Conference Finals Preview: Fresh blood good for NHL

Unlike the past decade that’s been largely dominated by the Penguins, Blackhawks and Kings who combined for eight of the last nine Stanley Cups, there’s fresh blood in the Conference Finals which start tonight in Tampa with the Lightning hosting the Capitals.

Of the four teams left, only the Bolts have a wealth of experience. This will be their third Conference Finals appearance in the last four years and fifth of the decade. They lost to the Blackhawks in the 2015 Cup Final. That could come in handy with key additions Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller bringing added experience from deep runs with the Rangers.

While Tampa boasts the most players who have gone this far, the other three participants shouldn’t be discounted. The Caps, Golden Knights and Jets are all here on merit. Washington earning it by finally overcoming the two-time champion Pens in a excellent six-game series.

Now, Alexander Ovechkin finally gets a chance to show what he can do on a bigger stage. The game’s best finisher of this era has certainly been a big factor scoring and setting up goals including Evgeny Kuznetsov’s overtime series winner to stun Pittsburgh in Game 6. But the brilliant and consistent play from former Vezina winner Braden Holtby is the biggest reason they’re here. It’s amazing to think he didn’t start the Columbus series but has been brilliant since winning six of games.

The Golden Knights remain a unbelievable story as a expansion team that backed up winning the Pacific Division by dominating the Kings and wearing down the Sharks to reach this point. Marc-André Fleury is a leading candidate for the Conn Smythe with the former Stanley Cup champion with the Pens playing arguably his finest hockey. He’s the backbone of a total team that features a dynamic top line anchored by ever dangerous William Karlsson and flanked by Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith. All four lines use speed and forechecking ability to tire out opponents under Jack Adams front runner Gerard Gallant. Nate Schmidt is the leader of a underrated blueline.

The Winnipeg Jets are appearing in their first ever Conference Final. For long time Jets fans who go back to the first Winnipeg team that featured Dale Hawerchuk and then Hall of Famer Teemu Selanne and Keith Tkachuk, it’s a emotional time after how the second franchise that relocated from Atlanta advanced by winning for a third time in Nashville taking Game 7 last night in convincing fashion 5-1.

Enough credit isn’t given to veteran coach Paul Maurice. Sure. Winnipeg has immense talent which explains how they were the West’s second best team during the regular season finishing only three points behind the Predators. In the seven-game second round series victory, Mark Scheifele scores huge goals in the three road wins. He’s a legit star with 11 markers this postseason. Blake Wheeler’s great set up to Scheifele late in the second on Thursday finished off Nashville. Wheeler is the most underrated captain with amazing skating and playmaking abilities.

That the Jets can come at opponents with rookie Kyle Connor on the top line and the electrifying sniper Patrik Laine on the second line with great deadline pickup Paul Stastny and speed demon Nikolaj Ehlers is scary. What’s scarier is Ehlers has yet to score a goal. The third and fourth lines are superb on the cycle. Still, it’s been the brilliant play of Dustin Byfuglien that has the Jets here. The physically imposing defenseman who won a Cup in Chicago is playing the best hockey of his career. He’s impacting games offensively and defensively with his physicality. He scored a few huge goals versus Nashville while delivering some crunching hits. Just ask P.K. Subban. Tyler Myers is playing strong defensively and Jacob Trouba makes this Winnipeg team tough to play against. In Game 7, they gave the Predators nothing.

If you’re able to get past all that, you must deal with Vezina finalist Connor Hellebuyck. He’s proven why he’s so highly thought of making key saves when called upon. He can be beaten but getting bodies to the net is the key.

As for the Lightning, they took out the Bruins in five games despite not too many goals from Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos. They heated up towards the end with Stamkos, Kucherov and Miller hurting Boston the final two games. The play of dangerous second line trio Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson and Brayden Point has been huge. They recovered from a awful Game 1 to help neutralize the Bruins top line while doing damage five-on-five. Palat always elevates his play in the Spring. He’s scoring big goals and hitting. Johnson is the smart two-way pivot who can score and set up goals while being a key penalty killer with Palat. Point is a game breaker who can flat out make defenders look silly with his blinding speed and finishing ability. Ask Zdeno Chara.

The scary aspect is the Bolts boast the best depth with the third line featuring Yanni Gourde, Alex Killorn and rookie Anthony Cirelli able to contribute. The fourth line with Chris Kunitz, Cedric Paquette and Ryan Callahan is your classic grind line that keeps play away from their net. When you combine a defense featuring certain Norris winner Victor Hedman with Anton Stralman, McDonagh and Dan Girardi, they are very tough. Don’t forget rookie Mikhail Sergachev who has a lethal shot.

Andrei Vasilevskiy is very good in net. He’s got lightning like reflexes like the team name. So, they are very complete.

On paper, the Bolts are the favorites. Winnipeg will be on the Western side. If it comes off, it would be a great Stanley Cup Final.

The Pick

The Caps are more together than past years which is why they’re here. But Nicklas Backstrom must be close to healthy for them to have a chance. Both John Carlson and Dmitry Orlov will have their work cut out along with Brooks Orpik, who could have issues with the Bolts speed. Ovechkin needs a huge series along with Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie. Tom Wilson is back and he can help annoy the Bolts stars. Holtby will have to stand on his head.

Honestly, I think the Lightning have too much here. They can create match up nightmares for the Capitals. Barry Trotz must come up with a way to slow down Jon Cooper’s Bolts, who can explode at any moment.

Series Prediction: Lightning 🌩 in 6

The Golden Knights are no joke. They play as a team and have enough speed both offensively and defensively to give Winnipeg a series. Winnipeg will focus on shutting down the top line of Karlsson which means James Neal, David Perron and Alex Tuch must step up along with Erik Haula. Cody Eakin, William Carrier and Ryan Carpenter are key bangers who must forecheck effectively.

Shea Theodore and Colin Miller are good skating defensemen who can contribute offensively. Deryk Engelland has become a match-up physical D who Gallant counts on with Schmidt.

In order for them to pull it off, they must stifle the dangerous Winnipeg attack. That means plenty of work for Fleury, who’s been amazing so far. The amount of traffic he’ll have to deal with along with side to side movement is daunting. He’s the backbone of the Golden Knights, who have a great home ice advantage just like the Jets with the Winnipeg Whiteout. It should be fun hockey.

If the Jets can impose their will, they’ll advance. The talent in the top six can really do damage. The depth is solid with Bryan Little, Adam Lowry, Andrew Copp and Joel Armia able to factor in.

The Jets defense will get a good test against the Knights speed. But their physically and size could prove too much. If Hellebuyck holds up, they’ll move on and play for their first Cup.

Series Prediction: Jets in 6

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.
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