NHL Stanley Cup Playoff Preview: Second Round Conference Semifinals

The first round of this year’s NHL playoffs are over, and only 8 teams remain. Western Conference upsets have massively reshaped the landscape of this year’s hunt for the cup, and the Fourth String team is here to preview every matchup heading into the second round! 

Pittsburgh Penguins vs Washington Capitals

Once again divisional rivals the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals meet in arguably the best series so far this season. The Pittsburgh Penguins are defending Stanley Cup Champions and are coming off a 4-1 series victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets, a team that was third best in the Eastern Conference this year. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury stepped up after Matt Murray injured himself in pre-game warmups ahead of game one. Fleury had a .933 save percentage on the series, and kept Columbus to under 3 goals in all but one of the Penguin’s wins. Since Murray still has no timetable for return, it looks as though Fleury will be starting in the net for Pittsburgh. Rookie Jake Guentzel currently leads the league in postseason scoring this season with 5 goals, including a hat trick in Game 3. Evgeni Malkin’s return also helped power the Penguin’s offense past one of the better regular-season defenses in the league, as he leads in postseason points with 11 and assists with 9. The Penguins are also expecting Chris Kunitz and Chris Hagelin to return from injuries this season

The Capitals, however, are yearning for revenge. The Penguins have eliminated the Capitals 8 times in team history, including a second round loss last year. In the entire Alexander Ovechkin era, the Capitals have never even made it to the Eastern Conference Finals. In their first round matchup, the Caps won three straight to come back from a 2-1 series deficit and beat the Toronto Maple Leafs. Capitals Goalie Brandon Holtby looked mostly solid throughout the series, notching a .925 save percentage but allowing 16 goals in on the series. Centers TJ Oshie and Nikolas Backstrom scored 6 points each, while Ovechkin scored three goals himself. The Caps were also forced to play a lot of crunch time, as all but one game in the series went into overtime while game two went into double overtime. The Caps entered this season #1 in the Eastern Conference, President’s trophy winner, and the best team in the NHL by Simple Rating System, but the clock is winding down on Ovechkin’s prime. If they ever want to win a Cup, now has to be their year.

Game 1 begins in Washington at 7:30pm on April 27th.

New York Rangers vs Ottawa Senators

The New York Rangers also came back from a 2-1 series deficit to defeat the Montreal Canadiens, the #1 seed in the Atlantic Division. This series had unquestionably the best goaltending of any series so far, with Montreal’s Carey Price facing off against New York’s Henrik Lundqvist. Lundqvist got the better of Price, notching an astounding .947 save percentage and shutting out the Canadiens in game 1 in Montreal. Those who thought 34 year old King Henry was washed up were gravely mistaken. Left Winger Mats Zucarello scored a team-best three goals for New York, giving him a spectacular 25% shooting on the series. 23 year old Center Mika Zibanejad stepped up to score 4 points, including three assists, to lead all Rangers. Even Tanner Glass, who only played three games, scored the opening goal of the series in New York’s 2-0 victory over the Canadiens. The Rangers will need to see the same great netminding from Lundqvist mixed with reasonable offensive production from Zucarello and crew if they want to advance past the Senators.

The Ottawa Senators defeated statistical darlings and playoff dark horses the Boston Bruins 4-2 in a series where 4 games went into overtime, and one went into double overtime. Ottawa won all but one of these overtime battles, allowing them to advance past one of the best defenses in the Eastern Conference. Senators goalie Craig Andersen was had a decent .920 save percentage, but the Senators defense was able to keep Boston’s shots on goal low to dramatically reduce their scoring. The Bruins had 165 shots on goal in the entire series, compared to Ottawa’s 187, which cancelled out the superior goaltending by Boston’s Tuukka Rask. Center Derick Brassard, Left Winger Bobby Ryan, and Defenseman Erik Karlsson all stepped up in big ways for Ottawa. Karlsson and Brassard had 6 assists each, with 2 goals on Brassard’s side, while Bobby Ryan cashed in 4 goals and 3 assists on the series. Ryan, alongside Left Winger Clarke MacArthur, were beasts on the Power Play, scoring two goals each in odd man situations. The Senators can’t fall back on superior goaltending, so they’ll look to keep the puck out of their defensive zone and in the hands of their offensive threats to best Henrik Lundqvist and the Rangers.

Game 1 begins in Ottawa at 7pm on April 27th

Nashville Predators vs St. Louis Blues

These two teams come off the backs of massive upsets of two of the top-ranked teams in the Western Conference. The St. Louis Blues defeated the Minnesota Wild, the #2 seed, in 5 games behind spectacular goaltending by Jake Allen. The Nashville Predators, on the other hand, managed to sweep the #1 seed Chicago Blackhawks behind Pekka Rinne’s inhuman goaltending abilities. Rinne had a .974 save percentage, including two shutouts in Chicago, which leads all goalies in the playoffs. Nashville’s Centers Ryan Johansen and Filip Forsberg combined for 11 points and a +/- of +14 across the series, carrying Nashville’s offense past Chicago’s lackluster defense and goaltending. Left Winger Viktor Arvidsson also leads the league in playoff +/- with +8, which is astounding considering he only played four games. Arvidsson also had 2 goals and 2 assists to his name coming into the series. Overall, Nashville comes into this series with a red-hot defense and capable offensive core that should scare every team left in the playoffs.

The St. Louis Blues come in a distant second in terms of the scale of their upset and goaltending capabilities, but had an amazing first round by normal standards. Jake Allen was a brick wall between the posts, with a .954 save percentage in the series that is only second to Pekka Rinne’s .974. On offense, the Blues sometimes struggled to get past Minnesota’s Devan Dubnyk, resulting in many low scoring games, but their balanced offensive attacks pushed them ahead of the Wild. The team didn’t feel reliant on Vladimir Tarasenko, who scored only three points during the series, and instead spread their scoring fairly evenly among their top 5 players. The Blues only scored 11 goals in the series, which should worry the team as it faces down a Nashville team that was able to shut out one of the best offenses in hockey twice. Overall, the Blues will need to find a way past Pekka Rinne just as they found a way past Devan Dubnyk, while Jake Allen will need to continue his spectacular goaltending and avoid lapsing into inconsistency.

Game 1 begins in St. Louis at 8:00 pm on April 26th.

Anaheim Ducks vs Edmonton Oilers

The Anaheim Ducks come in off a dominating sweep of the Calgary Flames, where their offense dominated every game and forced Calgary to bench starting goalie Brian Elliot. Center Ryan Getzlaf, Right Winger Rickard Rakell, and Defenseman Shea Theodore all had 5 points on the series, with Getzlaf scoring 3 of Anaheim’s 14 goals. In the net, John Gibson was shaky. He was pulled from game three after giving up 4 goals in only 16 shots, but also only gave up one goal in 37 shots in game 4. The inconsistency from Gibson, who is 23, should worry Ducks fans as they face a young and fast offense from Edmonton. For Anaheim, they will have to hope their experienced skaters can stop the Oilers on defense and keep the puck away from their goalie when he’s in trouble.

For Edmonton, who won their first playoff series since their 05-06 playoff loss, it’s still all about Connor McDavid. The 20 year old, who lead the league in points and assists in only his first full year in the NHL, leads all Edmonton skaters with 4 points. It’s not much, but when you consider the entire Edmonton team only scored 14 goals, it was a major contribution to the team. However, some glaring weaknesses still show in Edmonton’s lineup. For one, their offense still seems unable to score at regular season levels in the playoffs. Edmonton was 8th in goals scored this season, but only managed to score 12 in the playoffs and never one a game by more than 2 goals. In fact, the Oilers are the only remaining team with a negative goal differential, largely caused by their disastrous 7-0 loss to the Sharks in game 4. Cam Talbot looked great throughout most of the series, outside of the obvious game 4 disaster, keeping the Sharks to 7 goals in the other 5 games. Inconsistency and inexperience will be the death of this team if they are unable to return to their offensive prowess and make sure Talbot doesn’t fall apart again.

Game 1 begins in Anaheim at 10:30 pm on April 26th

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