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From the Bleachers: Predicting Finalists in Stanley Cup and NBA Playoffs

Dominic+Hoscher%2C+FHNGameday.com+editor%2C+points+to+the+field+on+the+bleachers+of+FHN.+
Dominic Hoscher, FHNGameday.com editor, points to the field on the bleachers of FHN.

Dominic Hoscher, FHNGameday.com editor, points to the field on the bleachers of FHN.

Photographer Alyssa Barber

Photographer Alyssa Barber

Dominic Hoscher, FHNGameday.com editor, points to the field on the bleachers of FHN.

By Dominic Hoscher, FHNGameday.com Editor

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Over the past six or so months, NBA and NHL teams have fought their way through long and grueling 80+ game regular seasons with hopes of earning a spot in the playoffs. 16 teams from each league were fortunate enough to extend their seasons, and will now look to make history in the next couple of months. As a result, fans can expect to see sensational performances from some of the games’ top athletes, breathtaking games, and jaw-dropping moments. Buckle up.

The Stanley Cup playoffs have already gotten underway in the NHL, who are into their fourth day now of postseason action. This year, there’s a combination of fresh faces making rare appearances and usual contenders missing among the remaining 16 teams.

With teams such as the Blackhawks and Rangers being on their offseason vacations early, some of the frequent favorites around this time of the year are out, leaving the door wide open for the new kids on the block to make their mark. Will any of these teams reach the Stanley Cup Final, or could there be a rematch from the 2017 Cup Final?

Two of the top teams in the NBA have been hammered with injuries over the course of the season. In the East, the Boston Celtics lost both Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward for the remainder of the season. The reigning champion Golden State Warriors have also had their season hampered by the injury bug, holding them back to a two-seed in the West. Can either of these teams overcome their unfortunate stroke of luck and make a Finals appearance?

 

NHL

Through the opening three days of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the team that has stood out among the rest is the Pittsburgh Penguins. In game one, the Penguins took down their rival Philadelphia Flyers by a score of 7-0 that saw the world’s best player in Sidney Crosby score a natural hat trick. Goaltender Matt Murray extended his shutout streak in postseason play to three games, the defense kept Claude Giroux and company in check, and the offensive explosion from Crosby, Jake Guentzel, and Evgeni Malkin led the team to the tournament’s most dominant performance so far.

They may be coming off a loss in game two, but Pittsburgh still has the talent to eliminate their rival Flyers and eventually make a third straight Finals appearance. Will anyone in the Eastern Conference be able to extinguish the Penguins’ flame, or will they have their way yet again?

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The team that poses the biggest challenge to Crosby’s crew are the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Lightning are the number one seed in the Eastern Conference, and are already off to a fast start against the New Jersey Devils with a 1-0 series lead. Nikita Kucherov, who was third in the NHL in points (100) during the regular season, and usual playoff phenom Tyler Johnson were two of Tampa’s five scorers in their 5-2 win in game one.

What makes this Lightning team such a threat to the rest of the conference is their lethal attack. The Tampa offense is led by Kucherov, who established himself as one of the league’s top scorers this season, star Steven Stamkos who had 86 points in the regular season, and Brayden Point with 66. Behind these three and the rest of the team’s dynamic offense, the Lightning scored the most goals in the entire NHL with 290. Between this and a solid defense, Tampa Bay may be the team to take down the Penguins.

While on the topic of electric offenses, Alex Ovechkin is one of the more elaborate scorers in hockey and has given the Washington Capitals a feared attack. Ovechkin scored the league’s most goals with 49, and helped lead the Caps to putting up the ninth most goals overall. The one thing that holds Washington back, however, is their inability to put it all together at this time of the year. They dropped game one to the Blue Jackets in overtime at home, and haven’t made it past the second round since 1998. With a team like the Penguins that’s built on playoff success standing in their way, it’s difficult to see the Capitals breaking through in 2018.

The most notable team in the East that hasn’t been mentioned yet are the Boston Bruins. Only three teams allowed fewer goals than the Bruins on the season, who gave up just 211 behind the stellar play in goal by star Tuukka Rask. It’s not just in the back where Boston is strong, though, as the offense also had a fantastic year scoring the sixth most goals (267) overall in the regular season. Will the overall balance of the Bruins allow them to overcome their lack of star-power in the lineup?

The answer is no, and here’s why. When the spotlight is on and the big moments arise, the game’s biggest players step up for their teams. No team in the league is more loaded with this star-power than the Penguins, who have players such as Crosby, Malkin, and Phil Kessel who are used to the big stage and are capable of beating the league’s top goaltenders, like Rask, when it matters most.

If both teams can avoid being upset in the first two rounds, the Penguins and Lightning are on their way to meeting in the Eastern Conference Finals. Tampa has the league’s most dangerous offense, while Pittsburgh is built with the most high-end talent. What it will eventually come down to in the end will be the experience of the Penguins. They’ve been here before, and know exactly what it takes to claim a spot in the Stanley Cup Finals and with Sidney Crosby leading the way, it’s hard to doubt these Pittsburgh Penguins.

Prediction: Penguins take down Lightning in seven games to go to the Finals

The Western Conference is without both the Blackhawks and Blues in the playoffs for the first time since 2008. This has given teams such as the Colorado Avalanche a chance to earn a trip to the postseason instead, and has made the West more open than it has been in years in the past.

The heavy favorites in the conference is the team that won it last year: the Nashville Predators. Nashville concluded the regular season on top of the entire NHL, winning 53 games and collecting 117 points. Both totals were the most in franchise history.

Offensively, the Preds ranked top ten in goals for with 261, and were the second best team defensively allowing just 204. With stars including Filip Forsberg, P.K. Subban, and Pekka Rinne making up the roster down the line, Nashville has a team that is well equipped for a deep postseason run.

Then there is the most interesting team in hockey in the Las Vegas Golden Knights. In their first season in the NHL, Vegas won the Pacific Division with 109 points. William Karlsson was the central force of the team, finishing the year in the top 25 in points (78) which helped the Golden Knights establish the league’s fifth best attack with 268 goals.

In goal is Marc-Andre Fleury who, at 33, is one of the most experienced goalies in the playoffs and won back-to-back Cups in Pittsburgh. The combination of these two factors has made Las Vegas a truly unpredictable team in this year’s playoffs.

A third Western Conference team to watch out for are the Los Angeles Kings. The Kings were the NHL’s strongest team on the defensive end of the ice conceding just 202 goals in the regular season. One of the biggest reasons why this is the case is due to the veteran partnership between defenseman Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick, who are as strong of a duo as any in the NHL. As winners of two Stanley Cups since 2012, the Kings also have experience on their side and are one of the lower seeds that are most likely to make a run at the Cup this year.

The pick: the Nashville Predators. Los Angeles has the defense and experience, but offensively the Kings were ranked right in the middle of the NHL with no true firepower on the offensive end. Las Vegas is quite the opposite, a team with plenty of offensive talent but are lacking the playoff background to make a serious run. Nashville, on the other hand, is loaded with talent across the board and have a roster that is just coming off a Finals loss last season and is hungry for an opportunity to erase their sour memories from 2017.

Prediction: Predators outlast Kings in six games, meet Penguins in Stanley Cup rematch

NBA

Entering the playoffs, the biggest question being asked is how will injuries affect some of the NBA’s top teams. In the East, the Celtics were expected to be one of the teams to beat coming into the season. Boston added Gordon Hayward via free agency at the start of the offseason, and later brought in Kyrie Irving at the point. This gave the Celtics one of basketball’s most talented starting fives and deepest rosters.

In their first game of the season against the Cleveland Cavaliers, however, pieces started to fall in Boston as Hayward was lost for the year due to an ankle injury. Later in the season, Irving opted to have knee surgery that would see the star point guard miss the remainder of the season. Now, even with the number two seed in the East, Boston’s championship hopes are starting to look bleak.

Injuries are one of the more significant reasons why this is the case for the Celtics, but another is a rather familiar one in Cleveland wearing the #23 shirt: LeBron James. James has owned the East over the past seven years, leading his teams to a Finals appearance in each of those seasons. And this time around, LeBron has played at even higher of a level than he has in years in the past.

James averaged 27.5 points per game this season, his most in eight years, on a remarkably efficient .542 field goal percentage. The future Hall of Famer would also go on to average a career-high in assists (9.1) and rebounds (8.6) per game, while tallying 1.4 steals and 0.9 blocks per game as well. LeBron put up MVP caliber numbers in his age 33 season, and is playing some of the best basketball of his career heading into the playoffs.

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Cleveland may not have their strongest squad this year, but with the likes of Kevin Love, Rodney Hood, and Larry Nance Jr. supporting the world’s greatest player, the Cavs have more than enough talent to once again represent the East in the Finals. But if there were two teams that could potentially alter LeBron and company’s summer plans, they would be the Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers.

Toronto is the number one seed in the East, going 59-23 on the year. DeMar DeRozan was the team’s most dangerous player during the regular season with 23.0 PPG. Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka, and Jonas Valanciunas help shape out the rest of the Raptors’ loaded unit, and in most cases would be a favorite to reach the Finals. However, across the board Toronto simply cannot match-up with the Cavaliers and have no one capable of slowing down LeBron. The team’s recent struggles in the playoffs that includes back-to-back exits against Cleveland also hurts the outlook of Drake’s team heading into the playoffs.

Lastly, there are the 76ers who “trusted the process” to a record of 52-30 and a third seed in the East. Ben Simmons is the favorite to win the rookie of the year award after averaging 15.8 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 8.2 assists per game and is complemented with one of the league’s most exciting stars in Joel Embiid, who earned a spot in the All Star Game for the first time this season. Simmons and Embiid have helped Philly boast one of the league’s most entertaining and young teams.

The last part, however, is what will hold them back in the end. In the playoffs, the 76ers would eventually have to meet up with LeBron if they hope to reach the Finals. James, as mentioned earlier, has made an appearance in each of the last seven NBA Finals and is the definition of playoff experience, something that the young Sixers core is currently without. The Sixers might be fun, but the East still belongs to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Prediction: Cavaliers defeat 76ers in six games to reach the NBA Finals

In years past, the Golden State Warriors have appeared to be nearly unbeatable due to the abundance talent on their roster. Since last season, four of Golden State’s five in the starting lineup consisted of two former MVPs in Kevin Durant and Steph Curry, with Draymond Green and Klay Thompson rounding out the rest of the fantastic four. Coming into the year, the first seed was nearly a given for the Warriors and another Finals appearance was likely.

Enter unfortunate injuries and a new top team in the West, and what was once a probability is hardly still a reality for Golden State. Curry and Durant have been forced to deal with injuries all season long, and now Steph is set to miss all of round one against the Spurs.

There are many questions swirling about how healthy this Warriors team truly is, and if either of their superstars are less than 100 percent, then this could be the year Golden State’s Finals streak comes to an end. And if one team were to break this streak, it’d be the Houston Rockets.

Houston finished the season with the NBA’s best record at 65-17, seven games better than the second place Warriors. James Harden put together yet another sensational seasons, leading the NBA in PPG with 30.4 and has averaged 8.8 assists and 5.4 rebounds per game. Harden is obviously one of the talents in the league, and had already made Houston one of the league’s most difficult offenses to slow down.

Then the Rockets went out and added Chris Paul to slot right in next to Harden in the backcourt. Paul nearly averaged a double-double alongside “The Beard,” putting up 18.6 PPG and 9.8 APG in 2017/18. They’re one of the more unstoppable point-shooting guard duos in recent history and are surrounded with plenty of talent, such as Clint Capela at center, Trevor Ariza at small forward, and Eric Gordon off the bench.

In a seven game Western Conference Finals series, this stacked Rockets lineup would get a shot at a Warriors team that is less than 100 percent.  No team has had a better shot at advancing past Golden State than this Houston team, and with nearly everything going their way this season, don’t be surprised if Harden, Paul and the Rockets represent the West in the NBA Finals.

Prediction: Rockets end Warriors’ Finals streak in seven games

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From the Bleachers: Predicting Finalists in Stanley Cup and NBA Playoffs