2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs – Round 3 Preview – Eastern Conference Final
I’ll refrain from commenting on the debacle that was Game 7 between the Blues and Stars until tomorrow, when I post the Western Conference Finals preview. The two second round NHL match-ups in the east were very entertaining and close. It’s all you could really hope for, except neither went to seven games. The Lighting and Penguins should be a great series between two fairly evenly matched teams.
M2 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. A2 Tampa Bay Lightning
Season Series: 3-0 Lightning, the last meeting was in February before the Penguins were rolling
Playoff Series History: 1-0 Lightning, in seven games after being down 3-1
What We Learned: The Penguins are a very skilled and balanced team, up front anyway, who have found a stud goalie. The Lightning just keep on rolling, and winning short series, regardless of what stands in their way.
Stars to Watch: Scoring depth is something these two teams have. The Penguins are slightly deeper but the Lighting were more balanced against the Islanders. Nikita Kucherov and Tyler Johnson lead the way for the Lightning with Victor Hedman and Alex Killorn right behind them. Jonathan Drouin has emerged to be quiet a passer, especially on the powerplay. Still waiting for Ondrej Palat to get going and for Ryan Callahan to do anything. For the Penguins, Phil Kessel and Nick Bonino were huge against the Capitals. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are always two players to watch. Patric Hornqvist and Carl Hagelin are also playing decent. Chris Kuntiz is currently 12th in playoff scoring for the Penguins so that tells you all you need to know about how deep they are right now.
X-Factor: Crosby and Malkin only had two points each against the Capitals. They were barely noticeable. While it’s good that the Penguins were able to win without them doing much, you really need your best players to shine in key games and the further in the playoffs you go. I don’t think they can beat the Lightning if they both continue to struggle. I also worry about the Penguins defense. Their penalties and clearing blunders would probably have doomed them if not for Brooks Orpik and the Capitals just being the Capitals. Olli Maatta has been a disappointment so far and Kris Letang is a loose cannon. The rest of the Penguins defense is unnoticeable. This should be a concern because the Rangers don’t have any talent and the Capitals are the Capitals. I thought the Capitals had turn the corner this year, silly me. The Lightning are not either of those teams. That’s a problem for the Penguins. For the Lightning, they really are just firing on all cylinders. They wouldn’t be able to sustain another injury though. If Anton Stralman or Steven Stamkos could return, that would be huge.
Goalie Problem: Well Matt Murray ended up being another in a long line of hot goalies the Capitals seem to run into. Which enabled the Penguins to steal a game or two from the Capitals. Murray will probably do the same here as well but he seems more beatable lately and he can’t bail the defense out all the time. As with most goalies, high and in the corner is his weakness. The Lighting have skilled shooters so they will exploit those areas. As for Ben Bishop, he quietly posted better numbers than Murray. He also has more experience and is larger in net. He’s still prone to his usual head scratching plays, something Murray doesn’t really do.
Fun Fact: The Lightning have made the playoffs nine times and are playing in their fourth conference finals. The Penguins are playing in their eighth. The last one was that epic debacle against the Bruins, were they were swept. I called they would be annihilated and they were.
Prediction: As mentioned before, this is the most talented Penguins team in some time. There’s also something very wrong with it. I can’t put my finger on it but they just seem off. The fact that they couldn’t close out the series in Game 5 and then basically gave away Game 6, before winning in overtime, doesn’t help their case. Now you have them up against a Lightning team who made it to the Stanley Cup Finals last season and, despite missing two good key players, has only lost two games so far in the playoffs. Unless Bishop has a meltdown, which is possible, I’m going to have to go with the Lightning in seven.