The time has come. The first three rounds of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs have been completed and after a month and a half of competition only two teams, one per conference, remain alive. The setup couldn’t be bigger with the newcomer Predators, who are appearing for the first time in franchise history in a Stanley Cup Final. They face the defending champions Penguins, who are trying to become the first team in 19 years to hoist the trophy in back-to-back seasons. With two different and contrasting approaches based on the rosters and the available personal after the grueling playoffs took their toll in both clubhouses game after game, these are some of the points we’ve been left with to think about for, at least, the next seven days.
Building from the net
We already discussed the potential Conn Smythe candidates about two weeks ago, prior to the start of the third round of the playoffs. Although changes have happened and stories have developed between that point and tonight’s Game 1, both Marc Andre-Fleury and Pekka Rinne were and still are a big part of Nashville and Pittsburgh success in reaching the Final. While the former saw a bad performance end his days as a Penguin starter (and most probably as a Penguin at all, given the expansion draft to come and its consequences), the Swede is still performing at an all-time level sustaining an impressive .941 Save Percentage over his last 16 games with 13 Quality Stars. On Pittsburgh side, still-rookie Matt Murray has taken the reins and recorded a .946 Save Percentage in 5 games (4 as a starter, winning 3 of them).
In summary, we can just say that both goalies have been terrific and they’ll be key for the success of their respective teams. If any of them crashes and comes down to earth for one or two games, the balance could be heavily shifted and the series completely decided.
Forward tandem vs. Studded blueline
It’s always been said that defense wins championships and this Stanley Cup Final will serve as the ultimate test for that statement. The most glaring contrast between the Predators and the Penguins is how the look and shape of the roster they arrive with at this point of the competition differ between them. While Nashville has lost Fiala, Johansen, and Fisher during its run, making for a way weakened forward lines at the center position, Pittsburgh has made a habit of rotating defensemen game after game given their problems with injuries, not to mention the complete absence of Kris Letang.
The Predators enter the Final with a Top 4 on defense composed of a top pair formed by Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis and followed by a second unit of Mattias Ekholm and P.K. Subban. In contrast, their center position will surely miss the presence of Ryan Johansen and probably team’s captain Mike Fisher, who is expected to come out of his injury during the series.
On Pittsburgh side, the two-headed monster that is the Crosby-Malkin pair will account for the heavy lifting of a team that will rely mostly on those two players at the time of putting pucks in the net and points in the scoresheet. Out of them, second-tier contributors such as Phil Kessel or Jake Guentzel will need to keep up their productions in order to really make this a series. The problem for the Penguins? A backup-of-backups defense where it is even hard to know who actually constitutes the top pair of DMen.
U.S. battle in the benches
This will mark the first time two coaches born in the United States (both from Massachusetts) meet in a Stanley Cup Final. Mike Sullivan, Pittsburgh’s head coach since December of 2015, has yet to lose in the playoffs after lifting last year’s Stanley Cup. Peter Laviolette also has a Stanley Cup championship under his belt (Carolina Hurricanes, 2006) and was able to lead Philadelphia to the Final in 2010 (losing it to Chicago).
Both coaches have faced hard decisions during their respective runs and in no way have they failed to address them. Sullivan’s decision of pulling Fleury and give Murray his chance proved right after defeating Ottawa in seven games, while Laviolette’s management of his star-studded defense has been unmatched during this year’s postseason.
It all will come down to the tiniest of details
You can root for the Predators. You can root for the Penguins. But, whoever you’re cheering for and wanting to win the cup, it will surely be a close call.
Pittsburgh enters the Final with the most goals scored by any team in the playoffs with 58 (Nashville has scored 47, sitting 3rd) while they have allowed 44 (3rd most) by Nashville’s 29 (the least of all participants to advance past the second round).
Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby account for 44 of Pittsburgh’s total points, which means they’re the main offensive weapons of the Penguins. Any drop in production could be crucial for their team. The same goes for the Predators and their build-up from the defense. The top two lines of defenders of Nashville have produced 28 assists in 16 games, with both Mattias Ekholm and P.K. Subban scoring 8 goals each.
Matt Murray has allowed just 1.35 goals per game, while Rinne’s number sits at 1.70 over more than three times the number of games. Both goalies are playing tremendous minutes and keeping their teams alive and on even strength situations, Nashville’s netminder Rinne edges Murray with a .945 Save Percentage, four points over Pittsburgh’s Matt.
In terms of puck possession, Nashville is posting a 50.94% Corsi while Pittsburgh is way below at 46.95%. The bad note for the Predators, tho, is that their PDO (Shooting Percentage plus Save Percentage) is right now at 103.2%, which if regresses to the mean could hinder their scoring and most probably bring Rinne back to earth. Pittsburgh’s 101.0%, while over the average, is much closer to it so we may be watching they function at their actual level of quality.
Strengths and weaknesses are present in both teams. Injuries have not left any of them untouched. The willingness to make history will be present in different ways at either side. Embrace the Final and don’t be so sure about who will come out the winner, because it is all up for grabs at this point.