The National Hockey League might not re-seed its teams after each playoff round, but that won’t stop us here at Allpuck from re-thinking our picks. How do the Conference Finals contenders look after some rugged second-round series? Read on …
EASTERN CONFERENCE FINAL
Pittsburgh Penguins (Metropolitan Division Champion) vs. Ottawa Senators (Atlantic Division Champion)
After surviving a grueling seven-game Metropolitan Division final against the NHL’s best regular season team in Washington, a banged-up Pittsburgh squad now faces an upstart Ottawa team that few expected to be here. Though the Penguins were rolling early against the Capitals, they were outmatched and outgunned in the series’ final four games. However, veteran goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury bailed out his teammates with spectacular individual performances in Game 4 and Game 7 to carry Pittsburgh into round three.
The defending champion Penguins still have a lot going right, including three solid scoring lines that Ottawa will have fits matching up against. Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel have been dynamic on the top line, while Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel are piling up points on the second line. Pittsburgh’s glaring weakness is on defense, but Justin Schultz is really raising his game to fill in for an injured Kris Letang. An injured Trevor Daley is eating up big minutes.
Ottawa rode its two best players as it rolled through the first two rounds. In six-game series wins over Boston and New York, Erik Karlsson was the playoffs’ best player. It could be argued that he is the NHL’s best two-way player at this very moment, an easier argument to make with every game in this postseason. Meanwhile, in goal Craig Anderson is playing terrific, which he always seems to do each spring, and that gives the Senators a chance to win every night. Ottawa’s one big advantage against the Penguins is on defense, as the combination of Karlsson, Dion Phaneuf and Marc Methot give the Senators a clear edge along the blue line. That being said, the combined offensive talent of the Bruins or Rangers doesn’t even come close to matching Pittsburgh. This group will be tested night in and night out in the Conference finals. On offense, Ottawa doesn’t have one line that can really match up against Pittsburgh’s top-two, but players like Kyle Turris, Bobby Ryan and Jean-Gabriel Pageau have provided just enough offense so far.
Ottawa is a great story, advancing into the third round of the playoffs in a year that most prognosticators thought just a playoff berth was a long shot. But after facing the easiest route to the third round, we will all find out if the Senators are for real when they face the battle-tested defending champions. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh beat two of the NHL’s best, and heaviest, teams in Columbus and Washington to get to this point. If the Penguins have enough left in the tank, which I think they do, a five-game series win over Ottawa will seem like a relative breeze.
WESTERN CONFERENCE FINAL
Anaheim Ducks (Pacific Division Champion) vs. Nashville Predators (Central Division Champion)
After falling into a 2-0 series hole against Edmonton, Anaheim roared back and finally won a Game 7 on home ice to remove one of the league’s best stories in the Oilers from the playoffs. The Ducks’ leaders came to the forefront. Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry played great, while two-way maven Ryan Kesler shutdown future superstar Connor McDavid. Forwards Jakob Silfverberg and Rickard Rakell have been a revelation in these playoffs, giving this team some much-needed offensive depth. Anaheim’s young and talented defense has also played well, with the exception of the forgettable Game 6 blowout they endured against Edmonton, where the Ducks had no answer for power forward Leon Draisaitl. Goaltender John Gibson played inconsistently in the series, but he had a big game when he needed it in Game 7. Anaheim might not be an exciting team, and are prone to slow starts, but they have veteran leadership second-to-none in these playoffs.
Nashville was the NHL’s best team through the first two rounds, sweeping heavily favored Chicago and then ousting a game St. Louis squad in six games. The Predators are also the NHL’s most complete team remaining, combining a great goaltender playing well in Pekka Rinne with the playoffs’ best defense. Stars like Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and P.K. Subban are contributing big goals while stifling opponents in their own end. Nashville’s biggest weakness for years was its offense, but a budding top line featuring Ryan Johansen, Viktor Arvidsson and Filip Forsberg is producing. Throw in some quality depth scorers (Colton Sissons, Mike Fisher, James Neal), a little bit of toughness and a lot of chemistry under coach Peter Laviolette, and it’s clear that the Predators are peaking at the right time.
With Anaheim finally getting over the hump in Game 7 against Edmonton, it would be easy to pick the Ducks, who seemed like the clear favorite in the West after Chicago was knocked out. However, something special is going on Nashville, and that makes it tough to pick against Predators. This should be a terrific series, but I like Nashville to advance in seven games.
STANLEY CUP FINAL
Pittsburgh over Nashville in six games