Three rounds of thrilling overtimes, Game 7’s, upsets, and incredible performances all point towards Monday night. The NHL has a fantastic matchup on their hands in the Stanley Cup Final.
The Pittsburgh Penguins seek to become the first repeat Stanley Cup champion since Detroit in 1997 and 1998. On the other hand, the Nashville Predators look to win the first Cup in franchise history in their first-ever visit to the NHL’s championship round.
Pittsburgh has overcome several injuries to key players, most notably to their blue line and their starting goaltender. Marc-Andre Fleury held the fort in goal until Matt Murray returned in the Eastern Conference Finals. Led by Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel, the Pens beat Columbus in five games before outlasting Washington and Ottawa in back-to-back grueling seven-game series.
Nashville entered the playoffs as the lowest seed of all 16 postseason participants. You wouldn’t know it by how they’ve played. A shocking sweep of the Chicago Blackhawks started their run. A pair of six-game series wins over St. Louis and Anaheim have put Nashville on the brink of a title. Although they’ve dealt with some tough injuries as well, goalie Pekka Rinne and arguably the best defensive corps in the NHL have led the way for the Predators.
The stage is set for what should be a highly-entertaining championship series. Here’s how it all breaks down.
Team Stats (Playoffs)
Nashville: 14.9 PP% (12th), 88.1 PK% (4th), 2.94 GF/GP (1st), 1.81 GA/GP (1st)
Pittsburgh: 23.6 PP% (3rd), 84.9 PK% (9th), 2.89 GF/GP (3rd), 2.21 GA/GP (5th)
Advanced Stats (Playoffs)
Nashville: 51.07 5on5 CF% (8th), .945 5on5 Sv% (3rd), 8.93 5on5 Sh% (2nd)
Pittsburgh: 42.04 5on5 CF% (16th), .929 5on5 Sv% (10th), 9.59 5on5 Sh% (1st)
Playoff Team Leaders (Goals-Assists-Points)
Nashville: Filip Forsberg (8-7-15), Ryan Johansen (3-10-13), Ryan Ellis (4-7-11), P.K. Subban (2-8-10), Roman Josi (5-5-10), Colton Sissons (5-5-10), Viktor Arvidsson (2-8-10)
Pittsburgh: Evgeni Malkin (7-17-24), Sidney Crosby (7-13-20), Phil Kessel (7-12-19), Jake Guentzel (9-7-16), Justin Schultz (3-7-10)
Keys To The Series
Pittsburgh’s Forwards vs. Nashville’s Blue Line
The Predators’ top four defensemen would probably be first-pairing guys on most any other team. P.K. Subban, Mattias Ekholm, Ryan Ellis, and Roman Josi have been incredible for Nashville and can do it all at both ends of the ice. Ellis plays almost 24 minutes a game, while Subban, Ekholm, and Josi play almost 26. Those four have combined for 39 points and, jump-starting Nashville’s offense while taking care of business in their own zone.
Their greatest test of this postseason will be one-two punch of Crosby and Malkin down the middle. Crosby, Malkin, and Kessel are the three highest scoring players in the NHL during these playoffs. The pressure the Penguins put on the opposition with their speed is tough to beat, but it won’t come easy against the Predators blue-liners.
Matt Murray vs. Pekka Rinne
During the regular season, Murray was the Pens’ unquestioned starting goalie, as the torch was being passed from veteran Marc-Andre Fleury to Murray. However, Murray was injured during pregame warmups of Game 1 in the first round and didn’t make his return until Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals when he took over for Fleury in relief. In five games, four of them starts, he’s posted a 1.35 goals-against average, one shutout, and a .946 save percentage. Fleury was outstanding in the first two rounds, but it’s clear that Murray is Pittsburgh’s goalie of the present and future.
From the beginning of the postseason against Chicago, Rinne has been absolutely incredible. He’s completed two shutouts while putting up a 1.70 GAA, .941 save percentage, and a 12-4 record. With the Western Conference Finals tied 2-2, Rinne made 32 saves in a 3-1 win in Game 5 and 38 saves in the series-clinching 6-3 Game 6 victory. When Nashville has needed big saves in big moments, Rinne has been there time and time again. Heading into this series, he’s the favorite to win the Conn Smythe Trophy.
Pittsburgh has carried over their success on the power play during the regular season into the playoffs. In fact, its gotten better, as their 25% success rate with the man advantage trumps their 23.1% conversion rate during the regular season. After failing to score on the power play in the first two games of the Eastern Conference Finals against Ottawa, Pittsburgh went 6-for-13 (46.1%) over the final five games of the series. While the penalty kill has been average during much of the playoffs, they were fantastic against the Senators, killing 95% of Ottawa’s power plays in that series.
Nashville’s power play has been a different story. During the first two rounds, they converted a respectable 20% of their man advantage opportunities. Against the Anaheim Ducks in the Western Conference Finals, they only converted on 9%. Losing center Ryan Johansen after Game 4 of that series made things worse in that department. However, the Predators’ penalty killing group has come up big, killing off 16-of-18 Anaheim power plays (88.9%). For the entire playoffs, they’re killing penalties 88.1% of the time. Pittsburgh’s power play against Nashville’s penalty kill will be a treat to watch.
Dealing With Injuries
Injuries are a part of any lengthy Stanley Cup playoff run, and these two teams are no exception. The Penguins have played this entire postseason without star defenseman Kris Letang and the majority of it without Murray. Crosby and Conor Sheary are healthy, but sustained concussions earlier in the playoffs. Patric Hornqvist, Justin Schultz, Tom Kuhnhackl and Chad Ruhwedel each missed most or all of the Eastern Conference Finals. The only one of those four to return for Game 7 against Ottawa was Schultz. Hornqvist’s status is up in the air for Game 1, but he did take part in the morning skate on Thursday.
The big story on the injury front for Nashville has been the loss of Johansen for the remainder of the playoffs due to a thigh injury that required emergency surgery because of compartment syndrome. Kevin Fiala has been out since Game 1 of the second round against St. Louis due to a fractured femur. Forward Craig Smith has also been out since May 7, and center Mike Fisher was sidelined for the final two games of the Anaheim series. Nashville is optimistic that Smith and Fisher will be back for the start of the Stanley Cup Final. Game 1 will be Nashville’s first game in a week, while the Penguins will be working on three days of rest.
The Experience Factor
The Penguins have seven players on their roster with 100 or more games of playoff experience. Crosby, Malkin, and Fleury are seeking their third Cup ring, while forward Chris Kunitz is looking for his fourth. Kunitz also won the Cup in 2007 with Anaheim. This isn’t even counting Letang, who’s also in the running for a third ring despite being injured. This is a tough, resilient, battle-hardened group that isn’t fazed by any adversity.
By comparison, the only Predators player with more than 100 games of postseason experience is Fisher, who is also the only Nashville player that has played in a Stanley Cup Final. Fisher was a member of the Ottawa Senators when they fell to the Ducks in five games in 2007. Despite the lack of experience in that department, the Predators have shown they are not intimidated by the pressure of making a playoff run longer than any other in franchise history.
X-Factor For Each Team
Nashville: Colton Sissons
Thrust into the spotlight of having to fill the skates of Johansen, Sissons posted an assist in Game 5 against Anaheim, and then helped close out the Ducks in Game 6 with his first career playoff hat trick. It will be crucial for Sissons to continue to keep producing in Johansen’s absence.
Pittsburgh: Jake Guentzel
The Penguins’ trio of Crosby, Malkin, and Kessel is going to face their toughest test against Nashville’s outstanding blue line. Guentzel is tied for the league lead with nine playoff goals, but hasn’t found the back of the net since Game 6 of the second round. Since then, he has three assists and 14 shots on goal in eight games. The Pens will need more scoring from him against Nashville.
Conn Smythe Candidates For Each Team
Pekka Rinne – Not just the leading candidate for the Preds, but also the favorite heading into this series. He’s had help from a tremendous defensive corps, but he’s also been outstanding since the opening night of the postseason.
Filip Forsberg – Leads Nashville with 15 points, 14 of them at even strength. Those even strength points are the most of any forward still left playing. Also leads the team with 53 shots, putting him third in the NHL. He’s been the Preds’ most dominant forward.
P.K. Subban – Ryan Johansen would probably be in this spot if he hadn’t suffered that injury. However, Subban has provided some offensive punch with 10 points and has been matched up against the opposition’s top offensive players. When he and Ekholm have been on the ice together, the Predators have allowed just six goals at even strength in the entire postseason.
Evgeni Malkin – Leads the league in postseason points with 24, although 11 of those came in the opening round and three of his six points in the ECF came in a 7-0 blowout win in Game 5. Watching him against Nashville’s blue line will be a lot of fun.
Sidney Crosby – He’s tied with Malkin for most even strength points on the Penguins with 12, and continues to make those around him better (just look at Jake Guentzel to see why). Like Malkin, how he fares against the Preds’ defenders will be something to watch throughout the series.
Phil Kessel – If Fleury hadn’t lost the gig after a brutal Game 3 against Ottawa, he’d probably be higher on this list. However, Kessel has consistently produced at a high level throughout the postseason. Murray simply hasn’t played in enough games, and nobody on Pittsburgh’s blue line will get Conn Smythe consideration.
Both teams have dealt with their share of injuries and both have outstanding goaltending that will keep them in this series. Although both Pittsburgh and Nashville have plenty of speed, this will be a series that should turn into a war of attrition. The Penguins and Predators each have a big strength that will face their toughest test of the postseason up to this point, so depth scoring will play a huge factor. In the end of what should be a long and thrilling series, Pittsburgh’s experience helps push them over the top and gives them the league’s first repeat champion in almost 20 years.
PREDICTION: Penguins in seven games
CONN SMYTHE TROPHY WINNER: Evgeni Malkin