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2018 NHL Conference Final Preview for Pens fans

They’re still playing hockey, how should we feel about it?

San Jose Sharks v Vegas Golden Knights - Game Five Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

It’s a bitter pill to swallow for Penguins fans to see games on the schedule and none on them Pittsburgh.

How’s everyone’s bracket doing? Over at the the official Pensburgh Playoff Pool has ADDDDDDD as the leader. My picks have STUNK. I only went 5-3 in the first round, but I was telling myself that it was fine since all four of my conference final picks (PIT, TB, WIN, SJ) were still alive. I went 2-2 in the second round, not terrible for picks made in April but there goes my chance at winning the bracket. I did have the Pens running out of gas and falling to Tampa, though. Winnipeg was my WC Champ, so I could still get my SC Final matchup.

Anyways back to reality, there’s still some hockey on and if you’re watching, here’s what to look for.

West: Las Vegas Golden Knights vs. Winnipeg Jets

Ex-Penguins to cheer for (Vegas): Marc-Andre Fleury, James Neal, David Perron, Deryk Engelland, Ryan Reaves

Ex-Penguins to cheer for (Winnipeg): Umm, Joe Morrow played half a season in WB/S, does he count? Probably not being as he’s a healthy scratch these days.

Obviously this stops and starts with Marc-Andre Fleury. The former Pens netminder had his best season ever going 29-13-4, with a .927 save % and 2.27 GAA, the latter two marks being career highs. He’s followed that up with an even stronger post-season so far going 8-2 with an eye-popping .951 sav%, 1.53 GAA and 4 shutouts, all of those numbers leading the league. At this point, Fleury is the front runner for the Conn Smythe, though we’re only halfway home.

Vegas has been the darlings of the league, defying all expectation. They’re not truly a fluke - they have good skill players (Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith, William Karlsson, James Neal, David Perron) and some young defensemen that are really coming on (Shea Theodore, Nate Schmidt) in front of Fleury.

But Vegas has to be considered the under dog based on the depth of their opponent, possibly for the first time in these playoffs. The Jets are a very high-powered team.

Mark Scheifele is probably the most under-rated player in the league; he’s got 11 goals in 12 playoff games so far and is a big, fast, skilled center. Blake Wheeler is his setup man with 3 goals and 12 assists. A trio of young players (Patrik Laine, Kyle Conner, Nikolaj Ehlers) add game-breaking speed and skill with the puck.

Vegas said they helped retain salary for the Pens to get Derick Brassard so that Brassard couldn’t be traded to Winnipeg. The Jets moved on and acquired Paul Stastny from St. Louis. Unfortunately for Vegas, Stastny has been a smashing success putting up 6 goals and 8 assists these playoffs. Maybe they should have let WIN get Brassard after all..

Fleury has rolled through these playoffs but he is going to have his work cut out for him in a major way with all that speed and skill coming his way.

Bottom line: We won’t and can’t pick against this guy after the playoff he’s been having. Vegas in 7 to continue their magical season

East: Washington Capitals vs. Tampa Bay Lightning

Ex-Penguins to cheer for (Tampa): Chris Kunitz

Washington finally gets over their Pittsburgh hurdle and into a conference final for the first time in the Alex Ovechkin era. The Capitals are a lesser team on paper than their powerhouse 2016 and 2017 Presidents Trophy teams, yet more successful in the playoffs this time around. Go figure.

What’s no surprise at all is that Tampa has made it this far. They’re loaded up for a long playoff run and have won both of their series in an easy-breezy 5 games. They look like a juggernaut that’s capable of going all the way with fast, skilled forwards buzzing through opponents, a suffocating defense that stepped up to the challenge of making quick work of a very good Boston team and top line.

As far as Kunitz goes, he’s basically an after-thought on this team. At 9:48 he plays the lowest amount per game of any player. He’s got 0 points this playoff. But he’s still chugging along, and who knows, might have some more Eastern Conference Finals magic left, after all he did end the 2017 ECF with a double OT goal and has a knack for playing his best in big moments.

Both of these teams feature good power plays, three top defensemen aside, high-end skill. The difference appears to be more speed and talent for the Lightning among 3rd and 4th line players. While many might think of a guy like Yanni Gourde (64 regular season points) as the unknown player, the real name to watch is Anthony Cirelli. The 20 year old former 3rd round pick scored 11 points in 18 regular season games at the end of the year and has 2 points these playoffs. He is a player who has shined in junior playoffs and WJC tournaments and seems to elevate his game at the right time. Watch for him to be a more important/known player after this series than when he enters it.

Bottom line: Tampa’s deeper and Nicklas Backstrom might play but probably won’t be 100%. Simply put, it’s the end of the line for the Caps. Lightning in 5.