Tampa Bay lightning storms through NHL playoffs

The NHL playoffs, no matter what you say, is the unprecedented king of intriguing sports. The wall to wall action is captivated by physical play, skillful play, and demanding play. Every game is game seven, no matter the round. Whether it’s fighting for home ice advantage in the early parts of series, looking to gain substantial control, or looking to finish a team off, there is no lack of excellent play. There are two teams from each conference who have a chance to win the coveted Stanley Cup. Their opportunities, and more, to come.

The Vegas Golden Knights shocked the world with their dominant play through the inaugural season. The band of misfits has given teams fits all over the ice. They have a pang of hunger that can only be represented in an organization like Vegas but are experienced enough to play smart, effective hockey. The group is chalk full of unnamed and previously deemed invaluable by their former teams, great defenseman. They’re prototypical meatheads. They battle hard in the corners, limit odd-man rushes, and hold the blue line in the offensive zone. They have limited star power, that’s for sure. But they get the job done. They were seventh in the league in goals-against average, and the same place in total goals against at 224. The league hasn’t seen something like this since the Quebec Nordiques moved to Denver, and the Avalanche won the cup. Coincidence? I think not. Also, they have the league’s best goalie in Marc-Andre Fleury. The Penguins were foolish to let him go in the expansion draft, and it’s proven to bite them early in the playoffs. Finally, the Knights have one of the most explosive offenses in the league currently. William Karlsson has come out of the woodwork as an up and coming deadly finisher in the league. He’s scored 42 of the Vegas 268 goals, the first expansion draft player to score over 40 in his first year. Vegas made a stellar move at the trade deadline, acquiring the Red Wings deadly finisher Tomas Tatar, bulking the offense. The Knight’s offense top to bottom is filled with team players. The next man up mentality is in full effect at T-Mobile arena. There isn’t a first, second or third line. Instead, it’s more like A, B and C. If one isn’t putting up what they need, another will step into its place. Vegas has a high chance to make it past the conference, but it won’t be easy. The Pacific was the toughest division in the league, and they have a high chance of playing 2 of the three from their division. The lineup will need to continue its presented dominance.

The Sharks season started off slow but picked up speed tremendously. Their legendary wildman Brett Burns didn’t score until Thanksgiving, but just like the rest of the team, regained control and an aggressive control over the division. The Sharks top to bottom is one of the most well put together teams in the league. The defense is ok; offense is spectacular. Not to mention they are anchored well at the back end by an underrated tender in Martin Jones. Offensively, one of the best first lines in hockey lives at the SAP center. Evander Kane, a deadline acquisition, has been lighting it up since coming to a postseason-caliber team. He’s scored 14 points in 17 games for the Sharks posting up on the left side of the ice. San Jose has averaged three points a game for the season, not the best but not the worst. 13 in the league, they’ve picked it up in the postseason. The Sharks mollywhopped the Ducks in game three, and haven’t given an inch all series. But they are high octane, explosive team who has lacked on defense this season. 23 in goals against, the Sharks are an offensive-minded team. It’s worked well for them so far, but might be a problem against a solid defensive team like Nashville or Vegas. They need to keep pucks in the offensive zone if they want to win games.

The Columbus Blue Jackets have been an overlooked team all year, and my darkhorse in the playoffs. They have a stellar goalie with Sergei Bobrovsky and a young explosive offense. Artemi Panarin and Cam Atkinson are virtually indistinguishable by their size, speed, and hands on the ice. The spread the ice, use length and width to their advantage, and stretch opposing defenses thin. It takes more than two defensemen and a goalie to stop the youngbloods from putting the biscuit in the basket. Bobrovsky has been a stone wall for the Jackets since arriving there, and a huge reason they’ve found success in the past years. He had 37 wins in the regular season, and a .921 save percentage, fourth in the league. Bob has been the difference maker in the postseason, and a big reason Columbus has taken each of the games into overtime against the Caps. Bob has shut down the Caps offensive stars all series. Ovechkin has only scored once, and it took three games to do it. Columbus had the luck of the draw playing the Caps; a team who has underperformed their entire postseason career> Columbus will have a hard time playing the Penguins or Bruins, and I don’t fully expect them to make it out of the conference. They have underdog potential, and that do wonders in the NHL playoffs.

Tampa Bay has been a dominant team all season. They have two superstar lines centered by Steven Stamkos, Tyler Johnson, and Nikita Kucherov. Vasilevsky, their goalie, is in the finals for the Vezina trophy and owned a .920 save percentage. Tampa has one of the best offenses in the league and the best on the east coast. Their power play is deadly, especially when they’re able to work the puck around. Stamkos’ prime spot is on the right side, where he sits like a bloodthirsty shark waiting for a prime one-timer. The special teams were ranked second during the regular season, and I expect more of the same in the coming weeks. Tampa also has one of the most underrated defenses in the league. Their veteran defenseman Victor Hedman is always trouble when he shows up. He’s physical, has good puck skills and a good shot. The probability of Hedman getting outworked or outplayed in the defensive zone is slim to none. He’s an essential asset to have and can work wonders for a team in the postseason. When he plays every other shift, it can give opposing team nightmares. Tampa started the season on fire. After the first half of the season, they were projected to get over sixty wins. That line has since fallen off, but the Playoffs tend to bring the best out of teams, and I expect the same here.

Teams are more talented this year, but more importantly their anger. There’s been no short of cheap shots so far, which is a great sign. Not for the players, of course, but it’s a great indicator of the games to come. There’s nothing better at getting the blood pumping than a few shoulders dropping. That being said, Vegas’ physicality, hunger, band skill will get them the farthest this year, I expect Fleury to continue his dominance, and the offense to dominate. I think that although they have the experience and chemistry that no one expected them to have. They killed the Kings in the first round, and that confidence will continue until the final horn in the Stanley Cup.

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