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The NHL Playoff Primer: Conference Semifinals, Part I

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Ohhh, Canada :( (Canadian Press)

Ohhh, Canada 😦 (Canadian Press)

I’m not going to lie and say that forecasting the NHL playoffs is as difficult as the NCAA tournament, but predicting the outcome of these series isn’t exactly like picking between pie and cake (HINT: ALWAYS PIE).

And after all, the purpose of Checking The Score’s postseason previews is to provide some meaningful, cogent analysis of what’s to come on the ice, not to toot my own horn like I’m some sort of master prognosticator. But I did pick the victor in seven out of eight series in the perennially fickle first round (thanks as always, Alex Ovechkin), meaning I have a pretty good grasp on the remaining eight teams competing for the Stanley Cup.

Or that I’m about to go 0-4 in Round 2.

(Probably that).

Nevertheless, it’s time to do what the Toronto Maple Leafs still haven’t done in nine years – move on to the conference semifinals.

Today we’ll tackle the two series that begin Tuesday, and on Wednesday we’ll take a trip down Original Six lane with Chicago-Detroit and Boston-New York.

Tomas Vokoun (USA Today)

Tomas Vokoun (USA Today)

1.) Pittsburgh vs. 7.) Ottawa

The Penguins will win if: They stop turning the puck over. Say what you want about Pittsburgh’s goaltending situation – which currently can be summed up as “Tomas Vokoun usually stops the vulcanized rubber disk that teams are trying to get past him and Marc-Andre Fleury does not” – but no netminder is going to look very competent when his defense is giving the puck away like Halloween candy in its own zone.

In case you needed an example:

The Islanders had an NHL-best 1.57 takeaways for every giveaway against the Penguins in the first round, nearly twice as much as their middle-of-the-pack ratio during the regular season. Pittsburgh was outplayed for large chunks of the four games they didn’t win by shutout, and really only survived thanks to its excellent special teams (7 for 21 on the power play, 18 for 20 on the penalty kill). For as much talent as the Penguins possess alongside a healthy Sidney Crosby and an occasionally motivated Evgeni Malkin, they’re not one of the league’s speedier squads. That was never as apparent as it was against the youthful legs of the Islanders, who were able to fly between the two blue lines and create plenty of good odd-man chances.

Now Pittsburgh will have to do a complete 180. Ottawa doesn’t want to get up and down as much as it wants to suffocate teams at center ice. The Penguins didn’t have a problem dealing with the Senators’ physical approach in the regular season, winning all three games despite only scoring eight goals and going 1 for 15 on the power play.

The Senators will win if: They don’t take a boatload of stupid penalties. Ottawa spent the fourth-most time of anyone killing penalties in the regular season and got somewhat drawn into a blood bath against Montreal, though neither cost it – the Sens had the best PK during the 48-game slate and killed 16 of the Canadiens’ 19 chances. The big storyline heading into this series is reigning Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson’s return after Matt Cooke’s skate slashed his Achilles tendon in mid-February, but Ottawa can’t afford to get caught up in any sort of quest for retaliation – despite some CSI-like investigating from its owner. The Penguins’ power play is a different animal than most when it’s clicking, and like Herb Brooks said in Miracle … well, I’ll just hand it over to Kurt Russell.

Ottawa’s game is to sit back and wait for teams to make mistakes – something the Penguins have proven to be prone to – but the Sens shouldn’t be afraid to take some chances here. They’re outmanned talent-wise up front, but can rely on Craig Anderson to snuff out a few odd-man rushes the other way if a breakout pass goes awry. The Penguins will be thinking about every mistake they make, particularly if they’re forced to turn back to Fleury at any point.

Fun fact: The six series Pittsburgh has won under Dan Bylsma all ended on the road.

The pick:  Penguins in 6

Jeff Carter (Getty Images)

Jeff Carter (Getty Images)

5.) Los Angeles vs. 6) San Jose

The Kings will win if: They can get some production from Jeff Carter. Carter is generally looking to do one thing with the puck – he’s had more goals than assists six straight seasons, including an alarming 26-to-7 ratio in 2013 – but when you’re as accurate as this guy’s been, why look to pass? Carter scored 19.5 percent of the time he put a shot on net this season, making him the league’s second-best marksman of anyone who attempted at least 100. The Kings were 18-2-3 when the big winger scored in the regular season, and he combined for three goals in games 4 and 5 against the Blues in the first round. He had none on nine shots over four games against San Jose, yet the Kings managed to win twice and drop another in a shootout.

Both teams can roll out three dynamic forward lines and have goalies capable of stealing multiple games in a series, but there may be more consistent pressure on Jonathan Quick than San Jose’s Antti Niemi. The Kings were outshot by nearly five a game against the Blues and lost the faceoff battle badly in their two defeats.

Getting Anze Kopitar going wouldn’t hurt, either. Kopitar has 15 assists in his last 22 games but has scored just once in that stretch – a critical Game 4 goal against St. Louis. Kopitar was injured when the Sharks bounced the Kings in six games two years ago in the first round – the last series LA has lost – but he’s healthy this time, and Los Angeles would love for him to do more than just set Dustin Brown and Justin Williams up. That won’t be easy, though, as Logan Couture has turned into one of the game’s best two-ways centers and will be matched up with Kopitar and Co. as often as possible.

The Sharks will win if: The put the puck on net with regularity. San Jose averaged the fourth-most shots in the regular season and fired away a Western Conference-best 36.5 per game in the first round against overmatched Vancouver. Their big guns – Couture, Joe Pavelski and Patrick Marleau – scored at least three goals apiece, while Joe Thornton set up five and was a team-best plus-3. The Sharks had 24 power-play chances – scoring seven times – and they only gave the Canucks 10 chances with the man advantage. They had a stunning plus-35 disparity in the faceoff circle.

While the four big scorers will be needed to produce, they could also get Martin Havlat back from a lower-body injury at some point in the series. Even if Havlat is still out, there’s another winger that’s producing at a high level in San Jose in converted defenseman Brent Burns, who’s given the Sharks an outstanding presence in front of the net and somehow registered eight points in four games against the Kings this season. The move happened in early February, and to hear Joe Thornton tell it, the switch had even more to do with winning than your average playoff beard.

“It kind of changed around our season, to be honest with you,” Thornton told the Calgary Sun. “We were hovering around ninth or 10th spot and Burnsie comes up to forward. He’s such a big load to handle.”

Things aren’t going to continue to be as lopsided against a far more disciplined, wiser group in the Kings, but here’s why keeping Quick busy is so important. Last season’s Conn Smythe Trophy winner faced more than 30 shots 11 times this season – including twice in the first round – and the Kings won only two of those games. Since 1992-93, only one team – the 2010-11 Bruins – won the Stanley Cup while allowing more than 30 shots a game in the postseason. If the Kings let San Jose get too much space in the offensive zone, they could be in trouble – regardless of how much Quick seems to step up his game in these situations.

Finally, home ice is going to be more meaningful in this series than perhaps any other in the postseason. LA and San Jose were a combined 36-6-6 on home ice and 16-26-6 away from home, though they combined for three road wins in Round 1. The Sharks have had a week off since sweeping the Canucks, and considering the Kings have won 10 straight at Staples Center, stealing Game 1 on legs that haven’t gone through a back-and-forth playoff game in six days may not be their best bet.

Fun fact: These two Pacific Division pals have played 22 times over the last three seasons – including the 2011 playoff showdown. They’ve each scored exactly 63 goals in that stretch.

The pick: San Jose in 6

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