We have all tasted a surprise ingredient or two through out the NHL Playoffs. The unpredictable is becoming the norm; the unprecedented is becoming the standard. It is the year of the underdog which has left this Head Chef without a kitchen to cook in.
You may have previously heard me on The Rob Dibble Show on 979 ESPN predicting a Nashville/Tampa Bay Finals. Neither one of those teams even made it out of the upset heavy 1st Round. I originally picked the San Jose Sharks to win it all from before the season started though all the way up to the playoffs. The play of Martin Jones in net left me unsure and weary of team teal's ability to win big games so I shied away from who I think has the most complete roster in the NHL. However, I stand by and own my updated predictions. This year the NHL Playoffs have been about one thing: parody.
It makes for an entertaining watch but it certainly raises the question about the playoff format. Personally, I believe in the current seeding formula for the NHL. I'm also not shy about having underdogs climb their way to a Conference Championship appearance. That has been the case for the Carolina Hurricanes, Ben Darnell's favorite team. The "Caniacs" have had a great run led by their Coach, Rod Brind'Amour. He has this young team playing with confidence and speed. A good stew will always have your daily dose of veggies. Not only do the vegetables provide a ton of flavor to a prized soup but it also gives the consumer strength. You need to be strong to handle the grind of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Brind'Amour played a physical, gritty style of hockey and has translated to him being a tremendous Head Coach. Think about what Carolina has had to overcome. Aside from the plethora of injuries that they faced in the post season, they had to defeat the defending champs in the opening round of the playoffs. From there they moved on to the best defensive team in hockey during the regular season. The Islanders let up the fewest number of goals and were coming off a 4-game sweep of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Carolina was UNFAZED. In New York, they took the Islanders to overtime and found the first and only goal of the Game 1 off the stick of grizzly vet Jordan Stall. The early series set up the stage for Carolina to sweep their way to the Eastern Conference Finals. While the core group of this team is very young, there is a lot verteran leadership mixed in and these guys know how to win. Stall has won a cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins; Teuvo Teravainen won a cup with the Blackhawks back in 2015; Nino Niederreiter, who was acquired near the trade deadline has over 50 playoff games logged; of course there's "Mr. Game 7" himself as Justin Williams has three cups, a Conn Smythe, and over 150 playoff games to his name.
This Carolina team is built to succeed at this time of the year as long as their talented youngsters continue to find the back of the net and Petr Mrazek continues his strong play in goal. The Hurricanes have won close games as well as high scoring affairs but they have their hands full in the Eastern Conference Finals with the Boston Bruins. Jon Gallo's favorite team (Gallo vs Darnell must make for an entertaining studio on the Rob Dibble Show) is also built to win. The Bruins claimed Game 1 in a fairly convincing fashion. Tukka Rask has been other-worldly this postseason. The team in front of him has certainly held up their end of the bargain as well. They have played with a chip on their shoulder all year long and that traditional Bruins style of hockey is really coming to fruition at the most important time of the year. The biggest thing for the B's is that they did not squander their opportunity. They had a chance to put the pesky Blue Jackets away in Game 6 and they did so even though they were playing on the road.
The name of the game in the Stanley Cup Finals is win when you can and we've seen a few examples of teams who failed to put their opponent away and it came back to cost them. Most notably, the Bruins 1st Round foe, the Toronto Maple Leafs. At home during Game 6, they could've sealed the deal and moved on to face Columbus but they failed to beat the B's and Boston made them pay in Game 7. If Boston continues to play physical, they will be able to negate the speed that Carolina brings and the Bruins should be able to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals. With that being said, ask the Capitals about sleeping on the Hurricanes. Boston has to continue to do what they have done and that is win the battles you are presented with. If they take a night or two off, the Caniacs led by Ben Darnell will really have something to cheer about.
As for the Western Conference Finals, I am not surprised at all by the Sharks. Martin Jones has certainly picked up his play for the big stage and has been great this postseason. The team in front of him is scary good from the blue-line to the guys up front. Logan Coutoure has certainly played his way in to the Conn Smythe discussion notching 14 points in 14 games. This team also has the "special cause" going for them. I get the feeling that this is a win-it-for-Joe kind of push. Joe Thornton, who was originally drafted by the Boston Bruins in '97, has played a lot of tremendous hockey. He's been in the postseason a ton, won all sorts of impressive accolades but the man has never been able to take a sip from Lord Stanley's Cup. Joe has been searching for the ultimate prize for a long time now and I don't think he has many more chances left. At the age of 39, his on-ice contributions have certainly dipped, only notching 6 points so far this postseason. He gives the Sharks the leadership in the locker room and on the bench. He also serves as a great motivator for his teammates because it would almost feel like a crime if Thornton's career ended without his name on the Cup. He has a tough road home because this St Louis Blues team is really good. At one point in the middle of the season, the Blues were dead-last in the NHL standings. They have since turned it around and largely in part due to their sensational rookie netminder, Jordan Binnington. "Winnington" is what they call him because all he does is win. I thought the pressure of the playoffs would affect his play but, if anything, he might be sharper now than he was in the regular season. The biggest threat St. Louis brings is their depth along the blue-line. St. Louis' D-core is lead by team captain Alex Pietrangelo and he sets the tone for this team.
Starting the year off terribly, Pietrangelo pulled a complete 180 and returned to vintage form. He has carried his good play into the playoffs and has already logged 11 points in 13 games. He's a big-body presence that defines this Blues team. They won't impress you with their skill or any particular part of their game. They will play a physical, draining style of hockey in their own zone and are not shy about collecting garbage goals in front. They have the star power to hang with skill of the Sharks but can also match their hits and blocks with solid depth through the 3rd and 4th lines. Game 1 of the series starts tonight and I fully expect this to be a seven game series. Both teams are great and it's well past the time to throw out the notion that Binnington is too young to handle the pressure of the playoffs. Youth is taking off in the sport and you can see evidence of that across all of the final four teams that remain. It should be a great Conference Finals for both the East and the West. Not that I have been relevant in the prediction game but I see a San Jose/Boston Stanley Cup Finals with Jumbo Joe beating the team that drafted him to collect his first Cup!
No matter what the outcome, sit back, grab a bowl of piping hot Puck Drop Stew and enjoy the rest of the Stanley Cup Playoffs just as I have through the first two rounds!