And then there were two. The Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning will face off in the Eastern Conference Final, while the St. Louis Blues tangle with the San Jose Sharks in the Western Conference Final.
Throughout this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs, I’ve opted not to take this prediction thing too seriously. No deep analysis into team and player matchups, advanced stats or injury reports. Now that we’re down to the Conference Finals, don’t expect me to change now. As always, these “predictions” are simply for fun and aren’t to be taken seriously, so don’t waste everyone’s time writing in to bitch about them.
In the Eastern Conference match-up, I like both teams. Ultimately, I think the Penguins have the better “made-for-TV-movie” narrative. After all, this was a club in turmoil in early-December, sitting outside the Eastern Conference playoff picture and in danger of falling completely out of contention. Sidney Crosby was off to the worst start of his NHL career. Phil Kessel, acquired during the summer, was struggling to score and their defensive play was simply horrible. GM Jim Rutherford was being scolded by critics (like me) for his seemingly misguided trades.
One mid-season coaching change later, the Pens rose phoenix-like to finish among the top-four clubs in the Eastern Conference standings. Crosby finished third in league scoring while Kessel meshed well with other trade acquisitions Nick Bonino and Carl Hagelin. Defenseman Trevor Daley, who struggled in Chicago, joins the Pens via trade and is reborn. 21-year-old rookie Matt Murray takes over in goal for a sidelined Marc-Andre Fleury down the stretch and plays like a seasoned pro. Call-up forwards Tom Kuhnhakel, Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust brought another level of swift-skating depth. The once-maligned Rutherford ends up looking like a genius. It’s like a cliched sports movie come to life.So I’m going with the Penguins.
In the Western Conference Final, it’s a clash of two teams still searching for their first Stanley Cup title.
The Blue are the only team of the remaining Original Six expansion clubs without a championship. The last time they went to the Cup Final was 1970 against the Big Bad Boston Bruins, when a flying Bobby Orr drove a dagger into their title hopes. Their last trip to the Conference Final was 2001, when Hall of Famers Chris Pronger and Al MacInnis patrolled their blueline and Roman Turek was seriously considered to be a starting goalie. They were no match for Joe Sakic, Patrick Roy, Ray Bourque and the rest of that Colorado Avalanche powerhouse that marched to the ’01 Stanley Cup, bowing out in five games.
Over the past decade, the Sharks garnered a reputation as playoff chokers. Their last Conference Final appearance came in 2011, when the once-mighty Vancouver Canucks dropped ’em in five games. Long-time Sharks stalwarts Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau are getting long in the tooth and this year could be their last chance to reach the Cup Final.
Looking at the two clubs, I’m feeling more of an emotional pull toward the Sharks. No offense to the Blues. They’ve been waiting a long, long time for a Cup title, but Thornton and Marleau need a shot at playing for a championship before their careers end.