2016 Conference Finals Preview

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Jerome Miron/USA Today Sports

With last Friday beginning the Conference finals, you would think that the four best teams in the NHL are left in the postseason. If you are basing it off of the regular season standings, you are wrong because there is not a single division leader left. If you are looking at puck possession numbers, you’re getting a little closer. Pittsburgh’s second half has let them to into second place in total shot attempts for percentage, while the rest of the conference finalists finished sixth through eighth in the league in that same category.

When you look at those four teams in the playoffs, however, Tampa leads the pack with the sixth best score-adjusted puck possession. Meanwhile, San Jose, Pittsburgh and St. Louis are 10th, 11th and 13th in that same category, respectively. So what on earth is making them so good in these playoffs?! Luck, and lots of it. All four teams are the top four best in PDO. In other words, every shot on goal that needed to go in did and every one that had to be saved did for all four of these teams.

These are not your champions of recent years, where teams like Chicago, Los Angeles and Detroit have dominated in puck possession or had one statistical category stand out for them. Each team has had to face some traumatic adversity to get to where they are, but just note that this will be the weakest Stanley Cup champion, no matter what happens these playoffs. But hey, somebody’s gotta win this. Let’s look at who has the best shot of making it to the Stanley Cup Finals.

San Jose vs. St. Louis

No matter what happens, someone new is finally going to make the Stanley Cup Final. Will it be San Jose for the first time in their team history or will it be St. Louis for the first time since their days as an expansion team in the late 1960s and early 1970s? Either way, I hope to see plenty of emotion and some great hockey as both teams have had to deal with more adversity than the average fanbase could take.

The closer you look at the series and at the matchups, this could end up being one that could go down the wire. While all hockey fans will be talking about Brent Burns’ booming slapshot that has led to so many goals this season, nobody has talked about how great Marc Edouard-Vlasic and Justin Braun have been in shutting down their opposition’s best players. It has also helped that San Jose’s top six forward lines have been stellar as well, with Joonas Donskoi surprisingly being the team’s best puck possession forward. In fact, his line with Joel Ward and Logan Couture have been the team’s best forward line at 54.5-percent puck possession and limiting their opponents to only 48.3 shot attempts per hour this postseason. While Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski have been continuing to rack up goals and assists, both forwards have been getting plenty of defensive zone starts and facing the team’s best competition as well.

Meanwhile, St. Louis has plenty of forwards that know a thing or two in getting loads of defensive zone starts. While David Backes’ line with Alexander Steen and Patrick Berglund have been the team’s most used shutdown line, some of those assignments have also been given to the rest of their middle six forwards in Troy Brouwer, Robby Fabbri and Paul Stastny. With the Blues facing two angry offensive minded teams in Chicago and Dallas, will that really be necessary against an older Sharks team whose depth doesn’t really present that much in the way of goal generation. That being said, the Blues love to free up all their zone starts towards their top line of Vladimir Tarasenko, Jori Lehtera and Jaden Schwartz.

They will have to come up huge against San Jose’s top line or one of the shut down lines will have to start getting into the black in relative puck possession or else San Jose will end up getting the upper hand in this series. To go along with that, the matchup between San Jose’s power play and St. Louis’ penalty kill could end up being a fascinating one as both teams are among the best in the NHL in both shot attempt generation while a man up and shot attempt suppression while shorthanded, respectively, since the numbers have been recorded in the 2007-08 season.

At first, I thought the Blues were the much better team in the regular season and looked like they will continue to produce the same as they always have been in the postseason. Instead, Chicago and Dallas have could end up tiring them out, especially if Ken Hitchkock doesn’t give ample playing time to his fourth line like San Jose does. Along with that, the Sharks have been able to produce some strong results with only 11 postseason games under their belts. I could end up regretting this prediction horribly, but unless Brian Elliott continues to be the front runner for the Conn Smythe trophy, I just think all the matchups favor San Jose and we will finally see the bearded one, Joe Thornton, in a Stanley Cup Final.

Sharks in Seven

Pittsburgh vs. Tampa Bay

For those thinking I’m making a prediction after Game 1, here’s proof of why you are wrong.

Even if Tampa did win Game One, it looks like they are going to have to win the series without goaltender Ben Bishop, who may or may not have torn ligaments in his knee. To go along with that, they are still missing Steven Stamkos and Anton Stralman before the playoffs even started. Tampa has been fortunate to play two teams that have definitive weaknesses in their own right. For Detroit, it’s their slow evolution into being so poor on offense that the only way they could win hockey games is by being the New Jersey Devils. For the New York Islanders, everything had to run through John Tavares because injuries to Mikhail Grabovski and Anders Lee scrambled their middle six forward lines in the worst way possible.

For Pittsburgh, you can say that they haven’t been challenged either because both the Rangers and Capitals forgot what it was like to score goals, but Matt Murray has been incredible all postseason. That being said, the Penguins haven’t been able to play their best hockey yet as both opponents were able to out-shoot them in plenty of games during their respective series. However, Pittsburgh has been getting away with having Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel and Evgeni Malkin play on separate lines all postseason that it has forced their opponents not to key in one one star. As a result, unsung heroes like Nick Bonino have been able to produce on the scoresheet and Chris Kunitz has ended up being Pittsburgh’s best forward in terms of puck possesion.

With Tampa using seven defensemen, it could be possible to see Victor Hedman double shifting against more than one Pittsburgh forward line. He was potent in shutting down most of his opposition in Game 1 and he will have to do the same the rest of the series in order for the Lightning to win. For Pittsburgh, it will be important to see them shut down the Tyler Johnson-Nikita Kucherov-Alex Killorn line. If the Penguins were to achieve that goal, it will be important for Jonathan Drouin to continue to generate offense, along with Valteri Filppula and Ondrej Palat.

Unless Hedman becomes the front runner for the Conn Smythe trophy winner, I just don’t see Pittsburgh losing this series. Both teams can do a better job activating their defensemen on offense, but this is a battle to see which team has the best group of forwards. With Stamkos and even J.T. Brown out due to injury and Vladislav Namestnikov in a wasteland this postseason, I just prefer Pittsburgh’s forwards over Tampa’s.

Still: Penguins in Six

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