With the Conference Finals set to start tonight, this year’s NHL playoffs just keep getting better. The Caps were able to finally vanquish their playoff demons, taking down Sid the Kid and the rest of the reigning Stanley Cup Champions. The Lightning refused to be stopped by whatever germs Brad Marchand attempted to spread over the series, dismantling the Bruins in only five games. Out West, Vegas was able to keep their dream inaugural season alive as they beat the Sharks in a wild six game series. And don’t forget about the Jets, who took down the defending Western Conference champion Nashville Predators in an incredibly entertaining seven game series. With only four wins standings between each of these teams and a Stanley Cup Finals appearance, the next couple of weeks promises to be even more entertaining than the last – an impressive feat given that it will likely be devoid of the romanticism of the second round.
Eastern Conference Finals: Washington Capitals V. Tampa Bay Lightning
The Eastern Conference Finals will showcase two former Southeast division rivals. Having freshly exorcised their Penguins demons, the Caps must now face a Bolts team that did not give up a single goal at even strength after game two. Each of these division-winning squads is packed to the brim with offensive talent and high expectations, but one has been waiting for this moment for a lot longer.
Entering their first Conference Finals in the Alex Ovechkin era, the Caps find themselves in uncharted territory. Not only did they finally get the penguin off their back, but for what feels like the first time in a while, Ovechkin has decided to join his team in the post-season. Maybe it’s the disappointment of watching Russia win an Olympic gold without him. Maybe it’s the hockey-knowledge that accompanies his salt-and-pepper look. Either way, this much is clear: Ovechkin came to play. He and line-mate Kuznetsov seem to spark opportunities whenever they touch the ice, even after the loss of Backstrom to injury. At the risk of stating the obvious, having your best players be your best players is an important part of winning in April and May and it feels like the Caps have finally internalized that lesson. Throw in contributions by defenseman John Carlson, along with the resurgence of goaltender Braden Holtby, and the Caps look poised to prove it really is their year.
Tampa Bay, on the other hand, took a very different approach in beating the Bruins last round. While their big-name stars like Kucherov and and Stamkos remained relatively quiet, role players like Yanni Gourde and Brayden Point really stepped up to the plate. Further, J.T. Miller, who could once be described as a sweetener in the the Ryan McDonagh trade, is showing that he is not just a cherry on top, but a full blown sundae in his own right. The Lightning are just an incredibly deep team, flush with savvy veterans who know how to win in the playoffs.
As was the case in their last series, the key to Washington’s success will be staying out of the box. For Washington to have a chance, they must not give the Lightning opportunities on the power play. This means that Tom Wilson, returning to the lineup after serving his three-game suspension, must tone down his game in order to avoid the sin-bin, while somehow still providing the spark of aggression that makes him effective. The Caps also managed to beat the heavily-favored Pens without Backstrom, one of the NHL’s best two-way forwards in the game. If they can get him back in the lineup to slow down Tampa’s high-octane offense, Ovi will be on his way to his first ever Stanley Cup Final.
Pick: Washington in 7 games.
Western Conference Finals: Winnipeg Jets V. Las Vegas Golden Knights
If you had picked these two teams to make the Western Conference Finals, Congratulations! You are a liar!
While some have laughed at the prospect of these two small market teams monopolizing the NHL’s TV time over the next couple of weeks, NHL fans know that we are in store for some incredible hockey. This may not be the series anyone expected, but it is the series we deserve and one we should be very thankful for.
The Jets are coming off their most impressive win of the season: a game 7 victory against Nashville, in one of the loudest buildings the league has to offer. The Jets have been steady throughout the playoffs and like the Capitals, are getting a ton of production from their top guys. Scheifele, Wheeler, Stastny, and Laine, have all come to play, giving opposing teams defensive headaches all game long. Scheifele in particular is on a scoring tear and seems near incapable of missing the net. Further, Connor Hellebuyck has been a revelation this postseason. For the majority of the series, he bested potential Vezina winner, Pekka Rinne, and watched as Rinne got chased in game seven after giving up some of the worst goals of his career. After living through the pain of losing their team once before, Winnipeg is ready for this moment and not about to go down easily to a team that is the franchise equivalent of a new-born baby. To lose this series is to forever be a footnote in the incredible story of the first expansion team to reach the Stanley Cup in its inaugural season since the Blues back in 1967. Unfortunately, avoiding that reality will prove easier said than done.
Speaking of those Knights, they continue to defy the odds and are among the final two teams standing in the West. They were able to take down the Sharks in an awesome series capped off by a dominating game six performance. Marc-Andre Fleury, who is playing the best hockey of his career, seems to be getting better with each passing game; a phrase that hasn’t been heard in Pittsburgh since 2009. The Knights continue to get it done, whether they get production from their top line, or their grinders. How they do it remains a mystery. But the results don’t lie.
When the Expansion Draft was completed, no one believed that the Golden Knights would make it this far. And, while the Jets will be their stiffest competition yet, who wants to argue that the Golden Knights will slow down now? Not me, that’s for sure.
Pick: Las Vegas in 6 games.
Picture courtesy: Washington Times