The 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs are setting up to have few rivals as far as unpredictability and tight match-ups.
Both series in the Western Conference reached Game 7s, with St. Louis becoming the third team this postseason to clinch a series in a decisive seventh game in overtime. San Jose, playing in its second Game 7 of the playoffs, was the beneficiary of another big call: a coach’s challenge that overturned Colorado’s apparent game-tying goal in the second period.
In the East, Boston needed every ounce of offense it could muster, as well as stellar goaltending from Tuukka Rask, to overcome upstart Columbus. Carolina methodically drained the will from the favored New York Islanders. For my part, I predicted three of the four series winners, with my only miss being a decisive pick of the Islanders. The conference finals now feature the remaining de facto favorite Bruins (making their first trip to the final four since 2013), the upstart Hurricanes (in the playoffs for the first time in a decade), plus a rematch of the 2016 Western Conference Finals pitting two veteran squads in San Jose and St. Louis.
Eastern Conference Finals
Boston Bruins (First Round: Defeated Toronto 4-3; Second Round: Defeated Columbus 4-2) vs. Carolina Hurricanes (First Round: Defeated Washington 4-3; Second Round: Defeated New York 4-0)
After surviving its seven-game series against a young Toronto team, Boston ran into a wall named Sergei Bobrovsky and the Columbus defense. The Bruins turned their second-round series in Game 4, when they finally dented Bobrovsky, and got their big line of Brad Marchand (team-leading 13 points), Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak going. Boston’s top goal-scorer Pastrnak (team-leading six goals), was especially noticeable late in the series. Though Boston ultimately knocked off Columbus in six games, the margin of the series was extremely tight. The Bruins’ success hinged on the superb play of Rask (8-5-0, 2.02 goals-against average, .938 save percentage), who turned in his best efforts in the series-turning Game 4 and the clinching Game 6. The Bruins’ defense, led by ageless captain Zdeno Chara and up-and-coming star Charlie McAvoy (who will miss Game 1 due to a suspension), is also playing great. Torey Krug is shining in a two-way role, while Brandon Carlo and Matt Grzelcyk are both having great playoffs on the Bruins’ blue line.
For the past few years Carolina pushed up at the playoff ceiling as one of the NHL’s emerging teams, only to be held back by subpar goaltending. In 2018-19, the Hurricanes were able to finally address that issue through the combination of Petr Mrazek (5-3-0, 2.22 GAA, .913 SP) and backup Curtis McElhinney. Both were terrific in the second round. They allowed just one goal in the crucial first two games in Brooklyn, propelling Carolina to a surprising sweep of the Islanders. Though McElhinney went undefeated in his three appearances, Mrazek looks to be good to go for the third round and Carolina should turn to him in Game 1 against Boston. The other dominating factor for the Hurricanes is their defense. Their top six, among the NHL’s best, stymied the Islanders at every turn. Jaccob Slavin (team-leading 11 points) was a beast against the Islanders, as were Justin Faulk, Brett Pesce and Dougie Hamilton. Up front Carolina lacks elite goal-scorers, even big names. They’ve thrived with a solid combination of young emerging talent like Teuvo Teravainen (team-leading six goals) and Sebastian Aho, as well as Stanley Cup-winning veterans Jordan Staal and Justin Williams, the team captain.
Though Carolina is the darling of the 2019 playoffs, the Hurricanes will likely hit a roadblock against a battle-tested Bruins squad that ousted two of the NHL’s best teams in Toronto and Tampa Bay. I’d argue that either the Bruins or Blue Jackets would be heavy favorites over Carolina or New York. Despite Carolina’s decisive victory in Round 2, nothing I’ve seen has changed that opinion. Therefore, I expect Boston’s advantages in goal and on offense to give the Bruins a clear edge in a five-game series.
Western Conference Finals
San Jose Sharks (First Round: Defeated Vegas 4-3; Second Round: Defeated Colorado 4-3) vs. St. Louis Blues (First Round: Defeated Winnipeg 4-2; Second Round: Defeated Dallas 4-3)
The return of captain Joe Pavelski, plus the deepest roster remaining in the playoffs, keyed San Jose’s clinching Game 7 victory over Colorado. The young Avalanche, a dangerous future Stanley Cup contender, pushed the Sharks throughout the series and were terrific on their home ice.
San Jose bent throughout the series. It had just enough defense, plus a surprisingly dependable Martin Jones (8-5-0, 2.72 GAA, .910 SP), to survive Colorado’s onslaught. San Jose showed plenty of offense against the Avs. Its best players — especially Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl and Brent Burns (each team-leading 14 points) — are playing very well. The Sharks’ depth forwards — Timo Meier, Gustav Nyquist, Evander Kane and Kevin LaBanc — also had big performances. So did 39-year-old Joe Thornton.
After dispatching an excellent Winnipeg squad in round one, St. Louis got all it could handle from the Dallas Stars. The Stars and Blues, two of the NHL’s hottest teams in the second half, dueled in a tight, defensive-first series. St. Louis’ slight offensive depth advantage, as well as their slight size advantage, overcame Dallas’ edge in goal. That was the tiny margin that propelled the Blues into the third round. Though the Stars’ Ben Bishop was the better goalie, Jordan Binnington (8-5-0, 2.39 GAA, .915 SP) continues to play well in net. The defense in front of him, led by Alex Pietrangelo (team-leading 11 points) and Colton Parayko, have been excellent throughout the playoffs. Jaden Schwartz (team-leading eight goals) has been monster up front and he’s getting plenty of help from Ryan O’Reilly, Tyler Bozak and David Perron. Game 7 hero Patrick Maroon played huge against the Stars. Vladimir Tarasenko isn’t clicking on all cylinders, and that’s the only thing St. Louis is missing. The star forward has just one goal in his last six games.
San Jose and St. Louis should be a classic series between two veteran squads, each with plenty of mostly painful playoff history. Neither team has won a Stanley Cup. Both squads must realize that with so many other favorites already eliminated, this year might be their best shot. Though these are very different teams the margins should be very close, resulting in tight games that will favor St. Louis. Yet unlike Dallas, San Jose can handle the Blues’ size and strength. The Sharks have a big advantage as far as offensive depth. I believe that edge will propel San Jose to a seven-game series victory.
Stanley Cup Finals Prediction
Boston over San Jose in seven games.