NHLN Playoff Notebook: Lightning advance, Sharks and Blues are on the brink

Updated: January 11, 2018 at 2:31 am by Cam Lewis

The Tampa Bay Lightning advance to the Conference Final for the second year in a row, even though the real Eastern Conference Final is technically being played right now between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals. On the other side, the St. Louis Blues have a chance to advance to the Western Conference Final for the first time since 2001, which gives a nice reminder of some goaltending issues they’ve dealt with in the past, and how that’s showing up right here for the Dallas Stars. And the Nashville Predators return home tonight for Game 6 with the San Jose Sharks, which means an automatic win, right? Since they’re at home?

Tampa Bay Lightning defeat New York Islanders, 4-1

The way the Tampa Bay Lightning are going so far in this playoffs without him, Steven Stamkos’ value in free agency might completely diminish! My column: 

Not actually, obviously, but the Lightning have looked excellent despite their captain’s absence, rolling through the Detroit Red Wings in five games in the first round, and then doing the same in the second round with the New York Islanders. Of course, it needs to be noted that due to the hilariousness of the NHL’s newish seeding format, the two teams they’ve played so far have been ranked eighth and fifth respectively, but still, they’ve looked like a team cut from a better cloth than their opponents so far. 

Game 5 on Sunday was a complete drumming at a glance, but when you look a little deeper, it kind of personifies exactly how this series went down overall. Throughout the series, the possession numbers have been relatively equal, with the Lightning owning a 53 to 47 edge in even strength Corsi For percentage, but where the Lightning gain an advantage is their ability to both generate high quality chances, and to also shut the Islanders down from doing the same. Like I said, this was again evident in the deciding game on Sunday afternoon, as the Islanders managed more shot attempts, but the Lightning managed 13 high danger chances while shutting New York down to  just six. And, just as you would expect, the score reflected that, and the Lightning won the game 4-0. 

The star of the series was most certainly Victor Hedman, who led the team with eight points (four goals and four assists) in just five games while averaging over 27 minutes of ice time per game. Also, Ben Bishop, though the Lightning defence did an excellent job making it not all that difficult for him, stopped 118 of the 128 shots he faced, and was basically unbeatable after a rough first game. 

Nikita Kucherov scored four goals in the series, bringing him up to a league-leading nine goals in 10 games. For the sake of comparison, Kucherov had 10 goals in 26 games in the playoffs last year, second on the team behind Tyler Johnson, who had 13, which is also the Lightning’s franchise record for most goals in a playoffs. I think we might see a new record holder soon. 

St. Louis Blues lead Dallas Stars, 3-2 

The St. Louis Blues are one win away from reaching the Western Conference Finals for the first time since the 2000-01 season. That was so long ago that Joel Quenneville was their head coach, Pierre Turgeon was their leading scorer, and Roman Turek was their starting goalie. 

Speaking of Roman Turek, remember the previous season, when the Blues rolled through the league, finished with a 51-19-11-1 record, and the fewest goals against in the league? That team was bounced in the first round in seven games by the San Jose Sharks. Why? Terrible goaltending. The Blues hammered the Sharks in each of those seven games, and Turek, who had been excellent all season, managed a save percentage of just .886. 

Where am I going with this history lesson? Well, the Blues are on the other side of it this year. Not to the same extent, of course, the Blues aren’t the 1999-00 San Jose Sharks, and there isn’t the same level of skill discrepancy between them and the Stars this year, but Dallas’ undoing in this series has been their goaltending. Not surprising at all, given that this has been the theme with them all year now, and it was their undoing last season, in which their inability to keep the puck out of the net kept them out of the playoffs. 

Of all the teams playing in the second round, the Stars own the biggest positive margin of difference in terms of possession numbers over the Blues at 53.4 to 46.6. While that margin doesn’t seem huge at all, the Stars are generating 54.4 per cent of the shots on goal, 55.1 per cent of the scoring chances, and 53.0 per cent of the high danger chances in this series. Despite all that, they’ve only generated 47.4 per cent of the goals scored at even strength. On Saturday, with the series tied 2-2 in Dallas, Kari Lehtonen laid an egg for the second time this series. Despite only facing 21 shots, he allowed three goals, while on the other side, Brian Elliott was phenomenal, stopping 27 of the 28 shots the Stars threw at him, including 15 from high danger areas. 

So yeah, it isn’t really anything new, but the Stars aren’t going to win this series unless their goaltending can be at least sort of good in these final two games. Oh yeah, and they’re missing this one other guy, too…

San Jose Sharks lead Nashville Predators, 3-2 

Judging by the way this series has gone, I would advise you to put all of your life savings on the Nashville Predators winning Game 6. I mean, both the Sharks and Preds are undefeated at home so far this series, so this is a pretty foolproof plan, right? 

But no, not actually. The home vs. away advantage in this series isn’t as much of a thing as it appears. The Sharks have been the better team in the series, in terms of possession, shots, scoring chances, and all that whether they’re at home or on the road. Of course, it hasn’t been by much, as this series is right there with the Capitals and Penguins for the tightest series of the second round, but still, the Predators aren’t magically getting a boost when they play in Nashville. 

The key in this series still ultimately comes down to special teams, as five of the Sharks’ 14 goals have come on the power play so far. So if Nashville wants to push this series further along, and possibly advance to the Conference Finals for the first time ever, they’re going to have to stay out of the penalty box. 

Pittsburgh Penguins lead Washington Capitals, 3-2

This series, which is basically the Eastern Conference Finals pushed up a few weeks for the hell of it, has easily been the tightest and most entertaining of the second round. Two games have been decided in overtime, two other games were decided by just one goal, and for the first time in the series, on Saturday, a team won by more than one goal. 

Since they aren’t playing today, I won’t go into too much detail, but this is a really difficult series to predict. Like I said, it’s been the tightest series so far, as both teams have scored 12 goals, as the Penguins have a very slight edge in shots at 167 to 163, so the difference really has come down to which team does a better job at not making terrible mistakes at inopportune times. 

Also, uh, this is really gonna mess with some narratives…


Three Stars 

3. Bruce Boudreau

After being unemployed for like 12 hours, Bruce Boudreau was quickly hired by the Minnesota Wild. I’m not really sure why the Ducks decided to move on from Boudreau, as the team saw massive improvements with him as their coach, but whatever, he was the most convenient scapegoat and that just makes things easiest to deal with, I guess. 

2. Ben Bishop 

Bishop was excellent save for one game in the second round series win over the Islanders, and he had his best game Sunday, stopping all 28 shots he faced. 

1. Victor Hedman 

I think this playoffs has been a nice introduction for people to Victor Hedman. Obviously everyone should know by now that he’s excellent, but he’s stepped up his game to a new level in the absence of Anton Stralman, and has played a key role in helping the Lightning bulldoze their way through the playoffs. On Sunday, he had two goals and a Corsi For percentage of 58.5 in over 27 minutes of ice time, which was arguably his best game of the series.