Ho. Lee. Crap. That was about as unexpected a first round as I could have imagined, as evidenced by my (well, our really) terrible accuracy in picks so far. The Kings and Hawks are gone. The Islanders really did upset the Panthers (my only glimmer of prescience). The Sharks refused to choke and the Ducks continued to do so by blowing their fourth straight home game 7 in as many years, this time to the Predators. And the Flyers won more games than the Rangers. Madness…
Which leads us to round two, and a slate of four new, fantastic match-ups. Using the same metrics as before — nonsense, gut feelings, and Penguins fandom — I’ll predict my survivors of the conference semis. I expect this to go as poorly as before.
St. Louis Blues vs. Dallas Stars
The division leading Stars took a convincing series win against the Wild, while the Blues came dangerously close to blowing yet another series to the Hawks. Dallas comes in with a much more potent offense, one that was firing on a majority of cylinders in round one (3.5 goals/game), with Benn and Spezza leading the charge. The Blues, meanwhile play a more defensively minded game thanks to the styling of Ken Hitchcock and managed to outlast Chicago thanks to that game plan. While Dallas actually holds a comparable goals against per game through round one (2.83 for Dallas, 2.86 for St. Louis), comparing opponents certainly gives the edge to the Blues.
In the end, this is your classic flash versus grit face-off, and while I like a lot of what Dallas is doing, I think the Blues have the personnel and the right goalie in Brian Elliot to take the edge.
Blues in 7
San Jose Sharks vs. Nashville Predators
This is the match-up none of us saw coming, but here we are, trying to decide whether the Sharks or the Preds will be playing in the Western Conference Final. The Sharks looked dominant start to finish against the Kings, no easy feat against a team that’s won the Cup twice in the past four years or as a team that seems to falter in the playoff year in and year out. On the flip side, the raw stats from round one for Nashville paint a picture of, “What? Why?”, sporting a higher goals against (2.82) than goals for (2.00) and being outshot 37-20 in their game 7 win.
So the question is: are the Preds this year’s Cinderella story, or did they simply let the Ducks beat themselves? I’m definitely a believer in the intangibles of playoff magic, but at the same time, numbers don’t usually lie. I’d love to see the Predators find their way to the Finals, and they did take down my personal pick to win the West, but I just don’t see them challenging the Sharks. If they win again, I’ll buy into the hype. But I’m not there yet.
Sharks in 5
New York Islanders vs. Tampa Bay Lightning
I sold the Lightning short last round (or maybe oversold the Wings), but Tampa rode the hot pads of Ben Bishop into the second round in convincing fashion. However the real story of the Eastern Conference this playoff season is the New York Islanders and the ungodly play of John Tavares and Thomas Greiss, the former now leading the field with 6 goals and 11 points and the latter boasting a startling .941 GAA. I knew the Islanders could surprise some people this post-season, but I didn’t expect them to make this much noise.
Tampa is still a solid team and Ben Bishop can stand on his head in the playoffs, but he also has a bit of a Jeckyll/Hyde issue (he was pulled Wednesday after letting in 4). On top of that, the injury concerns from round one are still present for Tampa. I’ve got a bit of extra information for this pick (whose dumb idea was it to muddle rounds ones and two!?), but I don’t see the Lightning slowing down the JT Express. There will be a New York team in the Eastern Finals, but it’s not the one everyone thought two weeks ago.
Islanders in 6
Washington Capitals vs. Pittsburgh Penguins
Here it is! The top-billing match-up the hockey world has been predicting since the Penguins started their second half march. The NHL wasted no time in drumming up the Crosby versus Ovechkin hype, and both teams are surprisingly deep this year. The Capitals have the steady pads of Holtby and the hot play of Backstrom, Oshie, and Johansson to thank for their series victory over the Flyers. This is a team that racked up 120 points in the regular season after all.
The Penguins, meanwhile, saw scoring from across their lines, with 16 players netting a point and 11 boasting 3+ (including rookies Bryan Rust and Connor Sheary). Yes, Crosby, Malkin, and the newly acquired Kessel are leading the charge, but unlike years past, the Pens have some depth to complement their superstars.
Most surprising, however, is the forecheck and defense coming from the Pens, strangling the Rangers for the majority of the series and making second and third string goalies Matt Murray and Jeff Zatkoff look good. Once again, the biggest question mark is going to be the net for the Penguins, as it seems increasingly unlikely the concussed Fleury will return for the series (or possibly the playoffs). Murray looked confident in net and made some solid saves when needed, but he’s a wild card next to Holtby. The Pens need to keep up their torrid scoring pace and stifle the neutral zone if they have a chance. Realistically, I’m not sure they can do it. But I’ll be damned if I ever pick the Caps to beat the Pens!
Penguins in 7