I have been saying this all year, and last night’s game, between the Lightning and Bruins made my gut feeling even clearer, that these will be the two last teams standing come the Stanley Cup final.
It was a monster game, worthy of a game 7 Cup final in itself. Yes, it was that good. Here is why I have been maintaining this all year. First and more importantly, as favored as Tampa Bay has been by most experts and fans alike, there are a few aspects of their game that are still missing; Vasilevskiy has played far too many games and fatigue has set in; he himself has admitted to it. As talented as Tampa Bay is upfront, minus Hedmann they are weaker (by Finals standards) on defense and although they have a very talented offence, they give up a ton of opportunities in their own end. That weakness has become even more apparent as Vasilevskiy’s over-usage has led to a lot more pucks getting by him than normally would.
They are a +54 in goal differential, but as of late have lost 6 of their last 8 games; a really bad time to get cold. While giving up defensive zone opportunities in the regular season to less talented teams has still kept them far ahead of the pack, it is very unlikely that the Bruins will miss those chances very often. Make no mistake about it, if the Bruins and Lightning go head to head in the second round, a healthy Bruins team will be able to beat Tampa Bay. Their roster is as full of talent, and with the additions of the amazing Ryan Donato, Rick Nash (a big, bad nuisance in front of the net—especially in the playoffs) and David Backes—who although has had a disappointing season by his and Boston’s standards, it cannot be denied, is a playoff beast. The Bruins also have Tukka Rask who is hot at the right time and a better defensive unit than Tampa Bay. Pasternak, Bergeron and Marchand have proven all year round that they can go head to head with any of the top lines in the NHL and my feeling is they will still come out on top of Kucherov, Stamkos and Miller. The main thing the Bruins need to watch for is discipline. They cannot give the Tampa power play too much time. If they stick to their game, they should be able to take out Tampa and any other team that they will face on route to the Cup.
In the West, there is no denying Nashville is ready this year. They came close last year and they did that without Forsberg and Fiala. This year the Predators have a healthy roster going in and Rinne is in top form. Their genius general maager also, somehow, made this powerhouse team stronger – as he realized that they needed some help down the middle (although Sissons who came out of nowhere wasn’t too shabby last year!). The team has added Nick Bonino on their 4th line and if anyone remembers what he did for Pittsburgh in their cup runs, they’ll likely understand just how deep this team is now.
To boot, they added Kyle Turris, who has been a machine for them since they’ve acquired him (one of the Sens worst moves of all-time, by the way). This team is now complete, by all standards—even their back-up, Saros, is turning out to be a steady goalie and his .925 save percentage is among the best in the league. With a healthy Fiala, Forsberg as well as Sissons (a playoff machine) and the likes of Arvidsson, Johansen (who albeit has had a disappointing season and coming off an injury should be very ready for the playoffs), and Ryan Ellis who in 22 playoff games put up 5 goals and 8 assists (when they really counted) and Subban and Josi who is arguably one of the top three D-men in the game today, this is a team that should have no excuse to get to the Stanley Cup finals.
Who will win, between the Predators and Bruin’s is anyone’s guess. I would like to say whichever team gets home ice should come out on top—and judging by the current standings and games remaining—that team will likely be the Nashville Predators. The problem is Brad Marchand and the Bruins’s may have other plans. The Bruins are game 7 machines having won 12 of 18 game 7’s in playoff rounds since 1982 (3 of their 6 losses came at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens.). And should any game go into overtime, Marchand alone this season has 5 game winning goals in overtime.
Nashville’s leader is Arvidssen, with 2 overtime goals. Besides that, don’t look for an advantage in overtime. Both teams have 11 overtime loses this season. On a sidebar, Marchand is also tied for 3rd in regulation game winning goals, with 8. Nashville has no player even in the top 20 in that stat. The Bruins and Predators each also should have 8 guys with 40 points or more, but the Bruins’ top five guys have a combined 40 more points than Nashville’s top players.
I do think this series will go seven, and will come down to which goalie is hotter and probably more paramount, which team’s role players will be more effective in neutralizing the others top players. The teams have faced each other 4 times and, guess what? Each team is 2 for 4. To make matters more interesting, each team has scored 12 goals on the other. Nashville has let in only one goal more (11 to 12) in the 4 match-ups. So this series—if it happens; and I’m banking that it will, will come down to all 4 lines and all special teams getting their respective jobs done.
This will not be a series where one line will clearly win a series for a team, but which team is better put together for the ultimate prize. One would think by the numbers herein that Boston has the advantage. Some may argue that the Bruins only seemingly have this advantage because they play in the weaker of the two divisions and have faced less talented teams than Nashville has had. Of course, the flip side is that others will tell you that there is no weak division now due to the incredible parity within the NHL today. I’m betting that the Predators stronger defense, special teams and stronger goal-tending will come out on top and Nashville will be hoisting the Cup. Well, maybe not betting…
— Ayman Ibrahim
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