BATTLE ON — Rangers’ Rick Nash fights for control of the puck with Senators’ Erik Karlsson during the second period of Game 6 of an NHL second-round playoff series in New York. Karlsson has been playing through two hairline fractures in his ankle and the Sens need him to continue his leadership role. (AP Photo)
Stanley Cup playoffs down to four
And then there were four.
With the conclusion of the Stanley Cup conference semifinals, the National Hockey League conference finals will see major Cinderella-story headlines, especially with the Nashville Predators and the Ottawa Senators, vying for Cup runs.
Despite the New York Rangers losing in six, I have to admit that I’m happy to see the Senators advance to a conference final for the first time since 2007. If the Rangers had to lose to anyone, I guess I’m OK with it being Ottawa, especially for the adversity they overcame this season.
Nashville has been embracing the underdog persona all post-season and will continue to do so for as long as this wild ride lasts.
This is unlike any other conference finals I recall in my time as a hockey fan and I’m excited to see what kind of history will be made.
Here’s what I predict:
Ottawa Senators vs. Pittsburgh Penguins
The ECF will feature a team that hasn’t been to a conference final since 2007 and the defending Stanley Cup champs. Might seem lopsided, but if the playoffs have taught us anything, it’s to always expect the unexpected.
Pittsburgh has been banged and bruised this playoffs, taking on two Cup contenders in the first two rounds in the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Washington Capitals. The Penguins narrowly avoided a major loss, losing Sidney Crosby to a concussion in Game 3 series against the Caps, but he bounced back for Game 5.
Senators head coach Guy Boucher loves to run 1-3-1 neutral zone trap and it will be a major factor in the series against the Penguins. The 1-3-1 trap proved to be the kryptonite against the Boston Bruins and Rangers in the first two rounds and it’ll be interesting to see how Mike Sullivan and the Penguins adjust. Craig Anderson was lights out against the Rangers and he’s riding high after a roller coaster of a season with his wife’s battle against cancer. I’d love to see him get a chance at a Cup because he’s one of those goalies who doesn’t get a lot of recognition, but deserves it.
I said this in the semifinals, but Marc-Andre Fleury has been a pleasant surprise, though he’s been forced into being the elite goalie he once was. For being a late addition, he’s played well under pressure and gives Pittsburgh a chance to win each night.
Pens have been getting a lot of secondary scoring with Bryan Rust and Jake Guentzel, but need additional support. The HBK line of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonnino and Phil Kessel, the catalyst in the 2016 Cup run, is back together and they’ll be expected to light the lamp.
If the Senators can stay healthy, which is going to be a challenge with Erik Karlsson playing through two hairline fractures in his ankle, they could give Pittsburgh a run. The Sens need Jean-Gabriel Pageau to continue his offensive flair and pepper Fleury with as many shots as he can.
I’m taking Penguins in six games.
Nashville Predators vs. Anaheim Ducks
My bracket’s officially busted with the Ducks advancing to the WCF, but that doesn’t mean this won’t be a fun series to watch.
For the first time ever, Nashville will be in a conference final and all of Broadway has been celebrating since their first round sweep against the Chicago Blackhawks. In the second round against the St. Louis Blues, they continued to roll, ousting them in six games.
Pekka Rinne has been red hot in goal and the Predators defenseman P.K. Subban is on an offensive streak. The Preds will need him to stay hot and get additional support from Ryan Johansen, Fillip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson once again.
The Ducks looked shaky to start in their series against the Edmonton Oilers, but their Game 5 double OT rally provided a load of confidence. Despite the 7-1 rout in Edmonton in Game 6, the Ducks kept their composure and downed the Oilers in front of their raucous crowd at the Honda Center in a tightly contested Game 7.
The Honda Center has always been a hostile playoff environment and the Ducks will need all the help they can from their fifth line. John Gibson has been rocky in goal, but a boost from the crowd will help him.
I’d love to see Nashville in the Cup finals, but it won’t be an easy ride. Anaheim’s one of those teams that lays low, but packs a punch when they need it.
I’m taking Ducks in seven games.