Into the Boards: The Conference Finals
Welcome back to Into the Boards, folks! It’s been quite some time since we last posted, but there certainly has not been any shortage of hockey. The conference semifinals were absolutely electric. We saw Sid and the Pens almost blow it, but they eventually came out on top yet again (despite us predicting otherwise, but when are predictions ever right?). The New York Rangers also fell to the Ottawa Senators, probably because of their terrible defense and some lackluster coaching. Out West, the mighty Connor McDavid and the Oilers came up short ever so slightly in a game seven heartbreaker against the Ducks. And finally, we saw Smashville continue their conquest by ousting the Blues in six on the back of P.K. Subban, who is unarguably the coolest player in the NHL.
With Round Two behind us, we are slowly but surely running out of hockey, so let’s get to our conference finals breakdown!
Eastern Conference Final Matchup
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Ottawa Senators
Winner: Pittsburgh Penguins in six games
With Alexander Ovechkin and company left in their wake, one can’t help but think that Pittsburgh’s hardest hockey is behind them. That is not to say that the Ottawa Senators are not a formidable opponent, as they’ve proven that with Guy Boucher’s excellent coaching and a couple of superstar performances by Erik Karlsson, anything is possible. Regardless, I couldn’t watch Pittsburgh’s amazing counterattack style against Washington without thinking about how much easier it would be for them to take out Ottawa. Washington absolutely peppered the Penguins in every game of their seven game series and yet Pittsburgh still managed to win almost entirely by capitalizing (no pun intended) on odd-man rushes and Washington’s mistakes. The logic here is that if the Penguins can emerge victorious after 40 shot-against nights from the Capitals, they can weather the storm of a much less potent Ottawa offense that finished 22nd in goals against in the regular season (as opposed to Pittsburgh, who finished first).
The x-factor here, and the thing that I think could contribute to Ottawa taking a game or two, is Marc-Andre Fleury. Fleury has been nothing short of fantastic in these playoffs, posting a .927 save percentage on 423 shots, an average of 35 shots per game, most of which he faced in the seven games against Washington. That being said, Flower posted an ugly .909 save percentage and a 3.02 goals against average during the regular season, so there is some reason to believe that he could certainly level out, which he already showed signs of doing in the latter half of the Capitals series. If Fleury’s play drops a little bit and Ottawa manages to hit him with an amount of shots even close to what Washington did, the Letang-less Pens defense could be exposed a bit. That being said, I don’t know that Ottawa has the firepower to make that a real concern for the Penguins, but hey, I love a good upset and I would absolutely love to see Boucher’s 1-3-1 trap ruin Pittsburgh’s offense and send Craig Anderson to the finals. One can dream.
None of this is to say that the Penguins have a cakewalk in front of them, as the Senators already defied most predictions by beating the Rangers and proved that they could skate with a high-flying New York offense. They frustrated the Rangers with their patient counterattack style and showed the world that they could conquer one of the very best in net, so they will need to carry that over to Pittsburgh to solve the red hot Marc-Andre Fleury.
*shout out to the Ottawa Senators for eliminating the Rangers. Sorry Blueshirts fans, no hard feelings.
Western Conference Final Matchup
Anaheim Ducks vs. Nashville Predators
Winner: Anaheim Ducks in seven games
Round two has taught us that the Nashville Predators are the real deal, showing tremendous strength and shut-down goaltending. The Predators have all the momentum in the world after they steamrolled the St. Louis Blues in just six contests and are the clear fan favorite to make it to the Cup. The Edmonton Oilers put up quite the battle but unfortunately could not seal the deal in an epic game seven finale. The Anaheim Mighty Ducks came back with a vengeance from an embarrassing game six loss, took the lead early, and played shutdown puck to clinch a strong 2-1 victory and advance to the next level.
The Predator’s success relies heavily on the shoulders of Pekka Rinne and their core four defenseman. Pekka has been putting the team on his back, sporting a .950 save percentage, and has stonewalled players like Patrick Kane, and Vladimir Tarasenko in the two previous rounds. Nashville’s core four consists of the top two defensive pairings and PK Subban and Roman Josi leading the power play units. These two must continue to quarterback from the blue line to keep the team offensively dangerous from anywhere on the ice.
Edmonton’s defense had a hard time protecting the front of the net against the Ducks, so the Preds will need to keep it aggressive in the paint and not let the Ducks’ big centermen get to Pekka Rinne. The Mighty Ducks have shown a lot of of heart and resilience during the playoffs. Consistently rising to the occasion, Anaheim has gotten the job done and been clutch at the most perfect times. The gritty forwards are keeping play aggressive and taking control down low with Ryan Getzlaf leading the charge. Whether it’s on a breakaway, a redirect, or a scrappy tap-in from the doorstep, this team always seems to find a way to put the puck in net. The Ducks have had issues with choking in the past, but this year they are holding leads and finding ways to come back and win even when trailing late in games.
The strong point for the Ducks going into the matchup is that their veteran players have all been in the playoffs before and carry a chip on their shoulders from recent years. Their other strength is their tenacity and will to persevere even when the momentum seems to be against them. Anaheim needs to stay aggressive in their defensive zone and put themselves in between the puck and net. The big centermen in Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler needs to keep fighting for position in front of the net and try to pester and test the patience of the Preds’ netminder.
This matchup is completely up in the air as either team has the ability to advance with their recent play. Although the Predators are the fan favorite, I have to go with the Ducks this round. They haven’t let me down this season and I can see these guys pulling together and having what it takes to make the finals. That being said, I truly believe whoever scores the first goal has a great chance of the winning the matchup. These teams’ bread and butter is taking the lead and holding it, so quick goals can yield a high reward. Either way, it’s going to be a tremendous battle that we can all get behind and enjoy.