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Conference Finals Previews

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NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Ottawa Senators Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

We’re half-way there, folks. If you haven’t been watching the playoffs, you missed some great hockey in the last round. While the first round had a few duds, every second round series was excellent. All the “experts” out there (looking at you, ESPN) are predicting this round is just a formality before Pittsburgh and Nashville square off in the final, but they’ve got it all wrong. This should be the best round yet.

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Ottawa Senators

The Match-Up: The Penguins knocked out the Washington Capitals in the second round (ain’t we all bummed?) in the second consecutive year to get to their second consecutive Eastern Conference Final. Meanwhile the Ottawa Senators emerged from the wreckage of the Atlantic Division over the New York Rangers to get here (ain’t we all surprised?) It’s a team that would have been disappointed with anything less than an Eastern Conference Finalist finish taking on a team that no one expected to make it this far. The word out of Ottawa is shame on you for thinking otherwise, and the word out of Pittsburgh is this should be easy.

There is actually a playoff history between these two teams. When Crosby first landed in the league, Ottawa was the early test for Pittsburgh. First, in 2007, the Sens ousted the Pens in the opening round, only to go on to lose to the Ducks in the final. The following year, the Pens returned the favor by sweeping the Sens, then going on to lose in the Stanley Cup final in the most fun final of the last ten years. The Sens lost to the Penguins again in 2013 in the second round.

The Penguins have been relying on the same four-line play style that they used last year, attempting to beat teams into submission with waves of quality lines. Time will tell if Crosby has truly recovered from the concussion he suffered on an errant Matt Niskanen cross check; the early results suggest no, even if he is medically cleared to play. That could cause a chink in the chain of rolling four lines, should problems persist.

On the other side of the ice, the Senators embrace Guy Boucher’s system, lovingly referred to in Ottawa as “The System.” It is a more refined version of the smothering neutral zone trap/break out style play that made Boucher’s Tampa Bay Lightning so successful in 2011. Maybe with the help of those years of experience garnered in the Swiss League, Boucher’s well-oiled Senators can sneak into the Cup Finals where his Lightning could not.

Why Red Wings Fans Should Care: The Penguins are seriously threatening to repeat as Cup Champs, and the Red Wings’ Organization has already lost enough this year. And the Oilers proved this season that a cup should be on the way in the future for Edmonton, so Ottawa winning it all this year gets that insufferable “Heroes of Canada” narrative out of the way before Edmonton inevitably stuffs it down everyone’s throats.

Best Case Scenario for this Series: It should go without saying that everyone would like to see great, tight games. Hopefully Sidney Crosby is back to 100% and we get to see him square off against Erik Karlsson in a battle of the best players in the league, because Erik Harlsson is indeed in that conversation. The play styles of the two teams could create a really tipsy-turvy pace, which would be a lot of fun to watch.

Worst Case Scenario for this Series: One team demolishes the other 4-0. Either Pittsburgh potentially goes on its way to another Stanley Cup Final and a back-to-back championship, or Ottawa inspires a whole lot of teams to double down on employing neutral zone traps.

Prediction: For these teams’ second round series, my head told me to pick the Penguins and Rangers while my heart told me to pick the Senators and Capitals. I went with my heart on both accounts. If this series goes seven, I’m giving it to the Penguins, but my head be damned, I’ll double down on heart, because Senators in 6.

Anaheim Ducks vs. Nashville Predators

The Match-Up: The Anaheim Ducks have made their way through the playoffs as that other contender, the one you remembered after dwelling on the usual suspects. And now they may even be the Cup favorite, having battled away the Edmonton Oilers in a heck of a series that went the distance. Meanwhile, the Predators have continued to look, at long last, like the team everyone predicted they’d be back in the summer. Last round, they tossed the Blues in six, and they didn't look too bad doing it, either.

These franchises have met before, in 2011, and again last year. Both times, the Preds ousted the Ducks. Some common wisdom suggests this year may be the same; Cup Champions usually play some of the fewest games of the playoffs. Currently, Nashville is winning the race, having only played ten games over two series that have been somewhat mild compared to other series this year. The Ducks did have that sweep against the Flames, but the Oilers played them hard and exposed some consistency issues in the Ducks’ game throughout an up and down series. Maybe the Ducks expended too much against the Oilers to now get over the Predators. Or perhaps such narratives are phooey. We will see.

Nearly every team that makes it this far plays heavy, but these two teams really play heavy. One of them does it in a mostly-clean way (or as clean as you can be, given the play style) while the other team has a reputation. The Ducks have the superior depth and four lines that can score, including a bona fide player on the third line, which has been the Pens’ key to success both last year and this year, so they may be aping the right style. But holy cow, the Filip Forsberg-Ryan Johansen-Viktor Arvidsson line has been something else so far. So, who wins? The crushing depth, or the phenomenal top line?

Why Wings Fans Should Care: It is hard to shake old habits, including spite for Anaheim. Also, as ever, P.K. Subban will be fun to watch. Unfortunately, Patrick Eaves is probably out for the playoffs, but that just removes any mixed feelings you may have for the Ducks. And it’s hard to not feel a little good for Nashville getting so excited about having a great hockey team; it’s a good city and the fans have paid their dues and not been annoying about it.

Best Case Scenario for this Series: Corey Perry and James Neal both get checked into the Stone Age. Patrick Eaves miraculously recovers and the series comes down to a breakaway between him and Subban. The Predator skull-thing used for the players’ entrance gets blasted by lightning and collapses, Big Trouble in Little China style.

Worst Case Scenario for this Series: The Ducks win on the back of Corey Perry, who scores multiple hat tricks during the series. The series is decided on a power play because someone named Ryan embellished a trip. Your aunt remembers you like hockey and watching The Mighty Ducks when you were a kid, so she buys you a Getzlaf jersey and a signed photo of Randy Carlyle.

Prediction: This Anaheim team showed everything that they were made of and then-some against the Oilers. They’re experienced, they’ve got a lot of swagger, and their depth is top notch. However, they are probably too banged up to deal with a Nashville squad firing on all cylinders and healthy. Nashville in 6.

So there you have it. You heard it here, first. The NHL is going to have a PR nightmare on its hands for this one with two small market teams in the final. (Although they will play up how Nashville is now a hockey city so hard.) It’s the best we can hope for, anyway.