Sunday, January 21, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

NHL playoffs: What to watch in the conference finals

The NHL's conference finals feature the Pittsburgh Penguins, who are seeking to be the first team to win back-to-back titles since the 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings, and three teams that entered the league since 1992.

The Ottawa Senators — the Penguins' opponent in the Eastern Conference final, which begins Saturday — have never won the Stanley Cup in their modern incarnation. In the West final, which begins Friday, the Nashville Predators are appearing in their first conference final. The Anaheim Ducks have been one of the most consistently successful teams of the past five years, but they have not reached the Cup final since winning the championship in 2007.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

What to watch: The Penguins have had to adjust their personnel and style of play after a torrent of injuries that has persisted through the playoffs. Previously a puck-possession team that relied on speed to gain the offensive zone and power to wreak havoc within it, the Penguins have become a counterattacking team that is not afraid to absorb physical punishment.

Already without their top defenseman, Kris Letang, the Penguins also lost defenseman Trevor Daley for Games 6 and 7 against the Washington Capitals in the conference semifinal. But Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh's superstar center, missed only one game against Washington after sustaining a concussion. He played in the final three games of the series, recording an assist in each contest. The No. 1 goalie, Matt Murray, was injured in warmups before Game 1 of the first round but is now available to back up veteran Marc-Andre Fleury, who has reassumed control of the Pittsburgh net with stellar play through much of this postseason.

Center Evgeni Malkin tops the leaderboard in postseason scoring with 18 points, and rookie wing Jake Guentzel has been a revelation, with nine goals.

Like Pittsburgh, Ottawa has a player who is arguably the best at his position leading the way and playing through injury. Defenseman Erik Karlsson has been the Senators' motor all season, and in the playoffs he has 13 points in 12 games, has contributed sound defensive play and created tempo. He has done so with two stress fractures in his foot and a target on his back. Karlsson, who has averaged nearly 29 minutes on ice per game, may have a stronger bid than Malkin for the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs' most valuable player.

Ottawa's Jean-Gabriel Pageau has emerged in similar fashion to Guentzel. Pageau's four-goal outburst stole Game 2 against the Rangers in the semifinal, and he has seven playoff goals after scoring only 12 in the regular season. Coach Guy Boucher, a former Lightning coach, has pushed the right buttons even when his distinct 1-3-1 defensive structure and goaltender Craig Anderson have shown some vulnerability. The Senators' penalty-killing has been outstanding, and they have had to deploy it liberally.

The Senators won two of the three regular-season matchups with the Penguins. The Penguins' injuries on defense have overextended their blue liners, and it showed in Games 5 and 6 against Washington. Similarly, Ottawa can ill afford to see Karlsson out of its lineup, as he has been central to virtually every victory. Pittsburgh has received balanced scoring from Malkin, Crosby, Guentzel and Phil Kessel. Ottawa will need to even out the play of its forward group against a Penguins lineup that is unlikely to lose any game by a score of 1-0.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

What to watch: With an impressive 2-1 victory over the Edmonton Oilers on Wednesday in Game 7 of their semifinal, the Ducks snapped their streak of five straight Game 7 losses, four in the past four seasons. They displayed masterly puck management, well-executed line changes and a forecheck that kept the Oilers on their heels as Anaheim rebounded from a 7-1 Game 6 loss that set dubious franchise records.

The Ducks have been a resilient group that has surmounted injuries, setbacks and personnel shuffling this season. The captain, Ryan Getzlaf, has shouldered a heavy load playing in all areas of the ice and every conceivable situation with equal aplomb. Their second line — rugged Ryan Kesler centering speedy wing Andrew Cogliano and Jakob Silfverberg, a solid checker with a lethal shot — is a shutdown trio that packs offensive punch. Anaheim's defense corps is young but has been poised and effective through much of the playoffs. Goalie John Gibson, 23, weathered the ups and downs of a wild series against Edmonton and now looks to take a step toward establishing himself as an elite goaltender.

Nashville's Pekka Rinne is an elite goaltender and has been the fulcrum of the Predators' impressive 8-2 playoff run. He has posted a 1.37 goals-against average and a .951 save percentage. Rinne has been at his best this postseason playing in front of what one Ducks player called "the best defense in the league." Ryan Ellis, Roman Josi, P.K. Subban and Mattias Ekholm have posted a combined rating of plus-24 in the playoffs while contributing 27 points. They jump into the offense readily and change positions fluidly, aided by responsible checking forwards and imaginative coach Peter Laviolette, who won a Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006 and reached the finals with the Philadelphia Flyers in 2010.

That Flyers team qualified for the playoffs on the last day of the regular season. Laviolette has the Predators, a wild-card team with the worst record among playoff qualifiers, on a similar run.

After helping to contain Connor McDavid in the previous round, Kesler's line will probably see plenty of Nashville's top line of center Ryan Johansen flanked by Viktor Arvidsson and Filip Forsberg. The Predators may need solid contributions up front from James Neal, Colin Wilson and Craig Smith, who have been less productive so far.

The Ducks won two of the three regular-season meetings between the teams, but last year Nashville ended Anaheim's season with a seven-game, first-round upset. On paper, the Ducks have an advantage at forward, while the Predators are stronger on defense and in goal. The gamesmanship between the creative, tempo-pushing Laviolette and Randy Carlyle, the cerebral Anaheim coach who led the Ducks to a Stanley Cup in 2007, could provide an intriguing battle behind the benches.

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