Playoff-tested teams meet underdogs in NHL Conference Finals
Welcome to the NHL’s version of the Frozen Four. We saw two series go to the final game, while two surprise teams seek to continue their underdog run for Lord Stanley’s Cup. After the Predators and Ducks squared off last night, the tension is mounting as the season wraps up. What will unfold in the Conference Finals?
Eastern Conference Finals: Ottawa Senators vs. Pittsburgh Penguins
Season Series: Ottawa 2-1-0 (Penguins 1-1-1)
The Ottawa Senators, who once desperately held on to a playoff spot, are one of two teams in the East left standing. Just like everyone predicted. They haven’t reached this point just on luck though. After a distributed offense dispatched the Boston Bruins in Round One, Ottawa eliminated the New York Rangers in six games in the Conference Semifinals.
The Senators are getting a great combination of solid individual performances and overall team production. They did not score the first goal in any of the first five games against the Rangers. Despite that, they dismantled four two-goal deficits and scored seven times in the final five minutes of regulation and overtime. Their determination was impressive all series long. Their adjustments in Game Six were just as great. Scoring first, they put three back on the blue line and bottled up New York’s offense in the neutral zone. This formation wasn’t as apparent early on, but they changed their strategy and it worked.
Ottawa has to thank Erik Karlsson a a few others for bringing them to this point. The Norris Trophy candidate is playing on two fractures in his foot. Even so, he averaged 29 minutes per game on the ice and either recorded a point or was on the ice for every Sens’ game-winning goal. He wasn’t the only superstar. Jean-Gabriel Pageau scored four times in Game Two and limited an anemic Rangers special teams to two power play scores in 24 chances. In net, Craig Anderson wasn’t his sharpest, but he stood tall with 37 saves in the clincher. On a team that has a top-three defenseman, overproducing contributions from the role players are gravy.
The defending Cup champion Pittsburgh has a number of star players, though their top guy is hobbled. Sidney Crosby sustained a concussion in Game Three against the Washington Capitals. Crosby later returned in Game Five but took a few hits that led to questions about his overall health. Nonetheless, the Penguins took down the Caps in seven games to reach the Conference Finals.
Everyone who is healthy aids the cause. Evgeni Malkin leads all players with 18 postseason points. Jake Guentzel’s nine goals are also tops in the playoffs. Marc-Andre Fleury continues to stand on his head. Pittsburgh has multiple weapons that are moving the puck and scoring. Save for Guentzel, most of the players here have playoff experience as well. The Penguins know how to win in the postseason, even with defensemen Kris Letang and Trevor Daley nursing injuries.
The Senators are a great penalty killing team and they’ve shown unparalleled determination and heart. You can’t measure that. Pittsburgh is ailing and their special teams weren’t good against Washington, but they’re stacked on all four lines and ride a hot goalie. You can measure that. Pittsburgh in 6.
Western Conference Finals: Nashville Predators vs. Anaheim Ducks
Season Series: Anaheim 2-1-0 (Nashville 1-1-1)
Smashville is rocking after reaching the conference finals for the first time in franchise history. Bridgestone Arena is selling out and ratings are up in the area as fans have Stanley Cup aspirations. The Preds beat two deep teams in the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues. Their penalty kill is 21-for-24 this postseason, and they’ve scored more than one goal in eight of ten games. Everything is clicking for the Predators, and it’s made Pekka Rinne’s job easier.
Rinne played well against the Blues. After allowing six goals in the first two games, he allowed five the rest of the way. What was impressive to watch was his poise. He stayed with the puck off rebounds and screens every time the Blues threatened. His postseason save percentage stands above 95 percent, which is easily a career-high. The 34 year-old has to continue his sharp play.
Nashville has a tough matchup against the Ducks. Overcoming two three-goal deficits and a 7-1 road loss, Anaheim sent the Edmonton Oilers home in seven captivating games. Anaheim is fast and physical, meaning they can get through the intense Nashville back line in the neutral zone. The Preds offense not only has to face Hampus Lindholm and Cam Fowler, but Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler are aggressive two-way players.
Getzlaf is coming off a monstrous series versus the Oilers. He recorded five goals and 10 points with +7 rating on the ice. Jakob Silfverberg broke out with five tallies himself. Kesler and Corey Perry were quiet to start, but ended the series on high notes. Rickard Rakell is dangerous on the top line with Getzlaf and Perry. This is a top-heavy Anaheim lineup. If they continue to succeed at this rate, they could advance to their first Stanley Cup Final since 2007.
Both teams run deep on both sides of the puck. P.K. Subban and Roman Josi anchor Nashville’s blue line, while Getzlaf and Kesler lead the offense. Anaheim’s young defense faces an underrated Preds offense. If there’s one overwhelming advantage, it’s goaltending. Rinne has been hot; John Gibson has been inconsistent, at worst. It gives Nashville the edge. Predators in 7.
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