The 2016 NHL playoffs are down to the final four teams. In the Eastern Conference finals the favored Pittsburgh Penguins will host the Tampa Bay Lightning starting with Game 1 on Friday night (8 pm ET). Over in the west, the St. Louis Blues will host the San Jose Sharks, with Game 1 of that series scheduled for Saturday.
The Lightning are a surprising conference finalist given that they have won two rounds of playoffs without their best player, Steven Stamkos. The prolific scorer has been out of commission for about five weeks now, and the timeline on his return is not clear. Regarding his injury, Stamkos claimed, “I’m going to be able to come back for sure…it’s just whether…it’s this year or I’m going to have to wait to the beginning of next season.”
Talk like that certainly doesn’t look great for an imminent return, yet the Lightning could very well need Stamkos to defeat the Penguins in the conference finals. Pittsburgh proved more in taking out the Cup favorites in the last round than what Tampa Bay has proven so far this post-season. In fact, the Lightning look like survivors of the weak part of the Eastern Conference playoff draw while Pittsburgh have survived the toughest part.
In the other conference, the finals are interesting in that they feature two teams; both have which have monkeys to shake off of their backs. The San Jose Sharks post-season woes are well documented, and they are a franchise known for failing to follow up regular season success with playoff success. Arguably they have bucked that rep a bit with the conference finals appearance, but making the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in franchise history would be huge for the Sharks.
The Blues, as a franchise, are very similar to the Sharks in that St. Louis have never been to the Stanley Cup Finals either. However in the case of the Blues, they’ve been around since 1967 while San Jose only date back to the early 1990s. One of these teams will relieve the frustration in its fan base. However, for the loser of the series, the frustration will continue for who knows how long.
The most talented skater remaining in the post-season is Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby, a player with 10 points in 11 games thus far. Pittsburgh also have the only goaltender remaining in the post-season that has actually won a Stanley Cup as an active contributor. Martin Jones of San Jose also has a Cup, but he was not active in the 2014 playoffs much as a member of the Kings. But Marc-Andre Fleury of Pittsburgh was between the pipes during the Pens’ 2009 Cup run, and that makes him the only goaltender alive in the post-season with experience winning everything as a regular starter.
However, his starting status is not clear given how well his back-up, Matt Murray, has played following the opportunity that arose early in the post-season. Mike Sullivan, the Head Coach of Pittsburgh, has a decision to make regarding who to play – Fleury or Murray. While that might seem like a big problem, in truth having two solid players to mull over for one position is the problem you want to have. According to a Sportsnet tweet from May 11th “#Penguins coach Mike Sullivan says they’re sticking with Matt Murray over Fleury, for now.”
When it comes to coaches, Sullivan is the only noob when it comes to the conference finals. Jon Cooper of Tampa Bay was in them last year while Peter DeBoer was in them with the New Jersey Devils in 2012. Both Cooper and DeBoer were successful in winning each of their former appearances in the conference finals.
However, Ken Hitchcock of the St. Louis Blues is the only Head Coach, still with a team skating this season, that has won the Stanley Cup before. It’s been a good long while since Hitchcock had the 1998/99 Dallas Stars, a team that was loaded with talent that included Brett Hull, Mike Modano, Derian Hatcher, Ed Belfour, Sergei Zubov, and Joe Nieuwendyk. However, Hitchcock does have experience winning it all, albeit with a much more talented team than the one he has now in my view.
As the start of the conference finals loom, they look like Pittsburgh’s to lose in the east and St. Louis’ to lose in the west. A Blues/Pens final certainly looks like a captivating one with Tampa Bay and San Jose looking to play spoilers.