Halfway there: On to the Conference Finals

And then there were four. The second round featured some exciting series, even if the two game 7s weren’t so thrilling. In the end, another top seed fell by the wayside and new blood has moved on to the Conference Finals.

The shockingly efficient Penguins outplayed the seemingly stacked Capitals and took them out in six games, led not by Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, but the much-maligned Phil Kessel. Rookie Matt Murray was better than Vezina nominee Braden Holtby and ultimately Pittsburgh was just plain better than the team with the best regular-season record in the NHL. Meanwhile, Tampa Bay took out the Islanders in five quick games.

The West was more interesting, as San Jose and St. Louis were put to the test by their respective opponents (Nashville and Dallas) before blowing them out in game 7.

My second-round picks were sort of good: I picked three of the four series winners, if not in the right number of games. On to next two series:

Eastern Conference final

Pittsburgh vs. Tampa Bay

This series appears to be pretty evenly matched. The Lightning are deep, even without the injured Steven Stamkos and Anton Stralman, who are practicing with the team but not back yet. To compound matters, goalie Ben Bishop (lower body) was injured in game 1. Andre Vasilevsky relieved Bishop, but the Lightning need their main man back. Meanwhile, the Penguins are relatively healthy; even regular starter Marc-Andre Fleury is ready to go, although the Pens went with Murray in game 1 of the Conference Final. Victor Hedman has been a beast for the Lightning at both ends of the ice, while Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson, Jonathan Drouin and Ondrej Palat have been providing the offensive spark in  Stamkos’ absence. Meanwhile, the Kessel-Nick Bonino-Carl Hagelin line has been carrying the weight for Pittsburgh. If Crosby and Malkin get going again, the Pens could start to steamroll. Still, the Lightning are well-rested and an excellent, disciplined club. (Despite losing Bishop, Tampa took game 1 last night, 3-1.) This is a tough one so I’m going to hedge my bets: If Bishop returns, it’s Tampa in 7. If he doesn’t, Pittsburgh wins in 6.

Western Conference final

St. Louis vs. San Jose

This is a battle between two perennial underachievers who have exorcised some demons this year. The Blues are back in the Conference Final for the first time in 15 years, while the Sharks have similarly been bounced from the postseason by tough opponents like the Kings while stars like Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau get older. Goaltending, a weakness in years past, has been solid as provided by Brian Elliott for St. Louis and Martin Jones for San Jose. The Blues are loaded with big bruisers and play a tough defensive style under coach Ken Hitchcock, while the Sharks have more offensive flair with Thornton, Marleau, Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture and Brent Burns, but they also have good two-way contributions from Joel Ward, Joonas Donskoi and Chris Tierney. This is going to be a back-and-forth heavyweight match, but in the end, the Sharks will prevail.

Sharks in 7.

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