Predators look like the Western Conference winner but the Cup still belongs to Penguins
May 09, 2017 3:06 AM
by Nick Pellegrino
Sometimes, your best wager is the one you never make.
Case-in-point: the current Anaheim-Edmonton series for the Pacific Division title, one of the poorest postseason series in recent NHL history.
We’re not talking about a four-game sweep against a weak opponent – I’m not talking about the Blackhawks’ implosion last month –but one in which either side could’ve won in five games. Plenty of mistakes have instead “forced” a Game 7 on Wednesday.
The Ducks-Oilers winner advances to the Western Conference finale against Nashville, who might be the new favorite despite being the No. 8 seed.
Anaheim has played awful defense, missed simple assignments, had a lack of scoring from star players and produced sub-standard goaltending.
Edmonton blew a three-goal lead in the final four minutes of Game 6, which is unprecedented – the greatest collapse in NHL history. The same stupid penalties were made in the first-round series with San Jose.
Following their epic collapse, the Oilers did rally in Sunday’s Game 6 by mounting a lead of 5-0 through the first period, eventually reaching 6-0 and 7-1 cushions, capped by a Leon Draisatil hat trick, with Anaheim radio announcer Steve Carroll still talking about another comeback. Really??!!
However, look at the score sheet: Edmonton’s top scorers – Connor McDavid, Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins – all failed to register any points. None.
And you ask me to handicap the series finale?
Consider Anaheim’s stormy past in Game 7s. Four consecutive losses at home – the Ducks also lost all Game 6s on the road – including the last three seasons. Add the inexperience of the Oilers franchise (Gretzky-Messier & Co. was 25-plus years ago), I can only wager one way: Nashville.
Unless I refrain from the window.
Assuming Pittsburgh took Monday’s Game 6 (played after deadline), can anyone truly be surprised by the elimination of the Washington Capitals?
Why did so many people (except me) think ”this is the year” for Washington to get past the Pittsburgh Penguins?
Sure, there was plenty of on-paper rationale to believe the Caps would advance to the Stanley Cup Final. Some were implemented by the Caps over the 12-month period since they last lost to the Penguins and some occurred at the dawn of the teams’ current 10th playoff series meeting (PIT leads 8-1).
The Penguins become the first to repeat as Stanley Cup champions since the 1998 Detroit Red Wings.
Goalies: Caps goalie Braden Holtby, formerly a young goalie, transformed into “the man” after claiming the Vezina Trophy last season. And he’s again a finalist this season.
Then Matt Murray, who led the Penguins to the Cup as a rookie last season when Marc-Andre Fleury got hurt, was injured during pregame warm-ups of Game 1. Now Fleury (who shows signs of age at just 32) is back, posting the best playoff save percentage this NHL playoff season – until blowing Game 5 by allowing three third-period goals.
Meanwhile, Holtby has yet to win a game by himself and has allowed several “soft” goals. He’s not playing badly, yet is anything but in championship form.
Several twists and tweaks were made by Caps management specifically to match up with the Penguins. Most notably, the trade deadline acquisition of D Kevin Shattenkirk from St. Louis. A nice pick-up considering the Blues also advanced into the second round.
When Sidney Crosby suffered a concussion on a hit by Washington’s Matt Niskanen – it was accidental, as “The Kid” was already going down; the hit came at waist level – the Penguins still rallied in the final minutes to score twice in Game 3 to tie and force overtime, then won Game 4 in D.C. sans Crosby.
Barry Trotz, the reigning Jack Adams Award winner as Coach of the Year, owns a proven track record to out-maneuver Pittsburgh in his 15 seasons in Nashville.
Trotz is getting his lunch handed to him by the Pens’ Mike Sullivan, especially in line changes. Sullivan’s second and third lines are versatile enough to match anything the Caps can throw at them.
Sullivan’s strategy could be the future of hockey.
The true MVP of the NHL is Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin, who simply does more than the Caps’ T.J. Oshie, who was also obtained from the Blues last season, or Nicklas Backstrom.
If the Capitals actually rally from a three-games-to-one deficit to force Game 7, well, you already know which team I will take.
Nashville-St. Louis: My forecast was spot on, although I did predict a first-round loss to Chicago (remember them – the best team in the West?).
N.Y. Rangers-Ottawa: My prediction was a day late when Ottawa looked great in Game 1, but it’s been all Blue Shirts since… until Ottawa took Game 5 to take a 3-2 series lead. I will stick with NYR at MSG, then close it out with a road win in the capital district.
West: Nashville – the most consistent playoff team in the West. Plus, goalie Pekka Rinne is red-hot, while P.K. Subban keeps on smiling with Montreal long eliminated.
East: Pittsburgh (or Washington) over N.Y. Rangers (or Ottawa). The Metro champion is battle-tested; the other simply played a pair of Atlantic Division clubs.