The NHL’s Conference Finals get underway for the Eastern Conference Thursday night when the Florida Panthers and Carolina Hurricanes drop the puck in Raleigh. Friday, the Dallas Stars will head to Vegas to take on the Golden Knights. Both series should be a ton of fun. Greg Boysen, Mario Tirabassi and Jay Zawaski make their picks on who will reign supreme and head to the Stanley Cup Final.
Eastern Conference Final
Greg: The Eastern Conference Final has a fun storyline with the Staal family civil war, but it also features quite the match-up on the ice and behind the bench. The Hurricanes have the best defensive core left in the playoffs. Not only are dominating in their own end of the ice, but they are driving the offense when they have the puck too. They shut down the high-speed offense of the New Jersey Devils in the second round and have experience beating a physical team like the Panthers when they beat the New York Islanders in the opening round.
Now the Panthers have a better offense than the Islanders and they have Matthew Tkachuk, the best player left in the postseason. They seem to be a team of destiny after upsetting the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs in back-to-back rounds. The most impressive thing they have done over the past month has been their six straight road wins.
Florida has the edge in goaltending, but I wonder if the layoff between series will affect Sergei Bobrovsky. However, the Carolina defense has made life easy for all three of their goaltenders by allowing just 27.8 shots per game, by far the fewest in the playoffs.
The Hurricanes have an edge in defense, overall team depth, and in coaching. All these advantages will give them the edge during a seven-game series, no matter what destiny thinks. Hurricanes in 7.
Mario: The Florida Panthers dispatched the Boston Bruins in historic fashion, then. proceeded to oust the Toronto Maple Leafs after they finally made it past the first round off the postseason since the early 2000’s. Both as the heavy underdog. You can no longer underestimate this team that is making the most of squeaking into the postseason with a little help from the Blackhawks. Pick against them at your own risk.
Carolina is a deep team and have progressed through the Islanders and Devils, two teams with polar opposite styles of play. They’ve done so without the likes of Max Pacioretty, Teuvo Teräväinen, and Andrei Svechnikov. They are a team built with depth and strong defensive play, and have benefitted from strong play from Frederik Andersen in net.
I picked the Bruins to beat the Panthers, and the Maple Leafs to beat the Panthers. Fool me once, shame on…on you. Fool me…you can’t get fooled again. Panthers in six.
Jay: It’s crazy to think that if the Blackhawks hadn’t beaten the Penguins in Game 81 of the season, the Florida Panthers wouldn’t even be in the playoffs, let alone the Conference Final. That’s why hockey is both stupid and awesome at the same time.
I’m going to pick with my head, and not my heart here, which is weird to say because most years, I’d never want my beloved adult son Teuvo Teräväinen to lose, but I’d love to see my favorite player in the league, Matthew Tkachuk, and the Panthers pull it off. That said, I think their luck runs out here. Carolina is too deep, too good defensively, and too well coached to stop now. With the East juggernauts of Boston, Tampa and (allegedly) Toronto out of the way, this is the Canes’ best chance to capture a Cup.
Sergei Bobrovsky has been great for Florida, and could certainly be the Wild Card in this series, but even a slight return to form will be enough for Carolina to win. It’s going to be one hell of a series. Hurricanes in seven.
Western Conference Final
Greg: Pete DeBoer facing the team that fired him about a year ago might be the most delicious storyline of the Western Conference Final. It seems most people are giving the nod to the Golden Knights, but the Stars are for real. They have the right mix of dynamic young talent and battle-tested veterans who are starving to win a Stanley Cup.
On the other side of the rink, the Golden Knights have plenty of playoff experience, with many of their key contributors from the 2018 Stanley Cup Final run are coming big again. Jack Eichel has been terrific this postseason, playing a complete 200-foot game. They are a disciplined team who won’t give Dallas a ton of looks on the power play and force them to win the series at 5v5.
I have doubted the Vegas goaltending all season long, but they keep proving me wrong. Sean Burke deserves a ton of credit for what he’s done this season with the netminders, but the magic has to wear off at some point, right? Jake Oettinger can win this series for Dallas. When he’s been good, he’s been fantastic. But, when he’s been bad, he’s been really bad.
The true wild card in this series is Jason Robertson. If he can recapture his scoring touch from the regular season, Dallas is moving on to the Stanley Cup Final for the second time in four seasons. They are a team that seems to get better the longer a series goes, and I think that trend continues. Stars in 7.
Mario: This is a tough series to handicap between the Stars and Golden Knights. Much like the Panthers, people haven’t had the faith in this Golden Knights group to get this far, but their depth of star power have pushed them this far. Pair that with unexpected goaltending performances from both Laurent Brossiot and Adin Hill, their third and fourth goaltenders, and Vegas is a team hard to pick against.
Then there are the Stars who have all my rooting interest left in the postseason. Again, depth of young star power is propelling this team with Roope Hintz, Miro Heiskanen, Jake Oettinger, and Jason Robertson, as well as veteran poise and production from Jaime Benn, Tyler Sequin, Max Domi, and Joe Pavelski. Those last two names are why I am making my pick.
I want Joe Pavelski to win a Stanley Cup, gosh darn it. Stars in Seven.
Jay: This one is really tough to pick. The Golden Knights have the depth and work ethic that every playoff team needs this time of year, but they’re so far down on their goaltending depth chart, I can’t make them my pick.
I’ve loved what I’ve seen from Dallas this year. Jason Robertson is one of the best young players in hockey, Joe Pavelski has had a storybook playoff after returning from a concussion suffered in the first round, and Jake Oettinger might be the next big thing in goal, if he’s not already. The addition of old (and potentially future) friend Max Domi, the rising profiles of Roope Hintz and Miro Heiskanen, and the fact that Jamie Been and Tyler Seguin still have some magic in those skates will prove to be too much for the Knight. Stars in six.