Penguins and Predators set to clash in Cup Final

Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final takes place on Monday from Pittsburgh

Brayton Wilson
May 29, 2017 - 11:50 am

Photo: Charles LeClaire - USA TODAY Sports

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The Nashville Predators have been one of the feel good stories of the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs. Coming into the playoffs as the eighth seed in the Western Conference, they have fought their way to the Stanley Cup Final, beating some of the top teams in the Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues and Anaheim Ducks. 

On top of that, the city of Nashville has exceeded all expectations with being a small market hockey city. The fans have bought in and have made Bridgestone Arena one of the toughest places to play in the National Hockey League. The Predators have been very impressive at home with a 7-1 record, with the only loss coming in overtime of Game 4 against the Ducks in the Western Conference Final.

The Predators officially clinched their first-ever berth in the Stanley Cup Final last week Monday following a 6-3 win over the Ducks in Game 6 of the Western Conference Final.

But Nashville may face their toughest challenge yet in these Stanley Cup playoffs. They will match up with the 2016 Stanley Cup Champions in the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The Penguins return to the Final after a couple of grueling matchups with the Washington Capitals in the Eastern Conference semifinals and the Ottawa Senators in the Eastern Conference Final. Both matchups ended up going the distance with seven games played after the Penguins had beaten the Columbus Blue Jackets in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals in five games.

The Penguins were the second overall seed in the Eastern Conference heading into the playoffs, and ended up meeting the third-seeded Blue Jackets and the top-seeded Capitals in the first two rounds. And even though Ottawa entered the playoffs as the sixth seed in the East, they gave the Penguins all they could handle to force seven games.

Pittsburgh ended up clinching their spot in the Stanley Cup Final on Thursday after Chris Kunitz scores in double overtime to give the Penguins a 3-2 win at PPG Paints Arena. If the Penguins happen to win the Stanley Cup in 2017, they would become the first team to repeat as champions since the 1997 and 1998 Detroit Red Wings.

So the Stanley Cup Final will feature the second overall seed in the playoffs against the 16th seed, marking the first time in league history that the lowest seed in the playoffs will play for the Stanley Cup.

This matchup will feature two teams who arguably have similar traits that have gotten them to this point this season: speed, skill, and depth.

Pittsburgh's top-three scorers are the usual suspects in Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, and Phil Kessel. Malkin leads the way with 24 points (seven goals and 17 assists) in 19 playoff games, while Crosby sits in second with 20 points (seven goals and 13 assists) and Kessel right behind with 19 points (seven goals and 12 assists). Jake Guentzel leads the for the Penguins with nine goals, and is tied with Anaheim's Jakob Silfverberg for the league lead through the Conference Final Round. 

While the Predators may not have the top-end, elite players like the Penguins do with Crosby and Malkin, they have players who have the ability to contribute on all four lines. Pittsburgh is the highest scoring team this postseason averaging 3.05 goals per-game, but Nashville is right behind them in second averaging 2.94 goals per-game. 

Nashville's leading scorer this postseason is Filip Forsberg, who has eight goals and seven assists in 16 games this postseason. Ryan Johansen was the Predators' second leading scorer with three goals and 10 assists in 14 games, but he is now out of postseason action after going down with acute compartment syndrome in his left thigh.

Where Nashville has the edge in this postseason is on the blue line with a top-four that most teams would be lucky to have. Ryan Ellis leads the way on the blue line with four goals and eleven points, while P.K. Subban and Roman Josi have 10 points and Mattias Ekholm sits with eight. These four players have been essential for the Predators' success in these playoffs with their contributions in both ends of the ice.

The Penguins have gone through the entire postseason without their top defenseman on the roster, but have managed to get some good production. Kris Letang has been out since February with a neck injury and will not be available for the Stanley Cup Final after surgery that will put him out at least another 2-4 months.

In the meantime, Justin Schultz has stepped up on the blue line while being banged up himself. In 15 games played, Schultz has three goals and seven assists while suffering some broken ribs in the Eastern Conference Final. Schultz played through the injury for Game 7 against Ottawa, and is likely to play through the Stanley Cup Final. While Pittsburgh's defense has not been as active on offense as Nashville's has, guys like Ian Cole (seven points),  Olli Maatta (seven points), and Ron Hainsey (five points) have been helpful in keeping the Penguins solid in the defensive end.

As of right now, it seems as though it could be an even matchup in net between Pekka Rinne and Matt Murray.

Rinne has been outstanding in these playoffs with a 12-4 record with just 28 goals against, a 1.70 goals-against average and a .941 save percentage. Rinne has yet to be chased from action this postseason, and has stepped up in every way possible for the Predators. Where Rinne has struggled in the past with consistency, he has been rock solid in all 16 games played this year.

Pittsburgh started the playoffs with Marc-Andre Fleury in goal while Matt Murray recovered from a lower-body injury suffered during warmups before Game 1 of their series with the Blue Jackets. However, the Penguins made a change in goal after a 5-1 loss in Game 3 to the Senators and have gone with Murray ever since. In five games played this postseason, Murray has been solid with a 1.35 goals-against average and .946 save percentage.

Where the series will be won is with depth and the ability to stay healthy for a possible seven games.

Pittsburgh will not have the services of Letang, but another key player that has been banged up is Patric Hornqvist. Hornqvist has been out of actions since Game 1 against Ottawa with an upper-body injury, but it is likely that he will be back for Game 1 on Monday.

As for Nashville, Johansen is a no-go as is forward Kevin Fiala, who broke his femur in Game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinals against the Blues. The good news that that the Predators could get two centers back in the lineup in captain Mike Fisher and Craig Smith. Fisher has not seen action since Game 4 against the Ducks after suffering a head injury. It is expected though that Fisher will be ready for Game 1 against the Penguins on Monday. Smith's status is also looking good for Game 1 against the Penguins, as he has not played since Game 1 against the Blues with a lower-body injury.

Faceoff for Game 1 on Monday is at 8 p.m. from PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh. You can catch all the Stanley Cup action on WGR with every game being broadcasted live on the air!

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