The margins are only 2-1, but the Bolts and Blues seem on the ropes already. Can they battle back to win their series?
Unstoppable force meets immovable object. Wasn’t that supposed to be the theme for both conference final matchups in these playoffs?
The Tampa Bay Lightning and Pittsburgh Penguins looked dead even on paper in the East. The Bolts lost just twice in their first two rounds, they boasted the best goalie left in the playoffs in Ben Bishop, Jonathan Drouin was breaking out as a playmaker, and Nikita Kucherov’s nine goals in 10 games eased the sting of losing Steven Stamkos to a blood clot. The Penguins, meanwhile, overwhelmed the first-place Washington Capitals with their speed, topping them in Round 2, and Sidney Crosby and Co. suddenly looked like serious Stanley Cup contenders. Two blindingly quick offensive squads, both of which had received great goaltending, going head to head. Seven games seemed destined.
On the West side of the bracket: the exorcist teams, the San Jose Sharks and St. Louis Blues, both of which cast out their choker demons in Round 1 by collectively knocking off the only teams to win the Stanley Cup since 2011, the Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks. The Sharks and Blues had seven-game wars in their divisional final matchups, both advanced, and both oozed monkey-off-the-back swagger entering the final four. Again, this series looked like a seven-gamer on paper.
And while each series only sits at 2-1, nowhere near over, they sure don’t feel close, do they?
The ice has been chiselled into a ramp-like surface in the Lightning/Penguins series, with the latter skating downhill the entire time. Pittsburgh has outshot Tampa Bay 35-20, 41-20 and 48-28 in the three games, good for a 124-68 margin. The Pens have had the shots advantage in eight of 10 periods, including 3-0 in Game 2’s overtime, with one period tied in shots and one period in which the Bolts had the edge. If you’re an analytics advocate, look away. Pittsburgh’s Corsi margins have been 70-41, 69-44 and 78-50. The series really should be 3-0, but Andrei Vasilevskiy stole Game 1 after replacing injured Bishop.
The Blues, meanwhile, won Game 1 at home but have since been shut out in back to back games, which has never happened over their 40 playoff campaigns. They seemingly have no answer for the star power of Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski and Brent Burns.
So what gives? It might seem silly to write off the Bolts and Blues so quickly, but the sentiment is out there. In the past 24 hours I’ve been asked, “Will the Lightning/Penguins series be over in a hurry?” and “Will the Blues fire ‘Hitch if they bomb out 4-1”? So let’s investigate how – and if – the trailing teams might climb back into their series.
What’s wrong with the Lightning?
The Bolts are getting beaten at their own game. They relied on relentless pressure and a dominant edge in shot attempts all season, ranking sixth in 5-on-5 score-adjusted Corsi percentage, consistent with their strengths when they reached the Stanley Cup final a year ago. Tampa Bay is fast and deep at forward. If Kucherov isn’t gonna get you, Tyler Johnson is, or Ondrej Palat is, or Alex Killorn is, or Jonathan Drouin, and so on.
The problem is: the Penguins play the same style, and they’ve done it better than any team in the Eastern Conference since Mike Sullivan took over the head-coaching reins in December. Only the L.A. Kings have posted more dominant possession margins in the New Year. Pittsburgh rolls wave after wave of attacking forwards and, like Tampa Bay, relies on depth. Unfortunately for the Bolts right now, the Pens’ depth trumps theirs. A third unit of Cedric Paquette, Brian Boyle and Ryan Callahan is perfectly solid but doesn’t hold a candle to ‘HBK’: Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel, which hasn’t just been the best third line in the post-season – it’s been among the best lines, period. Even if we concede HBK has become the Pens’ de facto second line: fine, then Evgeni Malkin is your third-line center. It’s only a matter of time before he busts out of his slump, just as Sidney Crosby has. Sid the Kid went eight games without a goal and didn’t score once in the Washington series but has started positioning himself in the slot and playing a goal-scorer role instead of feeding his teammates. It’s worked, as he’s scored two goals, both game winners, in his past two games.
Just as Pittsburgh overwhelmed Washington’s big, sometimes plodding defense corps with pure wheels, Tampa’s D-men are having trouble keeping up. No disrespect to guys like Braydon Coburn and Jason Garrison, as they move pretty well, but they just don’t have the speed to win races against greyhounds such as Hagelin, Kessel and Crosby. Even stud Lightning blueliner Victor Hedman got dusted by Kessel in a foot race at one point in Game 3. On the other side of the ice, while Pittsburgh’s defense corps isn’t perfectly well rounded, it’s mobile and offensively aggressive, which suits Sullivan’s system. The Kris Letang and Trevor Daley and Justin Schultz types can keep pace with the Lightning’s fast forwards, too.
How can the Lightning recover?
It’s a bad harbinger for the Bolts right now when “getting healthy” is the best way back into this series. Anton Stralman should continue to find his legs as he works his way back from a fractured fibula, and few if any D-pairings in the league can match his and Hedman’s effectiveness when they’re at their peak. The best way Tampa can match Pittsburgh’s forward depth is, sorry, by having Steven Stamkos return to the lineup. A healthy Stamkos completely changes the dynamic of Tampa’s roster. A Stamkos-Drouin line and the Triplets playing on their own unit like the days of old? Scary. And, lastly, Tampa desperately needs Ben Bishop back in the crease. The Bolts are 9-2 in games he’s started. Vasilevskiy is an excellent young goalie, but he’s just 21, and he visibly unravelled during Pittsburgh’s onslaught in Game 3. Tampa’s body language sagged along with his.
Stamkos isn’t close to returning, as much as he keeps teasing like he is when asked during media scrums. Ben Bishop won’t play in Game 4. Help isn’t on the way yet. The Bolts’ forecast thus looks grim. Their opponent does what they do best, only better, and they’re lucky to even trail 2-1 in this series. In other words, the guess here is Tampa cannot win this series.
What’s wrong with the Blues?
It appears the Blues’ regular season warts have suddenly surfaced against the Sharks. St. Louis, despite a stacked and talented roster, ranked just 15th in goals per game in 2015-16. Vladimir Tarasenko sniped 40 goals, but no other Blue topped 21, albeit partially because of injuries to Jaden Schwartz and Alexander Steen. Tarasenko hasn’t scored yet in the Sharks series and has just one goal in his past six playoff games. He’s been called out by coach Ken Hitchcock for shrinking when the going gets tough deep in the post-season. And maybe the fact Tarasenko became a father three days ago is (justifiably) distracting him? The Blues don’t have a reliable high-end secondary sniper. They have plenty of good contributors, including Steen, Schwartz, Robby Fabbri and Paul Stastny, but that core isn’t in San Jose’s ballpark. Fabbri and Schwartz may be one day.
The Sharks had three players, Thornton, Pavelski and Burns, top 70 points in the regular season. They had two of the NHL’s top eight scorers, three of the top 11 and the No. 2 scorer among defensemen in Burns. In the playoffs: the NHL’s top three scorers are Sharks. And it’s a testament to their depth that one of them isn’t even one of their elite regular-season performers. It’s Logan Couture, whose 20 points lead the entire playoffs. San Jose’s power play sparkled at 22.5 percent in the regular season and has somehow improved to 28.8 percent in the playoffs. The Sharks punish penalties. Burns buried two power play goals in a Game 2 victory.
San Jose’s star power continues to overshadow St. Louis. To boot, Hitchcock hooked Brian Elliott for the second time in his past five starts. Sharks goalie Martin Jones hasn’t been the busiest guy in the world and probably hasn’t stolen a single game in these playoffs, but he hasn’t had to. The team in front of him has been good enough. And what matters is he’s bested Elliott.
How can the Blues recover?
The Blues have a better chance than Tampa to recover, in my opinion. St. Louis has home-ice advantage, whereas Tampa does not. St. Louis has no significant injuries, so it merely needs its best players to be its best players. Tarasenko is streaky and could get back on track at any moment. If only Hitchcock was willing to trust his big shooter with more ice time, Tarasenko might get going. Tarasenko’s 18:00 per game puts him 53rd among forwards in the post-season. For perspective: Minnesota Wild checking center Erik Haula averaged 18:15 in the first round. The Blues need their top gun, flawed as his defensive game may be, on the ice as much as possible if they want to solve Jones, a solid stopper but a relatively untested one who has faced fewer than 30 shots in 12 of his 16 career shutouts.
Hitchcock will reportedly sleep in his Game 4 goalie, but there’s still reason to have faith in Elliott over Jake Allen. Elliott has bounced back repeatedly from poor performances. He allowed five goals to Chicago in Game 6 of Round 1 and delivered in Game 7. He shut the door on Dallas in Game 7 after being pulled in Game 6. And if Hitch tries Allen, there are benefits to that idea, too. Allen handles the puck much better and might be able to spark the Blues’ attack better (that sounds like a joke now that I write it. But you know what I mean).
So I wouldn’t count St. Louis out quite as quickly as I would Tampa Bay. The Blues remain a full-strength team capable of matching San Jose’s physicality, and a Game 4 win would tie the series going back to the Show Me State. Still, star power was always going to be an advantage for the Sharks, and they continue to flex it. I don’t see them losing this series.
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin