Stanley Cup Final Preview

Posted: 05/29/2017 by levcohen in Hockey

Can the Nashville Predators stop the Pittsburgh Penguins in their quest to repeat? In a Cup Final that’s been largely flying under the radar, that’s probably the top storyline. But it’s not my favorite storyline. As someone who’s gotten rather sick of Pittsburgh’s sustained success over the last decade, I’d rather focus on their opponents. How about those Predators fans?? They have sooo many great, famous fans (read: bandwagon celebrity fans)! There’s Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, Marcus Mariota and the Titans’ offensive line… The Predators are getting their highest ratings ever and are playing in an arena that’s the loudest in the NHL, at least according to a Ducks player. They’re 7-1 at home in the playoffs. And they play in Nashville! This is quite the success story for commissioner Gary Bettman, which means I’m not really a fan of this storyline, either. Let’s get on to the actual hockey.

The Predators are 12-4 in the playoffs, and they’re 9-1 when they score at least three goals. That’s because they’ve been getting outstanding performance after outstanding performance from Pekka Rinne, who was a mediocre goaltender during the regular season. Rinne leads postseason goalies with a 1.70 goals against average and a .941 save percentage. He has to be the leading candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy. And yet, I keep expecting him to regress to his regular season numbers. If that happens in this series, the Predators are toast. They need their goalie to keep standing on his head for them, because they have a lot less room for error than the Penguins. That’s especially true given that they’re going to be without their top center, Ryan Johansen, for the entire series. Johansen may have been Nashville’s most crucial player through the first three rounds outside of Rinne. His loss would hurt against anyone, but it could prove especially costly against a team with two good centers (Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen) and two otherworldly ones (Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin). Nobody can replace Johansen, but at least Nashville’s second line center, captain Mike Fisher, is a capable, stout player. With that being said, he’s far from the chance producer that Johansen is. Fisher has been held pointless through 14 playoff games despite logging 17 minutes of ice time per game. Nashville’s likely going to have to find its scoring from other sources. It’ll be interesting to see how Johansen’s former line mates, Viktor Arvidsson and Filip Forsberg, play without their center. Nashville’s top line was one of the best and most productive in the NHL all season (and especially in the playoffs. Forsberg, Arvidsson, and Johansen are +17, +13, and +12 respectively), which is why it’s such a heartbreaker that Johansen’s going to be out. Forsberg and Arvidsson are good enough to produce even without Johansen, and they’re certainly going to have to be firing on all cylinders against the Penguins and their multitude of scoring options.

The Predators could also seek more scoring from their talented defensemen. I expect Nashville’s blueliners to be aggressive early and often, with Ryan Ellis, P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, and Mattias Ekholm looking for shooting lanes and springing odd man rushes. You get the feeling that it’s going to be pretty tough for the Predators to create much in settled situations, so look for them to try to fling shots on net and get in the head of goalie Matt Murray. One thing’s for sure: this Nashville team isn’t likely to rally from two or three goals down. They’re best suited to play low scoring games.

The problem is that I’m not sure Pittsburgh’s forwards are going to let the games be low scoring. The Penguins lead the NHL with 3.05 goals per postseason game, and they led the NHL with 3.44 goals per game in the regular season. Whereas last year they got huge performances out of a lot of complimentary players, this year they’ve largely been powered by their star players. Malkin leads the NHL with 24 playoff points; Crosby is second with 20. Nashville’s as capable of slowing those guys down as anyone, as the four defensemen I mentioned earlier are great puck possessors and are also solid in their own zone. The challenge is that — and this is especially true now that Patric Hornqvist is back — there are still so many other weapons to be worried about. Phil Kessel is producing a point per game (seven goals and 12 assists in the playoffs). After being elevated to the top line, Chris Kunitz scored two goals and assisted on a third in Pittsburgh’s 3-2 Game 7 win over Ottawa. Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust are very capable of scoring in bunches. On the surface, it seems like this is a mismatch. But it’s worth noting that, with the exception of Game 5 (a 7-0 Pittsburgh win), the Senators did a pretty good job against Pittsburgh’s talent. They gave up just 10 goals in the other six games, with goalie Craig Anderson often standing on his head to keep the puck out of the net (those 10 goals came on 206 shots, an average of more than 34 per game). Pekka Rinne is perfectly capable of keeping the Preds in the series, just as Anderson kept the Senators in the series. A double-overtime Game 7 loss is about as close to a win as I can imagine. But anyone watching that game knows what I mean when I say that it always seemed like the Penguins were going to be the team that broke the deadlock. I think this series could be very similar. The Predators are a tough team, and they’re a very good defensive team. They’ll keep things close. But the Penguins will be the aggressors late in close games, and it’ll seem like a matter of time until they put games away. Sometimes, the team that’s driving the play late ends up losing. More often, though, what seems inevitable does in fact come to fruition. We’ll never know what this series would have looked like with Johansen, but I’m pretty sure I would have picked Nashville to win. Unfortunately, I now don’t think the Predators will produce enough against a hot goalie (Murray was tremendous after replacing Marc-Andre Fleury in the middle of the last round) to win four games. Pekka Rinne will have some huge moments, and it’ll be a tight series, but I like the Penguins to win it in 6.

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