NHL Playoffs: Round 2 Retrospectives and Conference Finals Previews

Well, that was better. Still not great though! Very few of these series lived up to the hype, but that’s okay! Still a long way to go!

Round 2 Retrospectives

Western Conference

Vegas Golden Knights 4-2 San Jose Sharks

That’s it. I give up on understanding the Golden Knights. Marc Andre Fleury has decided that he’s good again and it’s really tweaking me off. These are the playoffs, Fleury is meant to collapse nowish (and I still think he may). But he’s really been the key for Vegas in making it this far. The team overall has played rather well, but if Fleury was playing “pretty well” instead of “really very good,” I think San Jose takes that series in a walk. Joe Thornton’s absence was extremely pronounced, but the key for San Jose was that Martin Jones was playing “okay” instead of “really very good.” Fleury is currently posting a save percentage above .950, which is completely absurd, and if he keeps it up, Vegas will be untouchable. Their top line continues to roll, and the depth chips in just enough to keep this team in the W column.

Winnipeg Jets 4-3 Nashville Predators

Once again in the Western Conference we see it really come down to goaltending. The Predators actually played pretty well, and Pekka Rinne had some pretty great games, too! But when he was off, oh boy was he off. Allowing two horrendous goals in the first ten minutes of game seven saw him get the hook, and it may have been one goal too late. It’s always tough to lay the blame in a full seven game series on one player, but it’s even tougher to figure out how else to apportion blame in this one. The Jets scored 4 or more goals in each of their wins, and 5 of the 7 games overall, which is just brutal in the NHL post-season. Nashville can play dominant hockey at times, but asking for 5 goals in the playoffs on a regular basis is eventually going to see a team dumped. Rinne’s inconsistency was a major story in the 2017 Stanley Cup Final, and it’s reared it’s ugly head once again. This is to take nothing away from Winnipeg, who look every bit the part of legitimate cup contenders, and still could probably have won even with Rinne playing much better, but I really have to say that he was the ultimate factor.

Eastern Conference

Tampa Bay Lightning 4-1 Boston Bruins

Every season there’s one or two teams like this year’s Lightning that start out hot, looking just about unbeatable before fading back into the more normal part of the standings. Theories abound about whether they’re tired or maybe feel bored after locking up a playoff spot in January. And if it’s the latter, questions abound as to whether they’ll be able to “turn it back on” in time for the playoffs. And folks, I think the Bolts have announced that they were bored. After a pair of 4-1 series wins, the Lightning appear to be clicking. Tampa hardly looked like they were breaking a sweat while dispatching the sexy pick to win the Eastern Conference without Steven Stamkos or Nikita Kucherov playing particularly well. People love to talk about how depth is what really wins Stanley Cups, and they typically mean third or fourth line players, but that Brayden Point line with Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson went face to face with the Bergeron line, often described as one of if not the best lines in the NHL and pretty well held them in check. Like Jersey, Tampa really just had to limit the damage that the Bruins top line would dish out and basically chew up everyone else. Much has also been made about the officiating in this series. Largely because it was complete garbage from the word go. But when a team fails to score an even strength goal for three straight games, it’s a bit silly to start looking the way of the officials for an excuse. There also seems to be relatively little attention paid to a decent chunk of bad calls that went against the Lightning, but that’s none of my business.

Washington Capitals 4-2 Pittsburgh Penguins

Wooooooowwwww they did it! They finally did it! Turns out, the key is to be literally forced to not have Tom Wilson, who is not a very good hockey player, playing on a line with Kuznetsov and Ovechkin, who are extremely good hockey players. After Wilson was suspended for 3 games for an illegal check to the head of Pittsburgh’s Zach Aston-Reese, all hell broke loose with extremely dumb people trying to defend Wilson. Not only for his indefensible and predatory hit, but also his image and abilities as a hockey player. Look folks, he got 35 points playing with the greatest goal scorer in the history of the game. You almost have to try to avoid scoring to keep totals that low. Matt Murray looked downright average for most of this series and Holtby, while not at his best, was still a key part of this win. I still can’t believe Barry Trotz, who’s name generally carries a lot of clout, put him on the bench in favor of Philipp Grubauer. Of course, this is the same guy with the Tom Wilson thing. Washington’s stars are on fire at the moment, but could use a bit of help from the guys further down the lineup. The Caps will be thankful that Nashville forced a game 7 to help them get a bit of rest and time to get refocused after such an emotional win.

Conference Finals Preview

Western Conference

The Vegas Golden Knights will take on the Winnipeg Jets for an opportunity to play for the Stanley Cup. And based on the retrospectives above, I’m sure you know where I’m about to head on this one. This series is at the feet of Marc Andre Fleury. If he keeps up his current level of play, or even approaches it, Vegas likely wins. But he is going to be tasked with a much tougher assignment than he’s had thus far. An impotent LA Kings offense, and a slightly top-heavy but much better San Jose Sharks really had very little to say to the Vegas netminder, but the Jets are a different animal altogether.

Fleury has been the story in these playoffs, but I don’t really think, at this day and age, against a team that has Mathieu Perrault on their third line we can expect the same production out of him as we had against “Jeff Carter and whoever else is on his line.”

Looking elsewhere, that Vegas top line with Marchessault, Smith, and Karlsson is clicking, but below that we see some pretty good players, some of whom have had borderline heroic stretches in Haula and Tuch, but not quite on the level of Perrault, or Little.

I’m not in love with either team’s blue line but I do think Winnipeg has the edge here. I’ll take Tyler Myers on my third pair way before I’d take Luca Sbisa. Winnipeg is absolutely going to need to feast on that third pairing every chance they get if they want to win.

In goal, Hellebuyck has been really good for the Jets, but they have not needed to completely lean on him to win games, which is good for a few reasons. First it keeps him from getting completely worn out, and second, it keeps the team insulated in case he sputters a bit. Winnipeg can weather that storm, I don’t think Vegas can.

And lastly, Winnipeg plays a similar style to the Knights. Not needing to impose something on the Knights is going to play in their favor. They can just go back and forth with Vegas and with a bit more scoring down the lineup, I think the Jets can hang with them.

I like Winnipeg in 7 largely because Fleury kind of has to regress even a little bit, right? No one can be that good in this league for this long.

Eastern Conference

Washington heads to Tampa to take on the number one seed in the Eastern Conference. Folks we have a lot of moving parts here. I think Tampa is the better team just about everywhere, but will want to make sure they either avoid penalty trouble or strengthen their penalty kill, because they did not look great for long stretches against Boston and Washington has that Ovechkin guy. Barring that, I have a tough time seeing Washington win this series. However we have to remember that this is the part of the playoffs where weird things really start happening. We don’t know who is trying to play with a bad muscle strain, or a fracture on the forearm, or a slew of other injuries which can make great players look bad. One thing we do know is that Nick Backstrom missed game six against Pittsburgh with an apparent hand injury. It was announced that he was likely to play, but wound up watching from the press box. What’s complicated here is the question as to whether or not he was actually expected to play for game six, or if there was a little headgame being played by coach Barry Trotz. And if he does play, how effective will he be? While I think Tampa wins either way, the difficulty of that road really can’t be determined unless we know how, or even if, Backstrom will play.

And what of their mental and emotional state? Clearly getting this monkey off their backs and getting over this hump means a great deal to them and their fans, and they ought to enjoy and celebrate it. But at a point does there creep in a sense of “mission accomplished” that could get them failing to start this series on time? My gut says no, these are professional hockey players, who do this for a living. But my head wonders if beating Pittsburgh was their “Cup.”

Tampa, for their part, made quick work of New Jersey and Boston on their way here, and looked the part of a future conference champion. While most of the games against Boston were close on the scoreboard, the possession stats and even eye-test told a story of one team pretty much imposing their will on the other. The Bolts have the star power and depth to control this series if they are at full strength and play smart. Tampa’s depth should do what it did against Boston. The Point line will likely be tasked with limiting what Ovechkin and Kuznetsov can do, while Stamkos and Kucherov will be deployed against Niskanen or Orpik whenever Cooper can possibly make it happen.

Ultimately, these are two good teams with a lot of star power up top, but I just don’t see Lars Eller and TJ Oshie outperforming Brayden Point and Ondrej Palat, and I’ll take McDonagh and Stralman over Niskanen and Orlov pretty much whenever. Give me the Bolts in 6, but if there are any lingering injuries down Tampa’s lineup, this could change fast.

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