So here we are. And then there were two. The last lap of the season. It’s you know, the end.
Whichever you decide to choose it’s the Stanley Cup Final. An all-yellow affair, if you will. This year’s hopefuls include the reigning-champion Pittsburgh Penguins versus the Nashville Predators, who clinched the postseason a full 11 days after the Pens did. Both though are just as close to the prize. Lord Stanley. All series long there will be plenty of X-factors that will be crucial to reach the necessary 16 wins.
1. Playing to its Strength
For the Pittsburgh it’s most lethal weapon is its mix of young and veteran forwards, overpowering opponents. They’ve outscored teams 59-43 and boast four of the top-six leading scorers this postseason: 1. Evgeni Malkin (24 pts.); 2. Sidney Crosby (20); 3. Phil Kessel (19); 6. Jake Guentzel (16). That’s pretty stiff competition for the Preds, especially with the caliber year Crosby is putting up including a World Cup and less than a year removed from league and playoff MVP honors.
How has Nashville countered the Blackhawks, Blues and Ducks offenses? With a mobile and sound blueline, who protects their end, but isn’t afraid to chip in offensively and get the puck to the net. The back end has combined for 42 points and 163 shots on goal. It’s helped compensate for the loss of Ryan Johansen to emergency thigh surgery during the last round. Things won’t be easy on the Pens with a top-four that includes Ryan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm, Roman Josi and P.K. Subban.
2. Special Teams
The Penguins come into the Finals with a 25 percent power play percentage. Nobody in the postseason has had more success than Pittsburgh on the man-advantage. They’ve scored 14 times (four more than the second-ranked Caps) and are 8-3 in games where they’ve scored one or more power play goals. Short-handed, they’re equally impressive with an 86 percent penalty kill. Pittsburgh’s 88% though on the road helped contain the Blue Jackets, Capitals and Senators fans quiet and will hope it stays to form in perhaps the loudest building, Bridgestone Arena.
The Predators 7 power play goals on 47 tries is something that’ll have to improve to keep pace with Pittsburgh especially given all the talent they possess. Nashville does have 5 of their 7 power play goals on the road which could be a factor as the Pens have done their finest work man-down on the road. They’re just 82% on the kill at home. Nashville has allowed just five power play goals on 42 kills. Their 92% kill on the road is of particular note.
Following a three-point game 7, including two goals–one of which the game-winner in double-OT, Chris Kunitz looks like a player who can smell his fourth Stanley Cup. That’s good news for Pens fans, who have to know Nashville’s top defensive pairings will be all over the likes of Crosby, Malkin and Kessel. Kunitz went 33-straight games without a goal but at 37 and a pending free agent, he could be recharged in what might be his last run of this length.
Elsewhere in the lineup, Bryan Rust has already proven that he can be a playoff provider when it matters. Last year he posted 9 points in 23 games, 5 of which came in series-clinching games. Connor Sheary has had some injuries and has yet to find the back of the net, so he’s due for one. And finally, after never making the postseason in his 13-year career, Ron Hainsey has a chance to be at worst a one-hit wonder. Injuries have forced him to log more ice time than anyone probably expected or wanted, but he’s handled it well and is as important as anyone even if this is somehow just his first playoff dance.
I know before game 6 versus Anaheim you thought Colton Sissons was the name of the bad guy in some terrible movie we all forgot about. It’s OK. I did, too. But he’s actually been an impact player potting a hat trick in the series-clinching game 6 to advance the Preds to their first Final. With Johansen’s injury, he’s taken on some crucial minutes down the middle responding strongly with five goals and five helpers. He won’t have it any easier as he gets set to play on the biggest of NHL stages.
If captain Mike Fisher returns to the lineup, that’s incredibly important depth as he can play up and down the lineup and in any situation. Though he’s been held without a point through 14 games, he’ll be a welcomed addition when he returns–perhaps that will be for game 1. Of course, he’s not the only one who has been held quiet and is overdue for a breakout. Colin Wilson might be a likely candidate for just that. He’s got just 2 goals in 12 games but reputation is reputation and Wilson’s isn’t half bad. He’s got 22 points in his last 32 postseason games. That’s encouraging for a team that will need to find offense from a variety of sources.
4. Scorned Stars
Though they’d never admit it, there has to be at least part of the subconscious that would relish in the “I told you so” aspect of winning a Stanley Cup. Especially if the person might have been, oh I don’t know, left off some top 100 list or maybe just under a year removed from being traded.
Enter Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin and Nashville’s P.K. Subban.
For Malkin, 832 regular season points in 706 games wasn’t enough to earn him a spot on the NHL’s Top 100 list earlier this season. How much does this matter to Malkin? Probably not much at all. Especially when you’re leading the postseason in points and could very well be on pace for his second Conn Smythe trophy. That might not earn him back a spot, but he’d be just the sixth player to achieve that feat.
If you don’t know how things unraveled for Subban, you’re either living under a rock–or in Montreal, where suppression is the only answer. What was June 29, 2016? It doesn’t exist, actually. That of course being the date in which GM Marc Bergevin decided that Subban’s “attitude” had to get out of his locker room. Fact of that matter is for all that was said, he was a beloved player for the Canadiens for not just for his play on the ice but for his work in the community. A $10 million donation to the city’s children’s hospital was among the most notable impacts on the city before his departure. He may never wear a Montreal sweater again, but there’s only one place he’s taking the cup if he wins.
Matt “Still-A-Rookie” Murray helped backstop the Pens to victory one year earlier, but seemed to be stuck playing role reversal with Marc-Andre Fleury after missing the start of the playoffs with injury. Fleury started the first 15 games of the postseason before being pulled after allowing 4 goals on 9 shots in game 3 of the Conference Finals in Ottawa. That outing returned the net to Murray, presently 3-1 with a .946 save percentage. He’s no question the goalie for the present and future and could add his second cup before being able to legally rent a car. Neat.
Pekka Rinne meanwhile has an astonishing 12-4 record alongside a .941 save percentage this postseason. This of course being the same Pekka Rinne whose postseason career prior was 22-26-0 with a .912 SV%. Like a fine wine, the 34-year-old Finnish netminder looks to have gotten better with age. He’s the longest-tenured Predator and is looking to bring the state of Tennessee it’s first professional sports championship. Lofty goal? Maybe, but when you make it to the NHL after being the 258th player drafted in 2004, anything’s possible.