NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Penguins and Blues Looking to be Favorites

The second round of the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs is in the books. The San Jose Sharks, St. Louis Blues, Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning are the last four teams standing. We’ll take a look at how each team won their series and advanced to the semifinals.

Tampa Bay Lightning defeat New York Islanders (4-1)

In the shortest series of the second round, the Lightning made quick work of the Islanders, as Tampa Bay won the series in five games. The Islanders got off to a quick start, taking Game 1 by a score of 5-3, but couldn’t seem to find that high-scoring offense over the rest of the series. The Islanders scored just six goals in the final four games of the series.

AR-141229794The Lightning were able to advance thanks to strong defense and goaltending, as well as depth in scoring. The Lightning were without two of their top defenders, Anton Stralman and Matthew Carle, for much of the series, but it didn’t matter. The Lightning shut down the Islanders no matter who was out there.

Of course, the motor that made the Tampa Bay defense go was goaltender Ben Bishop. After a difficult Game 1 in which he was removed in the second period, Bishop came back with a .948 save percentage in the final four games, including a 28-save shutout in the clinching Game 5.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-New York Rangers at Tampa Bay LightningThe Lightning also showed their depth on offense, getting goals from all four lines after the top line scored 10 of 12 goals in the first round. For the Islanders, the problems were on defense and with the man advantage. Tampa was able to score 18 goals in just five games, and New York had no answer for Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman, who scored four goals and assisted on four others. The Islanders struggled on the power play as well, scoring only four goals in 18 chances with the man advantage.

Pittsburgh Penguins defeat Washington Capitals (4-2)

The top-scoring Capitals came into the series with the Penguins as the favorite, but Pittsburgh was able to take away home ice advantage early in the series, and went on to win in six games. The Capitals came away with the Game 1 win in overtime, but Pittsburgh took Game 2, (stealing home ice advantage), and went on to win the series. This series was a battle, as both teams played strong defense, every game was decided by two goals or fewer, and three of the games went to overtime.

AR-310059877Neither team scored more than four goals in any one game – and that only happened once for each team. Penguins stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were notoriously absent from the score-books, but Pittsburgh’s second line came up big, especially in the clinching Game 6 (when they scored all four of the team’s goals). The Penguins also came up big in clutch situations, getting the overtime goals they needed to put the Capitals away in Games 4 and 6.

The Capitals’ loss in the series can be pinned on questionable coaching decisions, and lack of support for the team’s offensive stars. Capitals coach Barry Trotz sat defensemen Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt at different points in the series after each made major mistakes on the ice, but the Capitals were already shorthanded on defense with Brooks Orpik serving a suspension after an illegal hit in Game 2.

110515-NHL-Washington-Capital-Barry-Trotz-pi-ssm.vresize.1200.675.high.78Trotz’s decisions will almost certainly be called into question during the offseason. Unlike the Penguins, the Caps’ star offensive players showed up for this series – Alex Ovechkin led the team with seven points and T.J. Oshie scored five goals – but the supporting cast just wasn’t there when the big guys needed them. This led to the lackluster overall offensive output. In the end, Pittsburgh was just too fast for the Capitals’ physical style of play.

St. Louis Blues defeat Dallas Stars (4-3)

Both second round series in the Western Conference went seven games, which made for some exciting hockey. The Stars and Blues, no strangers due to their divisional rivalry, finished first, as St. Louis was able to win Game 7 going away. The Blues’ offense was on point in this series, scoring at least four goals in all four of the team’s wins, including a six goal shellacking in Game 7.

St. Louis’ defense and goaltending was also solid throughout the series, as the Stars were only able to score 14 goals total over the seven game series. Blues coach Ken Hitchcock made some interesting moves that paid off throughout the series, such as playing forward Dmitri Jaskin in Game 5 after Jaskin was a scratch in the first four; Jaskin scored the game winning goal in that game.

050416-nhl-starsblues--pi.vresize.1200.675.high.74

Hitchcock was also consistent in keeping goalie Brian Elliott in the starting lineup. Elliott was pulled after allowing three goals on seven shots in Game 1, but was right back in there for the rest of the series, making 31 saves in the clincher.

The Stars, on the other hand, alternated between two different goalies throughout the series, and neither Kari Lehtonen nor Antti Niemi could seem to find a rhythm. Neither goalie was able to manage even a .900 save percentage throughout the playoffs. Dallas also struggled mightily on the power play, scoring only two goals in 20 attempts. The Stars, the #1 seed coming into the playoffs, weren’t able to hold their home ice advantage, losing three of the four games played in Dallas in this series, and will spend the summer searching for answers.

San Jose Sharks defeat Nashville Predators (4-3)

Tomas HertlThe final match-up saw the Sharks, fresh off their upset of the Los Angeles Kings, face off against the Predators, who pulled an even bigger upset in beating the Anaheim Ducks in the first round. This series was hard fought, as two of the games went to overtime and both teams were able to put lots of points on the board. In the end, though, it came down to home ice advantage, and the Sharks were able to take Game 7 with a 5-0 victory.

The Sharks’ Logan Couture had a huge series, scoring six goals from the second line. Couture also had five assists and set a San Jose record for points in a playoff series. San Jose goaltender Martin Jones wasn’t spectacular, but he was good enough, as he managed a 20-save shutout in the clinching game.

predssharksREUTERSThe Predators were eliminated in part because they couldn’t get it done on the penalty kill. San Jose had a power play 21 times in the series, and was able to score eight goals. That simply isn’t going to get it done in the playoffs. Nashville also just looked tired toward the end of the series. Between the Anaheim series and this one, the Predators had to travel over 17,000 miles to play 14 games, and didn’t seem to have any energy left in the decisive Game 7. San Jose was able to take advantage of the Predators’ fatigue.

Semifinals Preview

And then there were four: the San Jose Sharks will face the St. Louis Blues, while the Pittsburgh Penguins will take on the Tampa Bay Lightning. I can’t imagine anyone at the beginning of the playoffs picking these four teams to be the last standing, but here they are.

The Penguins, as previously mentioned, are a very fast team, as the Capitals couldn’t skate with them over a long series. The Lightning are also fast, but could be without a few key players at the start of the series. The Penguins should be heavy favorites to win Game 1, and that could give them momentum into the rest of the series.

blues-vs-sharks-stanley-cup-playoffs-2016Out west, the Blues will have home ice advantage against the Sharks. That series will begin on Sunday. The Blues have looked dominant throughout the playoffs so far, defeating the Chicago Blackhawks and Dallas Stars, and there’s no reason to think that will change. However, the Sharks are always strong at home, and if they can steal one in St. Louis, the Sharks could gain the advantage.

San Jose though could also end up being the road-weary team in this series after travelling to Nashville in the previous round. It’s likely going to come down to defense and goaltending; if the Blues’ Brian Elliott can stay strong in goal, it’s unlikely that San Jose will be able to keep up.

Final Predictions: Penguins defeat Lightning 4-2, Blues defeat Sharks 4-3

Statistics provided by: ESPN.com and NHL.com

Images thanks to: goerie.com, CBS, Fox Sports, sportsinteraction.com, NHL.com, CSN Bay Area

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