Photo courtesy: Christina McCullough
The only thing you can expect from the NHL playoffs is to be surprised. Ask Chris Kunitz, the 37-year old Penguins forward who broke a 35-game goalless streak by pumping home two pucks in Pittsburgh’s white-knuckle Game 7 win over Ottawa, including the game-winner in the second overtime period. Or ask Colton Sissons, the young Predators forward who entered the playoffs with 20 career points and proceeded to rack up half that total again in the first three rounds, including a hat trick to help Nashville finish off the Ducks in Game 6 of the Conference Finals. Heck, ask anyone on the Nashville Predators, who won fewer games than half the teams in the NHL this season and then proceeded to roll through three of the West’s best squads on the way to the Stanley Cup Finals. After looking like a mediocre unit for much of the season, the Predators have been borderline unstoppable through the first three rounds, fueled by the brilliance of their red-hot goalkeeper Pekka Rinne. Nashville is firing on all cylinders, their fan base seems to include more famous country singers every day, and they are four wins away from the first championship in the history of their franchise…and all they have to do is figure out a way past the dominant Penguins, who are looking to become the first back-to-back champions of the salary cap era. The Pens have battled through a nightmare run of injuries, including losing stud defenseman Kris Letang for the season and missing goaltender Matt Murray for most of the playoffs; after knocking off two of the four best teams in the league in the first two rounds, they faced the league’s 12th-best regular season team in the conference final, and have now drawn the 16th seed in the Stanley Cup. But what looks on paper like an easy matchup for the Pens in reality is anything but; Pekka Rinne and Nashville’s stacked blue-line offer the toughest test yet for the explosive Pittsburgh offense. As the Penguins and Predators get ready to square off for hockey’s biggest prize, let’s tackle the biggest questions hanging over a Finals matchup bursting with potential.
PITTSBURGH: WHO WILL BE IN THE NET?
With next season’s expansion draft looming, it was fairly surprising that the Penguins didn’t move veteran netminder Marc-Andre Fleury at the trade deadline—after all, the Pens seemed to have found their next franchise goalie in young Matt Murray, who helped guide them to a championship last season at the tender age of 22, and the No-Movement Cause in Fleury’s contract would force Pittsburgh to expose Murray in the expansion draft and risk losing him for nothing if both goalies remain on the roster. However, the decision to hang onto Fleury looked a whole lot better after Murray sustained an injury in warmups before Pittsburgh’s first playoff game, pushing Fleury back into the starting position. Fleury delivered a solid performance through the first two rounds, but one bad period against Ottawa in Game 3 was enough to convince Mike Sullivan to hand the reins back to the newly healthy Murray. All indications are that the Penguins will be going with Murray in Game 1 against Nashville, but Fleury’s performance in the postseason was good enough to make you wonder how long the leash will be for Murray. You can bet that any signs of struggle from Murray will touch off a firestorm of discussion on whether Pittsburgh should turn back to their veteran, and that’s the last discussion any goalie wants to be a part of in the middle of the Stanley Cup Final. Murray’s injury and the Pens’ subsequent goalie-shuffling has inadvertently added an extra helping of pressure for the young netkeeper as he looks to win his second championship ring at the end of what was technically only his rookie season.
NASHVILLE: HOW LONG CAN PEKKA RINNE STAY HOT?
As good as the Predators have looked in every phase of the game, their undisputed MVP through the first three rounds has been Rinne, the longest-tenured player on Nashville’s roster. Rinne has posted a .941 save percentage and 1.70 goal against average, both tops among all goalies who have started more than four games in the playoffs. A hot goalie can absolutely take over a postseason run, and that’s what Rinne has done for the Preds; unfortunately, these sorts of streaks tend to end as abruptly as they begin. As good as Rinne has been, there is no telling when he will suddenly fall back to earth, and that could spell all sorts of trouble for Nashville. And the cracks are already beginning to show in Rinne’s facade of dominance—after allowing just 14 goals through the first two rounds, he allowed that many again against the Ducks in the six-game conference final and suffered his first really rough outing of the postseason in Game 2, allowing four goals on just 26 shots. As always with the men between the pipes, there’s really no way of predicting what version of Rinne will show up in the Finals. If it’s the Rinne that smothered the Blackhawks and Blues, Nashville should feel pretty good about its chances; if it’s the slightly more pedestrian Rinne that we saw against Anaheim…it’s hard to imagine that would be good enough against an offense that features Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel and Evgeni Malkin.
PITTSBURGH: CAN THE PENGUINS WIN IT ALL WITHOUT A STUD DEFENSEMAN?
Scroll back through the list of recent Cup winners and you will find at least one thing that they all have in common—a dominant defenseman anchoring their blueline. The Blackhawks and Kings have won five of the last seven Cups with the help of Duncan Keith and Drew Doughty. The 2011 Bruins had Zdeno Chara, the 2008 Red Wings had the ageless Nicklas Lidstrom, and the Penguins had Kris Letang in 2009 and 2016. It’s been a long time since a team won it all without a single star-caliber defenseman. That’s bad news for Pittsburgh, who lost Letang to a season-ending neck surgery shortly before the postseason began and have made it through the playoffs so far with a cobbled-together defensive core, doling out heavy ice time to middling players like Justin Schultz and Trevor Daley. Those guys have delivered so far, but they are going to face an extremely tough matchup against Nashville’s speedy core of forwards. A poor showing by Pittsburgh’s battered defense could be the difference in this series.
NASHVILLE: WILL THE INJURY BUG DERAIL NASHVILLE’S OFFENSE?
The good news for Pittsburgh’s overstretched D-core is that Nashville’s forward group has plenty of injury woes to deal with themselves. Nashville’s top three centers have all been sideline this postseason, with Ryan Johansen and Kevin Fiala expected to miss the entire series against Pittsburgh. Team captain Mike Fisher is expected to be back at some point, but there’s no telling how much his lingering upper body injury will affect his ability to produce. Players like Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson and Colton Sissons have done a great job of picking up the slack, but the Predators have to be worried about the gaping hole down the middle of their offense as they head into a matchup against one of the highest-scoring teams in hockey.
PITTSBURGH: WILL FATIGUE BE AN ISSUE?
Among the many reasons that no team has won back-to-back Stanley Cups in the 21st century is simple fatigue—all those extra games take a toll on even the deepest squad. The Penguins have played 207 regular season and playoff games since the beginning of last season, by far the most of any team in hockey. Health has been the biggest issue for Pittsburgh all season, and at times during the year the Penguins had more talent on their disabled list than some teams had on their entire roster (the Avalanche, for example). Pittsburgh is tantalizingly close to the finish line once again, but they have to be running out of gas as well, especially after battling Ottawa’s stifling 1-3-1 trap in a knockdown, drag-out seven game series. Under the leadership of Mike Sullivan, the Penguins have found a way around every obstacle in their path, but no amount of strategic tinkering will alleviate the cumulative exhaustion that this squad will be battling over the coming weeks.
NASHVILLE: HOW WILL PETER LAVIOLETTE USE HIS DEFENSEMAN?
The repetition of playing the same team over and over again allows for a level of strategy and matchup-targeting that isn’t really possible during the whirlwind of the regular season, and this matchup offers a fascinating chess match between two of the league’s best coaches in Mike Sullivan and Peter Laviolette. A particular area of intrigue will be how Laviolette deploys his star-studded D-core against Pittsburgh’s deadly top six. Nashville is blessed with two star defensemen in P.K. Subban and Roman Josi, and for most of the postseason Laviolette has kept the two on separate pairings, partnering Subban with Mattias Ekholm and Josi with Ryan Ellis. Subban is the brightest star on Nashville’s blueline, so you would expect him to spend most of his time on ice against Pittsburgh’s first line, which features the best hockey player on earth in Sid Crosby. But the one-two punch of Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel on Pittsburgh’s second line may actually represent a tougher assignment, and it will be interesting to see which matchups Laviolette prefers. The best part of this series will be watching how this fantastic offense versus defense matchup plays out.
WHO WILL WIN?
I have been going back on forth on this for three days now and have come now closer to settling on a pick; the only thing that’s clear is that this has the potential to be one of the best Finals series in years. That’s a cop-out answer though, so here is my best attempt at a prediction: Nashville’s depleted offense will struggle to put pucks in the net, and Mike Sullivan’s Penguins will find a way to solve the Predator’s dynamic defense.
Pittsburgh in seven.