So far, the 2017 NHL playoffs has provided plenty of excitement. With overtime hockey galore in the first round and two thrilling Game 7s in the second round, this year’s matchups have been nothing short of spectacular.
What isn’t spectacular, though, are my picks. After predicting just half of the first round matchups correctly, I watched my second round picks prove to be even less stellar. I again went .500, picking the Western Conference correctly and the Eastern Conference incorrectly.
The Ottawa Senators have proven me wrong twice and the Washington Capitals, yet again, could not defeat the beast that is the Pittsburgh Penguins. Meanwhile, the Nashville Predators continue to play like they deserved higher than an eighth seed and the Anaheim Ducks shut down a quick Edmonton Oilers team in seven games. It has set up an interesting set of series in the Conference Finals.
(2) Ottawa Senators vs. (2) Pittsburgh Penguins
Season Series: Ottawa – 2-1-0
Senators 4-2 (Rangers)
Penguins 4-3 (Capitals)
How the Senators Win It
If there’s one feel-good team in the 2017 NHL playoffs, it’s the Senators.
It starts in the goal and out. There’s nothing more to say about the issues Craig Anderson and his family have dealt with this season, except that it clearly has not rattled his performance on the ice. After posting a 25-11-4 record with a 2.28 goals-against average and a .926 save percentage in the regular season, Anderson continues to roll in the playoffs. His 2.49 GAA and .914 save percentage may not be the best among the remaining goalies, but he’s put in the work and earned all eight victories his team has accumulated. He stood tall in the waning minutes against the New York Rangers in Game 6, securing a series victory and helping his franchise return to the Eastern Conference Final for the first time since 2007.
The Senators’ defensive game has pushed them past the Boston Bruins and Rangers in the first two rounds, but it will take another solid performance to slow down the potent Penguins offense. Although the speedy Rangers were silenced in the end, the task of stopping the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jake Guentzel may prove to be much more difficult. The Senators have allowed the second-most shots against of the four remaining teams and they will have to find a way to stunt that if they plan to stop Pittsburgh in its tracks.
How the Penguins Win It
Even though the Penguins’ offense can cripple any team, it’s all about Marc-Andre Fleury. Slated as the backup heading into the postseason, Fleury has played in every minute of the Penguins’ 12 games. He’s made near-impossible saves look routine and has really hit his groove. You’d never guess he had an issue in the past with pressure moments. Some wondered how he would react when starter Matt Murray returned to the lineup and if he would be able to handle adversity with competition for his crease. Murray returned to the bench in Game 7 against the Capitals, and Fleury responded with a 29-save shutout to push his team to the next round.
He’ll be tasked with facing a Senators offense that is led by defenseman Erik Karlsson, who leads all blueliners in playoff assists (11) and points (13). Senators forward Bobby Ryan (4 goals, 9 points) has also been causing fits for opposing teams, but the Penguins’ steady back line will be ready for them. The evenly distributed pairings are playing intelligent, disciplined hockey, as they rank sixth among all playoff teams in times shorthanded (35); they are allowing just 2.92 power plays against per game in the postseason. Although Ottawa’s power play ranks just 13th among all playoff teams (14.6 percent; 6-for-41), the Senators are a structured team that will capitalize with late-game heroics (just ask the Rangers). Playing 5-on-5 is essential to the Penguins if they are planning a return to the Stanley Cup Final.
Prediction: Penguins in seven. Yes, I am picking against the underdog Senators again, but the Penguins are just too hot to handle for almost anyone in the NHL right now. Head coach Mike Sullivan has found a way to get his team energized right at the perfect time yet again, and they look like a team destined for greatness (yet again). Although my gut tells me Penguins in five games, the Senators have proven to me twice that they won’t go down without a memorable, commendable fight.
(1) Anaheim Ducks vs. (WC2) Nashville Predators
Season Series: Anaheim – 2-1-0
Ducks 4-3 (Oilers)
Predators 4-2 (Blues)
How the Ducks Win It
The Ducks have been led by captain Ryan Getzlaf in the scoring department. The veteran center ranks third in playoff scoring (15 points) and is just three points behind Penguins’ forward Evgeni Malkin for the postseason lead. Against the Oilers alone, Getzlaf tabbed 10 points (5 goals, 5 assists) in seven games, including two points in Game 5, with the primary assist coming on Corey Perry’s double overtime goal.
Getzlaf will have to continue his dominating play if the Ducks are to advance past the steamrolling Predators. He’s only five points away from tying his career-high postseason point total (2015); if he can eclipse that through the first four or five games, the Ducks will likely be sitting in a nice position heading into elimination games.
If the Pacific Division winners are looking to improve in any areas, it is in the crease. Starting netminder John Gibson has been streaky at best, posting a 2.80 GAA and .908 save percentage (the worst of the remaining goaltenders). He was pulled from one game in both of the previous rounds, giving Jonathan Bernier a chance to shine. Although the Ducks possess one of the best 1-2 punches in the entire NHL in net, they will look to their goaltender to shut down a sly and powerful Predators offense.
How the Predators Win It
The Predators’ path to victory will have to go through Getzlaf’s dominating performance through the first two rounds. Luckily for the Predators, they possess the best defensive core in the National Hockey League. Between the pairings of P.K. Subban–Mattias Ekholm and Roman Josi–Ryan Ellis, the Predators have the ability to contain any offensive threat.
They’re not just there for defense, either. Ellis is tied with center Ryan Johansen for the team lead in points (9), while Josi and Subban have combined for 15 points through 10 games. Against the Blues in the second round, the defense accounted for six of the teams 15 goals, while Ellis, Josi and Subban tied for the team’s series points lead (5).
Even though the Predators have plenty of offense to go around, their wins come from solid defensive play. Not to mention the goaltender’s im-Pekka-ble play, the Predators are receiving excellent back-checking efforts from forwards such as Mike Fisher, Austin Watson and Filip Forsberg. These lineup mainstays aren’t just for defensive zone faceoffs, though; they are used in important offense situations, as well, including power-play and late-game offensive zone time.
Prediction: Predators in seven. They are a team that is on a mission and it seems no one can stand in their way — even the Western Conference favorite Chicago Blackhawks. They are a perfect 5-0 at home this postseason, which makes them deadly if they can steal one of the first two games in Anaheim. If the past is any indication (the Predators boast an all-time 2-0 series record against the Ducks), it should be an entertaining series with the Predators just edging the southern California team.
Stay tuned with the Everything Hockey blog for coverage throughout the playoffs, including previews and predictions for each round.
To shop the entire xHockeyProducts store, click your link below: