Will the Penguins and Predators be the next teams to advance to the second round following the Ducks’ sweep of the Flames on Wednesday night? A lot is on the line, including two crucial Game 5s that will leave the victors one win away from making into the next round.
Marc-Andre Fleury, PIT vs. CLM ($8,200): It took five goals for the Jackets to win their first game of the series, and Game 4 was easily Fleury’s worst performance, but that’s all they’re going to get, right? The Pens have a huge advantage as the series shifts back to Pittsburgh, where Fleury allowed just one goal in each of the first two games and finished the season with a .928 save percentage. In fact, Fleury is so impressive at home that he’s lost just once in regulation in calendar year 2017. The Pens’ defense is expected to be a lot tighter defensively as they attempt to close out the series and bounce back from a woeful effort, so look for Fleury to get some help.
Evgeni Malkin, PIT vs. CLM ($8,100): He’s the most obvious pick if you consider the fact that he’s the playoffs scoring leader and scored 20 more points at home than on the road during the regular season. Part of the reason for that is that coach Mike Sullivan can get Malkin on the ice against easier defensive pairings with the last change on home ice, and to Malkin’s credit, he’s forced Sullivan to use him as his No. 1 scoring option with eight points in four games.
Ryan Johansen, NAS vs. CHI ($5,800): He’s been the best center in the series, which is saying a lot because he’s also going head-to-head against Jonathan Toews. Johansen scored four points in Chicago even though Joel Quenneville had the advantage when it came to line matching, and he was flat-out dominant in the series’ return to Nashville, notching an assist to go with a series-high four hits and 15 faceoff wins. It’ll be a raucous crowd at Bridgestone Arena with the Predators getting a chance to sweep the No. 1 Blackhawks, and Johansen has had a habit of stepping up in big games this season.
Jake Guentzel, PIT vs. CLM ($6,400): After a quiet Game 1, Guentzel’s been an offensive force for the Penguins, scoring in each of the three subsequent games, and it’s no fluke. The Pens’ coaches obviously trust him and have not been shy about throwing him onto the ice at every opportunity, and his straight-ahead style and willingness to shoot the puck has been a very nice complement to his more creative centers. He’s fired 13 shots over his past three games and is showing no signs of slowing down. It’s no fluke, either; Guentzel has scored 14 goals and 24 points over his last 18 games dating back to early March.
Filip Forsberg, NAS vs. CHI ($6,300): The Swede was dynamite in Game 3, scoring two of Nashville’s three goals to push Chicago to the brink of elimination. He leads all Predators forwards in ice time and shots (11) in this series, and he led the team in game-winning goals during the season, a testament to his clutch ability. All of Forsberg’s points have come at even strength, which means he’s yet to take advantage of the Blackhawks’ atrocious penalty kill (ranked 24th during the season).
Alexander Radulov, MON vs. NYR ($5,600): Everyone’s still collecting their jaws off the floor after Radulov’s ridiculous Peter Forsbergian goal to seal the deal in Game 2, and there’s no denying that he’s been a completely different player in his third NHL stint. He’s still just as talented, but what’s different this year is his strength, drive and ability to play at both ends of the ice. Goals will come at a premium in a series that features two of the best netminders in the world, but if anyone has enough game-breaking skill to light the lamp, it’s Radulov. He clearly loves playing in front of the Bell Centre crowd, and there’s no reason why he can’t have an encore performance. Heck, even Don Cherry loves him.
Shea Weber, MON vs. NYR ($6,100): A prolific shooter who’s scored a point in each of his past three games, Weber’s also a multi-category contributor, registering 11 hits and 12 blocked shots in the series. Every game in the playoffs is huge, but the winner of Game 5 will need to win just one more to advance, and Weber’s a proven big-game player.
Duncan Keith, CHI at NAS ($4,900): There’s just no way the Blackhawks don’t throw Keith out on the ice every other shift as they try to stave off elimination. He’s the team’s best defenseman – a tireless one at that – but so far has been very underwhelming with just one assist, four shots on goal and a minus-4 rating in three games. This is the first time in three seasons that Keith isn’t averaging more than 30 minutes per game in the playoffs, so if there’s any contest that should see him put forth his mightiest individual effort, it’s Game 4.