Finally, the Cup Final: Preds vs. Penguins

Getting to the Stanley Cup Final is as much as an endurance test as it is a measure of skill. Sure, you’ve got to have an impressive collection of skill and perseverance to prevail over three opponents in seven-game series, but you also have to hope that you can get through the playoffs without losing too many of your key players. And when you do lose important parts of your club, you need others to step up and carry the load.

And for both teams in the Final, each part has come into play. The Predators have lost their top two centers to injury: leading scorer Ryan Johansen is out for the playoffs and Mike Fisher missed much of the third-round series vs. Anaheim, but should be back. The Penguins lost number one goalie Matt Murray and top defenseman Kris Letang to injury before the playoffs began, but Marc-Andre Fleury stepped in and did a great job until Murray returned against Ottawa in the conference final. Pittsburgh has also overcome injuries to Sid Crosby and Trevor Daley, among others, both of whom are healthy enough to play in the final. Nashville is rested and ready, having knocked off Anaheim in 6 games, while it took a full 7 games and two overtimes for Pittsburgh to take down the pesky Senators.

Ultimately, it’s going to be a classic battle of offense against defense. Pittsburgh has the top three scorers in the playoffs—Evgeni Malkin, Crosby and Phil Kessel—but Nashville has a powerful defense corps (featuring PK Subban, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm) that is not only excellent defensively but contributes to the Preds’ offense in a big way. Pittsburgh struggled at times against Ottawa’s smothering trap defense, but their challenge will be much different against the Preds, who send their defensemen into the rush to join the offense. Nashville can play a bruising game as well, having battled the Ducks and their big forwards in the last series. Their offense, which is led by the dangerous Filip Forsberg, also has received contributions from Viktor Arvidsson and minor-league callups Colton Sissons, Austin Watson and Pontus Aberg.

In the net, Pittsburgh has received good goaltending from Murray and Fleury, but Nashville’s Pekka Rinne has been the best goalie of the playoffs so far. After many years of postseason disappointment, Rinne seems locked in. He will be tested by the Pens’ big three and other threats like Jake Guentzel, Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust.

Both teams have steady, smart coaches who have each won a Cup. Pittsburgh’s Mike Sullivan obviously won last year with the Pens and has more experience in the NHL as an assistant than a head coach, but don’t underestimate what he’s done mixing and matching his pieces throughout tough Eastern Conference battles against Columbus, Washington and Ottawa. Peter Laviolette won the Cup with Carolina in 2006 and has been the Cup final with Philadelphia as well. He’s also done well to incorporate younger players in key roles when regulars have gone down.

It’s going to be a fun, interesting series between two of the best teams in the NHL throughout the season, which is what you hope for. In the end, the Predators are too deep and strong and will bring Smashville its first Stanley Cup.

Nashville in 6.

Four left standing: Welcome to the conference finals

The NHL’s long playoff slog rolls on, with four teams left in the running for Lord Stanley’s Cup. The second round was hotly contested, with two series going six games and two going the full seven. Washington fell down 3-1 early against Pittsburgh, and even though they were able to rally to extend the series, the Caps were unable to beat the resurgent Marc-Andre Fleury in game 7 and fell 2-0. Meanwhile, the underdog Senators rode the dominant play of Erik Karlsson and the timely goaltending of Craig Anderson to knock off the Rangers in six. The Predators continued to pick up steam and eliminated St. Louis in six, while Anaheim held off the upstart Oilers in a seesaw series that went the distance.

So where does that leave us in the Conference Finals, which begin tonight?

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Ducks (1) vs. Predators (WC2)

I actually called the Western winners correctly in the last round, but I had the Ducks winning in six and Nashville in seven. Unlike the Capitals, the Ducks were able to get a major playoff monkey off their back by finally winning a game 7 at home after losing seventh-game showdowns in each of the last four seasons. It didn’t look like it would happen after the Oilers blew them out in game six, 7-1, but Anaheim was able to focus and get the job done. However, the Preds are playing lights out hockey right now with Pekka Rinne continuing his outstanding work in net, a terrific defense corps and clutch offense. Nashville’s going to the finals this year.

Nashville in 6.

 

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Senators (2) vs. Penguins (2)

Nobody, except probably the Sens themselves, thought Ottawa would get this far. But their defense-first style is built for the playoffs and they’ve had a knack for squeaking out victories: seven of their eight playoff wins have been by one goal. Karlsson has been immense for the Sens, putting himself in the early Conn Smythe considerations as he leads Ottawa at both ends of the ice while playing with two hairline fractures in his left heel. Pittsburgh overcame the concussion(s) suffered by Sidney Crosby (who returned) and injuries to Kris Letang (out for the postseason) and last year’s Cup-winning goalie Matt Murray to play just well enough to beat a stacked Capitals squad. Evgeni Malkin has stepped up and is leading the playoffs with 18 points, but there are plenty of weapons including Jake Guentzel and Phil Kessel to provide offense. And Fleury has been terrific, looking like the goalie who played so well for several years before settling into the backup role last year. Ottawa has battled hard, but they can’t match the Penguins.

Pittsburgh in 6.