The Stanley Cup Finals have arrived! It’s been an exciting playoffs so far, with top seeds bowing out early, upsets all over the place, and a few teams getting hot at just the right time. The Finals this year feature a team just like that, who wasn’t a top seed, but managed to get hot when it counted, and a team that many expected big things from all year and has lived up to the hype. We’ll examine both, and try to predict the outcome.
But first, let’s revisit the semifinals, shall we?
Western Conference Finals: San Jose Sharks vs. St. Louis Blues
In my previous writing, I predicted a battle, ultimately to be won by the St. Louis Blues in seven games. I thought the Blues’ defense would be too much for a road-weary Sharks team to overcome. The series started off that way, with two of the first three games being hard-fought, defensive affairs. In Game 1, St. Louis’ defense dominated, as they won 2-1. Blues center Jori Lehtera scored the game winner in the second period, and goaltender Brian Elliott stopped 32 of 33 shots as the Blues cruised.
Game 2 would be a different story, as defenseman Brent Burns scored two goals and goalie Martin Jones had a 26-save shutout in a 4-0 Sharks win. The Sharks were able to steal the home-ice advantage with the win in St. Louis, which gave the Sharks a huge momentum swing heading into San Jose.
The Sharks would win 3-0 in Game 3, behind another shutout by Jones and two goals by center Tomas Hertl. After two straight shutouts, the Blues had their backs against the wall, but they responded with a 6-3 thrashing in Game 4. Right winger Troy Brouwer and center Kyle Brodziak each scored two goals (both of Brouwer’s were on the power play) as the Blues got help from all of their lines.
Remember how I thought the Sharks would tire out after all the travel in the first two rounds? Well, it turns out they got stronger as the series went on. San Jose won Games 5 and 6 to close out the series by a combined score of 11-5. The Sharks found another gear down the stretch, and made St. Louis’ vaunted defense look silly in the final two games. Sharks captain Joe Pavelski ended the series with four goals and five assists, and was a huge part of the offensive onslaught in the final two games. The Sharks seemed to play a more physical series than the Blues as well, and that was a huge key in San Jose’s victory.
Eastern Conference Finals: Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Pittsburgh Penguins
On the east coast, it was a different story, although it was certainly no less exciting. I predicted an easier road for Pittsburgh, and expected their victory in six games. The series ended up going seven games, and while the Penguins did finally win it, the Lightning really played hard and fought to make Pittsburgh earn it. Two of the games went to overtime, and only three of the seven games were decided by more than one goal.
Tampa Bay came out strong in Game 1 and stole the home-ice advantage with a 3-1 victory. It was actually a shutout until Penguins RW Patric Hornqvist scored a power play goal in the final minute. Tampa Bay goalie Ben Bishop was injured in the first period and taken off the ice on a stretcher, but backup netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy made 25 saves in relief.
Game 2 was the first OT game; the score was knotted at 2-2 after the first period and stayed that way until Sidney Crosby deposited the game winner 40 seconds into the extra period. Vasilevskiy was excellent in place of Bishop, making 38 saves, but Crosby was able to eke one past him for his first goal in eight games.
As the series shifted to Tampa, all eyes were on goalie Bishop, but he wouldn’t be able to play in Game 3 (or, as it turns out, the rest of the series). Rookie Vasilevskiy was the Lightning’s man, and he performed admirably, but the Penguins were able to win 4-2 in Game 3, as four different Penguins scored. Crosby scored on a power play for his second goal in as many games, and Pittsburgh rookie goalie Matt Murray made 26 saves.
The Penguins had a shot at eliminating the Lightning on the road, but the Lightning were able to pull matching 4-3 victories in Games 4 and 5 to put the Penguins on the brink of elimination. Game 4 featured a strong, balanced attack from Tampa Bay in the first two periods before a furious comeback attempt by Pittsburgh in the third that would fall just short. Game 5 was the second OT game; Pittsburgh was up 3-2 until Lightning RW Nikita Kucherov scored his second goal of the game with less than four minutes left in regulation. Kucherov would then go on to provide a key assist on the game-winner by center Tyler Johnson about a minute into overtime.
The series then headed back to Pittsburgh with the Penguins down three games to two. The Penguins would need to win both games to advance, and it seemed like both teams knew it. The Lightning appeared to take Game 6 lightly, as the Penguins won 5-2. The Pens got off to a fast start and led 3-0 after Crosby’s goal late in the second period. Center Brian Boyle scored two goals in the third for Tampa Bay, but it wasn’t enough as the Penguins put them away late. So it would all come down to Game 7.
Both teams’ defenses showed up for this one, and it was hard fought all the way through. Unfortunately for the Lightning, they couldn’t find an answer for Pittsburgh’s RW Bryan Rust, who scored two goals in the second period as the Penguins would take a decisive 2-1 win. Tampa Bay got back Steven Stamkos, its captain and leading goal scorer, but he wasn’t able to make a difference. Missing Stamkos and losing Bishop ended up being too much for Tampa Bay to overcome, and the Penguins advanced to the Finals.
Stanley Cup Finals: Penguins vs. Sharks
Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals took place on Monday night at Pittsburgh. The Penguins got out to a quick start, as Rust and LW Conor Sheary each scored in the first period. The Sharks would answer with two of their own in the second period, as Hertl and long-time Sharks center Patrick Marleau put the puck in the net.
The game stayed even until 2:24 left in the third period, when Penguins center Nick Bonino put one in for a 3-2 lead. The Penguins would have to finish the game shorthanded after a hooking penalty against defenseman Ben Lovejoy, and San Jose pulled goalie Jones in favor of a fifth attacker, but Pittsburgh was able to hang on for the 3-2 Game 1 win.
This series is very evenly matched, as seen by the result of Game 1. Both teams are peaking at the right time, and it really could go either way. Both teams are very fast, and bring a balanced attack across all four lines. The Sharks probably have the advantage in goal with Jones, but Murray has been excellent in his own right throughout the playoffs for Pittsburgh.
My prediction? The travel schedule will finally get the best of the Sharks, and the Penguins will win the 2016 Stanley Cup in six games.
Statistics provided by: ESPN.com and NHL.com
Images thanks to: king5.com, NHL.com, townnews.com, bloguin.com, Star Tribune, ESPN