After some of the most exciting hockey in recent memory, the Stanley Cup Final matchup is set. The Western Conference’s last-seeded team, the Nashville Predators, will travel to Pittsburgh for Game 1 to play the defending champion Penguins in the best-of-seven series.
The two teams have made the Final by taking two extremely different paths. The Predators shocked the NHL with a first round sweep against Cup-favorite Chicago, then defeated Central Division-rival St. Louis Blues in six games of the second round. The Western Conference Final was filled with emotions, angst between players and exciting finishes, as the Predators defeated the Anaheim Ducks in six games.
For the Penguins, it seemed to be more of a business-as-usual approach, as they were able to make short work of the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round, winning in five games. They then defeated their longtime rivals, the Washington Capitals, in seven games and ended the Ottawa Senators’ magical run with an exciting double-overtime, Game 7 finish in the Eastern Conference Final.
The excitement of the playoffs is sure to reach a boiling point during the Stanley Cup Final, as both teams are playing their best hockey of the long season entering tonight’s opening tilt.
(WC2) Nashville Predators vs. (2) Pittsburgh Penguins
Season Series: Tie – 1-1-0
Predators 4-2 (Ducks)
Penguins 4-3 (Senators)
How the Predators Win It
The road to the Stanley Cup always provides rosters with a few bumps and scrapes, some more serious than others. However, the Predators are entering the Final with their top-line center and playoff leading scorer (before he was injured) out of the lineup. Ryan Johansen (10 assists, 13 points) exited the Western Conference Final after Game 4 with a left thigh injury that required emergency surgery. Once the center was taken out of the series, the Predators were left facing a difficult task: win by committee even more so than they had previously in the playoffs.
The depth of the Predators bled through, as they won the next two games against a solid Ducks team (with starter John Gibson not fully healthy and unable to play in Game 6). Multiple players came up with career-highlight performances in Games 5 and 6, including Colton Sissons (3 goals, 1 assist), Austin Watson (3 goals) and Pontus Aberg (1 goal, 2 assists) — all major factors in closing out the series.
As is tradition in Nashville, the offense starts with the defense. It’s easy to quote Vince Lombardi here, but the Penguins’ offense has their work cut out for them. The Predators boast arguably the best defense in the NHL with three dynamic and challenging pairings. They also won’t give Pittsburgh’s potent offense any power-play opportunities, as they still only rank fifth in times shorthanded (42) this postseason. This intelligent play will have to continue, especially on the road against a deadly Penguins special teams group.
It all rounds out with the goaltending. Pekka Rinne has been the backbone of the Predators’ run, as the 34-year-old Finn has played in every minute of Nashville’s 16-game run. If he can be Game 6-against-the-Ducks good (38 saves on 41 shots), the Predators have a great chance to end the Penguins’ bid at consecutive Cups.
How the Penguins Win It
Although the Penguins have been down this road before, the playoffs can take a toll on any team … especially one that receives the pressure of going for consecutive NHL championships for the first time since the 1997-98 Red Wings. They aren’t immune to emotional series and feeling the will to win. The Penguins had to, again, go through the nation’s capital to reach the Stanley Cup Final. After battling for seven emotional contests with the Capitals, Pittsburgh had to go through Canada’s capital, Ottawa, and face another heated seven-game series.
If this were any other team, you would be concerned.
The Penguins are one of the most Cup experience-laden teams in the NHL (certainly in the Eastern Conference). What starts with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin ends with Matt Cullen, Chris Kunitz and yes, the backup goalie, Marc-Andre Fleury. There is no surprising the Penguins as they are ready for anything the game can throw at them.
This is especially true when captain Crosby is healthy and playing big minutes. After a short lull of production following a concussion in the midst of the second round, Crosby was again an offensive threat, scoring six points in the final five games of the Ottawa series. The world’s greatest second line center, Malkin, is also finding success in the offensive zone, scoring a league-leading 17 assists and 24 points.
For the first time all postseason, the Penguins’ goaltending will not be a question mark heading into a series (although others will still try to bring it up). As valiant as Fleury played in relief of starter Matt Murray, the team’s starter has returned and will receive the nod throughout the series, barring the obvious reasons. In the five games in which he appeared, the rookie netminder has recorded a .936 save percentage and 1.35 goals-against average with one shutout (Senators; Game 5). He is proving yet again to be an elite NHL goaltender — reaching hockey’s ultimate glory again is a perfect way to prove that.
Prediction: Penguins in seven. It’s almost ridiculous to say this is the hardest series to pick of the entire postseason (although it is), but the last series of the 2016-17 campaign is jam-packed with depth, scoring and goaltending. The Predators have proven time and again that they can come back from any deficit in the game; look for this storyline going forward. If the Penguins cannot hold onto early leads, the Predators could find the ultimate momentum boost in an elimination game. In the end, though, I expect the Penguins’ leadership to shine through and make NHL history, while a slew of players check their name onto the first ballot Hall of Famers list.
What do you think? Who wins the Stanley Cup Final? We want to hear from you! Tweet us your picks!
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