Sweet victory: How the Penguins turned things around

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Editor’s note: Cold As Ice contributor and diehard Penguins fan Stephen Mapes looks back at the unlikely path Pittsburgh took to reach hockey’s highest pinnacle.

There’s nothing quite like the joy of seeing the team you’ve cheered, agonized over, and obsessively followed all year hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup aloft. After a season like this one, though, it feels even sweeter.

Looking back at the preseason predictions from Jay and myself, I can’t help but laugh at just how wrong I was about my Penguins going into the season. I was convinced that Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel were going to gel immediately and that our defense was going to be A-okay in its early season form.

Neither of those things came true, and by late 2015, I had began to think perhaps GM Jim Rutherford’s offseason magic had all been for naught, as we were hanging onto playoff dreams by a thread thanks mostly to goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and not much else. Crosby was quiet, Kessel wasn’t fitting in, and Mike Johnston’s defense-first strategy was failing to do much defensively.

Then, on December 12, the pieces began to fall into place. Johnston was fired, Mike Sullivan was ushered aboard, and the Pens began their climb through the Metro division, from 15-10-3 to 48-26-8. Sullivan brought with him a new commitment to speed and aggressive offense, a no-nonsense attitude that extended to even our star players, and, most importantly, his choice talent from Wilkes-Barre.

You can’t help but marvel at the apparent happenstance that lead to the playoff incarnation of the Penguins. First, there was the loss of Fleury to a concussion that gave the net to the young Matt Murray, one of the season’s feel good stories as the 21-year-old became one of the few rookies to lead a team all the way to hockey’s greatest accomplishment. I don’t know if I’d go so far to say Murray was the reason the Pens won. His side-to-side game was at times frustrating, his glove game still needs work, and the swarming Pens defense and heavy shot blocking kept his save totals modest.

But Murray brought with him a resiliency that steadied the team, bouncing back from his few bad games to clock in strong performances. In fact, Murray ended the playoffs having never lost back-to-back games and posting a sub 1.72 GAA after losses.

The real “fate” moment of the season, however, was the loss of Evgeni Malkin late in the season, which birthed the legendary HBK line as Kessel, who struggled all season to find chemistry on the Pens, found his home with the lightning fast Carl Hagelin and the gritty, playmaking Nick Bonino. Whereas I do believe the Pens may have seen similar success behind a healthy Fleury, I can say with confidence that without HBK, the Pens don’t make it past the second round.

Their existence gave the Pens a top 9, bottom 3 offense that simply wore down opposing defenses through sheer attrition. No longer could opponents commit their best D-men to the Crosby/Malkin threats. Now typically sheltered second- and third-pairing defenses were seeing a fast, end-to-end offense that would feel right at home on the first line of many other teams. That speed and depth became apparent as each series wore on, as the Pens dominated shot totals and spent long stretches camped in the offensive zone.

But my final kudos have to go our ragtag defense, which I grew to lovingly refer to as “Letang’s Island of Misfit D-men.” Here was a squad that found solid play from castoffs like Justin Schultz and Ian Cole, that swarmed and cleared pucks with such tenacity that typical big stars like Ovechkin, Thornton, and Pavelski all but disappeared, and who blocked so many shots that Murray rarely had to show his mettle. While the defense may have lacked big names and big bodies, it covered its shortcomings with raw speed. Letang was the leader throughout, putting up massive minutes and finding the scoresheet when needed. While most people were splitting the Conn Smythe debate between Crosby, Kessel and Murray, Letang was building his own silent case.

In the end, Crosby did earn the coveted MVP award, thanks to his leadership, playmaking, and efforts to wear down the top lines of each opponent faced. But the fact that there was such debate at all — that at least four players seemed equally deserving — speaks to why the Pens were able to outlast talent teams like the Caps and the Sharks. This was a team effort, the most balanced Pens squad I have ever seen, and the proudest I’ve been as a Penguins fan.

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In year of playoff surprises, Pittsburgh’s march to the Cup was biggest of all

When you’re wrong, you’re wrong. Going into the Stanley Cup Final series between Pittsburgh and San Jose, most observers (including me and my colleague Phil) felt that the Sharks were simply the better team and would prevail. Nope. Not even close.

On the surface of it, the six-game final appeared fairly close, with three one-goal games (two of which were decided by overtime) and three two-goal decisions. But after Pittsburgh closed out the series last night with a 3-1 victory in the Shark Tank, it was obvious that Mike Sullivan’s charges were consistently the superior club throughout.

How did they do it? Speed. Tenacity. Opportunism. The Pens came up big whenever they needed to, and when they didn’t, it was Sharks goalie Martin Jones who prevented the series from being a sweep. Led by captain (and playoff MVP) Sidney Crosby, the Penguins never let up the entire series. Their team speed had the Sharks consistently on their heels, defending against the onslaught of the likes of Crosby, Evgeni Malkin (who got better as the series wore on), Phil Kessel, Conor Sheary, et al. Defensively, the Pens blocked so many shots and gave the offensively gifted Sharks little time to set up, and when shots did get through, Matt Murray made big saves. The line of Kessel, Nick Bonino and Carl Hagelin continued to bring the heat as they did throughout the playoffs, but it was the depth of the lineup that shone through for Pittsburgh. Everyone was dangerous. When it wasn’t one of the top offensive players delivering, it was a guy like Eric Fehr.

San Jose never quit, and had they been able to take advantage of their chances, we could be talking about getting ready for game 7 in Pittsburgh Wednesday night. The Sharks’ big threats—Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton, Brent Burns, Logan Couture, Patrick Marleau—were never able to get rolling against the Pens’ defense led by Kris Letang. It was the team defensive approach—something we’ve never really seen from Pittsburgh before—that made the difference. Even the loss of Trevor Daley in the previous round didn’t affect the Pens D one iota.

Some may quibble at Crosby receiving the Conn Smythe award as playoff MVP; it could have gone to Murray or Kessel or even Letang. But there’s no disputing the leadership, the big plays and the selfless effort that the Artist Formerly Known as Sid the Kid displayed during the grueling four-round gladiator showdown that is the NHL playoffs. Once derided as supremely talented but a whiny crybaby, Crosby has remade himself as a gritty competitor who delivers in high-pressure situations. He was always a clutch performer, but leading this team to this most unexpected of Cups has elevated Crosby to another level of greatness. A lot of fans in opposing cities may not like it, but they can’t deny it.

Ultimately, the Penguins won four series in which they were considered the underdog. At midseason, the team was a shambles under coach Mike Johnston, who was fired in December. Sullivan, a longtime assistant who had a stint coaching Thornton and the Bruins a decade ago, was able to turn a troubled team around in a remarkable fashion. That he was able to do so with a rookie goalie and a patchwork defense is all the more impressive. There were plenty of other teams that appeared to have a better shot at winning the Cup: Chicago, Washington, Los Angeles, Tampa, St. Louis, Anaheim, and yes, San Jose. They all fell by the wayside as Pittsburgh kept working hard and surprising opponents and observers alike. It was a championship well earned and no doubt for the Pens, it was immensely satisfying to prove all the naysayers wrong.

Cold As Ice Stanley Cup Final Preview, Part Deux: Feel The Burns

Editor’s note: Cold As Ice contributor Phil Stacey weighs in with his preview of the Cup final.

I’ve been watching the National Hockey League for almost 40 years now, and never can I recall a postseason as unpredictable as this.

I’ve picked more losers during these playoffs than Eddie Mush did at the racetrack in “A Bronx Tale.” I had both the Sharks and Penguins losing in the first round. Ironically, I’ve bet against the Pittsburgh Penguins in each of the first three rounds, and each time been proven wrong by the Sons of Mario Lemieux.

Unfortunately for the Penguins and their fans, I think their streak of remarkable playoff fortune is about to come to an end.

You don’t reach the Stanley Cup final on pure luck, of course. A multitude of events have to sync properly in your favor, including timely scoring, huge saves at key moments, and role players stepping forward to assume the role of hero for a shift, a period, a game or even an entire series. Having said that, I don’t think those confluence of circumstances will continue for the Steel City Boys against a Sharks team that—pardon the pun—hungers for its first ever championship.

I’m picking San Jose to sip from hockey’s holy chalice in six games—although a shorter series would not surprise me. Here are the primary reasons I believe the state of California will claim top honors in the NHL for the fourth time in a decade:

  • It’s the biggest advantage the Sharks hold over the Penguins, and it’s not even close. Brent Burns might win the Conn Smythe Award on his presence alone; the burly, bushy blueliner can do everything from muscle foes from the front of his crease to jump start the offense, be it 5-on-5 or with the man advantage. He’s a different maker literally every shift he takes. Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Roman Polak, Paul Martin and Justin Braun all bring a level of effectiveness and shutdown capabilities. Pittsburgh is less mobile, prone to making mistakes in their own end and, after a season-ending injury to Trevor Daley in the Eastern Conference Final against Tampa Bay, much thinner. Kris Letang is going to be asked to play big minutes—like 30 minutes a night—and San Jose’s big boys will wear him down over the course of this series.
  • Speed. Both teams have oodles of it, but the Sharks go from zero to 60 just a stride or two faster. Burners like Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl and fourth liner Joonas Donskoi, among others, are attacking forwards with nonstop motors. The Penguins don’t exactly employ a fleet of Yugos, not with Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel, Carl Hagelin and Letang in the lineup, but the Sharks are better from 1-to-18.
  • The road to riches. Consider who both squads defeated to reach this point. San Jose ripped through the favored Los Angeles Kings, the plucky Nashville Predators and an excellent (but forever snakebitten) St. Louis Blues club. All three were excellent defensively until the Sharks tore through them with relative ease. The Penguins, in reaching the peak of the much more inferior Eastern Conference, they defeated a slow New York Rangers team that showed the fatigue of long playoff runs the previous two seasons; a Washington Capitals club that once again choked under the weight of postseason expectations; and a Tampa Bay Lightning squad that fizzled in Games 6 and 7. Advantage, Sharks.
  • Midnight strikes for Matt Murray. It’s been one of the best stories of this year’s postseason: Matt Murray riding to the rescue and backstopping the Penguins to win after win, series after series in these playoffs. He’s been fun to watch in goal … but in the Cup final, he’ll go back to being a pumpkin. Martin Jones, the far more reliable and technically sound of the two, gets his name etched on the Cup for San Jose.

I’m no Sidney Crosby hater—far from it. I love his game, his net drive, his willingness to do anything it takes to get a win. But his ’stache? Terrible. How do you not go with the Grizzly Adams look of Thornton, Burns & Co.?

I’m looking forward to Pavelski being handed the Cup, then turning it over to the first two picks of the 1997 Draft—Joe Thornton, then Patrick Marleau—as they happily lift the lightest 35 pound silver mug of their lives.

 

Stanley Cup Final preview: It’s Shark season

Well, it’s been nearly eight months since the 2015-16 NHL season kicked off and we’re finally ready to decide the winner of the Stanley Cup. It has been an interesting playoff season so far, with a lot of the predicted favorites getting bumped off: Washington, Chicago, LA, Anaheim. The conference finals were excellent matchups, but ultimately it was the Pittsburgh Penguins and San Jose Sharks triumphing with similar styles: Speed, offensive flair, a dash of grit, deep rosters and just enough goaltending to get the job done.

It’s nice that teams with uptempo styles are on the biggest stage; as much I like the Blues, Ken Hitchcock-run teams tend to play a stifling defensive style that can be as exciting as watching paint dry. This series is going to be all about speed, forechecking and special teams.

Great storylines abound:

  • Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau finally getting to the fourth round after years of frustration.
  • Sidney Crosby and company back in the finals after winning the Cup in 2009 and then falling short the last six years.
  • perennially underappreciated Phil Kessel sticking it to the critics and fans in his former cities by leading the Pens in playoff scoring.
  • Pittsburgh getting huge contributions from the likes of Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary, Nick Bonino et al.
  • Would you have predicted back in October that the starting goalies in the Cup finals would be Matt Murray and Martin Jones? No, you would not have.

Both teams run four effective lines. Offensively, the Sharks have a red-hot Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture (who’s quietly leading the postseason in scoring), Brent Burns and key contributions from Joel Ward, Joonas Donskoi, Tomas Hertl and Chris Tierney. On the defensive end, Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Paul Martin lead a tough D squad that shut down opposing stars like Vladimir Tarasenko, Filip Forsberg and Tyler Toffoli in previous series. Jones has been solid in goal throughout.

The Pens have marquee names like Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but it has been the line of Kessel teaming up with Carl Hagelin and Bonino that has carried the offensive load. Throw in veterans Chris Kunitz, Patric Hornqvist and Matt Cullen along with the upstarts Rust and Sheary and you’ve got a team that has surprised everyone with its depth and two-way play. The Pens will miss Trevor Daley, who excelled on defense before breaking his ankle in the last round. The heat is on stud d-man Kris Letang, young Olli Maata, Brian Dumoulin and Ben Lovejoy to hold off the waves of offensive the Sharks will throw at them. Matt Murray is the starter despite being yanked in favor of longtime #1 Marc-Andre Fleury in the third period of game 4 and for all of game 5 vs. Tampa. If he falters, coach Mike Sullivan will likely have a quick hook.

Most critics are picking the Sharks, but Pittsburgh has been exceeding expectations all postseason. I’m also going with San Jose, but it’s not going to be easy. Crosby has been getting better as the playoffs wore on and reminding people why he’s still one of the best in the game. Ultimately, however, Thornton, Marleau, Pavelski and crew will get their names on the Cup and I for one will be happy to see it.

Sharks in 6.

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.

Phil’s Picks: The hateful eight of Round 2

Editor’s note: Cold As Ice contributor Phil Stacey chimes in with his picks for Round 2 of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The good news is I nailed three first round predictions exactly as they happened: Lightning in 5, Stars in 6, Capitals in 6.

The bad news is I went 0-fer in the other five first round matchups, meaning I’ve got to save some face in Round 2. So here goes:
EASTERN CONFERENCE
 
Capitals over Penguins in 5: The President’s Trophy winners have it all going on in its matchup with Pittsburgh: offensive talent, overall team depth, defensive corps and especially goaltending (two words: Matt Murray). You could even give the Caps a slight edge behind the bench with Barry Trotz vs. Mike Sullivan. The biggest thing working against Ovechkin & Co. is fighting the stigma that they can’t win when the stakes get raised substantially come May. Nearly two full decades of futility in such situations bears that out, but this is a different Capitals team. After needing three tries to knock out the Flyers in Round 1, they’ll put the hammer down on a game but ultimately not as talented Crosby-led Penguins team in five.
Lightning over Islanders in 7. I’m really tempted to take the boys from Brooklyn in an upset. The Islanders and Panthers played the best first round series in the Eastern Conference, a slugfest of two teams with equal ability and nary any playoff success since Bill Clinton was in office. When the Islanders prevailed to move on to the second round for the first time since 1993, then went into Tampa and won Game 1 of their series, their bandwagon started to fill up. While I wouldn’t be surprised to see them win this series, logic dictates that the Lightning are deeper, have more experience and, with Ben Bishop in goal, should prevail in the long term.
WESTERN CONFERENCE
Blues over Stars in 6: In the suddenly wide open West, with Chicago, Los Angeles and Anaheim all victims of first round upsets, the path to the Stanley Cup final suddenly got a whole lot smoother for the always underachieving St. Louis Blues. A huge Game 7 win over the Blackhawks, including some unusually clutch third period play by the Bluenotes, has them surging into the second round. While I realize Dallas has had a terrific season and plays what I’d term the “most fun” style of any of the eight remaining squads, I’m not buying that it’s enough to get them into the conference final.
Sharks over Predators in 7: San Jose is flying after knocking out nemesis Los Angeles (which had been my Cup pick) in a tidy five games. They’re rested and rarin’ to go, eager to put many ghosts of failed playoffs past behind them. Nashville is coming off of a grind-it-out, tractor pull of a seven-game series win over Anaheim. Martin Jones vs. Pekka Rinne is an intriguing matchup of goaltenders; so are the offensive battles featuring Thornton, Pavelski, Marleau & Co. vs. Johansen, Forsberg and Neal (et al). I like the Predators’ Weber/Josi-led defense a bit more, but the Sharks seem hell bent on making past amends. The best matchup of the second round gives us fans the seven-game series we deserve, with an OT winner in the penultimate game coming from San Jose.

Clean slate: Because Round 2 will be much easier to predict, right?

Well, it’s a good thing I don’t rely on my playoff picks for my income because I’d be losing money right about now. I went 3-5 in Round 1, but I don’t think a lot of people were picking Chicago, Anaheim and Los Angeles to lose. Suddenly, there’s a lot of room in the West for a team to make a run. Meanwhile, the East has some interesting matchups as well. Whatever happens, we’re in for some great hockey this round.

So here’s goes nothing…

Eastern Conference

Washington vs. Pittsburgh

This is gonna be a good one. As I write this, game 1 is in overtime and the teams appeared pretty evenly matched throughout the game (the Caps won in OT thanks to T.J. Oshie’s game winner). The Penguins have a deep offensive lineup that allowed them to have all-world center Evgeni Malkin playing on the third line, while the Caps are no slouch themselves with a dangerous collection of forwards including Alex Ovechkin, Niklas Backstrom and Oshie. The real difference appears to be on defense and in goal, and I have to give Washington the edge because of Braden Holtby in net. Pittsburgh backup Matt Murray has been impressive of late while Marc-Andre Fleury recovers from a concussion, but we’re still talking about a goalie with little playoff experience. Ultimately, it’s Crosby vs. Ovechkin and it’s going to be fun to watch.

Capitals in 7.

NY Islanders vs. Tampa Bay

Captain Clutch John Tavares led the Islanders over the other Florida team in Round 1, winning three overtime games (two of them in double OT, including game 7), while Tampa dispatched the Red Wings in 5. The Lightning created some buzz when captain Steven Stamkos started practicing with the team again after having surgery on April 4 to remove a blood clot near his collarbone. He was originally said to be out for three months, but now there’s some hope he’ll return for the playoffs. The Islanders got off to a quick start in game 1 Wednesday with a 5-3 win, chasing TB starter Ben Bishop from the net early. Still, I feel Tampa has more depth than the Islanders to take the series.

Lightning in 7.

Western Conference

San Jose vs. Nashville

In the West, the perennially disappointing Sharks took out their nemeses the Kings in a decisive five-game rout, while the Preds knocked off the Ducks in 7. Both teams have had stacked teams that fell short over the last several years, so this spring is about redemption. Two really good, veteran-laden squads looking to take advantage of a sudden power vacuum in the West. When it comes down it, San Jose’s offensive and defensive depth wins it, but it won’t be easy given how well Nashville has been playing.

Sharks in 6.

St. Louis vs. Dallas

Another team that hasn’t lived up to expectations over the last decade is the Blues. Knocking off the defending Cup champs was a big step for the bruising, defensive-minded club, but they can’t overlook the offense-first Stars. Jamie Benn and Jason Spezza lead a dangerous team, but St. Louis’ size and discipline should get them through to the third round. Now is the time for fine players like Alex Steen and David Backes to lead Ken Hitchcock’s crew to the next level. It will help if Hitch doesn’t keep his biggest offensive threat, Vladimir Tarasenko, chained to the bench. Pressure’s on Blues top keeper Brian Elliott to stay strong against the Dallas attack; in past years, the goaltending has been St. Louis’ weak link, but Elliott appears to have stepped up his game.

Blues in 5.

Stephen’s Kneejerk Playoff Reactions: 2016 Edition, Round Two

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

Cold As Ice Playoff Preview 3: Thrice is Nice

If you’re a hockey fan, you love the NHL playoffs. Hell, even if you’re not a hockey fan, you might love them…or at least acknowledge that they comprise the greatest tournament in sports. And yeah, the playoffs kicked off last night with three games, but it’s not too late to make my first-round picks. So here we go…

Eastern Conference

Washington (1) vs. Philadelphia (WC2)

It was a monster regular season for the Caps: An NHL-best 120 points, Alex Ovechkin with 50 goals and Braden Holtby with an NHL record-tying 48 wins. But all that goes out the window now. After years of disappointing playoff flameouts, the pressure’s on Washington to win the whole thing. And really, they have no excuses. And in this round, they won’t need any, because they will handle the Flyers, who played well down the stretch to squeak in the postseason. Caps in 5.

Pittsburgh (2) vs. NY Rangers (3)

The Pens and Rangers both had disappointing starts and strong finishes. Pittsburgh’s offense finally kicked in after Mike Sullivan was brought in as coach, replacing the fired Mike Johnston. With the likes of Sid Crosby, Kris Letang, Phil Kessel leading the way, the Pens can score  (although they’re missing injured Evgeni Malkin). But with longtime starter Marc-Andre Fleury injured, they’re relying on backup goalies Jeff Zatkoff and Matt Murray to step up against the King, Henrik Lundqvist. Tough assignment. Rangers in 7.*

* Given the fact that Lundqvist took a stick to the eye last night and had to leave after the 1st, I may have to revise this pick. If he doesn’t come back, Penguins in 7.

Florida (1) vs. NY Islanders (WC1)

The excellent season Florida had has been well documented and fun to watch. Led by veterans Jaromir Jagr, Roberto Luongo and Brian Campbell, the Panthers also boast a strong group of young talent including Jonathan Huberdeau, Alexander Barkov, Vincent Trocheck, Reilly Smith and Aaron Ekblad. They’re up against a dangerous Isles team led by captain John Tavares and the goalie tandem of Thomas Greiss and Jaroslav Halak. Still, the Cinderella season will continue for Florida. Panthers in 6.

Detroit (3) vs. Tampa Bay (2)

Both the Wings and Lightning limped into the postseason, with Tampa especially feeling the pain after losing captain and elite player Steven Stamkos and reliable d-man Anton Stralman to injuries in the last few weeks. Detroit has struggled to maintain consistency all season, and top goalie Jimmy Howard has been ordinary for much of it. Despite the injuries, a healthy Ben Bishop and the offense of Nikita Kucherov, Alex Killorn, Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat will help the Lightning prevail. Lightning in 6.

Western Conference

Dallas (1) vs. Minnesota (WC2)

The Stars have a high-octane offense, which doesn’t usually translate into playoff success. Still, the likes of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Jason Spezza should be enough to take out the Wild, who are just happy to be here. Dallas will likely get bumped by one of the more complete teams in the West, but for now, they’re looking good. Stars in 5.

St. Louis (2) vs. Chicago (3)

This is gonna be a good one. Unfortunately for the Blues, they consistently have fine teams that run into the powerhouses of the West in the playoffs. This year, they get defending Cup champs Chicago and it’s not going to be easy. Even though the Hawks limped into the playoffs, they’ve still got Kane, Toews, Panarin et al. ’Nuff said. Hawks in 6.

Anaheim (1) vs. Nashville (WC1)

The Ducks got off to an absolutely horrendous start, but wow, what a turnaround. Coach Bruce Boudreau managed to get off the firing block and lead his team to first in the Pacific. But Boudreau is now feeling the heat to succeed in the playoffs, as are the Predators, who have had many disappointments over the years. Unfortunately for Nashville, this too will be a disappointment. Anaheim’s got too much to deal with. Ducks in 6.

Los Angeles (2) vs. San Jose (3)

The Kings and Sharks both had good bounce-back years after missing the postseason last spring. But when it comes to the playoffs, only one of these teams has a proven track record of success. That being LA, which won the Cup in 2011-12 and 2013-14, while the Sharks have failed to live up to expectations time and again. As much as I’d love to see Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski make a historic run, it doesn’t seem possible against this stacked Kings squad. Kings in 6.

Cold As Ice Playoff Preview 2: The New Batch

Editor’s note: After watching his Bruins choke their way out of the postseason picture, contributor Phil Stacey shares his picks to click for the first round of the NHL playoffs.

Cold As Ice el jefe Jay Kumar and I were commiserating the other day about both of our favorite teams not making the playoffs. While it hurts knowing the squad you call your own won’t have a chance to play for the Stanley Cup, we both agreed it makes watching the postseason unfold a far less stressful experience—and, in some respects, more enjoyable.

I, like many of you, feel there’s no greater spectacle in sports than playoff hockey. The intensity level is ramped up tenfold; you’re watching multimillionaires willing to do anything, risking life, limb and lifeblood just for the opportunity to raise a 35-pound silver chalice in a room chock full o’ champagne spray and beer foam.

And thank God they do, because we love to watch it all unfold.

Here’s how I see the first round (i.e., Conference quarterfinals) playing out:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Washington Capitals over Philadelphia Flyers in 6: You’ve got to hand it to the Flyers, who went on a tear over the last month of the season and won a lot of money games in the process. But at what cost? To face perhaps the greatest assemblage of talent in the Capitals’ 42-year history? Philadelphia will be playing in memory of their beloved and recently deceased owner, Ed Snider, but that won’t compare to the machine that is Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, Backstrom, Holtby and co.

Florida Panthers over New York Islanders in 7: Who, honestly, didn’t expect the Panthers to fall off at some point this season? The Canadiens were bound to catch and pass them. Then it was Tampa Bay, or to a lesser degree, Boston and Detroit. Each time, Florida showed the pluckiness that got them to this point, a steely resolve and a team that combines young talent (Huberdeau, Ekblad, Barkov) with veteran savvy (Jagr, Luongo, Jokinen). Any team with John Tavares has to be a considered a threat and the Islanders will give Florida all they can handle before succumbing.

New York Rangers over Pittsburgh Penguins in 6. Call it my first round upset, if you like. But is it really? The Rangers were sloppy for large parts of the regular season and didn’t always seem motivated to play their ‘A’ game. Two consecutive long forays into the postseason will do that to a team. I think they turn it on now that the lights are a little brighter. Pittsburgh has played better in the season’s second half and, when they’re clicking, has arguably the best offense in hockey. But I’ll pass on Pittsburgh’s flash and go instead with the Rangers’ grit and experience.

Tampa Bay Lightning over Detroit Red Wings in 5. Not sure why so many people are picking Detroit to win this series; five of the six people in my office did so (with yours truly being the lone dissenter). Okay, the Lightning will certainly be without all-world Steven Stamkos as well as Anton Stralman in the first round due to injuries; Ryan Callahan, Victor Hedman, Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov may or may not be ready to suit up as they deal with their own ailments. But come on: the Red Wings stink. Their young players (Dylan Larkin, wow!) are intriguing, but this is a team that relies on too many guys past their primes, a sketchy defense and less-than-average goaltending. Lightning win, fairly easily.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Dallas Stars over Minnesota Wild in 6: The Wild seemingly follow a similar playoff pattern each season: scramble like hell to qualify, get in as the number 7 or 8 seed, then make life miserable for their higher-seeded foes. They’ll try to carve out another chapter in that book against Dallas, a fun, freewheeling club who unexpectedly finds themselves as the West’s top dog. The contests will undoubtedly be lower-scoring than Dallas would prefer, but they’ll find that their defense and goaltending (whether it’s Kari Lehtonen or Antti Niemi) will rise to the challenge.

Anaheim Ducks over Nashville Predators in 6: You could make an excellent case that the Ducks should be favorites to win the Stanley Cup. They’ve been as hot as any club since the calendar turned to 2016; have veteran leaders, proven scoring, depth, defense and a pair of clutch goalkeepers in Frederik Andersen and John Gibson. Nashville will do what Nashville does—get some “how-did-he-stop-THAT?” saves from Pekka Rinne, monster plays from Shea Weber and Roman Josi on the blue line and some clutch goals from Ryan Johansen, James Neal and Filip Forsberg. But in the end, Anaheim has a little too much.

Chicago Blackhawks over St. Louis Blues in 7: How do you not feel bad for the Blues? Year after year they have a great regular season, only to be faced with trying to slay the Blackhawks, who seem to be Team Kryptonite when the postseason rolls around. Chicago has played more playoff games over the last six years than there are deep dish pizza joints in the Windy City, and at some point that has to catch up with them in terms of lethargy. But it won’t be this year, not in the first round anyway. Kane outscores Tarasenko and the Hawks move on.

Los Angeles Kings over San Jose Sharks in 5: Flip around what I said about the Blues, and you have the Sharks. How can you feel bad for San Jose? They’ve had ample opportunity to leave the rest of the Western Conference in their wake, but failed to do so time and time again. Now they’ve Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau approaching the 18th hole of their careers while the Kings’ core—Quick, Doughty, Kopitar, Marian Gaborik, even likely one-year-and-done Milan Lucic—in the prime of theirs. They’re tougher, faster and just plain better than their California foes to the North.