Sparked by goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, the Pittsburgh Penguins continue their quest to become the NHL's first back-to-back champions since 1998 when they meet Ottawa in the Stanley Cup playoff semi-finals.
The Penguins host the Senators to open the best-of-seven Eastern Conference final on Saturday while the Nashville Predators visit Anaheim on Friday to begin the Western Conference finals. The series winners meet for the crown.
Fleury, a 32-year-old Canadian who was the top pick of the 2003 NHL Draft, took over in nets after starter Matt Murray was injured warming up for Pittsburgh's playoff opener.
"He has been our best player the whole playoffs," Penguins forward Patric Hornqvist said of Fleury.
Fleury has a 2.55 goals-against average and has denied 92.7 percent of the shots he has faced while the Penguins lead all playoff teams with 250 blocked shots over 12 games.
"I'm really proud of our guys and how we play," Fleury said after blanking Washington 2-0 in the decisive seventh game of that second-round series.
The Penguins seek the first title repeat since the 1997 and 1998 Detroit Red Wings and a fifth overall crown.
"I don't know that I can say enough about this group of players," Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. "They just always find a way to respond the right way."
Ottawa, a 1992 expansion team named for an 1883-founded club that won its last Stanley Cup in 1927, lost its only final in 2007 to Anaheim in the Ducks' lone title run. Nashville has not made the final in its 19-year history.
- Penguins 'know there's another gear' -
Pittsburgh, averaging an NHL-best 3.42 playoff goals a game, is topped by Russian center Evgeni Malkin with five goals and 13 assists while Jake Guentzel has nine goals and 2016 NHL playoff Most Valuable Player Sidney Crosby has four goals and 10 assists.
"A lot of us have played together and been through some big games together, so I think there's a certain level of trust and belief," Crosby said.
"We know there's another gear," Penguins center Matt Cullen said. "And we're all just really happy we get a chance to find it in this next series."
The Senators, with an extra day off after ousting the New York Rangers in six games, have more recovery time for Erik Karlsson, the defender with two hairline left heel fractures who leads Ottawa with 12 assists.
"Every day matters for us," Senators coach Guy Boucher said. "A few days rest definitely makes a big difference. Rest is a weapon."
Karlsson will likely be assigned to shut down Crosby along with backline partner Marc Methot, who was slashed by Crosby on March 23 and suffered a broken left finger that sidelined him for a month.
"We're doing a good job in helping each other out," said Karlsson. "Everybody's making it easier for each other."
- 'It means everything' to Predators -
In the West, Nashville netminder Pekka Rinne has stopped an NHL-best 95.1 percent of playoff shots against him. The 34-year-old Finn is 8-2 with a 1.37 goals-against average.
"I'm very excited," Rinne said. "This is only halfway, but you've got to be happy. It's a good step for us. Right now it means everything. We haven't gone further than this before. It's a great feeling.
"There's a lot of work left, but there's only four teams left. We all know we have what it takes and everything is in our hands."
While the Ducks will have less than 48 hours to recover from a second-round elimination of Edmonton, the Predators have been off since Sunday.
"Not only the physical break but the mental break for the players was important," Predators coach Peter Laviolette said.
The Ducks have allowed 13 power-play goals, more than any other NHL playoff team, and have gone only 5-for-36 on their extra-man chances, third-worst of all 16 playoff teams.
But Anaheim tops last-four teams by winning 55.9 percent of faceoffs and the Ducks were 2-1 against Nashville this season.
Nashville, which ousted the Ducks in the opening round last year, were the lowest-seeded West playoff team but have won six of seven playoff games when scoring first. The Ducks are 4-1 when scoring first.
© 2017 AFP