The NHL’s final four is set to get underway tonight in Anaheim with the Ducks hosting the Predators in game one of the Western Conference Final. Tomorrow night in the steel city the Penguins welcome the Ottawa Senators to town for the series opener in the Eastern Conference Final. Some thoughts below on which two teams will play for the cup.
Western Conference Final: Nashville Predators vs. Anaheim Ducks- Nashville has been the biggest surprise of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Peter Laviolette’s team was the final qualifier in the west and took the postseason by storm with a four-game sweep of the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round. Nashville kept things rolling in the conference semifinals against St. Louis winning in six games and has not lost at home through two rounds. Anaheim had a very straightforward first round, dispatching of the Calgary Flames in four games. But, things got complicated in the second round when the Ducks had to rally from a 2-0 series deficit against the upstart Edmonton Oilers to win in seven games.
For the Ducks, there have been many playoff disappointments in recent history. Maybe they exorcised the demons once and for all against the Oilers. In addition to dropping the first two games of the series, Anaheim overcame a three-goal deficit with three minutes left in game five to win in double overtime and bounced back from an early goal against in game 7. Or maybe the moment got to a young Edmonton team that had several key players getting their first taste of playoff hockey. While Nashville is in its first conference final ever, the Predators have made the playoffs in five of the previous seven seasons. Laviolette has been to the Stanley Cup Final with two other teams he coached and players like James Neal and P.K. Subban have played in the conference finals with other teams before. If Nashville is in the same situation Edmonton was in last round, don’t expect a similar letdown. Goaltender Pekka Rinne has been brilliant in 10 starts in the playoffs having allowed three goals or less in all 10 starts, posting two shutouts and sporting a 1.37 goals against average in those 10 starts. Nashville’s back end is better and goaltending is more consistent. I’ll take that over Anaheim’s abundance of offensive weaponry.
Pick: Predators in 6
Eastern Conference Final: Ottawa Senators vs. Pittsburgh Penguins
The Penguins enter this series as the favorite to win the cup after eliminating the Washington Capitals on Wednesday night at Verizon Center. Pittsburgh lost top defenseman Kris Letang for the year to a neck injury before the playoffs started. The Pens needed to make a goalie change before its playoff opener against Columbus thanks to a lower-body injury to Matt Murray and captain Sidney Crosby suffered a concussion in game three against Washington. Crosby returned in game five and Murray was available for game seven in the nation’s capital. Evgeni Malkin leads all players in points in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and Jake Guentzel is the goals leader. Justin Schultz has stepped up on the blue line with eight points in 13 playoff games and has the second highest ice time average for the Penguins in the playoffs. Marc-Andre Fleury looked like the goalie that won the cup in 2009 on Wednesday night in game seven against the Capitals. After laying an egg in game six, Pittsburgh restored order on the road and enters the conference final as a heavy favorite over Ottawa.
While it’s not as shocking as Nashville’s run, Ottawa still playing right now is rather impressive. Granted, the Senators did have home-ice advantage in both of their prior series in the East, but many experts looked at Ottawa’s first-round series against Boston as a coin flip and pegged the Senators as a clear underdog in the conference semifinals against the New York Rangers. Erik Karlsson has played through a foot injury and still looks like the best defenseman in the NHL. In the first five games against the Rangers, the Senators found themselves playing from behind for most of the regulation time, but managed to win game one late in the third period and steal games two and five in overtime. Ottawa went on to wrap up the series at Madison Square Garden and finally played with the lead for most of the way. One year ago, the Senators didn’t even make the playoffs, now they’re four wins from the Stanley Cup Final. Are they a team of destiny or will they simply be overmatched against Pittsburgh? It’s been a nice run, but the answer is likely the latter.
Pick: Pittsburgh in 5