2018 Stanley Cup Conference Semifinals Preview

In some ways, this season’s first-round series felt quite anticlimactic. Sure, there was some intrigue, but on the whole, there wasn’t one team that you felt completely shocked about them advancing to the next round. I can promise you that this second round will be quite different.

Across the board are series full of tight matchups that makes predicting a winner from each of them that much harder. All I can say is don’t miss any one of them, no matter what the histories are between them are with one series versus the other. Not to be all John Madden over here, but once we know who makes the Conference Finals is where we get a clearer picture as to who may win the Stanley Cup. The eight teams left in the postseason are that bunched together and not that much separates them. Each of them has majors strengths and weaknesses where you can see the outcome go any other way.

Some teams eliminated from the first round will feel undone by not making it to the second round (sorry Toronto!) due to things outside of their control, but for the most part, we got the matchups that we wanted. Now it’s time to determine which teams are just a little better than the others.

Pittsburgh vs. Washington

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AP/Gene J. Puskar

With these two rivals (or “rivals” for all ‘burghers out there) going at it, you would think that this would be the most interesting matchup of the series. But what if I were to tell you that this was the most lopsided of the four. Even if we don’t take analytics into account, this is like watching a boxing or MMA rivalry for the third time after one of them has beaten the other twice. Are you really going to see this any other way other than the past winner coming on top again? Even in defeat, you would have to make excuses for the said winner from losing this time around. That’s just how sports and narratives work.

Speaking of narratives that will forever be missed, no one will remember that despite Pittsburgh winning the series in seven games last season, the Capitals out-attempted the snot out of them in every single game at even strength. Pittsburgh will forever be thankful that Braden Holtby had the worst postseason of his entire career for them to advance to the postseason. Afterwards, they faced a more-than-lucky Ottawa Senators team in the Conference Finals followed by a Pekka Rinne-turned-into-a-pumpkin Nashville side to win their second Stanley Cup. Oh, and let’s never forget the horrifying refereeing in Game 1 that essentially gave Pittsburgh the game and, in hindsight, the series over to them.

But that was then. This is now. And sour grapes and a horrific offseason has made this Capitals team worse, no matter how much that first round victory over Columbus has masked that. In the meantime, Pittsburgh has saved cap space by getting rid of Trevor Daley, Marc Andre-Fleury and Nick Bonino and replacing them with more playing time for Matt Murray, the eventual acquisition of Derick Brassard and extra salary to retain their young playoff heroes. Add in the fact that Kris Letang is back to full fitness and you have a significantly better Penguins team from an underlying numbers standpoint.

The only way this series goes Washington’s way is because the goaltending swings in their favor in a major way. For some dumb reason, there is potential for that to happen. Murray hasn’t really had the best of seasons and if it wasn’t for Guentzel going bonkers, he could have been the reason the Flyers series would have gone to a seventh game instead of six. It should be noted that all of Philadelphia’s wins were when Pittsburgh’s PDO was below 100: a marker the Penguins kept all regular season and the soul reason why they were not the best team in the Metropolitan Division the regular season.

Also, Evgeni Malkin and Carl Hagelin are out injured to start this series. While they were able to get away with injury-riddled rosters the past two years, can they really pull it off this time after 50 postseson games in three seasons. In the salary cap era, that is a lot of miles on many players’ tires and they will surely be pushed to their absolute limits, even if it doesn’t come from the Capitals.

If Washington does win this series for non-Holtby reasons, it will continue to be for the fact that Washington’s stars continue to play well. They simply can’t have their depth players be the lone reasons why they were playing well, and unlike this past series, Pittsburgh are a significantly better team on special teams. In other words, they will get swept if they play and produce like they did in the first two games of the series.

While Washington’s penalty kill has gotten much better since Jay Beagle has returned, Pittsburgh’s power play is at a whole another level. Along with that, any talent the Penguins possess in their bottom six forward groups just beat the tar out of whatever Columbus presented. Brassard has been that much of a terror to Washington during his days of Rangers past and I expect him to do the same in this series. That’s why I just don’t see the eternal narratives between these two teams change any time soon. Just always remember that narratives are always stupid and it takes one miniscule thing to change the course of history. Maybe the Caps can pull it off. I just use data only to prove that this will not be true this season.

Penguins in Six

Tampa Bay vs. Boston

Tuukka Rask

AP Photo/Charles Krupa

Welp, that seven-game series between Boston and Toronto was not boring. Just when you thought the Leafs were going to pull the unthinkable and come back from a 3-1 deficit, Boston simply turned spring into winter on them and made them fall and decay. It was as if you completely forgot if any Leafs player was able to securely touch the puck all third period. Now Toronto may feel like they’ve been hard done by by the 22-15 penalty disadvantage they had all series, but if Boston has your way with you when it comes to puck possession, how do you expect to look good in the referee’s favor? Also, how are you going to look good in the referee’s favor after Nazeem Kadri’s hit that led to him missing two games this series?

In the end, Boston was the better team through and through and now they have set up a date that is probably the most anticipated of them all. Until the All-Star break, the Tampa Bay Lightning looked like the most complete team in the entire NHL. But once goaltender Andre Vasilevsky showed signs of rust and fatigued the rest of the regular season, you wondered if the rest of the team were beginning to show their cracks. For now, they haven’t been completely exposed as they made light work against a New Jersey side that just wasn’t ready for this level of competition yet.

Nikita Kucherov is just an absolute joy to watch and he has already gotten off to a great start this postseason. Even though he is just 178 pounds, the dude goes through defenders down the middle in the exact way someone 30 pounds heavier would. Another player that plays the exact same way but with a bit more aborishness is Brad Marchand. While those two have been the best players on their teams over the past two seasons, their captains in Steven Stamkos and Patrice Bergeron are still the heartbeats that create the ethoses for their respective teams.

In defense, the depth across the board for these teams is incredible. While Boston can unleash Charlie McAvoy and Torey Krug from the point, Tampa can deliver solid two-way play from Victor Hedman, Anton Strallman and Ryan McDonagh. The key to the whole series, as it was for the Toronto series, will be how well Boston’s top line of Bergeron, Marchand and David Pastrnak plays this series. Even if they don’t generate points, their presence on the ice forces teams to have their game plan set squarely on them and thus, teammates like Jake DeBrusk and David Krejci able to cause havoc against weaker competition.

While Toronto just simply didn’t have the horses to shut down all four of Boston’s forward lines, Tampa does, but with the inclusion of Dan Girardi into the lineup continues to be an issue for head coach Jon Cooper that will rear its ugly head this series. Consider how in game five, Mikhail Sergachev was just running rings around New Jersey and yet has been only allowed to play 10:28 per night this postseason. I’ve said it all year that the former top-ten draft pick has been Tampa’s secret weapon that time and again doesn’t get to be used. If they don’t use him to the point where he is, at worst, Tampa’s fourth best defensemen and Boston takes advantage of Girardi’s lack of foot speed, this has to go down as one of the most unforgiveable decisions in Cooper’s tenure with the Lightning.

Like Barry Trotz’s situation, you only have so many opportunities to coach a great roster. You simply have to take advantage of it before time runs out. Boston has very little in the way of distractions and controversy this postseason and their PDO is about as healthy as it has been in the past four seasons. That’s why I am picking them in what surely will be one of the best chess matches of the postseason.

Bruins in Seven

Nashville vs. Winnipeg

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The Associated Press

So if Boston and Tampa was a game of chess, Nashville and Winnipeg might be a game of 500, dead or alive. These two teams have so much skill and class along the entirety of the rink that grind-it-out games are just not going to be an option for this series at all. Even if it were, I don’t expect a Peter Laviolette coached team to play that style. Nor do I expect an inexperienced but young and blissfuly ignorant Jets team to do the same.

While Boston and Tampa will be the series experts will crave at, you will miss something if you don’t think this Central Division showdown is the most fun of them all. If you think Patrick Laine is fun, Filip Forsberg has something to say about that. If you think P.K. Subban is the defenseman that makes their back end whole, come take a look at what Jacob Trouba brings to the table. You think Ryan Johansen, Viktor Arvidsson and Kevin Fiala bring some skill and speed to the equation, Blake Wheeler, Mark Schiefele and Nikolaj Ehlers will counter that offer. Lastly, the crowds at Bridgestone Arena and MTS Centre are just going to be nuts from a visual and audio standpoint all series long.

There is just so much talent across the board that it is really hard to decide who will win the series. Even the secret weapon lines bring some intrigue to the table. While Nashville’s second line of Fiala, Craig Smith and Kyle Turris generate strong offensive possessions while their top line handles the best of the best every night, Winnipeg’s third line could be the key to the whole series. In their first round matchup with Minnesota, Joel Armia, Adam Lowry and Brandon Tanev has been whiping the floor with any bottom six forward combination out there. While Nashville has the ability to match power for power, the last thing they want to be in is a battle of bottom six forwards.

Sure, Austin Watson and Colton Sissons have scored so many goals for the team in the postseason over the past two seasons, but that is after their top six causes all the damage. If anything, Laviolette prefers to hide them from any tough assignments and playing time due to the fact that they actually get shelled constantly in puck possession. Head coach Paul Maurice doesn’t have to worry about that problem at all with his Winnipeg side. He can roll as many lines as he want now that he no longer has the Paul Postma’s, Chris Stuart’s, Chris Thorburn’s or Anthony Peluso’s of the world. That is why I not only have Winnipeg winning this series, but I currently have them as my slim favorites to go all the way and win the Stanley Cup.

However, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Nashville coming through because they have been there and done that. If anything, both teams will come away with different points of view about themselves. If the Predators win, they will be the most mature side in the NHL not named Pittsburgh while Winnipeg has a little growing up to do. If Winnipeg wins, is this the beginning of the end of a great run for a Nashville side that can only do so much in such a tough division and with not the most cap room to work with while we see the start of a great dynasty in Manitoba? Either way, so many fates will be decided in this matchup and I just can’t wait for it any longer.

Jets in Seven

Vegas vs. San Jose

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AP Photo/John Locher

Lastly, we move on to one of the most anticlimactic of the bunch. That’s not really to do with the individual teams themselves as much as it has to do with the never ending problem with the Pacific Division as a whole. This was supposed to be the year that Edmonton took over for decades to come. Instead, Peter Chiarelli thought it was a good idea to trade Jordan Elerbe for Ryan Strome for no good reason, Milan Lucic aged terribly and the rest of the depth forwards and Cam Talbot turned to poo along the way. Now we have another aging team in San Jose for Vegas to feast on. I may sound jealous in terms of these two teams battling a possible free pass towards the Conference Finals, but I shouldn’t all that much. If anything, I just wish I would have more fun talking about these teams.

However, I do worry that this might become another defensive stalemate like we saw with Vegas’ first round matchup with Los Angeles. In short, it was simply Marc Andre-Fleury versus Jonathan Quick with the former winning by the slimmest of margins, even if it was a four-game sweep. The reason the Golden Knights took care of business in short order with the Kings was that they flat out dominated possession of the puck from start to finish. And while the Sharks didn’t really dominate the exact same way against Anaheim, they too took care of them in short order by showing who was the dominant team all along from an underlying numbers stand point.

Now that these two teams are well rested, there’s not many excuses left for them to come out firing on all cylinders since one does not have more or less energy than the other. The only one wildcard left on the table is whether Joe Thornton comes back from his knee injury during this series. Until then, it will be whatever lineups each team has used already and see what’s able to work the best.

Coming into this series, I do wonder if anyone not named Jonathan Marchessault, Rielly Smith or William Karlsson can step up for them from here on out. They were able to get away with not scoring a ton of goals in the first round, but their offense might need to come in handy now that they will be facing much more seasoned teams. From San Jose’s side, they have now shown that they can bring more to the table than just their star players on offense. Evander Kane seems like a new hockey player since wearing the Black and Teal and Timo Meier, Joonas Donskoi and Thomas Hertl are just adding to the arsenal that Joe Pavelski, Brent Burns and Logan Couture already deliver.

If San Jose’s depth can impose their will upon Fleury and Vegas’ defense, the Sharks might end up delivering an education as to what a Conference Finals hockey team looks like. Vegas’ stars have done an exceptional job carrying them this far into the postseason. I would just like to see skaters one through 18 deliver in a series that will pose massive difficulties for them. Considering how this regular season went, I wouldn’t be surprised if they pull this off and we see an expansion team pull the unthinkable. I’m just sticking with conventional for now until I’m completely proven otherwise.

Sharks in Six

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