I certainly had a better fate as a soothsayer in the second round as opposed to the first round with three correct predictions and only just failing with Nashville in a tough, thrilling 7 game series. As in the first round, some players and teams deserve a little more commemoration and some players and teams merit some criticism before moving on to third round predictions. So once again, before casting a predictions spell, I’ll briefly analyze what happened in the second round and list teams and players to whom significant consequences might befall.
Players Who Won Big
1. Matt Murray
Murray has given Pittsburgh the kind of steady goaltending that his predecessor and backup, Marc Andre Fleury has failed to give during the previous playoff years since Pittsburgh won the Stanley Cup in 2009. Pittsburgh could get swept by Tampa Bay in the coming round and yet all Murray has to do is keep the scores low and close and the starting goaltender job for next year will be his. He is Pittsburgh’s leading candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy.
2. Victor Hedman
On Tampa Bay’s side, Hedman has been proving his quality which made him a high number one pick by the Lightning. Despite the absence of two of Tampa Bay’s top players, Steve Stamkos and Anton Stralman, the Lightning have made it all the way to the third round. Hedman has been a leader in getting his team this far and along with goaltender Ben Bishop, is the Lightning’s leading player for the Conn Smythe Trophy.
3. T. J. Oshie
Despite Washington’s elimination, Oshie came up big for them against a quality opponent, Pittsburgh. Oshie’s contribution, to score, assist, and make key plays at critical times has been so sorely lacking during the Ovechkin era. Alas, it was still not enough to get choker Washington into the Conference Final. Forget Ovechkin, Washington should now be Oshie’s team, and the focus of management in the off season should be to build a contender around him.
4. Martin Jones
Once again Jones outplayed an established goaltender, Nashville’s steady Pekka Rinne, and finished the series in fine style with a convincing shutout. The Sharks should be over the hill, but thanks to Jones’s playoff-caliber goaltending, San Jose, like St. Louis is now in new territory, past the usual round 2 choke act. Jones, along with Pittsburgh’s Murray are the leading goaltenders for the Conn Smythe Trophy.
5. Joe Thornton
Like I said in my round 2 predictions, after all the years I’ve criticized severely Joe Thornton, he deserves a special pat on the back for his contributions in these two series in his old hockey age. He may not be the main man any more but he made significant contributions to San Jose’s two victories.
6. Logan Couture
Along with goaltender Jones, Couture is San Jose’s main contender for the Conn Smythe Trophy. He has been unstoppable in both playoff rounds and his offense, combined with Jones’s goaltending has put the Sharks in a round they have seldom visited. He is the main man for San Jose and the Sharks are his team now.
Players Who Lost Big
1. Brooks Orpik
In my second round predictions, I zeroed in on Alexander Ovechkin as the player with the most to lose if Washington was defeated, and as a sideline mentioned Orpik and Nicklas Backstrom as other players whose future in Washington was on the line. Washington got significant contributions from Ovechkin and Backstrom but three actions by Orpik contributed significantly to the Washington defeat. First he got himself suspended for three games just when his team needed him the most. And his suspension directly led to mistake number two, the insertion of Mike Weber into the lineup. Weber mishandled the puck leading to an overtime Pittsburgh goal and a 3-1 series lead. Finally Orpik high-sticked an opponent, drawing a double-minor during which Pittsburgh scored two goals. Orpik is now in his mid-thirties. His days as a Capital may be over.
2. Marc Andre Fleury
This may be the first and only time when a player who does not play in the playoffs is a big loser. As noted above, the steady play of Pittsburgh goaltender Matt Murray is making Fleury obsolete. His only hope is for Murray to be horrible against Tampa Bay or for Murray to get injured to remain in Pittsburgh. Actually Fleury has lost his position years earlier by his erratic goaltending in the playoffs since the Pittsburgh victory of 2009, particularly a horrible performance against underdog Philadelphia which may be the worst goaltending in an entire playoff round that I have ever seen. The goaltending job in Pittsburgh has been open for years and finally Murray has provided the playoff goaltending needed to grab the job from Fleury. Pittsburgh management will not continue to keep Fleury with his big contact and inferior playoff goaltending.
Players Under The Gun
1. Sidney Crosby-Evgeni Malkin
Crosby and Malkin were mostly silent during the Washington series, were outplayed by their direct rivals, Ovechkin and Backstrom… and Pittsburgh still won. But now they are not facing traditional choke team Washington, but their most dangerous Eastern Conference rival, Tampa Bay. During the playoff years since the 2009 Stanley Cup victory, Pittsburgh could usually blame erratic goaltender Marc Andre Fleury and overall bad defensive play for their defeats. But that excuse is gone thanks to the steady goaltending Matt Murray has given the Penguins. Crosby and Malkin cannot afford to be invisible against Tampa Bay, especially since the Lightning are without several key injured players, most notably Steve Stamkos. Tampa Bay do not have a habit of choking like Washington has. They have already ousted the Penguins in their only meeting during the Crosby-Malkin era. In the absence of Stamkos and other key Tampa Bay players, if Crosby and Malkin are not the difference, it will be difficult for Pittsburgh to win against the Lightning, not only now but also in future playoff meetings against Tampa Bay that are likely to occur frequently in the immediate future.
2. Brian Elliott
Elliott nearly gave the series away to Dallas and ended his career in St. Louis by playing a horrible first period on home ice in game 6. Fortunately he had a second chance in game 7 and redeemed himself. He cannot afford the luxury of occasional bad play if St. Louis wants to go even further than round 3. Now he will be facing one of the two newest goaltenders who are leading candidates for the Conn Smythe Trophy, San Jose’s Martin Jones. Jones has shown he can outplay top goaltenders Jonathan Quick and Pekka Rinne so Elliott cannot afford even one bad period. He has to rise to the occasion for St. Louis.
Teams That Won Big
1. St. Louis Blues
The Blues came close to being in the category Teams That Lost Big when goaltender Brian Elliott played like a bonehead on home ice in game 6, when he tried to hand the series to Dallas and let in three goals in the first period when Dallas got a grand total of seven shots. But instead of choking in the second round as usual, St Louis showed poise, desperation, and determination that has been so significantly lacking in too many round 2s to count and this time routed Dallas convincingly in Dallas’s own arena in game 7. Has St Louis finally got over the hump? First they eliminated one of the teams that traditionally eliminated them, defending Stanley Cup Champion Chicago and now Dallas, both in 7-game series thrillers. They are now in round 3, strange territory for them. How will they fare?
2. San Jose Sharks
They are supposed to be old and over-the-hill, but San Jose, like St. Louis is now in new territory after getting through round 2 where they usually choke against tough Nashville in a gritty 7-game series. Much of the credit should go to coach Peter DeBoer who took under-talented New Jersey all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals and has now got the supposedly washed up Sharks past the two rounds where they traditionally blow it. On the ice, the two main reasons for San Jose’s success have been forward Logan Couture and goaltender Martin Jones. Is San Jose the team of destiny? They will start to believe it after the victory over Nashville.
Teams That Lost Big
1. Washington Capitals
I’ve covered this in finer detail in its own article. Briefly I will repeat that Washington has never been to the Eastern Conference Final during the Ovechkin era and HAD to win this series to make whatever achievements that had occurred during the regular season count. I don’t care if Pittsburgh was a quality opponent and may well win the Stanley Cup, Ovechkin-Backstrom was supposed to be better then Crosby-Malkin at least 50% of the time. Actually Ovechkin and Backstrom, outplayed their two Pittsburgh rivals and even with the additional outstanding contribution from T. J. Oshie, it still was not enough. As noted above, Brooks Orpik played like a numskull and goaltender Braden Holtby failed to be a difference-maker. It won’t help that traditional second round choker Washington’s defeat will be contrasted with traditional second round choker St. Louis’s victory over Dallas and that the Blues also managed to finally eliminate the team they traditionally lose to, Chicago. And to rub salt into Washington’s wounds, fellow traditional round 2 choker San Jose also advanced. For now at least, St. Louis and San Jose may have finally got over their playoff humps while Washington remains behind its mound. What the Capitals do or do not do in the off season will be significant for the future of this team.
Eastern Conference Final
When Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin entered the NHL at the same time, it was prophesied that Pittsburgh-Washington would be the main rivalry in the Eastern Conference until the end of their careers. But that has proved to be a complete fizzle. Washington has not been Pittsburgh’s most dangerous opponent. It is now this team, the Lightning. They have already met once in the playoffs during the Crosby-Malkin era with Tampa Bay ousting the Penguins in an upset. This series should have been the best so far in the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs but it is marred by injuries to key Tampa Bay players, Steve Stamkos, Anton Stralman, and J. T. Brown. But Stralman and Brown wore full contact uniforms in practice recently so they may get into the lineup soon, and there is even a glimmer of hope that Stamkos may return if the series goes long enough. This is the kind of series Stamkos would have loved, a direct head-to-head confrontation with Crosby and Malkin to prove whose superstar team is the best in the conference if not the entire NHL. It would also be a chance to prove that he, not Ovechkin is their main Eastern Conference rival. That Tampa Bay has advanced this far convincingly without some of their key stars shows how good this team really is. Besides the forwards, there is the Victor Hedman-Kris Letang defense match-up and the duel between goaltenders Matt Murray and Ben Bishop. This series is not just for this year. This may be the first round of many Penguin-Lightning confrontations in the immediate future and the winner will acquire a psychological edge over his opponent in future meetings. If everyone had been healthy, I would have picked Tampa Bay to win a 7 game thriller, but because of the injuries, Pittsburgh should win in 6 or 5 games. But if the injured Tampa Bay players return and they are effective, it would not be an upset if the Lightning wins. All the pressure is on the Penguins in this series because of the Tampa Bay injuries. Because if the Penguins cannot beat Tampa Bay when they are significantly injured, how can they beat them in future meetings if Tampa Bay is healthy?
Western Conference Final
St. Louis-San Jose
This series could be termed “The Battle Of The Desperates” or “The Battle Of The Chokers”. After getting through the rounds where they traditionally choke, both teams probably think that they are the team of destiny. St. Louis has the home ice advantage but that meant nothing to the Sharks when they played Los Angeles. The Sharks also won the regular season meetings, 2-1. Coaching is pretty even with St. Louis’s Ken Hitchcock having won the Stanley Cup with Dallas, while San Jose’s Peter DeBoer has a history of taking underdog teams farther than they should go. So what are the factors which will make a difference? St. Louis has a better defense than San Jose and the home ice edge, but despite these advantages, I don’t think they are the key ones. I believe that San Jose goaltender Martin Jones is a better goaltender than suspect Brian Elliott and that no one so far has been able to shut down or match Logan Couture. Those two factors will carry San Jose to victory in 6 or 7 games though it would not be an upset if St. Louis wins. Either way this will be a bitter defeat for the losing team because both teams have waited so long to be a champion and they both have advanced farther in the playoffs than they usually do and want to grab an opportunity to win the Stanley Cup while they still can.