TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING VERSUS PITTSBURGH PENGUINS
By dispatching the Detroit Red Wings and New York Islanders in a total of 10 games, the Tampa Bay Lightning showed that they're a great team even without Steven Stamkos - a fact that offers comfort to Lightning fans who are still waiting to see if he'll re-sign before July 1. The question now is: Are the Lightning a championship team even without their leading goal scorer?
That might be a moot question as Stamkos might still return before the end of the Lightning's playoff run, but with the postseason half over, Stamkos is still on blood thinners with no definitive end date in sight. So for now they have to operate under the assumption that he's not going to be in a position to help them.
Clearly the Lightning didn't need him in their first two series. Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson, and Alex Killorn have been great in the playoffs despite the fact that the latter two left plenty to be desired in the regular season. Johnson in particular has stepped up with four goals and a team-high 13 points in 10 contests after recording just 38 points in 69 contests during the regular season. Jonathan Drouin, who got a new opportunity due to Stamkos' injury, has also been a big contributor too with a goal and nine points in 10 games.
On the blueline Victor Hedman has been the kind of high-end defensemen teams typically need to win a championship. He's been a major factor offensively with four goals and nine points in 10 contests while also logging a critical 27:30 minutes per game. And between the pipes Ben Bishop has been stunning while posting a 1.89 GAA and .938 save percentage.
It's no wonder that the Lightning made quick work of Detroit and the Islanders given the way they've been clicking lately, but Pittsburgh is a different beast.
For years the Penguins have been headlined by Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and that star duo has consistently led them into the playoffs. But in recent years Pittsburgh had been too top-heavy and ultimately fell short of the ultimate prize. This year might be different though. The acquisition of Phil Kessel didn't pay major dividends during the regular season, but in the playoffs he's proven to be that third major threat the Penguins were looking for. In fact he's outshined Crosby and Malkin with his five goals and 12 points in 11 contests. Pittsburgh has also gotten major contributions from Nick Bonino, Patric Hornqvist, and Carl Hagelin.
The Penguins look like a team with depth now as well as star power and it would be challenging for the Lightning to measure up against them if they were at full strength. Minus Stamkos, the Lightning look like the underdogs here.
Even the potential X-factor of goalie Matt Murray, who has been superb thus far but is still relatively inexperience, is largely moot at this point. Marc-Andre Fleury is healthy now so if Murray does falter then the Penguins have the luxury of going back to their veteran netminder.
Tampa Bay shouldn't be dismissed. The Lightning deserve respect for what they've already accomplished in the 2016 postseason. However, I'm leaning towards the Penguins taking this series in seven games.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
Tyler Johnson is on a four-game point streak and is heading into this series with four goals and 13 points in 10 playoff contests. Meanwhile Nikita Kucherov has found the back of the net in three straight games and already has nine goals in 10 playoff contests.
There's no one that really stands out with Tampa Bay as significantly underperforming, but Ondrej Palat has two goals and four points in 10 contests. The reason why highlighting Palat is a bit of a stretch is because he's actually been showing signs of heating up with a goal and three points in his last five games.
On the injury front, the big X-Factor is of course Steven Stamkos. He's still on blood thinners and there's no telling when he'll get off them. Defenseman Anton Stralman (leg) took part in his first full practice on Wednesday since March 25. It's not clear when he'll return, but that's an encouraging sign.
This is the first time in Tampa Bay's franchise history that it has made it to at least the Eastern Conference Final in back-to-back years. In 2015 the Lightning made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final before falling to the Chicago Blackhawks in six games.
This is just the second time that the Lightning have ever faced the Penguins in a playoff series. The first occasion was in 2011 when they met in the first round. Tampa Bay won that series in seven games.
Phil Kessel has excelled in the 2016 playoffs with five goals and 12 points in his last 11 contests. On Tuesday he played a leading role in Pittsburgh eliminating the Capitals by scoring two goals and registering an assist.
Sidney Crosby had no goals and two assists in Pittsburgh's six-game series against Washington.
Beau Bennett hasn't played yet in the postseason due to an undisclosed injury. As is typical during the playoffs, not much is known about his condition beyond that.
This is Pittsburgh's second trip to the Eastern Conference Final since they won the Stanley Cup back in 2009. When they made it this far in 2013, Pittsburgh ended up getting swept by the Boston Bruins. Before that they needed a total of 11 games to eliminate the New York Islanders and Ottawa Senators.
The Penguins have only won 48.3% of their faceoffs so far in the playoffs. The silver lining is that the Lightning haven't done much better with their 48.6% success rate. On Pittsburgh, Evgeni Malkin in particular has been struggling on the draw as he's gone 38-for-97.
SAN JOSE SHARKS VERSUS ST. LOUIS BLUES
If these two franchises have one thing in common, it's that they have a reputation of coming up short in the playoffs following encouraging regular seasons. Well, that was true of them going into the 2015-16 campaign at any rate.
The Sharks and Blues have already changed their franchise's narrative. San Jose defeated the rival Los Angeles Kings in five games and then came up big against Nashville in Game 7 of the second round series. Similarly, St. Louis managed to overcome the battle-tested Chicago Blackhawks in the first round and had a strong showing in Game 7 versus the Dallas Stars.
Now one of these two feel good stories is guaranteed to be carried into the Stanley Cup Final. The only question is which one.
I have to admit to a personal basis here because while I wouldn't consider myself a fan of either team, when it comes to which narrative I'd be more inclined to root for, the Sharks win out. The idea of Joe Thornton at the age of 36 finally winning his first Cup after years of falling short and having his role as a member of the team's core question would be very satisfying to me. At the other end, Sharks goalie Martin Jones leading San Jose to its first championship after spending the previous two seasons in Jonathan Quick's shadow as a member of the Los Angeles Kings would be cool.
And to be clear, it's not as if San Jose winning would be all about those two. Thornton remains a key piece of the Sharks even at his age, but part of their strength is the rise of the new guard at a time when the old guard still has relevancy. Logan Couture is leading the team in points with 17 in 12 games while Joe Pavelski is leading them in goals with nine. Defenseman Brent Burns has been on fire with 15 points in 12 contests while eating 25:48 minutes of ice time per game. Meanwhile Joonas Donskoi and Joel Ward have been demonstrating this team has scoring depth too.
At the same time, I can't help but feel that the St. Louis Blues are the ones that will emerge victorious in this series, albeit just barely. While the Sharks have depth, that's the Blues' bread-and-butter both in terms of their forwards and their defense. St. Louis boasts a blueline that includes Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester, and Kevin Shattenkirk - any one of which could be the cornerstone of a playoff squad.
They have star power up front too with Vladimir Tarasenko leading the charge. Meanwhile rookie Robby Fabbri has been a revelation in the playoffs with three goals and 13 points in 14 games. With captain David Backes coming up strong too and the veteran support of players like Troy Brouwer, Paul Stastny, and Patrik Berglund, the Blues look like a strong team from top to bottom.
On top of that, the Blues are more battle tested thus far. San Jose did beat Los Angeles, but the Kings seem to have taken a step back over the last couple years and while Nashville is an impressive squad, they don't have a great track record in the playoffs. St. Louis beat the defending Stanley Cup champions in the first round and then bested the most dangerous offensive team in the second round. They deserve a lot of credit for getting even this far under those circumstances.
St. Louis has looked like a championship team for years now, but the Blues just haven't been able to put it all together in the playoffs. Perhaps this is the year that changes. I'm picking them to win this series in seven games.
SAN JOSE SHARKS
Logan Couture has seven goals and 17 points in 12 playoff games. He's been particularly effective lately with three goals and seven points in his last four games.
Tomas Hertl hasn't been much of an offensive factor so far in the playoffs. He hasn't found the back of the net since Game 1 of San Jose's series against Nashville and he's been limited to five points in 12 playoff contests.
Matthew Nieto missed Game 7 of the Sharks' second round series due to an undisclosed injury. He should be regarded as day-to-day.
San Jose has advanced to the Western Conference Final for the first time since 2011. In total this is the franchise's fourth trip to the Conference Final, but they have never advanced to the Stanley Cup Final.
Among the teams still in the running, San Jose leads the pack with a 30.9% success rate with the man advantage. In fact, nearly half of their goals (17 of 41) have come in non 5-on-5 situations. In contrast, St. Louis has scored 29 of its 44 goals in 5-on-5 situations.
ST. LOUIS BLUES
Robby Fabbri had a solid enough rookie season with 18 goals and 37 points in 72 contests. In the playoffs though the 20-year-old has managed to up his game with three goals and 13 points in 14 contests.
From an offensive standpoint, the Blues have been pretty much firing on all cylinders. Goaltender Brian Elliott has been great too, although he's been a bit inconsistent lately. He surrendered three goals on 28 shots on May 5 and then was yanked in Game 6 on May 9 after allowing three goals on seven shots. Overall though, he was still impressive in the face of the Stars' offensive might.
The Blues are not dealing with any noteworthy, known injuries.
The last time St. Louis made it to the Western Conference Final was back in 2001. They have made it to the Stanley Cup Final three times (1968, 1969, 1970), but have never won it all.
St. Louis needed Game 7 wins in the first and second rounds to get this far. That improved head coach Ken Hitchcock's record in Game 7s to 5-2. That winning percentage of .714 is tied for the third highest of all-time among coaches that have participated in a minimum of five Game 7s, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.