NHL Conference Finals Preview

Posted: 05/12/2017 by levcohen in Hockey

Two rounds into the NHL playoffs, we’re left with a question we have had to ask a lot recently: can anyone stop the Pittsburgh Penguins? I really believed that this would be the year that the Capitals would finally exorcize their black and yellow demons and advance to the third round (and eventually all the way to the Stanley Cup). But it wasn’t to be. The Capitals dropped three of the first four games, saw the pressure on them drop substantially, and then win two straight to set up Game 7. With the pressure back on, they came out all guns blazing in the first period but failed to score, and they eventually fell quietly, losing 2-0 and showing very little fight in the third period. I don’t usually subscribe to this type of theory, but it really felt like the moment was again too big for the Caps. Facing a team with a ton of playoff experience (they won the Cup last year, after all), the pressure got to them. This quote from Nick Backstrom speaks volumes: “We didn’t lose the series tonight, we lost it in the first three games, four games.” Sure, the Caps were down 3-1 in the series. But they fought back and had a Game 7 ON THEIR HOME ICE! The Backstrom quote fits in with the general theme of the Capitals lacking postseason confidence. I’d bet that Capitals fans are very torn about their team right now. They’ve won consecutive President’s Trophies, but they always flame out in the first or second round of the playoffs. Could we see the Caps blow it up this summer with a trade of Alex Ovechkin and others? After 13 years of consistent playoff disappointments, I wouldn’t doubt it.

The Penguins have now beaten the Columbus Blue Jackets (+54 GD, 108 points) and Capitals (+81, 118) in the first two rounds. Of the other three teams left in the playoffs, the Ducks were easily the best regular season team (+23, 105 points). The Penguins also have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, good secondary scoring, and a scorching hot Marc-Andre Fleury. The narrative should be about the Penguins. But this Penguins team isn’t that great! Fleury is going to cool off because he’s not that good, and the Penguins are missing Kris Letang, their top defenseman. The return of Matt Murray gives the Penguins insurance for Fleury, but the point is that this is a very beatable team that’s really thin at the blue line. Let’s get into the two matchups.

Penguins over Senators in 6:

The Senators have done very well to get this far. This feels like a long time ago, but the Senators lost 10 of their final 15 regular season games and entered the playoffs with a -2 goal differential, making them the only playoff team who allowed more goals than they scored. Thanks to the heroics of Erik Karlsson, an explosion from defensive-minded forward Jean-Gabriel Pageau (seven goals in the playoffs, including four in one game), and some timely goals (5-1 in overtime), the Sens have squeaked through to the third round. They’re just a +1 in the playoffs, but they have a 7-2 record in one goal games. That’s a fluke, but some things don’t have time to correct themselves in the playoffs. Hopefully for Ottawa, the Sens’ performance in one goal games is one of those things.

It’d better be, because the Penguins have a pretty clear talent advantage in this series. With Crosby fully recovered from the concussion he suffered against the Capitals, they have their full allotment of offensive firepower. Malkin has 18 points in 12 playoff games, making him a favorite for the Conn Smythe trophy (given to the best playoff performer). Crosby has 14 points in 11 games, and Jake Guentzel has nine goals. The fact that I haven’t even talked about the immensely talented Phil Kessel yet says it all. The Penguins have 41 goals in the playoffs, good for 3.42 per game. Now, the Senators are fairly stingy defensively, thanks in large part to Craig Anderson, who’s a solid goalie. I think they’ll get under Crosby’s skin a little bit and make things difficult for the Penguins. But Anderson is going to have to steal a couple of games for the Senators to win this series. Ottawa’s a gritty team, and Karlsson’s an outstanding player, but this is probably the right time for the Senators to be sent home.

Predators over Ducks in 6:

Aside from the Penguins, the Ducks have been the best offensive team in the playoffs. They also rank first of remaining teams in playoff Fenwick (shots+missed shots for over total shots, 54.68%). I can’t say I watched a lot of the Ducks in the regular season, so I don’t know if they’re playing a lot better than they did in the regular season, but their puck possession numbers suggest that they are. Going from below-average in the regular season to tops in the playoffs is a heck of a swing. A lot of that probably has to do with the fact that neither Calgary nor Edmonton is a great defensive team. The Nashville Predators have been great defensively in the playoffs. They’ve given up 14 goals in 10 games. Pekka Rinne has a .951 save percentage and has looked unbeatable at times. As I wrote about before the second round, the Preds have four tremendous defensemen (great now, maybe problematic come the expansion draft). Roman Josi, P.K. Subban, Mattias Ekholm, and Ryan Ellis are all averaging upwards of 23 minutes per game. Subban and Ekholm have been much more effective than Josi and Ellis so far in the playoffs, but all four are capable of slowing down the hot Anaheim attack. That’s the matchup to look out for in this game: can Ryan Getzlaf, Jakob Silfverberg, Corey Perry, Rickard Rakell, and Ryan Kesler keep up their barrage of shots at the net against Nashville’s defense? Can they get those shots past the red-hot Rinne?

Nashville’s offensive attack is much more balanced than Anaheim’s. While the Ducks rely on skilled forwards Getzlaf and Silfverberg (15 combined goals in 11 games), the Predators have been getting a lot of scoring from defensemen. Ellis leads the team with nine points, and Josi and Subban have eight and seven apiece. I wrote about Nashville’s great first line before the last round, and Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg, and Viktor Arvidsson have continued to drive play when on the ice (all three have FF% of 54%+). But the goals dried up for them against St. Louis, as the first line tallied just two goals in the second round. Forsberg and Arvidsson were both 30 goal scorers, and they’re going to have to light the lamp more often. Luckily, they’re now facing a goalie who gave up three goals on six shots in Anaheim’s 7-1 loss to Edmonton in Game 6. That game obviously inflates his save percentage, but even excluding it he had just a .909 save percentage against the Oilers. Gibson’s just 23-years-old, and this is his first playoffs as the full-time starter. It’s worth wondering whether fatigue is getting to him. If it is, and Gibson continues to give up three goals per game, the Ducks are going to have a tough time winning this series. He gave up 3+ goals in five of the seven games this series, and the Ducks went 3-2 in those games. But give the Predators three goals and they’re probably going to win. That’s why I’m taking Nashville in six games, setting up a pretty intriguing Stanley Cup Final (for neutral fans, probably the Final we should be rooting for if we want a good, long series).

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