Stanley Cup Playoffs: Conference Final Picks

They may not be the most attractive matchups from a ratings perspective, but under the surface, there’s some bad blood already brewing between the NHL’s final four teams. Like the beef you didn’t know existed between Snooki and governor Chris Christie, there is some legitimate hatred going on between the seemingly odd pairings of Anaheim/Nashville and Ottawa/Pittsburgh.

For the Ducks, they still have to be smarting after the Predators knocked them out of last year’s playoffs, winning a deciding Game 7 in Anaheim. That turned out to be the final choke job in what had become a disturbing trend of blowing deciding games at the Honda Center: a trend the Ducks bucked last round by defeating the Oilers 2-1 in a Game 7 at home.

In the East, the Penguins and Senators’ bad blood stems from some actual blood, drawn by Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby when he nearly lopped Marc Methot’s finger off in March. The slash drew criticism from Ottawa’s (I guess we’ll call him) eccentric owner Eugene Melnyk, and whether the Sens seek revenge is sure to be one of the main storylines in a series that is expected to be a Pens romp.

After doing no better than a coin-flip with my second round picks, it’s time to get back to picking winners with only three series left in the year. So here are my predictions for the 2017 Conference Finals.

2017 Stanley Cup Playoff Predictions: Round Three

Eastern Conference

Ottawa Senators (+250) vs Pittsburgh Penguins (-300)

And you thought Chris Neil had a big impact last series… [pause for laughter]

But seriously, if Ottawa is still debating the need to dress their tough guy — perhaps in order to enact some revenge for Methot, or just for the “confidence boost” — then they are going about this series all wrong. The Senators may look overmatched, but they can beat the Penguins. All it takes is a sliver of doubt, and a complicated goalie situation in Pittsburgh could set off a reaction that buries this team.

Marc-Andre Fleury continued his incredible postseason by shutting out the Washington Capitals in Game 7 on the road. The 29-save performance brought his save percentage up to .927 for the playoffs, an improvement of .018 over his regular season mark. Yet as Fleury was stealing another game off the Caps, Matt Murray was watching from the bench, a rather huge development, since it was the first time the Penguins starter has dressed all postseason.

Photo Credit: Keith Allison, via Flickr.

It raises the question, who gets the nod next round? Sure, Fleury has the hot hand, but Murray is the future of the organization. Even if Fleury goes onto win the Conn Smythe, the $5.75 million he’s making yearly is a huge hit that the Pens, who are tight against the cap, can’t afford going forward. Odds are good he gets moved this offseason. So do you go back to your starter, or give the backup one last hurrah? And if you continue to ride Fleury, how short is his leash? He is known to have the odd playoff stinker, and he’s yet to play with the pressure of Murray watching from the bench.

Take that under consideration heading into the series because, as the Ducks can attest to, juggling goalies in the playoffs is not a recipe for success. And even though Ottawa isn’t an intimidating team offensively, Pittsburgh’s habit of getting outshot in these playoffs (11 times in 12 games) may eventually bite them.

Instead of quantity, Pittsburgh is opting for quality, leading the playoffs with a 12.3 shooting percentage. While the Pens do have a lot of great shooters, that number is too damn high: Jake Guentzel has a better shooting percentage these playoffs than Manu Ginobili. The signs are all there that Pittsburgh is headed for a regression.

The two biggest reasons I liked Ottawa last round were (1) the fact that they had the best player in their series against New York, and (2) Craig Anderson had a lot of room for improvement from the first round. In the Conference Finals, the latter still holds true, but the former is now up for debate.

Granted, Sidney Crosby hasn’t looked the same since returning from that Game 3 concussion, struggling in 5-on-5 situations in particular. But even if you remove him from the discussion, Pittsburgh still has one of the game’s best centers. On paper, Evgeni Malkin vs. Erik Karlsson is at least a wash. Both players lead their teams in points, with the next closest scorer four back, and both players dominate play when they’re on the ice.

The good news for Ottawa is that Karlsson averages over 10 minutes more a night than Malkin. However, when Karlsson isn’t on the ice, things go to crap for the Sens. Ottawa has been outscored 18-10 in 5-on-5 play when Karlsson isn’t playing; the same can’t be said for Malkin. So even if Karlsson can be the best superstar in this series, the Sens will only prevail if the rest of the team steps up.

Ultimately, I don’t have the stones to go against such an experienced Pittsburgh team, even with their injuries piling up on defense. But I will hedge my bets ever so slightly, because Ottawa in seven is going off at a lengthy +700. If they get a great series from Anderson, the Sens absolutely could steal this, but I guess without a Chris Neil behind me to give me confidence, I’ll roll with public.

Pick: Penguins in 6 (+375).

Western Conference

Anaheim Ducks (+105) vs Nashville Predators (-125)

Before this year, the Predators only had three playoff series wins in their franchise history: two came at Anaheim’s expense. Now, Nashville could match that total in one spring and vault themselves to their first ever Stanley Cup final.

However, getting past their quasi-rivals in Anaheim won’t be an easy task, even though Jordin Tootoo — the biggest target of the Ducks’ hatred — is long gone from this battle. You can always expect a veteran team like Anaheim to dish out some shots during a long series and, as is often the case with playoff reffing, those shots don’t get called (even when they’re reviewable).

Photo Credit: Viv Lynch, via Flickr.

Working in the Preds’ favor is the lengthy break they earned after their methodical dispatching of an underwhelming St. Louis team in six games. Nashville burned the Blues with their speed while the loaded back end didn’t allow any easy zone entries. But whereas Pekka Rinne wasn’t required to stop many high-danger chances in round one against Chicago, the Blues managed some great looks, only to get turned away by the playoffs’ leading goaltender.

Posting a .951 save percentage through 10 games, Rinne gives Nashville a decidedly huge advantage in goal. Anaheim’s John Gibson has been nothing special in these playoffs, nor in the six playoff starts he made prior to this year. Great goaltending can steal you a series, but the Ducks don’t have one worth planning a heist around. If they’re going to exact their revenge, then they need to up their scoring. And the way Rinne’s playing, even goalie interference might not slow him down.

Anaheim will need their big offensive players to step up in this series if they’re going to win. Corey Perry has only potted two goals through 11 games, and this comes on the heels of getting shutdown by Nashville last year. Jakob Silfverberg has been great this year, but he too got goose egged by the Preds last time. It’s one thing to score going up against an Adam Larsson or a Dougie Hamilton, but breaking through against the Predators’ top four is a very different ask.

Not only do Ryan Ellis, Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm, and P.K. Subban shut down opponents, but they generate a ton of offense, combining for 27 points so far. Normally, the Ducks have sicced Ryan Kesler on the opposition’s best weapon; Randy Carlyle can’t do much line matching when some of the Predators’ best scorers are playing nearly 50 minutes a night.

So perhaps I was overselling this matchup a bit in the start, just to build up intrigue. In actuality, I think Nashville will take this one pretty handily. The Predators are 5-0 at Bridgestone Arena this postseason, and have won nine straight playoff games there dating back to last year. If Nashville gets a split in Anaheim over the weekend, this one will feel all but over.

Pick: Predators in 5 (+650).

Boris

Hockey may be a wildly unpopular sport in the U.S., but where no one is paying attention, there’s a ton of value for Boris to mine. An avid NHL fan of over 20 years, Malloy made his first bet against a friend during the 2001 Stanley Cup Finals (going against Ray Bourque) and has been hooked ever since. He has yet to pay off that debt of $2, but he’s made plenty back since. In between worrying about the league’s next lockout, he regularly contributes to MTS and is also fluent in football, basketball, baseball and French (sort of).