The second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs wrapped up last night in San Jose, with the Sharks demolishing the Predators, 5-0, to advance to the Western Conference finals. And unlike recent years, the NHL isn't going to kill the momentum by taking a few days off. We're right back at it tonight, with the Eastern Conference finals kicking off in Pittsburgh.
We've got an interesting final four this year, one that doesn't include any division winners, Canadian entries or Original Six teams. Let's see if we can sort it all out.
With the Presidents' Trophy winning Capitals knocked out, we're left with a pair of No. 2 seeds squaring off in a conference final that has no shortage of star power.
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Pittsburgh Penguins
In this corner: The Lightning (46-31-5, +26) are looking to return to the Stanley Cup final for the second straight year.
The road so far: They've had by far the easiest path to the conference final, facing Detroit and the Islanders, who finished 15th and 10th overall, respectively. But you can only beat the teams that the brackets serve up, and the Lightning have done it with ease, needing just ten games to finish off the two series.
Injury report: Two key contributors, Steven Stamkos and Anton Stralman, have both missed the entire playoffs but could be back at some point. Stralman broke his leg in March and seems like he's on the verge of returning. Stamkos is trickier; he needed surgery after being diagnosed with a blood clot, and can't return until he's off blood thinners. That might happen any day now; it also might not happen before the playoffs are over.
One player to watch: Victor Hedman. When a team is rolling as well as the Lightning, there are plenty of players you could shine a spotlight on. Nikita Kucherov is filling the net, Tyler Johnson has been fantastic, Ben Bishop looks great and Jonathan Drouin is writing a nice little comeback story. But Hedman may be the key to the series. When he's at his best, he belongs in the top tier of NHL defensemen, right next to guys like Drew Doughty and Duncan Keith. And he was at this best against the Islanders, racking up four goals and eight points in five games while helping to keep John Tavares off the scoresheet after the opener. He'll have his work cut out against Sidney Crosby and friends, but if he's up to the job, he can change the course of a series on his own.
Key number: 57.3—Percentage of scoring chances that the Lightning owned this year when Stralman was on the ice, making him one of just six defensemen with over 1,000 even-strength minutes to be over 57 percent. That's a better mark than Kris Letang (56.8), Brent Burns (55.3), Shea Weber (54.1) or Keith (52.8). Again, Tampa has gone 8-2 in the first two rounds without him in the lineup. If and when he comes back, the Lightning blueline gets downright scary.
Even without Stamkos and Stralman, the Lightning aren't short on star power. –Photo by Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Dominant narrative: Redemption. The Lightning have been here before, going to last year's Cup final before losing the Blackhawks in six. Now they're back, and with the offense clicking and Stralman and Stamkos on the way back, they may be even better than last year's team. Still, they'll go into this series as underdogs, and with the lingering whispers that they haven't really beaten anyone to get here. They're not quite a "nobody believed in us" story, but they're not getting as much respect as a reigning conference champion typically would.
And in this corner: The Pittsburgh Penguins (46-26-8, +42), the league's hottest team over the second half.
The road so far: The Penguins had a relatively easy time with the Rangers in round one, knocking them off in five games. The powerhouse Capitals proved tougher, but Tuesday's Game 6 overtime winner by Nick Bonino sent them home, too.
Injury report: Olli Maatta returned to action Tuesday, so all the key players are available. That includes Marc-Andre Fleury, who's recovered from a concussion and is cleared to play, but has (so far) stayed in a backup role to rookie Matt Murray.