightning behind Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov to give the Lightning that secondary scoring they’re going to need to keep this playoff run alive.
Why the Lightning will win:
I know in the past series it was important for Bishop to stand on his head, but in this series it is even more important for him to do just that. They will need strong play from Bishop and for Victor Hedman to log monstrous minutes, while having the top line of Johnson, Kucherov, and Killorn (who all have more goals than the rest of the team combined) to continue to produce.
How the Penguins got here:
Despite their very best effort to blow a 3-0 Game 6 lead to the Capitals by getting three delay-of-game penalties for putting the puck over the glass in a span of four minutes (seriously look it up, that actually happened), the Penguins eliminated the Capitals in overtime and in the process opening up the “Ovechkin can’t get it done in the playoffs” flood gates.
Cliché player to watch:
Sidney Crosby. Crosby is obviously the best player on the planet and will surely have a big series. (This segment brought to you by the NHL Marketing Team).
Actual player to watch:
Phil Kessel. What? Yeah, I know, I can’t really believe I picked him for this either. However, Kessel leads the entire Penguins roster with 12 points through 11 games with a plus minus of +3. If he can continue to come to the party and put up good numbers, the Penguins will be in good shape as Tampa Bay’s Hedman will have his hands full with Crosby.
Why the Penguins will win:
They stay hot. The Penguins were on a tear in the last 25 regular season games and it has carried into the playoffs. So far, they have had the toughest path to get to this point, dispatching the Eastern Conference Finals regular New York Rangers, and Presidents Trophy-winning Washington Capitals, and they have still gotten to this point with relative ease. 21-year-old Matt Murray has been excellent, posting a GAA just above 2.00 and a save percentage at 93.5%. He won’t have to steal them any games, he just can’t lose them any games. If Murray doesn’t give the Lightning any games, the speed and depth of the red hot Penguins will take care of the rest.
Who will win:
The Lightning have the better goaltender in this series, but the big question is will he be enough to make up for lack of depth that the team has? The Lightning didn’t really have to beat anyone good to get here and they are rested. But, the Penguins have a lot of firepower and enough defense to shut down the Lightning’s top line. The Penguins will stay hot and move on to their first Stanley Cup final since 2009.
Number of Games: 5
Western Conference Finals
San Jose Sharks vs. St. Louis Blues
How the Sharks got here:
The Sharks went the distance with the Nashville Predators, taking their very best punch, but the speed of the Sharks proved to be too much as the Sharks blew out the Predators 5-0 in Game 7.
Cliché Player to watch:
Brent Burns. The defenseman who is up for the Norris Trophy has been excellent in the playoffs so far, sitting at second on the team for points in the playoffs so far at 15. He will need to be a player the Sharks can count on in this series if San Jose plans to move on.
Actual Player to watch:
Anyone who has been a part of the Sharks teams that have disappointed in the playoffs the past decade (Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau). Ok, so I get that this is cheating because it is technically two players, but these two will certainly have an impact on this series in more ways than one, whether that is good or bad. They’ve been at the center of the collapses and playoff disappointments the Sharks have had, as well as both at one point in their career getting stripped of their captaincy. Will they finally put the critics to rest and help move the Sharks to the franchise’s first Stanley Cup final? Or will this just become another chapter of the same-old-sad story of disappointment and the end of an era for the duo?
Why the Sharks will win:
The Sharks are a very, very fast team and they will need to play as such in this series to counter the Blues’ physicality. Martin Jones has been merely good enough so far, and beating Jonathan Quick and Pekka Rinne is nothing to scoff at. The Sharks also need to continue their power play success, which is clicking at an impressive 31%. If the Sharks can just stay relaxed, play their game, and not think about the “Sharks can’t get it done in the playoffs” onslaught from the media that will surely come if they lose, then they actually have a pretty good shot at winning this series.
How the Blues got here:
The Blues went the full length of the series yet again by dispatching the top seed in the Western Conference, the Dallas Stars, when the impact of their physical style of play showed its effects, as they won Game 7 with ease 6-1.
Cliché Player To watch:
Vladimir Tarasenko. The young Russian super star has risen to the occasion in the playoffs so far as he is leading the team in both goals and points. He is electric and very fun to watch and the Blues will continue to need him to shine on the big stage.
Actual Player to Watch:
Alex Pietrangelo. The Blues top defenseman logs a ton of minutes, and I mean a ton of minutes, for his team. Pietrangelo has logged 415 minutes of ice time in the playoffs so far, and the next closest Blues player doesn’t even have 300 minutes of ice time. He will be out there again a lot this series and will be the key to shutting down the Sharks’ top line.
Why the Blues will win:
The Blues have been battle-tested so far in the playoffs and have answered every challenge. They need to keep playing their balanced and physical style of play that has gotten them to this point. Staying out of the penalty box will also be a must in this series. If they can do that and get solid play from Brian Elliot, then they can beat the Sharks with relative ease.
Who will win:
Usually this is the part of the predictions where I break down the goaltending advantage, but in this series all I see is a big question mark for both teams. Both goalies have been solid enough, so the only way either Brian Elliot or Martin Jones have an impact on this series is if they collapse completely. This is also the part where I usually have an idea of who I’m picking, but in this series I really don’t know because knowing these two franchises, both will do their absolute best to lose this series. However, someone has to win this series, and with that being said, the Blues are too deep and physical for the Sharks to overcome. The Blues will win and then take one step closer to their first Stanley Cup ever.
Number of Games: 6