The stage is set for the final series of Season 7 against two fast-paced teams capable of putting up goals in bunches.
The Belfast Giants are the favorites to win their third Cup in four seasons, but the underdog role doesn’t seem to bother the surprise of the playoffs – Lisbon H.C. – at all.
Lisbon, which is propelled by their all-star top line of John Tavares, Steven Stamkos and Matt Moulson, suffered a couple of losing streaks during the regular season and entered the playoffs as only the sixth seed in the Southern Conference. They had a pretty lousy February in which they went 4-9 with a four-game win streak sandwiched by two five-game losing streaks. Lisbon had to wade through some pretty tough company to get to the finals as they defeated Madrid in 6 games, Athens in 7, and then Bratislava in 4 games including three straight in overtime.
Belfast missed out on the President’s Trophy due to tie-breaking criteria and they have looked strong in the playoffs, getting by Stockholm in 6 games, Copenhagen in 4 and Moscow in 6 games. Their chief nemesis, defending champion Minsk, went down in the conference semifinals when Moscow’s David Backes scored with 23 seconds left in Game 7 of their series.
Lisbon and Belfast met three times during the regular season, with the Giants winning twice. The game Lisbon won was a 3-1 win with Niko Hovinen in goal for Belfast, and he is unlikely to see action in the Finals.
Here’s a quick preview of the series, including comments Rose threw in while she was waiting for her apple strudel to bake. It is delicious, if that counts.
Not surprisingly, the two best goalies in the playoffs have their teams in the finals. Jonathan Quick of Belfast has been spectacular and Kari Ramo of Lisbon hasn’t been far behind. Quick’s save percentage in the regular season was 91.7 and it’s gone up in the playoffs to 93.7 through 16 games. Ramo had an 89.8 save percentage in the regular season, and a much better 92.2 through 17 games in the playoffs.
Rose: Quick has been here before. In Season 5 and 6 he carried his team through to the Cup win and was voted the best player in the playoffs both times. It’s over folks. You can watch the games if you’d like, but I’ll ruin the ending for you by telling you Quick is going to steal a couple of games and win two more trophies for himself. Ramo is doing well, but Alexander Salak of Moscow had similar numbers and he couldn’t stop Belfast. Maybe this time, GM Chris Patton will be good enough to invite me to the celebration parties.
Belfast’s defense crew takes chances with the puck in their own zone in order to create scoring opportunities for their forwards and sometimes that pays off. Thanks to Quick, the blueliners can get away with the occasional carelessness. The bottom pair of Cody Franson and Micki Dupont have given the puck away 10 more times than they have taken it away in the playoffs. That’s dangerous and could hurt them if Stamkos, Tavares and Moulson are on the ice at the time. P.K. Subban has been very careless with the puck in the playoffs and some of it might be due to fatigue. At 27 minutes per contest, he plays much more than do any of his teammates. But he has scored 3 times in the playoffs, so that sure helps. Oliver Ekman-Larsson leads the Belfast defense in scoring with 11 points in 16 games and he is a key person in this series.
Lisbon’s Jared Spurgeon has been a force in the playoffs and he could sting Belfast as he did against Madrid, Athens and Bratislava. The little guy has 5 goals and 12 points in the playoffs, with a plus 11 rating and a plus 8 turnover ratio. Partner Drew Doughty hasn’t been as noticeable, but with 33 shot blocks and 41 hits, he has taken care of a lot of trouble in front of Ramo. Jonas Holos has been an unsung hero of the Lisbon defense in the playoffs and if he keeps it up, Belfast will be caught by surprise a few times. Holos is second among the Lisbon defense corps in hits and first in turnover ratio at plus 10.
Rose: There are so many lightning-fast skaters on these two bluelines that I don’t expect many odd-man rushes or breakaways in this series. I think these games will be won and lost by the team’s ability to set up in the offensive zone and get these defensemen to stop moving. That gives Lisbon a slight advantage because Belfast likes to take penalties. They’re such bad boys. See, I watch games. I’m not just here for my pretty face. I have been really impressed by Lisbon’s Holos lately. He has been tough and competent throughout the playoffs. I would like to introduce him to my niece. Anybody know how to say “Treat her right” in Norwegian?
There won’t be a weak forward line on the ice for either team in this series, so don’t expect a weak link to cost his team. And don’t leave during play to make a sandwich because you will miss something and it will probably be a nice goal.
Lisbon has put together a scary line of John Tavares, Steven Stamkos and Matt Moulson and they have shown great chemistry throughout the season and through three rounds of the playoffs, where they’ve tallied 25 times in 17 games. That’s powerful. It can easily be argued that Lisbon wouldn’t have made it this far without those three guys and it can also be argued the trio is capable of winning the Portuguese team a Cup. Tavares has been crafty and sneaky and when he gets passes to his wingers, they have been lethal. The game plan for Belfast will be to stop Tavares from creating. Secondary scoring has to come from the other Lisbon lines that are centered by veterans Joe Pavelski (a former Giant), Ryan Kesler and Mike Fisher. The Giants counter with Claude Giroux playing against the team that employed him for the first four seasons when it was still the Frankfurt Inferno. Evander Kane and James Neal are his wingers and the three have 21 goals together through 16 playoff games. The second line is almost as good as the first, with Nathan MacKinnon, Matt Duchene and Ondrej Palat clicking for 16 goals.
Rose: Despite what the commissioner says about these teams, Belfast has a blemish and mark my words, that feisty little Max Domi will expose it when the fourth lines match up. Domi has 5 goals in the 17 playoff games and that is 5 more than his counterpart Mikael Granlund has in at least the last 103 games. If Granlund scores, I will bake special strudels for him and his lovely parents. The top lines are both in the plus 8, plus 7 area during the playoffs, so I see them canceling each other out for the most part.
Belfast has been nearly unbeatable at home this season (36-5 during the regular season ad 7-1 in the playoffs) and they have home ice advantage in the Finals. Huge factor.
Belfast tends to be its own worst enemy. The Giants were third in the league in penalty minutes during the regular season and they average a penalty and a half more than Lisbon has been guilty of in these playoffs. It’s really not wise to give Tavares and Stamkos more room and time to operate. That could hurt Belfast.
Management is about equal, when comparing the two teams. Belfast GM Chris Patton and Lisbon GM Bryan Camara both list 11 championship banners on their profile pages. One of them will reach 12 in a week or so. The GMs do all the heavy lifting on these clubs. Coaches Alain Vigneault of Belfast and Willie Desjardins of Lisbon have been given powerful vehicles to drive and it’s their job to keep their eyes on the road. Vigneault has had much more success than has Willie, but no one can look down at what Desjardins has accomplished in the last month.
Commissioner: The Tavares line will come up with timely goals and win a Cup for Lisbon. I don’t see the Giants’ gambling defensemen being able to tighten up their game in time.
Rose: Jonathan Quick is too good. Claude Giroux’s line will keep pace with Tavares and it will be Cup No. 3 in Northern Ireland.