Conference Final Observations

Joe Pavelski

Joe Pavelski celebrates a goal in the Sharks’ 6-3 win over the Blues in Game Five of the Western Conference Final. He leads all players with 12 goals this postseason and has San Jose a win away from its first ever Stanley Cup Final. AP Photo by Jeff Roberson/Getty Images

With a long summer ahead in the Big Apple for the area locals, the NHL Playoffs are wrapping up. The Conference Finals are almost complete. We could know in the next couple of days who will be playing for the Stanley Cup.

Joe Pavelski’s two goals including a unreal tip for the game-winner has the Sharks a win away from their first ever Stanley Cup Final. The San Jose captain scored a game-tying power play goal late in the second on a great feed from Joe Thornton. He then redirected a Brent Burns point shot past St. Louis starter Jake Allen less than 20 seconds into the third- leading the Sharks to a 6-3 win over the Blues in Game Five of the Western Conference Final.

San Jose has never been this close before. They’ve played in the Conference Final round before but never had success. In a unpredictable series against another Cup starved city, they will go back to Shark Tank with a chance to clinch tomorrow night.

For the Blues, they couldn’t repeat a strong Game Four performance in which they got to Martin Jones, chasing him from the net in a 6-3 win to tie the series. They blew two one-goal leads Monday night. Despite continued brilliance from rookie Robby Fabbri and timely scoring from vet Troy Brouwer, it wasn’t enough against a resilient Sharks, who bounced back from a miserable Game Four. Their relentlessness resulted in Logan Couture getting the puck to Thornton behind the net. Like Wayne Gretzky, that’s his office. He easily found a wide open Pavelski for a one-time finish past an out of position Allen, who was in for Brian Elliott for a second straight game. Then some Pavelski hand eye coordination at the sixteen second mark of the third was enough to hold up.

San Jose did a masterful job in the second half of the final period shutting down the neutral zone. They made Jones’ job easier by allowing him to see the shots. He stopped all seven to earn the win after getting replaced by James Reimer last game. It was the Sharks’ attention to detail that limited the Blues, frustrating their players and fans who were hoping they would be one step closer. So relentless were the Sharks that they pinned the Blues in in the final minute with rookie Chris Tierney scoring into an open net on a wrap around from Thornton. Joel Ward added his second of the game for the final margin.

Can the Blues go into San Jose and win? Sure. They have enough grit and experience to get it done. David Backes has had a great postseason. The captain has been on the score sheet and led by example. He’s scored clutch goals and delivered crunching hits. No doubt he’ll be a hot commodity this summer. If there’s been a disappointment, it’s been Vladimir Tarasenko. The 40-goalscorer has not scored in the series and has been held to just two assists. The Blues can’t win without him. He performed in the first two rounds scoring seven goals. If he doesn’t figure it out soon, St. Louis could be done.

A final thought on the Blues. After going to Allen and seeing his team respond, will vet coach Ken Hitchcock go back to Elliott for tomorrow’s elimination game? He was the guy all postseason before Allen started Game Four. Maybe he should get Elliott back in. We’ll see.

Meanwhile, the Eastern Conference Final has been excellent. There have been twists and turns between two evenly matched teams. But it’s the resilience of the battle tested Lightning that has them in position to close out the Penguins tonight in Tampa for Game Six.

Even without captain Steven Stamkos, here are the Bolts a win away from consecutive Stanley Cup Final appearances. They showed heart in the same round last year, bouncing back from a lopsided Game Six home defeat to shutout the Rangers 2-0 in Game Seven at MSG. This time, coach Jon Cooper has his team here without starter Ben Bishop, who went down in Game One.

Full credit to Russian backup Andrei Vasilevskiy. He’s faced more shots than either Matt Murray or Marc-Andre Fleury. After an off second year during the regular season, he’s stepped up by making big saves when his team has needed it. Case in point, the enormous save to rob Phil Kessel of making it 3-0 in Game Five. That allowed his team to come back. Consecutive goals from Alex Killorn and Nikita Kucherov tied the score. However, as they did at the end of the first with defenseman Brian Dumoulin scoring at 19:59, the Pens retook the lead wit 50 seconds left in the second when Chris Kunitz followed up a Evgeni Malkin shot for a 3-2 lead.

Most teams would be dead after giving up two goals in the final minute. For myself, I felt like I was living a recurring nightmare from the Ranger season. One thing about the Lightning. They compete. They’re never out of a game. Even with the Pens closing in on a big win, the Bolts’ most dangerous scorer burned them. Kucherov was able to beat Fleury on a wrap around tying the score with 3:16 left in regulation. Tyler Johnson made a quick drop and Kucherov had so much speed, he went around the net and slipped the puck in for his team-leading 11th. His 11 goals trail only Pavelski (12).

The goal stunned the Penguin crowd. Both teams had chances to win it before overtime. But the game required sudden death. Similar to how quickly Sidney Crosby won Game Two, the Lightning struck in the first minute for the OT winner. Kucherov found defenseman Jason Garrison cutting to the net. He let go of a shot from the left circle that caromed off a sliding Pens’ defenseman and banked off Johnson in front at 53 seconds of overtime. That allowed them to complete a come from behind 4-3 OT win in Game Five.

Tonight, they’ll have a chance to finish the Pens at home. But if we’ve learned anything about these playoffs, home ice doesn’t mean much. Unless the Bolts jump on the Pens, I expect the Pens’ best effort. They are a deep team with four lines. Crosby is coming off a bad game. So too is Kris Letang, who was on for all four goals against. The same defenseman who got away with a stick foul in Game Five will need a much better effort. He might want to focus on sticking to hockey instead of the cheap shots he delivers that mostly go overlooked. As to why, it’s inexplicable.

The Pens’ most effective line continues to be the HBK Line of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Kessel. Hagelin set up a goal in Game Five. Kessel was kept off the sheet despite that glorious chance which really could’ve made a difference. They’re relentless. What isn’t known is why Crosby has been up and down this postseason. If the Pens are to force a Game Seven back in their barn, they’ll need a throwback game from their best player.

Coach Mike Sullivan has decided to go back to Murray for tonight. A good move in our estimation. Fleury gave up a bad short side goal to Killorn which turned the tide. He also was slow in reacting to Kucherov’s tying goal. The Pens’ veteran starter also showed a tendency to go down early exposing the top of the net. Obviously, if Murray doesn’t win tonight, there will be a ton of second guessing in the Steel city. However, this is his run. He did nothing wrong in the Pens’ 4-3 Game Four loss. They were miserable for two periods falling behind 4-0. A game in which familiar face Ryan Callahan led by example scoring in the first minute after indicating to NBC’s Pierre McGuire how his team would play following a Game Three loss.

It’ll be interesting to see if the Bolts can nail it down. The Pens are deeper. However, they did lose key defenseman Trevor Daley to a broken ankle. A sad injury you never want to see. Callahan finished a check and Daley fell awkwardly resulting in the injury that ended his season. The hit was okay. It was a bad landing. Olli Maatta was able to return in Game Five and played well. He stayed onside and set up a goal while going plus-two in 17 and a half minutes.

But in order for the Pens to prevail, they need their best players to be their best. Malkin has been more dangerous than Crosby the last two scoring and setting up a goal in each loss. He and Kunitz have been very good together. Crosby had his moment with his first ever playoff overtime goal in Game Two. He followed that up with a huge power play goal in Game Four. A game where he could’ve been penalized for a slew foot. He’s faced tough checking from another familiar face Brian Boyle. It’s interesting how our former players are playing roles for Tampa.

Meanwhile, Anton Stralman hasn’t been good. He’s gotten victimized a few times on Pens’ goals. He doesn’t look fully recovered from his fractured fibula. He has looked better offensively but he’s gotten beaten more than usual. Look for the Pens to exploit that with their speed. Victor Hedman has been mostly on top of his game. With the exception of being beaten badly on Dumoulin’s put back with one second left the other night, he’s having another monster postseason. Maybe next year, the smooth skating Swede who went second overall in the ’09 Draft behind John Tavares will finally get recognized as one of the league’s top defensemen.

So, what do I think will happen? I just have a hunch that the Pens won’t let their season end. I think it’s going seven. I also feel similarly about the Blues tomorrow. I hope I’m wrong. Nothing against St. Louis. I just want to see the Sharks win. With Thornton silencing the critics and Mr. Shark Patrick Marleau doing the same on what is a quality team coached by former 2012 Devil architect Pete DeBoer. Ironic how you have a former Devils coach with a former pupil Dainius Zubrus on the fourth line.

There’s cool story lines everywhere. I could care less what NBC wants. I would be more than happy with a Lightning vs Sharks Stanley Cup Final. We’ll see what happens.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of New York administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
This entry was posted in NHL Playoffs. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.