By Steve Silverman
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There’s no denying that there is a certain emptiness to the conference finals this year after the flameouts of the Rangers in the first round and the Islanders in the second round.
As the schedule reached the home stretch of the regular season, it seemed like both of these teams might be in a position to pull off what the Pittsburgh Penguins have actually accomplished this spring.
The Pens were matched up with the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Washington Capitals in the second round after overpowering the Rangers in five games in the opener. They dictated the pace against the Capitals throughout the series, and deservedly won the series in six games.
Mike Sullivan, a name very familiar to Rangers fans because of his stint as an assistant coach with the Blueshirts from 2009-2013, deserves quite a bit of credit. When he took over behind the Penguins’ bench this season, the Penguins were a tired, underachieving team filled with question marks.
Suddenly, they turned it on. The pundits tell us that the Penguins have suddenly turned on the speed, and that’s why they have been able to roll since early March. But that’s not the full story. They are playing well in all aspects of the game, including the board battles and the defensive aspects that eluded Sidney Crosby & Co. in the past.
Here’s one other factor working in the Penguins’ favor: Young goalie Matt Murray has been playing sensational hockey and has made the most of his opportunity. That means that No. 1 goalie Marc-Andre Fleury (concussion) has been on the bench.
Fleury has a lot of supporters, but his record in the Stanley Cup playoffs has been quite unsettling. Fleury had a four-year postseason run from 2010 to 2013 that ranged between awful and ordinary, and keeping Murray between the pipes may be the key to their Eastern Conference finals with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Fleury is healthy once again, so Sullivan will likely have a difficult decision on his hands throughout the series.
While it appeared the Islanders had a good chance to win the series after taking the opener in Tampa, the Lightning responded with back-to-back overtime wins in Brooklyn that ruined Jack Capuano’s team.
The Lightning have put together an 8-2 record in the postseason, and the feeling is that they have not truly been tested. Of course, they have been playing without Steven Stamkos (blood clot) and Anton Stralman (fractured fibula), and that speaks to their depth.
Stralman could be back for the series opener Friday night, and that would be a huge plus for the Lightning. This is a team that registered a Game 7 shutout win over the Rangers last year to keep them from getting to a second consecutive Stanley Cup Final, and the inspiration of losing in last year’s Final to the Blackhawks should be enough to allow them to turn this into a seven-game series.
However, as long as the Penguins don’t get ruined by the return of Fleury to the nets, they will come away with the series win and make it to the Stanley Cup Final.
Both of these teams have overcome substantial demons and years of disappointment to win two rounds of the playoffs, and the belief here is that the team that emerges from this series is going to have an excellent chance of winning the Stanley Cup for the first time in their history.
The Blues grew tremendously by beating the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks in the first round, and then won three out of four road games against the Dallas Stars to emerge from the second round.
The Blues have tremendous depth and a commitment to defense, and those two factors were the primary reasons they were able to outlast the Stars in seven games.
Vladimir Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz, Robby Fabbri and David Backes are all performing well in the postseason, but look for Troy Brouwer to step up at the key moments and score the most important goals.
The Sharks have long been thought of as significant chokers throughout their history, and they played in recent years as if they knew something awful would happen to them in the postseason every year.
That thought process played out until last year, when the Sharks didn’t even make the playoffs. That brought about the hiring of Peter DeBoer, and the Sharks have a new energy and optimism.
While they struggled at home during the regular season, they have been stellar at “the Shark Tank” in the postseason with a 5-1 record. They have received stellar performances from Brent Burns, Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski, and even noted playoff underachiever Joe Thornton has performed well.
Both teams are big, fast, physical and hot, and this should be a brilliant series.
Give a slight edge to the Blues because goalie Brian Elliott has been on top of his game throughout the playoffs, while Martin Jones has been just a shade behind for the Sharks.
There is a tendency to think about what might have been with the Rangers and Islanders, but both conference finals have compelling aspects that need to be appreciated by real hockey fans.
Follow Steve on Twitter at @ProFootballBoy