NHL Conference Finals: My bracket is dead, and I’m really happy.

Last night the Sharks finished out the series with a blowout victory of the predators to win their way into the Western Conference finals. It was an impressive victory. This is great for the franchise and for Sharks fans, and the team looks to be on a roll and playing quite well.

It also means that my playoff bracket is decimated and I’m completely dead moving into the conference finals. Oops.

I started out well, going 5-3 in the first round, and now, I’ve gone 0-4, and I’m 5-7 and done since every team I picked is now golfing.

I couldn’t be happier. With the possible exception of Washington/Pittsburgh, I think every team that won out clearly deserved to, and while I still think that the Capitals are a better team than the Penguins, Pittsburgh shows that experience under pressure matters and rallied around Matt Murray — great story there — to send the Capitals to the Shelf.

I felt all of the series so far have been fun, well-played and very closely balanced. Parity is a thing, and honestly, I like the results.

Conference Finals Predictions

Since all my original picks are gone, now it’s time to make new picks. Here’s how I see the conference finals playing out:

In the East, it’s Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is the veteran team that’s been there and done that, and don’t minimize how important that can be as the pressure mounts, and Matt Murray is a story that has given them motivation to support and play for the kid — and yet if he falters, Fleury is sitting there evidently ready to step in, and he’s a proven winner. Lots to like about the Penguins. But Tampa is on a roll, playing well, and I really like how that team’s been put together and how it plays. It’s a deep, scary and strong team, and I find myself thinking they’re going to win this round. So I’m taking the Lightning. Tampa in 6.

And in the West, is it time to start believing in the Sharks? They have far exceeded my expectations and this team seems to be in missing from God mode. If we could depend on the Sharks that arrived for game 7 against Nashville it’s no question: that team wins the Stanley Cup and nobody can stop them, but then, there’s the team that showed up for game 6 and let Nashville push them into game 7. So the Sharks still have things to prove. And the Blues: very much like the Sharks, lots to prove, fast, deep, goaltending and Hitchcock coaching them. This is a team that scares me a bit. But I’m going to hop on the San Jose bandwagon here, and pick the Sharks to make the finals — San Jose in 6. And I’ve probably doomed them by doing this.

A quick note about the Predators

Last night’s game was clearly devastating for the Predators, and it wasn’t their fault. The Sharks got on a roll and Nashville simply had no answer. It really had very little to do with the Preds and that game was all about the Sharks imposing their will on them — if you hear coaches talk about “imposing our will”, watch a tape of last night’s game and you’ll see what they’re talking about.

That said, what happened to the Preds last night can be emotionally crushing; it’s effectively the kind of loss the Sharks suffered two seasons ago against the Kings, and look what happened there. There’s going to be a lot of second guessing and soul searching with the franchise, and we can expect they’ll make some changes, but as we’re seeing with the Sharks, if the franchise deals with it rationally, it can come back stronger, and I don’t see much about the Predators that needs to be fixed. Sometimes, you need this kind of setback to understand how to move forward.

I feel bad for them today, because they’re a good team that got hit by a team that just rolled over them. It happens, and it just happened on a key night where everyone was watching.

And about the Sharks

After the playoff collapse a couple of years ago, there was a lot of questioning of the franchise and about Doug Wilson as GM. I include myself in that group, but with what we’ve seen this year he’s cleared up those questions for me. The franchise has made some mistakes over the last few years but he’s been willing to find fixes for them. Even last year, when the team made the playoffs, we have to remember they weren’t that far off the mark: my take on that season was they went too young on defense too quickly and all they needed was a little more depth to at least make the playoffs; at the same time, that reset was something the team needed to let some of the kids grow into their roles and understand how to move forward stronger, not just return to the same old good-not-great Sharks we’d been getting.

How far can this team go? I’m not sure. The game 7 Sharks look unbeatable. The game 7 Sharks haven’t shown up consistently, but the trend is that they’re showing up more often as the playoffs continue. My thought is that this team is figuring out how to be that way consistently and it’s coming together; it’s the sort of attitude that has made the Red Wings what they are as consistently as they’ve been.

At the same time, we’ve seen flashes of that before, and then it hasn’t stuck. So it’s a bit hard to fully believe yet. But I’m very encouraged.

It’s been a fun playoffs so far, and I expect this next round will be more of the same.