THE PREDATORS WIN IF…
Nashville isn’t just a cuddly team of destiny in these playoffs. The Predators have been as dominant as anyone this spring. Only the Penguins and Anaheim Ducks average more goals per game. Nashville allows the fewest goals per game. Its warpath includes knocking off two division winners in the Ducks and Chicago Blackhawks. There’s nothing fluky about this team. Even with top center Ryan Johansen gone from the equation, Nashville has a feisty, aggressive collection of forwards, headlined by Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson and James Neal. These guys are skilled and difficult to play against.
Nashville has faced a collection of superstars in these playoffs, including Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Vladimir Tarasenko and Ryan Getzlaf, and triumphed. That’s because no team in the playoff field has been more impressive from the net outward. Goaltender Pekka Rinne is a series win away from a Conn Smythe Trophy. He’s towering and athletic, adept at swallowing rebounds. He hasn’t matched the heights of Round 1, in which he stymied the Hawks with a comically amazing .976 save percentage, but he “only” posted a .932 and .925 against St. Louis and Anaheim, respectively, in the subsequent rounds. Rinne remains very much “on,” and he’s extremely difficult to score on in that mode.
Of course, he has the league’s best quartet of defensemen controlling the play in front of him, which helps. No team in the league has an answer to Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm and P.K. Subban. They are elite puck-movers and excellent defenders, too. They are the single biggest advantage Nashville has in this series. Think about the way Erik Karlsson controls a game for the Ottawa Senators, then imagine a team with four guys who do similar things about 85 percent as effectively. Josi and Ellis play 25:56 and 24:00 per game this post-season. Subban and Ekholm: 25:53 and 25:34. Do the math and that’s about 50 minutes a night against that top four. It’s like owning a video game cheat code. Josi, Ellis and Subban have scored 11 of Nashville’s 47 goals in these playoffs, good for 23.4 percent.
THE PENGUINS WIN IF…
Pittsburgh has shown in these playoffs it can win in multiple ways. It lost the possession battles against the Washington Capitals in Round 2 and relied heavily on Marc-Andre Fleury’s goaltending to weather the storm. The Pens, in fact, were outshot in seven of their eight wins across the first two rounds of the playoffs. It didn’t matter because they’re armed with such top-end finishers, from Sidney Crosby to Evgeni Malkin to Phil Kessel. The Pens could get by with good goaltending and opportunistic scoring.
In the second half of the Eastern Conference final against the Ottawa Senators, however, the Pens began looking more like the buzzing hornet nest that won the Stanley Cup last year. They blitzed the Sens with 36, 46 and 42 shots in the series’ final three games, albeit Game 7 went to double overtime. Pittsburgh outshot Ottawa in 10 straight periods across those final three games, excluding the 2-1 margin in that final overtime frame. So we’re seeing ‘Blitzburgh’ again, clearly buoyed by the return to the lineup of defensemen Trevor Daley and Justin Schultz. They do a good job pushing the pace with stretch passes, getting the puck rapidly to the forwards, who have speed to burn with the likes of Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary and Jake Guentzel in addition to their superstars.
The Pens obviously miss their star blueliner Kris Letang, but they’re much healthier entering the Cup final than they were even a week ago, and they can do plenty of damage with the current group of rearguards. They have a gargantuan advantage at center right now, as the Preds have lost Johansen (thigh) for the playoffs and aren’t guaranteed to get Mike Fisher (upper body) back for Game 1. The Preds deployed Colton Sissons, Calle Jarnkrok, Frederick Gaudreau and Vernon Fiddler down the middle in Game 7 versus the Anaheim Ducks. Now that group matches up against Crosby, Malkin, Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen. Gulp.
Pittsburgh got great if occasionally spotty goaltending from Fleury for 2.5 rounds, and Matt Murray, the rightful starter, hasn’t missed a beat since reclaiming the crease. Fleury, a tremendous athlete, is as good as anyone when he’s on, but Murray is a much calmer and more consistent presence in net. He was icy-cool during the Game 7 overtime periods versus Ottawa.
Penguins: Matt Murray looks fully recovered from the groin injury he sustained in the warmup before Game 1 of the first round. He was fluid and efficient in his movements against Ottawa, coming up particularly big in the overtimes of Game 7. If Murray is at his peak performance level now, that neutralizes the Rinne factor, taking away an advantage the Predators have had over each opponent so far in these playoffs. Murray’s best has been better than Rinne’s best across the past two seasons.
Predators: How about an encore, Colton Sissons? He delivered a legendary performance as the Preds’ de facto No. 1 center in Game 6 against the Ducks, notching a hat trick. It wasn’t the first time Sissons scored goals in bunches. That means he could continue this binge – or that we won’t see him do anything in the final. Without overachieving performances from their remaining centers, Nashville will have a tough time winning the series.
Against Pittsburgh there’s always two big match-ups: the one against Sidney Crosby and the one against Evgeni Malkin. Having two centers of that calibre on separate lines is difficult to deal with, but Nashville is uniquely equipped for the challenge as they essentially have two top pairs. Most teams have just one, letting Malkin run amok, but this series he’ll have to deal with Roman Josi instead. Not ideal.
Malkin and Josi are incredible players, but neither are particularly strong defensively (despite Josi’s reputation otherwise). They are both elite offensive forces and that could mean their shifts together are end-to-end track meets where the two teams trade chances. Sign me up for that. They haven’t spent much time against each other, but the time they did was mostly uneventful anyways. I doubt this series will be for either of them. (Dom Luszczyszyn)
While Malkin and Josi are great, that’s only an appetizer for the main course which is Sidney Crosby facing off against PK Subban. They’ve seen a lot of each other in the past from Subban’s Montreal days, and Subban had the upper hand there out-scoring Crosby six to four and out-shooting him too. There isn’t much that needs to be said about either of these two players offensively, but Subban deserves a lot of credit for his defensive game. His shot suppression numbers are among the best in the league.
Peter Laviolette has figured out what he’s capable of as he’s tasked the Subban pairing (along with the very underrated Mattias Ekholm) to shutdown the opponent’s top lines every night during the playoffs. Make no mistake, Subban is seeing the majority of the tougher match-ups over Josi and he’s crushing them, too. Jonathan Toews, Vladimir Tarasenko, Ryan Getzlaf – three great players that struggled mightily once they had to go up against Subban. Crosby will be the toughest challenge yet, but he looks like he’s ready for it. (Dom Luszczyszyn)
PENGUINS in seven games.
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