The Glass Eye: NHL Conference Finals Preview

We’ve seen some great hockey so far – big upsets, great comebacks, and plenty of overtime – but I believe the best series are yet to come.

The Conference Finals provide two VERY compelling matchups – in the West, you have two perennial underachievers, both of whom have exorcised past demons this spring. One of them will continue to fall short, while the other gets a crack at Lord Stanley’s Cup. In the East, you have the hottest team in the league (Pittsburgh) facing perhaps the only team that can match their speed – and a team that has been well-rested thus far, with only five games in each round. Thus far, the Eye is 9-3 in series predictions – let’s see if I can stay as hot as the Pens! I’ll start out West, as usual.

St. Louis vs. San Jose

For years and years, these have been two of the more star-crossed franchises in the league. Neither has ever won a Cup – in fact, neither has even made a Cup Final in 72 combined (the Blues 48, the Sharks 24) seasons! This, despite both teams making the playoffs almost every season (Blues 40/48, Sharks 18/24). THAT is some serious underachievement.

St. Louis has definitely had the harder road this spring – first they had to knock off the defending champion Blackhawks, then they had to take down the best regular-season team in the West (and also the highest-scoring team in the league) in the Stars. Both series went seven games, so it’s fair to wonder how worn-down the Blues might be at this point.

As for San Jose, what looked like a very tough road ended up a lot easier when they dispatched their nemesis, the Kings, in only five games. Nashville put up a good fight, but by Game 7 it was clear that San Jose was much fresher and had a lot more ‘jump’, as they won easily.

Now, I’m not going to get too deep into ‘advanced stats’ here, but one thing jumped out at me: the major advanced stats (Corsi, Fenwick) both showed these teams to be dominant in terms of puck possession in the regular season…but both have been decidedly less so in the playoffs. Now, some of that can be written off to the smaller sample size, and (especially in the Blues’ case) the quality of their opponents – playing the Blackhawks and Stars is going to harm your puck-possession stats most of the time. Still, it’s interesting to me that both teams are here despite not possessing the puck nearly as much as they did during the season.

For me, this series is going to turn on a few ‘supporting stars’ on each side. The big stars have consistently shown up for both teams – Thornton, Pavelski, Burns, and Couture have been awesome for the Sharks while Tarasenko, Backes, Pietrangelo and goalie Brian Elliott have been excellent for the Blues. Lesser-known names like Robby Fabbri, Colton Parayko, Martin Jones, and Tomas Hertl will have to come through in this round.

Each team has one key player in my mind…for the Blues, I’m going with Fabbri. The 20-year-old center had a solid rookie season, with 18 goals and 37 points in 72 games while playing just over 13 minutes per game….in the playoffs, he’s averaging almost a point per game (3 goals, 10 assists in 14 games) while averaging almost 15 minutes per game. The Blues are not deep offensively at all – to beat the Sharks, Fabbri will have to continue to contribute above his season averages.

For the Sharks, I’m going with goalie Martin Jones. He was spectacular at times against the Kings, but honestly fairly average against the Preds – his .918 playoff save percentage is ok, but it’s (by far) the lowest of the remaining goalies. The Blues aren’t deep but their top two lines are VERY dangerous – Jones will likely have to at least partially ‘steal’ a game in this series to win.

Also, keep an eye on the Blues’ usage of Steve Ott. Ott is known as a big hitter and a fan favorite for the way he riles up both the crowd and opponents – but he’s not a good player at this stage. The more he’s on the ice, the more it favors the Sharks.

I have TONS of respect for what the Blues have done here – knocking off Chicago and Dallas is a monumental feat – but I’m worried it took too much out of them. I’m also concerned that they don’t have the firepower to handle the bigger, deeper Sharks. Nothing, absolutely nothing, would surprise me here – but in the end, I’m expecting San Jose’s depth to prevail. SHARKS IN SIX.

Pittsburgh vs. Tampa Bay

Talk about two different roads to a Conference Final – the Lightning had the easiest path of any team, facing the aging Red Wings and the no-depth Islanders. HOWEVER, they took advantage of that, dispatching both in five games. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, had to take on arguably the top two goalies in the conference in Lundqvist and Holtby – and let’s not forget, Washington had the league’s best record by a MILE. To defeat those two teams, and go 8-3 while doing it…man, that’s darned impressive.

If the Rangers and Caps have the two best goalies, it’s pretty clear to me that the Lightning have the third-best in Ben Bishop. He’s huge (6’7”), and has been outstanding the last three seasons. Lest we forget, this Lightning team made the Cup Finals last season – and Bishop was a HUGE part of that. He will present a formidable challenge to the Pens’ shooters – he gives the illusion of protecting the entire net when he’s on his game.

Another thing that surprised me about the Lightning – they are incredibly young. No one on the team is older than 31, and most of their core talent is 22-25. This is a team built to compete for a very long time, with or without Steven Stamkos. Remember, Stamkos hasn’t played since March due to a blood clot, and neither has defenseman Anton Stralman – and the Lightning haven’t missed a beat.

The top line for Tampa – the ‘Triplets line’ – has been amazing this spring. Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov, and Ondrej Pala are all 24-25 years old, they’ve played on a line for two seasons, and this playoff season they have combined for 15 goals and 29 points in only 10 games. That’s HALF of the team’s scoring! But that also illustrates Tampa’s biggest weakness – depth. With Stamkos and Stralman sidelined, they don’t have much beyond the Triplets and top defenseman Victor Hedman.

Hedman pitched in another four goals, and accounts for over 27 minutes on-ice per game in the playoffs; no other defenseman is averaging more than 20:11, and most are well below 20 minutes per game. Tampa’s ‘D’ has contributed only one other goal so far in the playoffs, and that continues a regular season trend – Coburn and Carle, for example, COMBINED for three goals and 19 points in the regular season. With Stralman out, Hedman is really the only legit threat on the blueline.

The Pens, on the other hand, are the deepest team left in the playoffs – which makes them a matchup NIGHTMARE for every opponent. If you have one ‘shutdown’ defense pair, who do you focus on? The Crosby line, as everyone has so far? The Malkin line? The Kessel line (by far the Pens’ best since March 1 – they’ve combined for 11 goals, 30 points in 11 playoff games)? Whoever you decide to focus on, there are plenty of others available to cause trouble – and don’t forget the fourth line, led by the ageless Matt Cullen – the trip of Cullen, Rust, and Kuhnackl have scored seven playoff goals!

No one on the Pens has dominated in the postseason the way Kucherov (nine goals in 10 games) has – but the Pens have six players with 3+ playoff goals, and 15 different players have scored goals. If you figure, as I do, that the likes of Crosby and Malkin cannot be held down much longer (and Malkin has HUGE career numbers vs. Tampa)…well, this seems like a good setup for the Pens.

The only caveats here are the rest the Lightning earned; the speed Tampa possesses – seriously, they are the one team left that can skate with the Pens much of the time; and the goalie factor. Bishop can flat-out steal games; Murray has to be as solid for the Pens as he’s been. If he stumbles early, look for Fleury to get his chance – he’s healthy and has to be chomping at the bit to go here.

This won’t be a cakewalk by any stretch – the Lightning are young, but experienced; big, but fast; rested, but unlikely to be rusty. This will be a blindingly fast-paced series, neither team wants to ‘trap it up’, both teams want to attack. Look for higher scores, look for the stars to shine – but most of all, look for the Pens to eventually skate away from the Lightning. Stralman’s return should help, but I don’t think Stamkos is close yet – and that may well be the difference. PENS IN SIX.

Next week, a review of the MLB season’s surprises after six weeks of action.

Dave Glass can be reached at dsglass74@gmail.com.

 

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