No matter what happens in the Conference Finals, the 2016 Stanley Cup Final will have a first-time matchup. Here’s my predictions for the Conference Finals:
M2) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. A2) Tampa Bay Lightning
This will be the first time the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Tampa Bay Lightning will meet in a playoff series since the opening round of the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs. In that series, the Bolts took the Pens to the distance and won that series in seven games. The Penguins, literally the hottest team in the NHL since the All-Star break, has made it back to the Eastern Conference Final without their no. 1 goalie, Marc-Andre Fleury. Matt Murray has been the biggest surprise in the Playoffs so far. But what’s been more surprising than the performance of Murray, is the fact that the the Lightning, who are looking for a return trip to the Stanley Cup Final, have made it back to the Eastern Conference Final without their best defenseman (Anton Stralman) and their captain and leading scorer (Steven Stamkos). So, who do you chose here: do you ride the hot hand, or do you chose a team that has their players step up big when their biggest names are out?
Prediction: PIT in 7
C2) St. Louis Blues vs. P3) San Jose Sharks
Like the Eastern Conference Final, it has been a while since the St. Louis Blues and the San Jose Sharks met in a playoff series. It was the opening round of the 2012 playoffs, and the Blues easily dispatched the Sharks in five games that year before being ousted by the Kings in five games the next round. What do you have to say about these teams? In the last five years, the words “underachieving” and “overrated” were labels for both the Blues and Sharks wore when it came to playoff expectations. Not this time. The Blues took out two of the top teams in their division, let alone two of the best teams in the Western Conference, the Chicago Blackhawks and Dallas Stars, both in seven games to get to their first Western Conference Final since 2001. If you take a look at the Blues, on paper, they look like the most complete team left playing in the Playoffs. Physical play, along with an unshakable defense and the best goalie left in the field, makes you think that this is he team that could end a 49-year wait in the Gateway City. But look at the other side: Sharks fans have been waiting a quarter of a century for a team like this. Arguably, they have an established core, one of the best defensemen in the NHL, and a first-year starting goalie who already has a Stanley Cup ring from two years ago. These two teams aren’t lame-ducks. They earned they way here, but since the Sharks have been here more times than the Blues, I’d have to give the advantage to the Sharks in this series.
Prediction: SJ in 6