It will be the Pens and Preds for the Stanley Cup
Ten years ago, the Ottawa Senators met the Anaheim Ducks in their first Stanley Cup final.
Could history repeat itself this spring? We’re guessing not. Here are our picks for the Eastern and Western Conference finals: EASTERN CONFERENCE Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Ottawa Senators Pick: Penguins in six. Why: Just as they did during the regular season, the Sens survived on slim margins and the superb play of Erik Karlsson to beat both the Bruins and Rangers, but their run stops here against a deeper, more intimidating Penguins opponent.
The reigning Cup champs may not be at full strength, but MarcAndre Fleury has done more than a passing job (.927 save percentage) in place of Matt Murray, and a patchwork defence missing Kris Letang had just enough to get by the Columbus Blue Jackets and Presidents’ Trophy-winning Washington Capitals.
Oh, and Pittsburgh still has the best player on the planet in Sidney Crosby, and capable depth supporting his cause.
The Pens come out at you with wave upon wave of speed and skill, an attack that eventually doomed the Caps in the third period of Game 7. They’re especially dangerous when head coach Mike Sullivan splits Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel and forces opponents to contend with three threatening scoring lines — Crosby on one, Malkin on another and Kessel on a third.
Neither the Bruins nor Rangers had that quality of depth up front, and the Sens defence probably isn’t equipped to handle it — even with Karlsson shining brighter than all others this spring. Head coach Guy Boucher might just end up playing the 26-year-old a whole bunch more than even his usual 30 or so minutes and hope the captain’s brilliance (13 points in 12 games) keeps Ottawa going another round.
The Sens don’t have one dominant offensive line for the Pens’ Letang-less defence to contend with, as Boucher prefers to spread his threats around. That might make it easier — at least compared to their first two opponents — for the Penguins to cope without their lead defender.
One way this series could swing in Ottawa’s favour: Craig Anderson. While he’s had a so-so playoffs so far, the 35-year-old certainly has the talent to steal a couple games and make things interesting.
Barring that, this looks like the end of the line for the Sens. WESTERN CONFERENCE Anaheim Ducks vs. Nashville Predators
Pick: Predators in six.
Why: Back in mid-November Predators GM David Poile was nervous about the look of his reconstructed team, which replaced captain Shea Weber for P.K. Subban in a thunderous off-season trade.
“We haven’t got off to the start that we hoped we would,” Poile said. “It’s early, but we need to start playing at a higher level and start getting more wins.”
The Preds eventually found their way to reach their first conference final this spring, and are the pick here to go a step beyond that.
The Ducks, who vanquished some demons in getting past the Edmonton Oilers in seven games last round, are a tough team to bet against. Ryan Getzlaf was dominant against the Oilers, Ryan Kesler neutralized Connor McDavid and the Anaheim defence, if not quite Nashville’s equal, is right there in the same ballpark.
The Ducks also have a more threatening group of forwards than the Preds — what with Getzlaf, Kesler, Rickard Rakell, Jakub Silfverberg and Corey Perry — and may just have a slight edge in the series if a Kesler-led unit shuts down the dangerous trio of Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg and the rising Viktor Arvidsson.
The Preds can find offence in other ways though, primarily from an engaged and highly mobile defence — Subban, Ryan Ellis and Roman Josi have 24 points combined in the playoffs — and Nashville’s speedy style might cause problems for the Ducks as was the case last spring when they beat Anaheim in the first round.
It’s goal prevention which gives Nashville the edge in this series though.
The Preds gave up next to nothing against Chicago in the first round — three goals! — and increasingly little to St. Louis in the second round. A big reason, beyond that vaunted defence, is Pekka Rinne. The 34-year-old goaltender is locked in right now, stopping 123-of-126 shots against the Blackhawks (.976 save percentage) and 151-of-162 against the Blues (.932).
John Gibson, his counterpart in this series, has looked just OK through two rounds (.908 save percentage) and was replaced by the departed Frederik Andersen during that seven-game series last spring.
Can Gibson raise his level enough to outplay a scorching Rinne? The betting here is no.
Second-round picks: 3-1. Overall record: 8-4