Previewing Round 3 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs
The final four. It has been a wild ride of a first two rounds of the playoffs this year, with plenty more drama, intensity, and knowing how this year has been going, upsets still remaining. Here's who's still standing.
Eastern Conference Finals
The Matchup: Boston Bruins (107 PTS, 2nd in Atlantic) vs. Carolina Hurricanes (99 PTS, 4th in Metro - 1st Wild Card)
Season Series: Boston took two of three meetings (one in overtime), all of which were decided by less than two goals.
Recent Meetings: Carolina's last series win before this year was a 7-game round 2 victory over Boston in 2009, thanks to a Game 7 OT winner from Scott Walker.
The Last Time They Were Here: Each team was on a different side of sweep against the Penguins. Carolina was the sweepe back in 2009, while Boston was the sweeper en route to a 6 game finals loss to Chicago in 2013.
The Journey So Far: In a postseason that has been full of upsets, the Bruins are probably the favorite to win it all, which hasn't been a good spot to be in so far. There's a good chance they were picked to win the finals in April more than the rest of the conference finalists combined. They won another home Game 7 against Toronto in Round 1, then took down the lovable Blue Jackets in 6 games, overcoming a 2-1 series deficit in each round. The big boys have been there all playoffs wrong, both on the scoresheet and on the penalty sheet. In fact, top defenseman Charlie McAvoy is suspended for Game 1, and Brad Marchand probably should've been to at some point in these playoffs. Oh yeah, and Tuukka Rask (.938 save percentage), has been pretty good as well.
What a ride it has been for this lovable Bunch of Jerks. In the playoffs for the first time since 2009, the Canes have defied all expectations. They knocked off the defending champion Washington Capitals in a hard-fought 7-game series (with a double OT Game 7 to boot). But they made quick work of the Islanders in Round 2, allowing four goals the entire series en route to their first sweep in franchise history. There are questions about lacking star power and what do in goal with Petr Mrazek injured in Game 2 last round and Curtis McElhinney filling the void and then some. But Carolina has answered every doubt pretty well so far in these playoffs - what makes these any different?
Conn Smythe Watch:
BOS - If the Conn Smythe was awarded for dirtiest player in the playoffs, Brad Marchand would've had it locked up by round 1. Alas, it goes to the best player, which Marchand is also a contender for, leading the Bruins with 13 points in as many games. But it's hard to argue against Tuukka Rask, who has allowed just one goal in the Bruins two round clinching wins combined and been Boston's most consistent player.
CAR - It's pretty wide open for Carolina. Both goalies have played well when needed, four different forwards (Staal, Aho, Fogele, Teravainen) have recorded 9 points, and the team in general has played well as a unit. But these playoffs have been a coming out party for Jacob Slavin. Already a quality blueliner on a loaded Carolina backend, Slavin's 11 assists are right at the top of the playoff leaderboard. He's also averaged 26:36 time on ice per game, the most of any Hurricane and 5th most of any NHLer in these playoffs.
Who Needs It More: It has to feel a little bit like the Hurricanes are playing with house money. Not many people expected them to even make the playoffs, let alone get out of Round 1. But they are arguably the hottest team standing, having won eight of their last nine contests. They have won by scoring and by shutting down opponents. But based on market alone, this category belongs to the Bruins. Because who knows what would happen if Boston fans had to suffer without a championship for more than four long...months.
The Pick: Hurricanes in 7
Oddly Specific Prediction: The Bruins have been relying on Rask all postseason long, so for them to fall it's going to take a disappointing series (.905 save percentage or lower) for the B's to go down.
Western Conference Finals
The Matchup: San Jose Sharks (101 PTS, 2nd in Pacific) vs. St. Louis Blues (99 PTS, 3rd in Central)
Season Series: The teams traded 4-0 routs in their first two meetings; San Jose took the rubber match in overtime.
Recent Meetings: The Sharks won a battle of two Western Conference powerhouses looking to get over the hump back in 2016, knocking off the Blues in 6 en route to their first Stanley Cup Finals appearance in franchise history.
The Last Time They Were Here: See above.
The Journey So Far: After a 5-0 beatdown in Game 4 of the Western Conference Quaterfinals, the Sharks looked done. Down three games to one, they forced a Game 7, then pulled off one of the greatest comebacks ever to take down the Golden Knights. Their second series also went the distance, as the Sharks held off an upstart Avalanche squad in another home Game 7. Of course, this is a journey that began long before this season. They have made the playoffs 14 of the last 15 seasons, but this is just their fourth time in the Western Conference Finals. After so many splash moves and stacked squads falling short, is this finally the year Joe Thornton gets the ring he deserves?
Back in January, the Blues had roughly the same chance to make the conference finals as the Ottawa Senators. An eleven game winning streak and the call-up of Jordan Binnington gave them hope, and their core woke up down the stretch. St. Louis beat a talented Jets team in 6 games in Round 1, then pulled a hard fought series victory over the Stars, surviving the wizard magic of Ben Bishop to win Game 7 in double overtime. The Blues have been getting contributions up and down their lineup, though Binnington has merely been good in the playoffs thus far.
Conn Smythe Watch:
SJ - Being a team with great starpower and solid depth, it's no surprise there are quite a few names here. Logan Couture has quietly been one of the best playoff producers in recent memory, and he's continuing it this year. Tomas Hertl has scored several clutch goals and is on another level of confidence. Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson are producing as expecting. And after losing Game 4 in Round 1, only Tuukka Rask and Ben Bishop have a better save percentage than Jones (.928).
STL - There are a couple of players in consideration for St. Louis. Ryan O'Reilly continues to produce on both ends of the ice, scoring 9 points while recording the 4th highest time-on-ice of a forward. Jaden Schwartz leads the team with 8 goals, including a last minute winner and a hat trick in Round 1. But Alex Pietrangelo is probably the Blues favorite - he's tied for the team leading in scoring and is nearly top 10 in time on ice. The captain, once part of trade rumors a few months ago, has been huge all playoffs long.
Who Needs It More: San Jose, 100% percent. All due respect to the Blues, this is about the fifth last, best chance for the Sharks to win with their current core. Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton, Gustav Nyquist and Erik Karlsson are all UFAs in the summer. Timo Meier and Kevin LeBanc will be set for pay raises, and Logan Couture's new extension kicks in next year as well. If the Sharks are finally going to shed their label as playoff chokers and get over the hump, it feels like now, more than ever, is the time to do it.
The Pick: Sharks in 6
Oddly Specific Prediction: This series will be a battle, with at least three games going to overtime.