Penguins in 7
After a slow start and a coaching team, no team has been hotter than the Pittsburgh Penguins. The only thing they must be on guard for is overconfidence as they face the reigning Eastern Conference Champions with a trip to the Stanley Cup Final on the line. Due to the NHL Playoff format they already won a matchup of the two best records in the East, having defeated the Washington Capitals in a hard fought six game series. Beating the Caps is a good sign for the Penguins as on the way to winning the Stanley Cup in 1991, 1992 and 2009 they won a series against the Capitals. The Penguins have played nearly perfect hockey in the first two rounds as they have gotten terrific balanced scoring in the first two rounds. Leading the way has been Phil Kessel who has a team high 12 points with five goals. The Penguins have 11 players with at least five points, and this is with Sidney Crosby not have that big of impact. The player who has had the biggest impact on Pittsburgh’s success is Matt Murray who spent most of the season playing in the AHL with Wilkes-Barre Scranton. Given the chance with Marc Andre-Fleury injured Murray has won 7-of-9 games, with a 2.05 GAA and a .935 save %. Only one goalie has been better in the playoffs than Murray and that is Ben Bishop who has carried the Tampa Bay Lightning past Red Wings and Islanders for a second straight appearance in the conference finals. Bishop has showed just why he is a Vezina Finalist posting a 1.89 GAA and a .938 save % over the first two rounds. Even better for the Lightning is they could be getting back two key players as Anton Stralman out since March with a broken leg has returned to practice and could soon return to action, while Steven Stamkos out with a blood clot can take place in non-contact skating if the series goes the distance any one can provide a big spark for Tampa. The Lightning won all three regular season meetings and will not down without a fight. However, in the end the Penguins balance will win the day in a close hard fought series.
Sharks in 6
Due to a flaw in the playoff set up in the early days of expansion the St. Louis Blues played in the Stanley Cup Finals their first three seasons, playing inside the all expansion Western Conference. They were swept all three times, highlighted by Bobby Orr’s famous dive in 1970. The Blues have had many strong teams ever since but have not been back to the finals since. The Blues in fact are just reaching the Conference Finals for the first time since 2001. The Sharks have been one of the strongest teams in the West since 2004, but have suffered countless postseason let downs as they are in the Conference Finals for the fourth time. In reaching the Western Conference Finals both teams have beaten the teams that have haunted them the most with the Sharks needing five games to knock off the Los Angeles Kings, while Blues needed all seven to bump off the reigning Champion Chicago Blackhawks in round one. Both teams reach the Conference Finals off Game 7 blowout wins with the Blues shooting down the Stars 6-1 on the road, while the Sharks blanked the Predators at home 5-0. The Blues and Stars had the two best records in the West in the regular season but the current playoff format had them meet in second round. The Blues were a poor match up for the Stars who are all finesse and can be driven nuts by a physical team. The Sharks are a team that can play physical and can move the puck with the best of them. Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski have been nearly unstoppable for the Sharks with Couture leading all players in the postseason with 17 points, while Pavelski has NHL best nine goals and the wild a wooly Brent Burns and the Sharks have a three headed monster. The Blues has six players with at least ten points led by Vladimir Tarasenko who has a team best 13 points and seven goals. Martin Jones has been sharper than Brian Elliott with a 2.16 GAA compared to Elliott’s 2.29. This will be close throughout and perhaps stamina will decide the winner. The Blues have already played 14 games, the Sharks have played two less. When the series which will likely have a few games go to overtime is to be decided that edge will be the difference for the Sharks who beat the Blues two out of three regular season meetings.