2017 NHL Stanley Cup Finals Prospectus: Nashville Predators vs. Pittsburgh Penguins

2017 NHL Stanley Cup Finals Prospectus: Nashville Predators vs. Pittsburgh Penguins
M.D. Wright

The Cup will be in the building either in PPG Paints Arena or Bridgestone Arena. We will conclude what has been one of the more exciting — if not surprising in many ways — seasons in recent memory in the NHL. Will it be the champions from 2016, in the Pittsburgh Penguins, or the first-time Stanley Cup Final visitors, the Nashville Predators?

Let’s get right to it.

You know what you are going to get from the Pens offensively. Sidney Crosby can play on a line with anyone; whether it be Connor Sheary, Jake Guentzel, even a slug like Chris Kunitz, who scored two goals (including the series-clinching goal vs. Ottawa in the Eastern Conference Finals) and be productive. The same goes for Evgeni Malkin, whose line mates are juggled quite often (although Phil Kessel is a constant). The “HBK” line was not going to sneak up on anyone like last year, and Kessel has skated more with Malkin than Nick Bonino and Carl Hagelin — who missed a good chunk of the final month of the regular season and first half of the playoffs.

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The fourth line of cagey veteran Matt Cullen, Bryan Rust and whoever Mike Sullivan believes best suits that line on a given night (albeit mostly due to massive injuries) rounds out the forward group.

What you don’t know is what you will get from the Pens defence. It has been mediocre at best, to downright ghastly at its worst at times in every series thus far. It bled shots against Columbus (who simply could not finish, as they got no puck luck and Marc-Andre Fleury was just as lucky as he was good all series), it bled even more shots for all seven games against Washington and somehow Fleury’s combination of being good and extremely lucky resulted in an odd number of posts, crossbars and guys missing point blank shots. Against Ottawa, the Sens were smothered as Sullivan went to a heavy forechecking/relentless pressure approach as the series wore on. It took its toll on the Sens, who blew a golden opportunity to put a stranglehold on the series and eventually ran out of gas in double overtime in Game 7.

They have to be better against Nashville, whose defence runs circles around the Pens’ in all three zones (particularly when the Preds play a 1-3-1 neutral zone trap, which they are sometimes wont to do). Are the Pens blue liners capable of being better in a series where time and space will be at more of a premium than any of their previous series thus far in the playoffs? They better be, for the Pens’ sake.

Who will start for the Pens? Mike Sullivan loves to employ gamesmanship, and probably won’t announce his starter until game day. It will almost certainly be Matt Murray, though.

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Murray has been solid for the most part since taken over Marc-Andre Fleury, who had a nightmare midway through the conference finals. It was bound to happen for “MAF.” He had a pedestrian-to-almost bad regular season statistically, and somehow stood on his head all playoffs until that point. Murray backstopped the Pens last year during their playoff run, and there is a level of comfort the Pens seem to have with Murray in goal. He won’t have it easy against the pound-pound-pound Preds; the type of approach that has made Murray look bad in losses and shaky even when he did not surrender shots that were “labeled” to find the back of the net — like the end of Game 4, where the Sens were relentlessly peppering Murray with shots and simply ran out of time late — which will be what he will be up against with his defence bleeding shots in front of him. He will have to stand on his head again like last playoffs in order for the Pens to hoist the Cup once more.

The Preds took three major blows to their forward group during these playoffs. First, they lost speedy winger Kevin Fiala in the conference semifinals against St. Louis in what was a freak collision into the end boards. A broken leg resulted. Though the Preds won the series, it tested their depth to a degree against the Ducks. Later in the Ducks series, centre Mike Fisher suffered what many believed to be a concussion during a collision with Ducks defenceman Josh Manson, who looked like a second-baseman turning a double play with a baserunner bearing down to break up the play; kneeing Fisher in the head as he leaped over a pile of bodies in a desperate attempt to clear the puck in front of John Gibson. A tough break for the Preds, who still overcame Fisher’s absence to win the series.

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The injury that causes some questions where there would erstwhile be few heading into this series is the one suffered by Ryan Johansen. Johansen took (and dished out just as much of) a beating while matched up with Ducks centre Ryan Kesler for the most part in the conference semis. However, it was a rather innocuous knee to Johansen’s upper leg which led to compartment syndrome — necessitating emergency surgery and thereby ending his season — that actually did him in.

Fisher is likely to play when the Final begins, and Colton Sissons — who helped seal the series versus Anaheim with a hat trick, and played top line minutes in that Game 6 — will be ready. Youngster Frederick Gaudreau has stepped in admirably to help down the middle. The Preds still have plenty of forward depth, and Craig Smith should also be available for the series, as well. Despite the craftiness and sly tactics of Crosby and Malkin, the Preds are not at a decided disadvantage down the middle or on the wings.

Filip Forsberg was dominant against Anaheim. Guentzel, who is tied with the Ducks’ Jakob Silfverberg in playoff goals with nine, has tailed off since the conference semis. In fact, he was barely visible for much of the series against Ottawa. For all that Guentzel did versus Columbus and Washington, Forsberg did just as much as Guentzel had in the first two rounds in the back end of the St. Louis series and throughout the Anaheim series alone, following his typical slow start in playoffs. Viktor Arvidsson will have more room to operate against the leaky Pens D, as well.

Smith, Colin Wilson, a mixture of Harry Zolnierczyk/P.A. Parenteau and Austin Watson are good depth players who do the dirty work in each zone. The keys to this series for the Preds up front will be the play of Forsberg, Arvidsson, former Pens winger James Neal and the aforementioned centres. If the Preds can hold serve on draws, they will be in good position.

The Preds boast the best defence in the NHL. We said the Capitals did during the regular season, and metrics backed that up, but the Caps D went to mush immediately once the playoffs began. The Preds shut down, shut out and swept the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round, stifled the Blues (Preds are 7-0 went leading after the 2nd period in these playoffs; while employing a mixture of pressure and neutral zone tactics), and matched the nastiness that the Ducks are known for with their own brand of physical hockey, while displaying skill at key moments. This was something that the Ducks could not match; despite a decided advantage down the middle with all-world Ryan Getzlaf and Kesler on the last change in the home games (Ducks had home ice advantage). Kesler turned into a fourth line-type player and left his offence at home, which is where he is today as a result.

The Preds won’t get any shifts off against Crosby, Malkin, Bonino or Cullen’s lines, but they are the team best equipped to slow down the Pens, while generating offence of their own.

The first pairing of Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis combine speed, skill, coverage and high hockey IQ to limit opponents shots on goal, while generating a great deal of offence themselves. Josi serves as both the quarterback for the first power play unit and a sniper on his off hand side, as well. It will be intriguing to watch this pairing face Crosby (mostly) and Malkin (occasionally).

Also facing those two lines, and occasionally the Bonino line (barring last changes by Sullivan in the Pens’ home games), Mattias Ekholm — who has been stellar by every metric these playoffs — and the electric P.K. Subban contribute the same qualities that Josi and Ellis provide, but are bigger and more physical, as well. Ekholm is 6’4″ 215, and Subban is 6′ 215. The Pens, when they do manage the neutral zone, will still have a time against this pairing. Matt Irwin and Yannick Weber have been a steady third pair that doesn’t “beat” their team.

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Pekka Rinne has been the best goalie in these playoffs. He will need to maintain that level of play for the Preds, because the Pens are sneaky in the offensive zone. Rinne, when he did surrender goals against the Ducks, did so on shots that the Pens love to attempt from all types of angles. On one hand, the long layoff (a week) should figure to help the 34-year old netminder, but when you’ve been going as well as Rinne (1.70 GAA, .941 SV% in playoffs, following 2.42/.918 regular season) you almost want to get back to it as soon as possible.

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Peter Laviolette is the best coach in the NHL right now. Mike Sullivan is gaining steam with his historic run since taking over behind the Penguins’ bench 18 months ago. Both coaches have won Stanley Cups. Sullivan’s done it with a stacked roster. Laviolette did it with a bunch of savvy veterans and young players such as Eric Staal and goalie Cam Ward in Carolina in 2006. He’s also led the Philadelphia Flyers to the Stanley Cup Final in 2010 and now has the Preds here, as well. He knows what he is doing.

The Preds will be ready.



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