NHL CONFERENCE FINAL PREVIEW
-Jim Nies (@BigJimSports)
Before we get into the 2017 NHL Conference Finals predictions, here’s some thoughts on the Washington Capitals and the way their season ended on Wednesday night in D.C.
I am an unapologetic Caps fan who, admittedly, gets far too worked up and invested in my teams. It’s something that’s part of my makeup…I can’t control it. At this point I don’t even try. I’ve had my heart broken by my teams (Notre Dame football, Dallas Cowboys, Baltimore Orioles) in the past…and the Caps have contributed to my heartache in the past decade more than I ever could’ve imagined. But this year…oh, this year. This year was supposed to be different. All the pieces were falling into place. The secondary lines were maturing into stars, Braden Holtby was once again at the top of his game and the Caps made a brilliant trade deadline deal that was to put them over the top. Well, unfortunately for me (and Caps fans everywhere), Stanley Cups are not won on paper. Wednesday night in the nation’s capital, the fans rocked the red as I watched from the comfort of my home as our boys were going to “Change the Narrative.” However, over the course of 60 minutes of hockey, the dreams and hopes of this year being different; of this being the year that Ovi and company finally got the Cup he (and we as fans) longed for and feel we deserved were dashed…..in a shutout…..to THEM. . . The Pittsburgh Penguins. This loss gutted me. I mean, completely and totally devastated me. I know that whatever team takes the ice in D.C. in October, it will be dramatically different than the one I’ve known for the better part of a decade. This will be a summer of change for the Caps. I don’t know yet if that’s good or bad.
Okay, now that my “mourning time” is over…here is the Conference Finals predictions
EASTERN CONFERENCE FINAL – PITTSBURGH PENGUINS VS. OTTAWA SENATORS
The Penguins are the “old guard”, if you will, in the postseason. The core of this team has been here before. 2 Stanley Cup Championships. Arguably the best player in hockey today complemented by a goalie who is playing possibly the best in his entire career. A few days ago, the Penguins looked beat up, defeated, flat and on the verge of blowing a 3-1 series lead. But on the back of a Marc-André Fleury shutout and Bryan Rust’s GWG in the 2nd period, the Penguins are back in the familiar spot of being in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Senators come into this game as an unlikely candidate for the final four. Led offensively by Jean-Gabriel Pageau and defensively by Erik Karlsson, Ottawa has shocked me for getting this far. The biggest story of the year and postseason for the Sens has been goaltender Craig Anderson, who has taken leave from the team on multiple occasions in the regular season to be with his wife Nicholle who is battling throat cancer. The team has rallied around Craig and with the spectacular coaching of Guy Boucher they have really shown to be one of the best teams in the league right now.
Prediction: Does experience or emotion win here? Pittsburgh is beat up, but riding yet another springtime high of bouncing the league’s best team (and one of their biggest rivals). Ottawa has not been challenged the way that this Pittsburgh team will challenge them. As a bonafide and admitted Penguins hater, I would love to see Ottawa wipe the floor with the flightless fowl but I (sadly) don’t see this happening. Experience is what helps you most in the later rounds of the playoffs and Pittsburgh is by far the most seasoned team in this final four. It won’t be an easy series victory, but… Pittsburgh Penguins in 5 games
WESTERN CONFERENCE FINAL – ANAHEIM DUCKS VS. NASHVILLE PREDATORS
Okay first, raise your hand if you had this matchup as your WCF. Now, put your hand down because you’re lying (but seriously, if you did….good job). Back in the winter on the Huddle Up Podcast right here on NGSC Sports, my co-host Dave and I were discussing teams that could be scary in the playoffs. We both tagged Nashville as a young, fast and hungry team who could really surprise people. Well, here we are. They started by sweeping the conference best Chicago Blackhawks and then the rising St. Louis Blues in 6. There is not one major contributor, in terms of skaters, to this team as none of them are on the tops of the league leaderboards in most offensive categories. This team spreads the wealth. They all contribute. The biggest impact on their playoffs has been goaltender Pekka Rinne who is leading the league in goals against average (1.37) AND save percentage (.951).
On the other side the Ducks are a completely different team. Big. Bruising. Powerful. Oh, and good too. Goaltender John Gibson has not been the best allowing almost three goals against per game, but the scoring talent of the Ducks skaters has carried them to their first conference finals in years. This team is being led by veteran Ryan Getzlaf who is third in the league in playoff points (15), second in playoff goals (8), and fifth in playoff assists (7).
Prediction: The Western Conference has transformed into the faster conference and this series will definitely showcase that. Nashville is raw speed and spectacular youthful talent. Anaheim is veteran driven and hard hitting but still can skate with anyone. Anyone who wants to see a high paced brand of hockey will not walk away disappointed in this matchup. This year is also a year where 3 out of the 4 teams that are left, no one (or very few) predicted them. I am going to say that Cinderella isn’t ready for the ball to be over yet, and it’s not close to midnight. Nashville Predators in 6 games.