PITTSBURGH vs. NASHVILLE
How they got here
Pittsburgh is 12-7 in the playoffs, defeating Columbus 4-1 in round one, Washington 4-3 in round two and Ottawa 4-3 in round three.
Nashville is 12-4, defeating Chicago 4-0 in round one, St. Louis 4-2 in round two and Anaheim in round three.
What to expect
Since the NHL’s salary cap was instituted for the 2005-06 season, no team has repeated as Stanley Cup champions. The last team to hoist hockey’s holy grail twice in a row, Detroit, did so nearly 20 years ago (in 1997 and 1998). It’s been a grueling grind for this Pittsburgh Penguins squad that needed seven games to overcome its last two opponents — Washington, the Presidents’ Trophy winner, and Ottawa, the Atlantic Division champion. Pittsburgh needed five games to get past the physical Columbus Blue Jackets in round one.
The result of that long road is several key injuries: Patric Hornqvist up front, defensemen Justin Schultz and Chad Ruhwedel on the blue line, plus two-way threat Kris Letang, who will miss all of the playoffs. Schultz came back on the blue line and scored a big goal in Game 7 against the Senators, while Trevor Daley also overcame an injury in the same series. Those two, plus Olli Maatta, will be relied on heavily in the Finals.
With its banged-up defense, the Penguins have relied on their dominant offense to advance. Superstar centers Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby have held up their end of the bargain, as they rank as one-two in the playoff scoring race with 24 and 20 points respectively. Winger Phil Kessel ranks fourth with 19 points. Each of them has seven goals, while budding offensive talent Jake Guentzel leads Pittsburgh with nine. Pittsburgh’s other top asset is a pair of goaltenders capable of steering a team to a title. Throughout the first two rounds Marc-Andre Fleury was sensational, and was the big reason why Pittsburgh outlasted the Capitals. After taking over the Penguins’ net in Game 3 against Ottawa, Matt Murray has not looked back, going 3-1-0 in his five appearances.
Much like Pittsburgh, Nashville has survived and advanced through three difficult series. After surrendering just three goals en route to a four-game sweep of Western Conference favorite Chicago, the Predators needed six tough games to eliminate St. Louis and then six more to oust Pacific Division champion Anaheim. In the process, Nashville lost top center Ryan Johansen and rookie Kevin Fiala to season-ending leg injuries, as well as center Mike Fisher to an upper body injury.
Goaltender Pekka Rinne is the big reason why Nashville needs just one more series victory to capture its first-ever Stanley Cup. Rinne has a sparkling 12-4-0 record this postseason, along with a 1.70 goals-against average and .941 save percentage. In front of Rinne, the Predators feature the NHL’s best blue line. Talented stars Ryan Ellis, Roman Josi, P.K. Subban and Mattias Ekholm log huge minutes and prevent most scoring opportunities. Offensively, Filip Forsberg leads the way, contributing eight goals and 15 points to lead all Nashville players. Even without Johansen, he’s complimented by a deep and up-and-coming group of forwards. Colton Sissons had a hat-trick in the decisive Game 6 against the Ducks.
The Stanley Cup finals should be a story of matchups. Each team enters somewhat banged up. Especially without Johansen, Nashville does not have the centers to match up with Crosby, Malkin and Nick Bonino of the Penguins. Meanwhile, the Predators’ defense gives Nashville a huge advantage on the blue line over Pittsburgh’s less accomplished crew. Rinne has been the playoffs best goaltender, and that must continue for the Predators to have a shot. It should be a classic final, but I think the Penguins will have just enough offense to win their second straight Stanley Cup, and fifth overall, in seven games.