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.