Sep. 26, 2016
Who can come out of the East besides the Penguins?
Even before Sidney Crosby was diagnosed with a concussion, the Pittsburgh Penguins were going to struggle to repeat as Stanley Cup Champions.
No team has repeated since the Detroit Red Wings won in 1997 and 1998.
Since then, three teams have made it to the Stanley Cup Final after winning it the year before.
All have lost.
Now, the path looks even more difficult for the Penguins.
Regardless of whether or not Crosby plays a game in 2016-17, two of the three teams that the Penguins defeated in the spring will challenge the Penguins for Eastern Conference supremacy again.
Tampa Bay Lightning
If anyone showcased better depth than Pittsburgh in 2015-16, it was the Tampa Bay Lightning. Four of the Lightning’s centers scored at least 14 goals and played in at least 69 games.
Steven Stamkos led that group with 36 goals in a “down” year, by the former 50-goal scorers’ standards. However, Stamkos missed 16 of the Lightning’s 17 postseason games.
Without their top scorer, how did Tampa Bay respond? By coming within a win of returning to the Stanley Cup Final for a second consecutive season.
That doesn’t happen by fluke. Players stepped up. Jonathan Drouin, who only mustered four goals in 21 regular season games, scored five times in the playoffs. That’s not a much better rate than the regular season, but Drouin elevated his play when it was needed most; four of those goals came in the seven-game Eastern Conference Final against the Penguins.
Drouin wasn’t alone; Nikita Kucherov took over as the best player on the team while Stamkos was out. He scored 11 goals in the playoffs after lighting the lamp 30 times in the regular season.
The Lightning’s depth extended to its defense. Victor Hedman anchors a defense that limited Penguins center Evgeni Malkin to one goal in the Eastern Conference Finals. They struggled to stop Pittsburgh’s beloved “HBK” line, but so did everyone else.
The 6’6 Hedman seems to capture all of the attention, but he deserves it. His 10 goals led the defensive unit and he logs heavy minutes (team-leading 23:04 time on ice).
Hedman is not alone. Anton Stralman led the Lightning defensemen in power play points with one goal and 11 assists. The Lightning get a decent amount of scoring from their forwards and defensemen.
Perhaps Tampa Bay’s biggest strength is its goaltending. Ben Bishop was having a stellar postseason before going down in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final. He was 8-2 with a 1.85 goals-against average before tearing ligaments in his ankle, thus ending his season.
Bishop has been stellar in three years as Tampa Bay’s starting goalie. He has yet to post a GAA above 2.32 or win less than 35 games.
However, his injury has cast his future in Tampa Bay in doubt. Andrei Vasilevskiy stepped up and despite losing the series, proved that he deserves a shot as an NHL starting goalie. Vasilevskiy matched his regular season GAA of 2.76 in the postseason and kept the Lightning in each game.
Twice, Vasilevskiy made over 40 saves, but the Lightning lost both games. With his defense struggling, Vasilevsky was at his best. Ultimately, it was not enough, but it showed that with better defense, he can dominate.
No one challenged the Penguins like the Lightning did in 2016. Assuming they remain healthy, there a solid bet to win the Cup because they are the only other team in the NHL that can match the Penguins’ speed.
The long-time nemesis of the Penguins is bound to win the Stanley Cup before Alex Ovechkin retires. Heck, they will take just making it to the Eastern Conference Finals. In Ovechkin’s 11-year career, the Capitals have never advanced beyond the second round.
If anything won’t change for the Capitals in 2016-17, it’s scoring. Led by Ovechkin, who led the NHL in scoring with 50 goals and won his sixth Rocket Richard Trophy, the Capitals were second in the NHL last season in goals per game with a 3.02 rate.
A year after falling to the Penguins, the Capitals are confident that they can skate with Pittsburgh and match their scoring. They signed Lars Eller in the offseason to center their third line and add depth scoring. Eller scored 13 goals last season and can help improve the speed of Washington.
In the season opener, Eller skated on a line with Justin Williams and Zach Sanford. Williams scored 22 goals in his first season with the Capitals and Sanford scored 20 goals in two years at Boston College.
Braden Holtby, last season’s Vezina Trophy winner, was shaky in last year’s postseason series with the Penguins, but is as good of a bet as any to stop Pittsburgh. Holtby allowed two goals or less in three of the six games, but repeatedly was beaten five-hole.
Defensively, the Capitals are equal to the Penguins. They have a nice mix of “stay at home” defensemen like Karl Alzner and Nate Schmidt, as well as defenders that like to jump up on the attack like Dmitry Orlov and John Carlson.
The Capitals won’t get lots of scoring from their defensemen. Washington defensemen combined for 33 goals last season, while Hedman and Stralman of Tampa Bay combined for 19 goals.
The best way for Washington to beat Pittsburgh is with the man-advantage. The Capitals power play unit scored on 21.9% of its chances last season, fifth in the NHL. The Penguins finished 11 spots beneath with an 18.4%.
Despite winning the 2015-16 President’s Trophy, the Capitals have lost 8 of their last 12 meetings against the Penguins, including the 2016 postseason. In addition, the Capitals have also lost seven of eight playoff meetings between them and the Penguins. History is not on Washington’s side.
Of these two teams, Tampa Bay is better equipped to beat Pittsburgh. While the Capitals may have more talented forwards, the Lightning have quicker ones.
The modern NHL is all about speed, not physicality. Washington tried laying the body on Pittsburgh in the 2016 postseason and failed. Tampa Bay matched Pittsburgh’s speed, but one too many injuries cost the Lightning the series.
If the Penguins fail to make it back to the Stanley Cup Final in 2017, it will be because of injuries or the Lightning defeating them. If Stamkos and Kucherov remain healthy, the Lightning are the most likely team to come out of the Eastern Conference. It’s too difficult for a team to make it to the final round in back-to-back years.