Bruins in 6
The NHL has come down to the Final Four, after a postseason full of surprise and suspense. The Boston Bruins are the favorites now as they have the deepest and most complete team. However, the Lightning won a record-tying 62 games in the regular season and were swept in the first round, so being the favorite has not necessarily a good thing.
The Carolina Hurricanes are the last of the four Wild Card teams as normalcy held form in the second round, after all the top seeds were bounced in the first round. The Hurricanes have a strange habit of making their sporadic playoff appearances count. They have made the playoffs just four times since 2002 and have made it to at least the Conference Finals every time. This includes the 2002 Stanley Cup Final and a 2006 Stanley Cup Championship. Like when they last made the playoffs in 2009 the Hurricanes are underdogs in the Eastern Conference Finals. They would not have it any other way.
The biggest positive for Boston has to be David Pasternak. After struggling for most of the postseason, he seemed to find himself in Game 5, scoring the biggest goal of that series. If Pasternak is able to hit his mark, the Bruins offense could be lethal. On defense, the Bruins are led by Zdeno Chara, who still provides an imposing presence on the ice after the age of 40, as Boston was one of the top defensive teams in the league. While Tuukka Rask has been one of the top goalies in the NHL for years.
Carolina does have good scoring depth, as all four lines have been contributing thus far, with Teuvo Teravainen and Sebastien Aho leading the way. On defense, Jacob Slavin has become a brilliant two-way player for the Hurricanes, as he has had 11 assists in the first two rounds. His linemate, Dougie Hamilton meanwhile will look to have a big series against his former team. Slaving and Hamilton will have to be especially strong as the health of starting goalie Peter Mrazek remains a question. While Curtis McElhinney had a strong series against the Islanders, they do not have the same firepower as the Bruins and often it is the goalie that makes the difference at this stage of the playoffs. The biggest positive for the Hurricanes is Justin Williams, who has long run of playoff magic. Williams was on the Hurricanes in 2006 when they won the Stanley Cup after the lockout. He later moved on and won two Stanley Cups with the Los Angeles Kings, including 2014 when he was won the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP. Justin Williams returned to the Hurricanes this season, after playing the Capitals in their cup win last season as he has been called Mr. Game 7, with 15 career points in a one-game scenario. Justin Williams always seems to be near the puck in overtime making the big play when his teams needs it the most.
The Hurricanes have ridden a wave to get to the Eastern Conference Finals, using the words of Don Cherry calling them “A Bunch of Jerks”. Now Cherry gets the watch the Jerks take on his team. In the years after Bobby Orr, Cherry helped led the Bruins to two appearances in the Stanley Cup Final in 1977 and 1978, both losses to the Canadiens. He still has a soft spot in his heart for the Bruins as they gave him a chance to coach in the NHL, after a long career in the minors. If you thought he hated the Hurricanes before wait until this series wraps. The Bruins have all the edges but in the NHL that does not always equate to success. Expect another tough series for the Bruins, who will slip by in six games.
Sharks in 7
This matchup should feel familiar for hockey fans, as the San Jose Sharks and St. Louis Blues met in the Western Conference Finals in 2016. That year the Sharks after years of bitter disappointments finals reached the Stanley Cup Final, only to get more heartbreak against the Penguins. Now three years older, the Sharks full of grizzled veterans know that this may be their best chance to get the Stanley Cup, the last chance to get the Stanley Cup.
The St. Louis Blues season appeared to be a lost cause as the New Year began. They had the worst record in the league, just made a coaching change and called up a rookie goaltender. Blowing off some steam at a bar they began singing the song Gloria sung by Laura Branigan. Now everyone in St. Louis is singing it as the Blues have gone on a run that almost seems like something off the screen of a Hollywood fantasy.
The Sharks have been comeback kids themselves, first rallying from down 3-1 in the first round against the Golden Knights, then beating Vegas in Game 7 after captain Joe Pavelski suffered a concussion with his team down 3-0 in the middle of the third period. Pavelski missed nearly all of San Jose’s second-round series against the Avalanche, but returned to the ice for the first time in Game 7 and scored a goal and an assist to get the Sharks to the Western Conference Finals.
Logan Couture has led the Sharks offensive attack averaging a point per game in the playoffs, whole Tomas Hertl has come up with the biggest goals. On defense, the Sharks may have the biggest edge, as Brent Burns long beard and all has been crushing it on both sides of the ice with five goals and seven assists, while Erik Karlsson playing through pain has 12 assists. In goal, Martin Jones has been shaky at times, but when San Jose needs him to most, he seems to have his best games.
The St. Louis Blues meanwhile, have used the power of the Schwartz to lift them to the Western Conference Finals. Through the first two series, Jaden Schwartz has eight goals, while Alex Pietrangelo as nine assists to the St. Louis offensive attack. Pietrangelo along Jay Boumeester have both played brilliantly on the blue line, limiting their opponent’s offensive chances, which has helped goalie Jordan Binnington continue to shine in the playoffs. The Blues turnaround can be directly linked to when Binnington was called up from San Antonio. Taking over in goal in the season’s second half, the 25-year-old posted a 24-5-1 record and is a finalist for the Calder Trophy, given the NHL’s Rookie of the Year.
Thus far the Blues have been road warriors in the playoffs, winning five of their six games away from home in the first two rounds, while going 3-4 at the Enterprise Center. The Sharks always are one of the NHL’s best teams at home and have won six of eight playoff games on their home ice, while winning just two of six games on the road. This is should be a series played on emotion and promises to be one that will likely go seven games. Each team with their season story can name themselves the team of destiny but only one can advance to hockey’s ultimate final stage. The Blues have the fun story, the Sharks have the most satisfying story as many players who have given gallons of blood sweat and tears could finally get to sip from the cup with just eight more wins. Ultimately, it leads to Game 7 at the SAP Center, the Sharks have won two of those this playoff already and with Joe Pavelski back and ready to go it is the Sharks who will survive.