NHL conference finals predictions: Sharks finally win West; Pens stay hot

We’ve finally reached the stage of the postseason where if you win the series, you get some hardware. The conference champions will be crowned soon in the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs, with the field finally set.

In the East, the Pittsburgh Penguins will meet the defending Eastern Conference champion Tampa Bay Lightning in a battle for the Prince of Wales Trophy. The two clubs have been incredibly impressive to date this postseason and each roster boasts a lot of players with playoff experience. The Lightning made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final last year, while the Penguins last played in the conference finals in 2013. Of all the teams playing, only the Penguins have won the Cup in the past decade.

Over in the West, a pair of perennial postseason underachievers each still searching for their first title will be battling for the Clarence Campbell Bowl. The St. Louis Blues will also be looking for their first trip to the Stanley Cup Final since 1970, while the San Jose Sharks have never made it past this stage of the playoffs despite three previous trips to the conference finals since 2004.

Based on the four teams still standing, you can expect a pair of highly competitive series that could take a while to be decided. Here’s a look at our predictions for each of the two conference finals, along with some analysis below. See how we made out with our predictions in the first round and the second round.

NHL Playoff Expert Picks
Series Adam Gretz
@AGretz
Chris Peters
@ChrisMPeters
Eastern Conference Final
(2) Pittsburgh Penguins vs.
(2) Tampa Bay Lightning

6 games

7 games
Western Conference Final
(2) St. Louis Blues vs.
(3) San Jose Sharks

7 games

6 games

Why the Penguins will win the East (Gretz): In some ways I think the Lightning are going to present a tougher matchup for the Penguins than the Washington Capitals did. That doesn't mean Tampa Bay is a better team than Washington, but the Lightning do play a style (more of a speed game as opposed to a physical, overpowering game) that would seem to match up better with the Penguins. They have yet to face a team like that this postseason. That said, this Pittsburgh team is playing some fantastic hockey right now and is getting offense from all four lines. Even if Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin don't score like you want them to, they have other players that can beat you. They have a goalie that is playing fantastic, an underrated defense and one of the fastest groups of forwards in the league. That is going to be difficult to match up with.

Why the Lightning will win the East (Peters): Admittedly, this is mostly a gut feeling. A lot of the signs point to the Penguins being the team that should win the series, but there’s something special about this Lightning team. The fact that they could get either or both of Anton Stralman or Steven Stamkos back is a huge reason this series could be even more interesting than it already is. However, even if they don’t get both back, Tampa Bay still has Victor Hedman and Ben Bishop , two of the absolute best players in this postseason. The Penguins are not often going to have an easy matchup despite their tremendous forward depth because they’ll probably see Hedman every other shift. The Bolts also have multiple players that are scoring at a high clip and play an attacking style of hockey that Pittsburgh may see a lot of themselves in. Getting so close to the Stanley Cup last year will help fuel this team in what should prove to be a very difficult series.

Why the Sharks will win West (Peters): Despite the Blues finally getting over the hump to reach their first Western Conference finals in 15 years, there were moments in each of their first two series where you could see some of the cracks in their game. Even though the Sharks went seven games against the Predators, there were very few instances in their series where you could definitively say they were outplayed. Additionally, the quickness with which the Sharks ousted the Los Angeles Kings in the first round sticks firmly in my mind. On top of all of that, the Sharks have the good balance of being an attacking team with some physicality. They defend far better than the Stars and have more depth than the Blackhawks on their blue line. San Jose also has been getting competent goaltending from Martin Jones through the postseason. There is no question that the Blues have talent, depth and goaltending, too, but the Sharks have a really good mix to match up well. Getting to the conference finals is not going to be enough for San Jose. It has been there before recently enough and this team looks like it has what it takes to be a cut above and make franchise history.

Why the Sharks will win the West (Gretz): For all of the talk about how the Sharks are disappointments in the playoffs, this will be their fourth trip to the Western Conference finals since 2004, and at this moment this team seems to be like San Jose's best one and best shot to finally get over the hump and get to the Stanley Cup Final. The Sharks' top guys, whether it's Joe Thornton , Patrick Marleau , Joe Pavelski , Logan Couture  or Brent Burns , are all playing fantastic, and their depth players have taken a big step forward from where they were earlier this season. The Blues are an outstanding team that can shut things down defensively, but even with that defense, and even with a superstar like Vladimir Tarasenko up front, I wonder if they can match what the Sharks can do offensively. 

Why the Blues could win the West (Peters): So neither of us picked the Blues, but we didn't want them to feel left out. They have every reason to be confident going into their first conference finals in 15 years. One of the biggest factors for them heading into this series is goaltender Brian Elliott , who has been a rock in net for the Blues this postseason. But after that, it's their forward depth up front that could give the Sharks matchup problems. This is where the Blues might be able to separate a bit. They have three lines with at least one scorer on it and all of them seem to have some good chemistry. They'll get their chances. Defensively, the Blues are going to have their hands full, but we've seen some strong performances out of Alex Pietrangelo this postseason. In the end, the Blues are going to have to try to attack the Sharks because we know from each of the past two series that St. Louis runs the risk of playing too cautious. The more they avoid that, the better their chances become to win and break a decades-long drought between trips to the Stanley Cup Final.

The Eastern Conference finals should be incredibly fast-paced. (USATSI)
The Eastern Conference finals should be incredibly fast-paced. (USATSI)

CBS Sports Writer

Chris Peters has been a hockey writer for CBS Sports since 2012. Prior to that, he wrote for numerous outlets and edited the United States of Hockey blog, covering the sport at all levels. Peters also... Full Bio

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