The third NHL playoff round has now come and gone, concluding with a classic double overtime playoff game between the Stanley Cup champions and over-achieving, heavily underdog Ottawa. I had a 50% winning percentage this time, being wrong about Anaheim and just narrowly missing going 0-2 thanks to Ottawa’s gritty play. So my record is now 11-3. I usually start off writing about teams and players who won and lost big. There are no losers in this round, so I’ll just be listing the positives.
Biggest Winners – Players
1. Filip Forsberg
Forsberg had an exceptional series against Anaheim where he established himself as a money player who comes through in the clutch when his team needs it the most. This is a break through playoff year for Forsberg who is establishing himself as Nashville’s offensive leader, the star forward they have never had in the past. Nashville will especially need him to come through big again against Pittsburgh. He gave the kind of performance that his old team, the Washington Capitals who stupidly traded him desperately needed against the Penguins.
2. Marc Andre Fleury
Unless Matt Murray gets injured, Fleury has probably played his last game in Pittsburgh. The surprise was that Pittsburgh has kept him and his big contract this long. His erratic playoff goaltending between the first Pittsburgh victory in 2009 until 2016 when the Penguins switched to Matt Murray was a major reason why the Penguins did not win the Stanley Cup any more and why Dan Bylsma is no longer the coach and Ray Shero no longer the general manager. His career seemed finished but he showed enough in this year’s playoffs for some team to take a chance on him next year. His 7th game shutout of Washington has probably saved his NHL career.
3. Matt Murray
The Ottawa series proved that if Pittsburgh wants to win future Stanley Cups, Murray is their goaltender. Pittsburgh plays with more confidence knowing Murray is in the nets. He should have won the Conn Smythe Trophy last year. The Penguins are now completely his team, not Fleury’s.
4. Chris Kunitz
If ever a player played the greatest game of his career when his team needed it the most, it was Kunitz who scored two goals, including the winner and assisted on the other during the double-overtime 7th game thriller. That’s coming through in the clutch. Were you watching, Alexander Ovechkin, Kevin Shattenkirk, Brooks Orpik, and Nicklas Backstrom?
5. Craig Anderson
Anderson gave a Conn Smythe Trophy performance in every playoff round except that he can’t score. Is there a lesson there for you Braden Holtby? Anderson almost fashioned the greatest heartwarming North American professional sports story since Jim Plunkett returned from oblivion with the Oakland Raiders of the NFL in 1980. His team hung in without him while he was at home nursing his wife who had cancer and when he returned he was the key in the New York upset and nearly made a bigger one over Pittsburgh. Ottawa simply does not have enough talent, especially at forward to match Pittsburgh. He showed enough that if Ottawa can significantly upgrade their talent, he might be able to take them all the way.
Teams That Can Go Home Happy
The Ducks rehired their Stanley Cup winning coach, Randy Carlyle who corrected their choking problem of recent years. He got the Ducks to keep their heads during the last part of the regular season which saw them overtake the San Jose Sharks and stay ahead of the Edmonton Oilers. The Ducks then won two playoff rounds, including a 7th game at home against the Oilers where they had been choking under previous coaches. The Ducks are clearly the best team in their division right now.
Two problems for the future: Is goaltender John Gibson good enough to take this team all the way to the Stanley Cup? He showed promise in winning two playoff rounds before being put out by Nashville. They still have problems winning playoff games at home. And Nashville itself is another problem. The Predators have eliminated the Ducks two years in a row so they have their number. Before that, the Chicago Blackhawks eliminated them. So Anaheim’s problem is not its own division but in beating the best teams of the other Western Conference division. There will have to be some changes made and a good draft choice added that fills a hole to take the next step forward.
Before the Pittsburgh series started, I wondered if the Senators would even belong on the same ice. They had already over-achieved including a mild upset of the New York Rangers. But the gritty Senators went toe-to-toe with the defending Stanley Cup champions until they lost a 7th game double-overtime thriller. Unlike new kids Columbus and choker Washington, Ottawa was smart enough to get to Marc Andre Fleury and chase him from the nets. Unfortunately, by this time, Pittsburgh’s number one goaltender, Matt Murray was ready to play and that meant no more easy games. It may well be that if Fleury had been forced to continue, Ottawa would have won the series. The difference was at forward where the Senators have nothing to match the high powered Pittsburgh offense. Credit has to go to coach Guy Boucher who devised a defense system that except for one game, made Pittsburgh play at Ottawa’s offensive level. Ottawa came closer to the Stanley Cup than was ever expected. Upgrading their offense in the off season is essential if they want to go all the way.
Montreal General Manager Marc Bergevin was relaxing, accepting all kinds of praises early in the season after he made P. K. Subban the scapegoat for Montreal missing the playoffs the year before and then seeing the Canadiens be on top of the Eastern Conference while Nashville was out of a playoff spot. These days he seldom leaves his office without a body guard and grits his teeth and curses while he sees Subban’s smiling face advancing to the Stanley Cup Final. If Nashville wins the Stanley Cup and Subban wins the Conn Smythe trophy, will he use the pistol that is rumored to be in his drawer before the mob with the noose and the tar and the feathers gets to him first? They’ll probably strip him first to see if he really has been wearing a Nashville jersey under his suit and if they can spot the Predator logo that is supposed to be tattooed to his butt.
Stanley Cup Final Prediction
Pittsburgh Penguins Vs. Nashville Predators
The over-the-hump Predators now face the greatest challenge they have faced in the Stanley Cup playoffs so far. They have already scored the greatest upset of the current playoff year by eliminating Western Conference favorite Chicago, a team they never came close to beating in the playoffs before in the minimum four games. But it has to be remembered that Chicago was severely hurt by the fact that all the new, young players whom they were developing showed absolutely nothing, a dark portent for the future of that team. Now the Predators are facing the Eastern Conference favorite Pittsburgh Penguins, the defending Stanley Cup Champions. Both Peter Laviolette and Mike Sullivan have won the Stanley Cup so the coaching is even. There are two reasons why Pittsburgh is the defending champion. First, the Penguins finally got championship playoff goaltending after years of bad performances by Marc Andre Fleury by Matt Murray. Second, Sullivan got everyone on the team, including star performers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to concentrate on playing good defense. Nashville goaltender Pekka Rinne is just as good a goaltender as Ottawa’s Craig Anderson. He can significantly outplay Fleury but like Anderson, he won’t significantly outplay Murray. More significant is that Nashville does not have anyone to compare with Crosby and Malkin. They are the best players they have yet seen. And Pittsburgh is getting clutch performances from other guys like Chris Kunitz. The combination of Crosby, Malkin, clutch performances, good defense, return of Matt Murray is too much for Nashville. In fact it is too much for every other team in the NHL. Pittsburgh will defend its championship over Nashville in 6 games.