2017 Stanley Cup Finals Preview: Can the Predators Stop a Penguins Repeat?
The upstart Nashville Predators will face the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins in the best-of-seven Stanley Cup Finals beginning on Monday night in Pittsburgh. Here's a preview of the series that will decide which team wins the NHL’s iconic trophy:
How They Got Here:
Powered by sensational centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the Pittsburgh Penguins (50-21-11) compiled 111 regular-season points and finished second in the Metropolitan Division. The Pens have been resilient in the post-season, defeating Columbus, 4-1, in the first round before outlasting first Washington, 4-3; then Ottawa, 4-3; in two grueling, seven-game series to claim the Eastern Conference championship.
Buoyed by the NHL’s best defense, the Nashville Predators (41-29-12) clawed their way to 94 points this season and the second wild card in the Western Conference playoffs. Thanks to Pekka Rinne’s nearly flawless goaltending, the Preds have defeated Chicago, 4-0; St. Louis, 4-2; and Anaheim, 4-2, en route to the Western Conference championship.
The Pittsburgh Penguins are appearing in their second consecutive Stanley Cup Finals; their fourth in the past 10 seasons and sixth in franchise history. If Pittsburgh can beat Nashville, they’ll skate away with the franchise’s fifth Stanley Cup and become the NHL’s first repeat champions since Detroit in 1998.
The Nashville Predators are making their first Stanley Cup Finals appearance. Only center Mike Fisher, who skated for Ottawa in the 2007 finals, has even played for the Cup. If Nashville can stage yet another upset, they can become the NHL's first No. 16 seed to win the Stanley Cup.
Pittsburgh and Nashville split two games this season: the Predators beat the Penguins, 5-1, on Oct. 22 and the Penguins won, 4-2, on Jan. 31.
For Pittsburgh To Win The Stanley Cup, It Must…
Stay Centered: Evgeni Malkin (24 points) and Sidney Crosby (20 points) rank first and second, respectively, in NHL scoring this postseason. The two Penguins are the best center duo in the NHL and can break through against any goaltender, even Rinne. They need to remain the focal point of the offense. Wing Phil Kessel (19 postseason points) gives Pittsburgh scoring depth and postseason goals leader Jake Guentzel (9) presents an additional headache for the Predators.
Defend By Committee: A neck injury to defenseman Kris Letang has forced Pittsburgh to use depth to harass and harangue opponents in front of goalies Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury. Brian Dumoulin, Ron Hainsey and Justin Schultz must neutralize Nashville’s speed, kill penalties and clear the zone. If Patric Hornqvist can return from injury, it will be a big help. Of note: both Murray (2016) and Fleury (2009) have won a Cup.
Use Their Experience: Both Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan (2016) and Predators’ boss Peter Laviolette (Carolina in 2006) have won Stanley Cups, but Pittsburgh is infinitely more experienced than Nashville. The longer the games grind on, the more important that experience is likely to be on power plays, in close games, and in overtimes.
For Nashville To Win The Stanley Cup, It Must…
Bring The Penguins To ‘Smashville’: Nashville has the best defense in the league. P.K. Subban and Mattias Ekholm are exceptional, well-conditioned defenders, while Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis possess skills that can slow down the Pittsburgh attack. Those Predators aren’t one-dimensional: the four defenders have combined for 39 points this postseason.
Find A Scoring Threat: With the loss of Ryan Johansen to injury (thigh) and the questionable status of Mike Fisher (head), Nashville must find a scorer to put pressure on the shaky Pittsburgh defense. Colton Sissons served as top center the past two games, but it could be different in the finals against Crosby or Malkin. Filip Forsberg (eight goals and 15 points) has been the Preds statistical leader. He can’t disappear now.
Pekka Them To Death: With a playoff-best 12-4 record, 1.70 goals-against average and .941 save percentage, Pekka Rinne is a leading candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. If Rinne’s strong play continues, he can nullify Pittsburgh’s edge on offense and let his teammates grind down the Pens defense.
2017 NHL Stanley Cup Finals Schedule
Game 1 at Pittsburgh: Monday, May 29, 7 p.m. (ET) on NBC
Game 2 at Pittsburgh: Wednesday, May 31, 7 p.m. (ET) on NBC Sports Network
Game 3 at Nashville: Saturday, June 3, 7 p.m. (ET) on NBC Sports Network
Game 4 at Nashville: Monday, June 5, 7 p.m. (ET) on NBC
*Game 5 at Pittsburgh: Thursday, June 8, 7 p.m. (ET) on NBC
*Game 6 at Nashville: Sunday, June 11, 7 p.m. (ET) on NBC
*Game 7 at Pittsburgh: Wednesday, June 14, 7 p.m. (ET) on NBC
* — if necessary