One of the bigger story lines heading into the series is how Nashville’s centers are going to match up against Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, particularly with Ryan Johansen (thigh surgery) out and banged-up Mike Fisher not 100 percent. Malkin leads the NHL with 24 points this postseason, while Crosby, even though he hasn’t looked the same since being concussed in the Washington series, is second with 20. Malkin, Crosby and Phil Kessel all have seven goals, and it will be fun to watch if Kessel and Malkin continue their fiery hollering at each other when one wants the puck. Rookie Jake Guentzel (Hill-Murray) is tied for first in the NHL with nine goals but hasn’t scored since the second round. On the Nashville end, the Predators have proven to be one of the deepest teams in the NHL, getting contributions from the likes of Colton Sissons, Viktor Arvidsson and Austin Watson. They are led by Filip Forsberg, who has eight goals, 15 points and points in seven consecutive games. Former Penguins winger James Neal combos as a sniper/subtly dirty player, so Pittsburgh players better keep their head up and knees in when Neal is on the ice.
With Kris Letang sidelined following neck surgery, it’s amazing the Penguins have made it this far with a blue line playing so erratically. Olli Maatta, Ron Hainsey and Ian Cole have all had their share of ups and downs. The Predators’ top four of Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, P.K. Subban and Mattias Ekholm is as good as it gets. Ellis had a seven-game point streak earlier in the playoffs, Subban has been solid on both ends of the rink, and Josi, a quiet star, and Ekholm are super smooth. There’s no doubt the Predators’ aggressive, forechecking, fast forwards and active blue line guided by Hall of Fame defenseman and assistant coach Phil Housley should take advantage of Pittsburgh’s suspect D-corps.
Pekka Rinne, a Predators lifer, has been magnificent throughout the postseason. He is 12-4 with an NHL-best .941 save percentage and 1.70 goals-against average and is a solid puck handler who has the ability to ruin opposing dump-and-chase games. Marc-Andre Fleury, the 2003 No. 1 overall pick and 2009 Cup champion with Pittsburgh, will open the series once again as Matt Murray’s backup. Murray, who guided the Penguins to last year’s championship, was injured early in the playoffs in warmups but started the last four games of the Eastern Conference finals. Rinne is in a groove and must to continue to be to shut down Crosby, Malkin and Kessel.
The Penguins’ power play has been rocking and rolling this postseason, burying goals on 25 percent of their advantages. Kessel and Malkin have combined for 21 power-play points, with Kessel scoring five times and Malkin having all of his 10 points on helpers. Justin Schultz has done a solid job from the point. Nashville has scored on only 14.9 percent of its power plays but kills 89.5 percent of opposing power plays and doesn’t take a lot of penalties.
Nashville’s Peter Laviolette is one of three coaches in NHL history to take three teams to the Stanley Cup Final, winning a Cup with Carolina in 2006. The former Islanders, Hurricanes and Flyers coach joked that all that means is he has been fired a lot. But he’s a fabulous coach, as is Mike Sullivan, who has now coached Pittsburgh into the Final in each of his two years as coach. This is the first Final with two U.S.-born coaches.
There’s no doubt the Penguins have the experience factor. Their roster is full of players who won the Cup last season; a handful who won the Cup in 2009; and six who have appeared in more than 100 playoff games. The Predators, on the other hand, have one player who has stepped foot in a Stanley Cup Final. Their captain, Fisher, lost to Anaheim in 2007 when he played for Ottawa. Game 1 could favor the Predators. Often teams coming off a Game 7 victory are physically and mentally exhausted in the first game of the next series and have trouble getting the “hate” back on. Pittsburgh was flat in Game 1 against Ottawa after a seven-game series against Washington.
The Penguins have done a tremendous job continuing to play at a high level despite a massive amount of injuries. And while the center depth for Nashville is a concern, this Predators team seems like one of destiny. The Predators 7-1 at home, have lost only four games and have not faced an elimination game yet. Even though the Penguins always seem to find a way, and even though I’m certain to get chirped by Matt Cullen’s wife, Bridget, for being “the worst at picking, for real,” we’re going with the long shot.
Nashville in six