(Hockey purists everywhere are probably losing their minds at the fact that Google is calling this the “Stanley Cup Finals” instead of the “Stanley Cup Final”.)
Round 4: Nashville
See what I did there?
Today, we welcome the unofficial start of summer (quick shoutout to the military and to all of those who made the ultimate sacrifice). And for the second straight Memorial Day in a row, the Penguins will be hosting Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final. As they would say in the land up north where no team continues to play hockey at this point of the year (per usual), “Not bad, eh?”.
Being Pittsburgh Penguins fans, we’ve been a spoiled bunch of assholes over the last dozen years or so. 11 straight trips to the postseason, back-to-back Stanley Cup Final appearances in 08-09, two Stanley Cups – the list can go on and on. But here’s the kicker: if the Penguins hoist Lord Stanley again this year, these past two seasons would cap off unarguably the best timespan of the Sidney Crosby-era, which is a pretty bananas feat in and of itself. It’s rare enough to make appearances in the Stanley Cup Final in back-to-back years, let alone win the damn thing twice. What the Penguins are doing right now is extremely special. We’ve all heard about how no team has ever repeated in the salary cap era a thousand times. It’s basically getting to the point where if we have to read about the 97-98 Detroit Red Wings one more time, we might all collectively vomit at the same time. If you don’t think the prospect of extinguishing this repeat curse (and taking a giant dump down Chicago’s throat at the same time) isn’t what’s fueling Sidney Crosby right now, then you don’t truly know Sidney Crosby. All the man wants to do is win hockey games. And if you tell him there’s no way he can win championships in back-to-back years, that stubborn MFer is gonna find a way to do it.
Let’s get to it.
Head to Head
Since it’s the Stanley Cup Final, that means the best team in the East plays the best team in the West for all the marbles. That would also mean that the two teams playing against each other have only matched up twice in the regular season. Not a whole lot to draw upon two meaningless regular season games from many months ago, but let’s recap that shit anyways!
Way back in October, the Preds kicked the shit out of the Penguins 5-1 in Nashville. A few months later in January, the Pens returned the favor and spanked the Preds 4-2 at the Paint Can. Not a whole lot to takeaway, but interestingly enough, these two teams are very good in their own barns. While we all know how good the Pens have played in the Paint Can all year long (31-6-4 in the regular season/7-3 in the postseason), the Preds have almost been equally as impressive at Bridgestone Arena – especially if you consider their postseason mark (24-9-8 in the regular season/7-1 in the postseason). Very likely that the team that can win a game at the other team’s arena will win this series.
Forwards to Watch
For the Penguins, the story is the same every series. Nashville will need to contain Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin if they want to become Stanley Cup champions for the first time in franchise history. Both of these guys have won Conn Smythe trophies in the past, and one of them is likely to win it again if the Penguins go on to win the cup. While Malkin currently leads all skaters in postseason points (24, including 7 goals and 17 assists), his captain is not too far below at number two on that list with 20 points (7 goals and 13 assists).
The Preds suffered a huge loss last series when their top center, Ryan Johansen, went down with season ending surgery for acute compartment syndrome in his left thigh (pro tip: don’t google that). This could turn out to be too much of a blow for the Preds to overcome as they’ve relied heavily on their top line for scoring production throughout the first three rounds of the postseason. Even with that said, the Penguins are still going to need to watch out for 22-year old Swedish right winger Filip Forsberg. Forsberg leads the Preds in points this postseason with 8 goals and 7 assists. I was also going to list James Neal here because of his history of being a Penguin and all, but the fact that he has as many points as Ian Cole this postseason (7) doesn’t really present him as a threat other than the fact that he may or may not try to elbow Sidney Crosby in the head this series. Cue up the #AskNeal on twitter all series long, Penguins fans.
Defenseman to Watch
The Penguins welcomed back their top (active) defenseman Justin Schultz last series in Game 7 against the Sens. And boy did he ever deliver. In the biggest game of the season, Schultz added a goal and an assist as the Pens went on to baaaaaarely beat the Sens, 3-2, in double OT to advance to the Stanley Cup Final. Schultz leads all Penguins defensemen in points (10), and is by far and away the only threat they have to score from the blue line.
As thin as Nashville may appear with their forward depth, they make up for it and some with their defensemen. Nashville’s top four defensemen might all actually be better than Pittsburgh’s best (which would happen to be Justin Schultz as mentioned above). Nashville’s defensive corps led by Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm, and P.K. Subban are the real reason they’ve made an appearance in their first ever Stanley Cup Final. All four of these defensemen know how to play shutdown defense AND put the puck in the back of the net.
While Marc Andre Fleury is the real reason the Penguins advanced in Round 2 versus the Washington Capitals, Matt Murray might very well be the reason the Penguins win back-to-back Stanley Cups. Since taking over the starting job in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals, Murray has posted a 3-1 record along with a ridiculous .946 save percentage in four starts. Kudos to Mike Sullivan for having hog-sized balls for making an unpopular decision that involved yanking his team’s Conn Smythe favorite and not looking back all because Fleury had one rough period against the Sens.
As solid as Nashville’s defensemen have been all postseason, Pekka Rinne has been equally as important to the Predators’ success. The 34-year old from Finland has been absolutely lights out this postseason, leading all goalies that have played five or more games with a .941 save percentage. Although, it’s fair to say Rinne hasn’t faced an offense as dynamic as Pittsburgh’s yet. If the Preds are going to win the Stanley Cup, Rinne’s gonna need to some more dancing on his head.
Pens in 7.
Also, I vomit uncontrollably every time I hear country music played after the Preds score in Nashville. Let’s all hope that’s not very often both for Peep’s sake and the Penguins’.
Pump Up Time
4 more to go. Let’s fucking do it!