NHL Conference Finals Preview and Predictions
On Wednesday night, the second round of the NHL playoffs came to an end in one of the most exciting ways possible: not one, but TWO Game 7’s.
First, the Penguins went into Washington and shutout the Capitals on their way to another series win for Crosby over Ovechkin. After coming back from a 3-1 series deficit to tie the series at 3, the Capitals looked to head back to the Verizon Center and complete the comeback. Honestly, I was really looking forward to all the “Pittsburgh blew a 3-1 lead” jokes. And for the sake of my bracket, I was hoping that Washington would move on. However, the Penguins decided they didn’t want to be added to the list of teams to have blown a massive lead in the last year or so. Washington struggled to generate offense, Ovechkin was quiet and Marc-Andre Fleury was playing like it’s 2009, making 29 saves. Pittsburgh advanced with a 2-0 win, and will look to get ready to take on the Senators.
The second game of the night featured the young, up and coming Oilers against the older and experienced Ducks. After putting up 7 goals in Game 6, Edmonton looked to be in control of the series heading into the final game. But it turns out they should’ve saved some of those goals, because they could’ve used them in Game 7. After scoring early in the game, the Oilers offense was held in check, being held to just 3 shots in the 2nd period and 8 shots in the 3rd. Andrew Coglianio tied the game in the 2nd, Nick Ritchie scored the game winner a few minutes into the final period, and the Ducks managed to hold on for the win and will move on to play the Predators.
Western Conference – Anaheim Ducks (1) vs. Nashville Predators (WC2)
For a team that barely made the playoffs, the Predators are playing like they definitely belong there. After sweeping the best team in the Western Conference, the Chicago Blackhawks, Nashville beat St. Louis in 6, never looking too troubled along the way.
The Ducks also made quick work of their first round opponent, sweeping the Flames. Their second round was a bit different, as it took them all 7 games to knock off the Oilers.
Looking at who has the advantage in this round, I think the difference really comes down to the battle between the pipes. Rinne has put up unbelievable stats through the first two rounds of the playoffs. In Nashville’s 10 games, he has put up a 1.37 GAA and .951 SV%, allowing just 14 goals while going 8-2 to this point. A hot goalie can carry a team to a Stanley Cup, and Nashville will be looking to Rinne to continue his elite play on their way to the first Stanley Cup in franchise history.
At the other end of the ice, John Gibson will look to hold his own and help bring the Ducks back to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since 2007. While Gibson’s career has been off to a hot start, posting a 2.22 GAA and .922 SV% through his first 118 regular season appearances, he has struggled in his 17 playoff games. His playoff numbers this season have dropped to a 2.80 GAA and .908% SV%. While Anaheim has managed to keep winning despite some shaky goaltending, the Ducks will find themselves watching the Stanley Cup Finals from home if Gibson doesn’t find a way to steal a few games.
Nashville in 6.
I’m officially jumping on the Smashville bandwagon. The Predators have all the confidence in the world heading in to this series, and it shows in their play. Nashville’s defensemen are not only shutting down opposing scorers, but also providing a lot of offense as Ellis (9), Josi (8) and Subban (7) are in Top 5 of Nashville’s point scorers. Not that Anaheim isn’t a good team, but without a very questionable goalie interference non-call, it’s very likely that Edmonton would be here instead.
Eastern Conference – Pittsburgh Penguins (2) vs. Ottawa Senators (2)
When Matt Murray was injured in warm-up before Game 1 of their first round series against Columbus, it looked like the defending Champs had a shot at being the first team to repeat as Stanley Cup winners since the Red Wings did in 1997 and 1998. In steps the long-forgotten Marc-Andre Fleury, who has been sitting on the bench waiting to be picked up by Vegas this summer. Not only did Fleury hold his own, but he looked to be playing like the goalie that carried the Penguins to their 2009 Stanley Cup win. After beating the Jackets in 5, they then moved on to face the Capitals. The year the Caps were finally supposed to win, but Fleury and the Penguins had other plans and eventually finished off the Caps with a 2-0 shutout win in Game 7.
The Senators are a team that nobody expected to be around at this point. Despite finishing second their division and having home-ice advantage in their first two matchups, the Sens always seemed to be the underdog. I might still just be bitter (definitely still bitter), but I’m pretty convinced that a healthy Bruins team would’ve beaten Ottawa in the first round. But after beating my Bruins in 6, and then doing the same to the Rangers, the Sens find themselves up against their biggest challenge yet.
While everyone in Toronto is going to be focusing on the Kessel vs. Phaneuf matchup, the matchup everyone should be focused on is Crosby vs. Karlsson. Both players are the best on their teams, and arguably the best at their positions in the entire league. Despite a banged up foot, Karlsson’s play has been the biggest reason why Ottawa is still alive.
As much as this hurt me to watch, it was one of the nicest goals I’ve seen in a while. Karlsson has 2 goals and 11 assists in 12 games this post season. What’s the most impressive things about his goals? Both of them have been game winners. While I still don’t think Ottawa has much of a chance, this team will go as far as Karlsson can take them.
For Pittsburgh, Crosby has been and will be the most important player. He makes everyone around him better, and is able to generate chances from all over the ice. He’s been able to turn rookie Jake Guentzel into the teams leading goal scorer with 9 in the playoffs. With 14 points in 11 playoff games, Crosby is tied for second in scoring on the Penguins behind Malkin. Pittsburgh has a lot of offensive weapons, and Crosby has been the league’s most dangerous since his rookie season.
Penguins in 7.
Pittsburgh is the better team, but I think Ottawa will put up a fight. I’ve doubted them all postseason, so it might be time to give them some credit. Despite Ottawa’s feistiness, Pittsburgh is just too good. If Crosby gets shut down, Malkin, Kessel and even Hornqvist are there to provide more scoring. While Anderson has been solid for the Senators, Fleury has been even better. He’s shown that he still deserves to be a starting goalie in this league, and has unfortunately wasted the last few years of his prime sitting on a bench. Pittsburgh is going to move on in this series, but don’t expect it to be easy for them.